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The Rape of the Lock.

Type of work: Poem

Author: Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Type of plot: Mock-heroic epic

Time of plot: Early eighteenth century

Locale: London

First published: 1712

The Rape of the Lock, generally considered the most popular of Pope's writings as well as the finest satirical poem in the English language, was written at the suggestion of John Caryll, Pope's friend, ostensibly to heal a family row which resulted when an acquaintance of Pope, Lord Petre, playfully clipped a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor. Pope's larger purpose in writing the poem, however, was to ridicule the social vanity of his day and the importance that was attached to the affected manners.

Principal Characters

Belinda, the poetic name of Arabella Fermor, an upperclass English girl. She is a beautiful young woman, vain of her appearance, who loves her spaniel. Though she is normally quite agreeable, she flies into a horrid rage when Lord Petre snips off one of her treasured curls.

Lord Petre, a young nobleman, one of Belinda's suitors. He admires Belinda so much that he wants one of her curls as a keepsake and snips it off at a party when she bends her head over a cup. He refuses to return the curl, and it disappears to become a star.

Ariel, Belinda's guardian spirit. He tries to warn her that something dreadful may happen and sets a guard of sylphs to protect his charge, but he is unsuccessful in preventing the loss of the lock of hair.

Umbriel, a spirit who takes over when Ariel leaves Belinda. He is a melancholy gnome who receives horrible noises, tears, sorrows, and griefs from the queen of bad tempers. He pours his magic substances over Belinda, magnifying her rage and sorrow.

Thalestris, Belinda's friend, a militant girl. She fans Belinda's rage by saying that the girl's honor is at stake in the matter of the stolen curl. She demands that Belinda's brother force Lord Petre to give the lock.

Clarissa, one of Belinda's acquaintances, who wonders openly at the vanity of women and the foolishness of men.

Sir Plume, Belinda's brother, who considers the entire affair slightly ridiculous. Prodded by Thalestris, he demands that Lord Petre relinquish the lock, but Petre refuses.

Shock, Belinda's beloved spaniel.

Spleen, the queen of bad tempers and the source of detestable qualities in human beings. She supplies Umbriel with magical substances.

Betty, Belinda's maid.

The Story

At noon, when the sun was accustomed to awaken both lapdogs and lovers, Belinda was still asleep. She dreamed that Ariel appeared to whisper praises of beauty in her ear. He said that he had been sent to protect her because something dreadful--what, he did not know--was about to befall her. He also warned her to beware of jealousy, pride, and above all, men.

After Ariel had vanished, Shock, Belinda's lapdog, thought that his mistress had slept long enough, and he awakened her by the lappings of his tongue. Rousing herself, Belinda spied a letter on her bed. After she had read it, she promptly forgot everything that Ariel had told her, including the warning to beware of men. Aided by her maid, Betty, Belinda began to make her toilet. Preening before her mirror, she was guilty of the pride against which Ariel had cautioned her.

The sun, journeying across the sky, witnessed its brilliant rival, Belinda, boating on the Thames with her friends and suitors. All eyes were upon her; like the true coquette, she smiled at her swains but favored no one more than another. Lord Petre, one of Belinda's suitors, admired a lock of her hair and vowed that he would have it by fair means or foul. So set was he on getting the lock that before the sun rose that morning he had built an altar to Love and had thrown on it all the trophies received from former sweethearts, meanwhile asking Love to give him soon the prize he wanted and to let him keep it for a long time. Love, however, was to grant him only half his prayer.

Everyone except Ariel seemed happy during the cruise on the Thames. That sprite summoned his aides and reminded them that their duty was to watch over the fair Belinda--one sylph to guard her fan, another her watch, a third her favorite lock. Ariel himself was to guard Belinda's lapdog, Shock. Fifty sylphs were dispatched to watch over the maiden's petticoat, in order to protect her chastity. Any negligent sylphs, warned Ariel, would be punished severely.

