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“The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope Review Research Paper

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Updated: Apr 30th, 2022

This paper would discuss and evaluate the traces and proofs regarding Pope’s demonstration of disapproval about British Mannerism and exaggerated decency in his world renowned mock epic “The Rape of the Lock”.

The most powerful tool used by Pope to show his disapproval of so-called aristocratic and civilized mannerism prevailing in his contemporary British society is implied satire. He reveals in many lines the hollowness and emptiness of exaggerated politeness and frivolous decency found in the contemporary society in an enveloped satire technique.

Pope opens the poem with an epic question who’s satirical tone signals his intent to ridicule his society. As in traditional epics, Pope’s poem opens with the invocation of a muse. He then asks a question that states the topic that the epic will address. In The Rape of the Lock, the epic convention is inverted because the epic question is of a trivial subject matter. Pope writes;

Say what strange motive, Goddess! Could compel
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle
Oh, say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?
In tasks so bold can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage? (I, 7-12)

Here Pope states the epic question or the primary concern of the poem: how a “well -bread lord could assault a gentle belle?” and in return how a “gentle belle” could reject a lord? Pope emphasizes how trivial his poem is by appealing to the muse through an epic question. First, the reader is made aware that this form of epic is not going to examine the details of the fate of a man, town, nation, or even humanity but rather the flirtatious trifles of a “gentle belle” and a “well-bread lord”. Through this inversion of an epic convention, Pope is satirizing his society which is self contained and enjoys exaggerated decency and redundant mannerism by implying that they have no great subject or plight about which to write a traditional epic. Instead, the most trivial of things, a quarrel between a belle and a lord, stands as the most important subject upon which his society focused.

Similar to the previous epic convention inversion, Pope also uses the diction in his epic question to emphasize the mannerism and triviality of his society. In particular, he focuses on the word “assault”. Pope writes, “Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel/ A well-bread lord to assault a gentle belle?” (9-10). The connotation that the word assault carries, is far different from the actual “assault” that transpires within the poem. The word “assault” primarily refers to a violent act that causes some form of bodily harm. By comparing a lock of hair that has been cut without permission to an assault, Pope is making a statement about how incredibly inverted high society’s values and views have become. Hence, Pope satirizes the backwardness of his society by describing a trivial incident using a word with such a violent and serious connotation ( Landa, p. 220).

The epic having heightened and illustrious characters is another epic convention that Pope inverts to further illustrate his satire. Predominantly, in a classical epic the hero or heroine will be of some divine lineage or, at least, bear some superhuman qualities. Pope’s characters, although they are the main focus of a mock epic, have neither great nor cosmic importance. Pope’s parody, however, is tremendously skillful because his characters take on similar actions that an epic hero or heroine would, but they are inverted to suit the triviality of the society he is trying to represent. A good example relates to Belinda spending time primping herself before the affair at Hampton Court Palace because this event parallels an epic hero preparing for battle. “Belinda’s toilet preparations are invested with all the mock solemnity of the epic hero going to worship before arming for battle” (Gordon, p. 171). Yet, instead of an epic hero worshipping a God before battle, Belinda has a ritualized worship of her own image in the mirror. Pope writes,

And now unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
First rob’d in white, the nymph intent adores
With head uncover’d, the cosmetic pow’rs.
A heavenly image in the glass appears;
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.
The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,
Trembling begins the sacred rights of pride. (I, 122-128)

The narcissism within this passage is clearly satirical to exemplify the vanity Pope perceived amongst high society at that time. The passage also has sacrilegious undertones as Belinda is clearly being portrayed as some divine figure in the mist of worshipping herself. Her toilet, “unveil’d” like a religious altar, coincides with the parody of this poem by putting something as trivial as a woman’s dressing table on the same level of importance as a religious alter. This is the way Pope demonstrates unnecessary and exaggerated kind of mannerism that was prevalent in the contemporary British society. Ian Gordon, in a critical analysis of Pope’s poem writes,

“The parody of religious worship is of course a way of ridiculing Belinda’s vanity not religion itself, just as the use of mock-epic form in the poem as a whole is a way of diminishing trivial events not an attempt to make fun of epic poetry.” (Gordon, p. 172). Gordon explains that Pope is using a ritual that an epic hero would traditionally undergo. He also discusses Pope’s inverting some aspects to imply the absurdity of his society’s obsession with vanity and other trivial matters. This parody of the religious rites before a battle gives way, then, to another kind of mock-epic scene: the ritualized arming of the hero. Pope writes, “Here files of pins extend their shinning rows/ Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux./ Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;”.

