The Rape of the Lock

The Rape of the Lock overview

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a poem of five cantos, written in rhyming couplets.

It is frequently referred to as a mock-heroic or mock-epic poem, on account of its parodic relationship with classical epics such as Homer’s The Iliad, and with the English epic tradition, especially John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Pope borrows much of the apparatus of The Rape of the Lock from the epic world, talking in terms of battles, heroes, gods and nymphs, glory and iniquity, but then applies those terms to a small, domestic, decidedly un-epic scene. The poem’s very first couplet announces that it will deal with:

What dire offence from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things.

The ‘rape of the lock’ to which the poem’s title refers, and the major event of the poem, is the seizing, by force (‘rape’ coming from the Latin rapere, to seize), of a lock of hair from a young lady named Belinda by her suitor, the dastardly Baron. This does not happen until the end of the poem’s third canto, with the delay itself being a parody of the way in which Milton, for instance, makes his reader wait until over halfway through Paradise Lost before narrating the crucial event of the Fall of Mankind.

The rest of Pope’s poem is given over to intricate, comical descriptions of Belinda’s boudoir, the trials of the card table and the activities of the gloomy gnomes and sprites at the court of the Queen of Spleen, who sends Belinda, via Umbriel the gnome, a bag of ‘sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues’, and a vial filled ‘with fainting fears, / Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears’.

Dedication to Arabella Fermor

Pope dedicated the second edition of The Rape of the Lock to a woman named Arabella Fermor, who had once really had a lock of her hair stolen by a suitor. The episode is supposed to have inspired Pope to write his poem. In the dedication Pope teases Fermor that ‘the ancient poets are in one respect like many modern ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance’. This joke is, too, Pope’s way of signalling that his poem is ‘mock-epic’ not only in the sense that it uses the grandeur of the epic to mock the foolishness and triviality of contemporary society, but also perhaps in the sense that it uses these domestic events to bring some of the hyperbole and grandiosity of the epic back down to earth.

Alexander Pope
May 1712
Mock-epic, Mock-heroic
Literary period:
Augustan, 18th century

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