After her cruise on the Thames, Belinda, accompanied by Lord Petre and the rest of the party, visited one of the palaces near London. There Belinda decided to play ombre, a Spanish card game, with two of her suitors, including Lord Petre. As she played, invisible sylphs sat on her important cards to protect them. Coffee was served after the game. Sylphs guarded Belinda's dress to keep it from being spotted. The fumes from the coffee sharpened Lord Petre's wits, inspiring him to devise new stratagems for stealing Belinda's lock. One of his cronies handed him a pair of scissors. The sylphs, aware of Belinda's danger, attempted to warn her before Lord Petre could act, but as the maid bent her head over her coffee cup, he clipped the lock. Even Ariel was unable to warn Belinda in time. At the rape of her lock, Belinda shrieked in horror. Lord Petre cried out in triumph. He praised the steel used in the scissors, comparing it to the metal of the Greek swords that overcame the Trojans. Belinda's fury was boundless; Ariel wept bitterly and flew away.

Umbriel, a melancholy gnome, took advantage of the human confusion and despair to fly down to the center of the earth to find the gloomy cave of Spleen, the queen of bad tempers and the source of every detestable quality in human beings, including ill-nature and affectation. Umbriel asked the queen to touch Belinda with chagrin, for he knew that if she were gloomy and melancholy, bad temper would spread to half the world. Spleen granted Umbriel's request and collected in a bag horrible noises such as those uttered by female lungs and tongues. In a vial she put tears, sorrows, and griefs. She gave both containers to Umbriel.

When the gnome returned to Belinda's world, he found the girl disheveled and dejected. Pouring the contents of the magic bag over her, Umbriel caused Belinda's wrath to be magnified many times. One of her friends, Thalestris, fanned the flames of the maiden's anger by telling her that her honor was at stake and that behind her back her friends were talking about the rape of her lock. Thalestris then went to Belinda's brother, Sir Plume, and demanded that he confront Lord Petre and secure the return of the precious lock. Sir Plume considered the whole episode absurd, but he went to demand Belinda's lock. Lord Petre refused to give up his prize.

Next, Umbriel broke the vial containing human sorrows, and Belinda was almost drowned in tears. She regretted having entered society and having learned to play ombre, she longed for simple country life. Suddenly she remembered, too late, that Ariel had warned her of impending evil.

In spite of Thalestris' pleas, Lord Petre was adamant. Clarissa, another of Belinda's circle, wondered at the vanity of women and at the foolishness of men who fawn before them. Clarissa insisted that both men and women need good sense; in making her feelings known, however, she exposed the tricks and deceits of women and caused Belinda to frown. Calling Clarissa a prude, Thalestris gathered her forces to battle Belinda's enemies, including Clarissa and Lord Petre. Umbriel was delighted by this Homeric struggle. Belinda pounced upon Lord Petre, who was subdued when a pinch of snuff caused him to sneeze violently. She demanded the lock, but it could not be found. Some thought that it had gone to the moon, where love letters and other tokens of tender passions go, but the muse of poetry saw it ascend to heaven and become a star.

Critical Evaluation

When Robert Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair one fateful day early in the eighteenth century, he did not know that the deed would gain worldwide fame, attracting attention over several centuries. Nor, perhaps, did he foresee the ill feeling his act would create between the Petre and Fermor families. The story would probably have been soon lost amid the trivia of family histories, had not John Caryll asked his good friend the poet Alexander Pope to write a little poem about the episode, one that would show the comic element of the family quarrel and thus help heal it.

What began as a trivial event became, under the masterly guidance of Pope's hand, one of the most famous poems in the English language, and perhaps the best example of burlesque we have. The Rape of the Lock was begun at Caryll's behest ("The verse, to Caryll, Muse! is due") in 1711; Pope spent about two weeks on it and produced a much shorter version than the one he wrote two years later; making more additions in 1717, he then developed the final draft of the poem as it now stands.

The poem as we have it uses the essentially trivial story of the stolen lock of hair as a vehicle for making some sophisticated comments on society and man. Pope draws on his own classical background--he had translated the Iliad and the Odyssey--to combine epic literary conventions with his own keen, ironic sense of the values and societal structures shaping his age. The entire poem, divided into five cantos, is written in heroic couplets. Pope makes the most of this popular eighteenth century verse form (rhymed iambic pentameter lines), using devices such as balance, antithesis, bathos, and puns.