Here Pope makes combs, pins, cosmetics and love letters into weapons as “awful Beauty puts on its arms.” The juxtaposition between “bibles” and “billet-doux” suggests that Belinda cannot make the crucial distinction between matters of spirituality and aesthetics. Further into the poem, Pope makes a similar parody when the Baron arises early to build an altar to love and pray for success in his project. He sacrifices several tokens of his former affections including garters, gloves and billet-doux. This sacrifice echoes a classical epic hero because a hero would generally make sacrifices to the Gods before a battle to offer respect and pray for victory. Pope’s intent is to make it comical that the Baron offers such slight sacrifices for such a vain and inconsequential purpose. The depiction of Belinda as well as the Baron, illustrates the type of people in high society that Pope satirizes. Pope’s depiction reflects negatively on a system of public values in which external characteristics rank higher than moral or intellectual ones (Halsband, p.209).

Here the parody of high society becomes explicit, for instead of Gods being responsible for serious and grave matters, they tend to the capricious flirtations and indulgent vanities of the men and women at court. All this is presented in a satirical set up to reveal the hollow mannerism and snobbishness of the British society. This process of reduction and diminution in the structure of the poem is an essential part of Pope’s joke.” (Gordon, p. 166). Gordon is stating that Pope inverts the role of a “God” in an epic poem to satirize the values of his society. Essentially, because the morals of the people are slight, insignificant and vain so are the God’s and Machinery that protect them.

Pope also shows the triviality and uselessness of contemporary mannerism and exaggerated decency and politeness in figurative presentation. Pope uses battle imagery to compare a trivial card game between Belinda and the Baron to a great battle scene in a classical epic. By parodying the battle scenes of a great epic poem, Pope implies that the passion once associated with brave and serious purposes is now being used to depict petty trials such as card games and gambling that usually serve as a front for flirtation. In canto five, trivial battles are once again explored, as the belles battle the beaus in a flirtatious attempt to reclaim Belinda’s severed lock from the Baron. The battle between the sexes is a frivolous one for it is fought with smiles, glances and frowns in the place of weapons.

Pope exposes the triviality of his society through a petty battle meant to be derived from the great battles fought in a classical epic. Thalestris “scatters death around from both her eyes”, implies that a woman’s evil looks has the power cause a man to “perish”. There is also a metaphor for death indicating not death on the literal level, which would be a serious topic, but the allegorical death of a male ego from not being able to win a belle’s fancy. Men are able to die and be “revived” by the frowns and smiles of a lady. Pope is thus parodying his society in calling the beau “a hero slain”, for it is obvious that there is nothing heroic in the frivolous flirtations between the men and women Britain’s high society.

The poem satirizes the trivialities of fashionable life, as a commentary on the distorted moral values of polite society and as a criticism of human pride. The world of The Rape of the Lock is a an artificial one, a trivial realm of calm and decorum sustained by the strict observance of rigorous rules, a microcosm in which very real and very powerful human emotions and passions have been ignored. The self-absorbed inhabitants of this world assume that they are something more than human, but Pope shows how fragile, their pretended perfection and their isolation from reality makes them. They are undone by their most important weakness: Pride. The running joke is that a trivial social tiff is treated in the form and traditions of the epic (Cunningham, p. 38).

Pope compares Belinda’s dressing rituals as being like donning amour, ready for battle. Here files of pins extend their shining rows, Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles. Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms… We see a woman ready to go into a battle of the sexes, and the Baron is her opponent. The Baron feels that Belinda’s beauty is a threat in that it empowers her and means he may have to compete with other men for her affection. The idea of a woman holding power of any sort over a man attacks the male ego. He is Resolved to win, or by fraud betray; For when success a lover’s toil attends, Few ask if fraud or force attained his ends. The Baron will either have her, or if he fails in that, destroy any power she possesses (Bloom, p. 119).

Belinda, the Baron and the society they represent are obsessed with material things, such as the lock and self-worship. Pope suggests that attention to spiritual matters, the strengthening of character, and the development or value of inner beauty are matters to which society does not properly attend. This attention to the material and tendency to give in to worldly temptations indicates a frivolous aristocracy, who lack virtue and morality. The Rape of the Lock is an elegantly witty and balanced parody which shows Pope’s literary virtuosity which invokes an ironic contrast between the epics structure and its content.

Works Cited

  1. Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Norton Anthology of Poetry. Ed. Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, 4th ed. New York: Norton, 1997
  2. Gordon, Ian. A Preface to Pope. 2nd ed. New York: Longman Group Ltd., 1993
  3. Bloom, Harold ed., Modern Critical Interpretations: “The Rape of the Lock” (New York: Chelsea House, 1988).
  4. Cunningham, J. S. Pope: “The Rape of the Lock,” Studies in English Literature No 2 (London: Edward Arnold, 1961).
  5. Halsband, Robert “The Rape of the Lock” and Its Illustrations, 1714-1896 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)
  6. Landa, A. Louis “Pope’s Belinda, the General Emporie of the World, and the Wondrous Worm,” South Atlantic Quarterly 70 (1971)
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