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January 7, 2018

“The Rape of the Lock” as a Mock-heroic Poem


The Pseudo-classical poet Alexander Pope has been widely hailed as the unchallengeable master of the heroi-comical poetry. This very reputation stems heavily from his brilliant and playful implementation of mock-heroic traditions into his long narrative poem The Rape of the Lock. The poem, without a contest, is the most exquisite paradigm of mock-heroic poetry that can be found in English literature.

Heroic or epic poems, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost deal with the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures in elevated style and serious manner. Contrariwise, the mock-heroic poem is a poetic form based on the traditions and devices of a serious epic to deal with a trivial theme by placing it in a framework entirely inappropriate to its importance, thereby producing ingenious humorous effect.

The subject poem, The Rape of the Lock imitates almost all the traditions of the serious epic except the serious theme. In fact, the main incident of the poem is snipping off a lock of hair of a pretty young woman and an ensuing battle. However, Pope treats the incident as if it were comparable to events that instigated the Trojan War. In this way Pope elaborates a trivial episode into a playful and fanciful heroi-comical poem resembling an epic in miniature.

The poem begins with an invocation in epic tradition. However, instead of a divinity, Pope dedicates the poem to his and Arabella Fermor's friend John Caryll, who originally asked him to write it, and to Belinda that is, Arabella, the woman the poem is purportedly about:
“WHAT dire Offence from am'rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,
I sing—This Verse to Caryll, Muse! is due;
This, ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my Lays.”
To be contextual, the poem is based on an actual episode that provoked a quarrel between two families. Lord Petre had cut off a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, which caused much indignation on the part of the lady and her family.

Pope also uses supernatural machinery; but instead of gods and goddesses of the classical epics he uses petty spirits like Sylphs, Nymphs, Genomes and Salamanders. We see that the Sylphs are taking care of Belinda as the gods and goddesses in the classical epics would side the heroes when there is a fight:
“Propp’d on their bodkin spears, the sprites survey
The growing combat, or assist the fray.”      
The minuscule spirits play a significant role in the dramatic, thematic and structural development of the poem. Pope intentionally employs them to maintain the triviality of the theme. We laugh when we compare the activities of the tiny spirits with those of the gods and goddesses of epic poems.

Journey to the underworld is another common convention of an epic. Like supernatural beings in the classical epics, the gnome Umbriel descends to the Underworld on Belinda’s behalf and obtains a magical bag full of female screams and cries, and a vial of tears and sorrow from the Queen of Spleen. Umbriel’s intention is to relief Belinda from her mental distress by agonizing her opponents. However, Umbriel puts Belinda into more trouble by dumping the entire contents of the bag over her head instead. Here, it is obvious that Pope designed Umbriel’s journey to the Cave of the Spleen with a view to make fun of the visits of epic heroes to the underworld:
“Umbriel, a dusky melancholy Spright,
As ever sully'd the fair face of Light,
Down to the Central Earth, his proper Scene,
Repairs to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.”
Dangerous journeys on water are a traditional trait of a serious epic. But here in the poem Belinda takes a relaxed journey on water without any danger. She travels up the Thames in a boat to join Hampton Court to play the game of Omber. Her voyage recalls the voyage of Aeneas on Tiber in Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid.

Like serious epics we have use of weapons and arming of the epic hero in The Rape of the Lock. However, the weapons do not consist of shinning swords and mighty shields but trivial objects like hairpins, cosmetics and amorous looks. Belinda’s dressing is compared to the arming of the epic hero like Achilles described in Homer’s The Iliad:
“Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-dout.
Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;”
An epic poem is incomplete without battle episodes. Therefore, to maintain such tradition Pope has introduced a number of battle scenes. For example, the game of Omber suggests a mighty battle. Again there is the battle between the lords and ladies fought with fans and snuff. Moreover, there are single fights between Belinda and the Baron and between Clarissa and Sir Plume.

Pope creates a serious mock-heroic effect by employing various similes and metaphors akin to Homer and Milton. For example, at one place he compares Belinda’s eyes with the bright sun. Again, at another place he ironically compares her with Queen Dido and Helen. However, the funniest comparison is made between Belinda's petticoat with the famous Shield of Ajax which was described in Book VII of The Iliad:
“We trust th' important charge, the petticoat:
Oft have we known that sev'n-fold fence to fail,
Though stiff with hoops, and arm'd with ribs of whale.
Form a strong line about the silver bound,
And guard the wide circumference around.”
Pope further reinforces the mock-heroic effect through his grand style. He uses nemerous poetic devices like periphrases, alliteration, and polished diction to achieve the desired mock-heroic effect. Moreover, he makes the style grander through the use of high sounding words, signs of exclamation and interrogation. He also uses lengthy speeches like the serious epic.

“The Rape of the Lock” as a Mock-heroic Poem


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