The burlesque genre typically takes trivial subjects and elevates them to seemingly great importance; the effect is comic. Pope defines his tasks as showing "What dire offense from amorous causes spring,/ What mighty contests rise from trivial things." From the opening lines of the poem, suggestions of the epic tradition are clear. Pope knew well not only the Iliad and the Odyssey but also John Milton's Paradise Lost. The narrator of The Rape of the Lock harks back to Homer, raising the epic question early in the poem: "Say what strange motive, goddess! could compel/ A well-bred lord t'assault a gentle belle?" Pope's elaborate description of Belinda's toilet in canto 1 furthers comparison with the epic; it parodies the traditional epic passage describing warriors' shields. Belinda's makeup routine is compared to the putting on of armor: "From each she nicely culls with curious toil,/ And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil."

The effect of using epic conventions is humorous,but it also helps establish a double set of values in the poem, making the world of Belinda and Sir Plume at the same time trivial and significant.Epic conventions contribute to this double sense in each canto 2 the conference of protective gods, canto 3 the games and the banquet, canto 4 the descent into the underworld, and canto 5 the heroic encounters and apotheosis. In the midst of a basically silly situation, there are characters such as Clarissa who utter the always sensible virtues of the eighteenth century: Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day, Charmed the smallpox, or chased old age away, Who would not scorn what housewife's cares produce, Or who would learn one earthly thing of use? . . . . . . . . . . . But since, alas! frail beauty must decay, . . . . . . . . . . . . And she who scorns a man must die a maid; What then remains but well our power to use, And keep good humor still what'er we lose?

In these lines from canto 5, Clarissa expresses the norm of Pope's satire: the intelligent use of reason to control one's temperamental passion.

The heroic couplet merges perfectly with the epic devices in the poem. As a verse form, the heroic couplet seems naturally to evoke larger-than-life situations; it is, therefore, profoundly to Pope's credit that he successfully applies such a stanzaic pattern to a trivial subject. The critic Maynard Mack has said that Pope "is a great poet because he has the gift of turning history into symbol, the miscellany of experience into meaning."

Pope, perhaps more than anyone else writing poetry in the eighteenth century, demonstrated the flexibility of the heroic couplet. Shaped by his pen, it contains pithy aphorisms, social commentary, challenging puns, and delightful bathos. (The last of these juxtaposes the serious with the trivial, as in the line "Wrapped in a gown for sickness and for show.") But the key, if there is a key, to the enduring popularity of The Rape of the Lock is the use of the heroic couplet to include--sometimes in great cataloged lists--those minute, precise, and most revealing details about the age and the characters that peopled it. The opening lines of canto 3 illustrate Pope's expert use of detail. The passage describes court life at Hampton Court, outside London, and is a shrewd comment on the superficiality of the people there: Hither the heroes and the nymphs resort To taste awhile the pleasures of a court; In various talk the instructive hours they passed, Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last; One speaks the glory of the British Queen, And one describes a charming Indian screen; A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes; At every work a reputation dies. Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat, With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.

The poet's criticism of such life is clear by the swift juxtaposition of Hampton Court life to a less pretty reality in the following lines: Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day, The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray; The hungry judges soon the sentence sign, And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.

Though always its critic, Pope had a keen interest in the life of London's aristocracy. A Catholic by birth, he was not always in favor with the Crown, but before the queen's death in 1714 he enjoyed meeting with a group of Tories, including Jonathan Swift, John Arbuthnot, Francis Atterbury, and Thomas Parnell. Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, England's first newspaper editors, courted him on behalf of the Whig party, but he refused to become its advocate.

Forbidden by law from living within several miles of London, he lived much of his adult life at Twickenham, a village on the Thames. He transformed his dwelling there into an eighteenth century symbol, with gardening and landscaping; he included vineyards, and the house had a temple and an obelisk to his mother's memory. During the 1720s he built a grotto, an underpass connecting his property under a dividing road; it was a conversation piece, with, according to one contemporary, bits of mirror on the walls which reflected "all objects of the river, hills, woods, and boats, forming a moving picture in their visible radiations." For Pope, who suffered throughout his life from the effects of a disease contracted in childhood, one that permanently disfigured his spine, the grotto was a symbol of the philosophic life and mind. Pope enjoyed great literary fame even during his lifetime, and near the end of his life, when he entered a room whispers of "Mr. Pope, Mr. Pope" would buzz among the occupants.
COPYRIGHT 1989 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Reference Source
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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