The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope: Critical Analysis

The Rape of the Lock, originally published as The Rape of the Lock: An Heroi-Comical Poem 1712, is a mock-epic based upon an actual disagreement between two aristocratic English families during the eighteenth century.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

Lord Petre (the Baron in the poem) surprises the beautiful Arabella Fermor (Belinda) by clipping off a lock of hair. At the suggestion of his friend and with Arabella Fermor's approval, Alexander Pope used imagination, hyperbole, wit, and gentle satire to inflate this, trivial social slip-up into an earthshaking catastrophe of cosmic consequence. The poem is generally described as one of Pope's most brilliant satires. The poem makes serious demands upon the reader, not only because of its length, but also because it requires a background knowledge of epic literature and some understanding of the trapping of upper-crust England.

"The Rape of the Lock," constantly shifts between mocking silly social conventions of the aristocracy, (such as elaborate courtship rituals) and satirizing serious literary conventions of traditional epic literature (such as its lofty style, exhaustive descriptions of warriors readying for battle, and heavy doses of mythology). With many allusions to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil's Aeneid, and John Milton's Paradise Lost, the speaker compares the loss of Belinda's hair to the great battles of classic epic literature. The speaker describes Belinda applying makeup as if she was a warrior going to battle. While playing a game of cards, the Baron sneaks up behind Belinda and perform the "tragic" snipping of the lock of hair. An army of gnomes and sprites attempts to protect Belinda to no avail. Belinda demands the restoration of her lock and another "battle" ensues. Finally, the lock ascends skyward as a new star to beautify the heavens.

"The Rape of the Lock" is the finest example of a mock-epic in English. The poem's 794 lines are divided into five cantos or sections. The word "canto" is derived from the Latin cantus or song; it originally signified a section of a narrative poem sung by a minstrel. "The Rape of the Lock" is written in heroic couplets, lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming aa, bb, cc, and so forth. The description "heroic" was first used in the seventeenth century because of the frequent use of such couplets in epic poems. This couplet style was first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Pope was the greatest master of the metrical and rhetorical possibilities of the heroic couplet; he turned this concise, restrictive form into a dynamic world of ideas and characters. Pope achieved diversity of style within the couplet by changing the position of the caesura or line break. He expertly balanced the two lines, often using a slight pause at the end of the first line and a heavy stop at the end of the second line. Moreover, he frequently balanced a statement of a thesis and antithesis somewhere within each line, as in these lines from his Essay on Criticism:

Careless of censure nor too fond of fame; Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame; Averse alike to flatter, or offend; Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

The caesura moves around within each line, sometimes coming after four syllables and sometimes after seven. Moreover, Pope balances a main idea or thesis within each line with a statement of its opposite or antithesis. He displays great ingenuity and wit in his skillful compression of ideas. The structure of "The Rape of the Lock" roughly corresponds to that of many epics: invocation to amuse (Canto I), conference of the protective gods (Canto II), games and epic banquet (Canto III), the journey into the underworld (Canto IV), and heroic battle and climax (Canto V). Pope both satirizes and honors the elevated style of epic poetry and many of its conventions such as a formal statement of theme, division into cantos, grandiose speeches, challenges, boasts, description of warrior's battle equipment, warfare, epic similes, and supernatural elements. However, the poem- ridicules the silly social manners of the aristocracy and deflates the elevated sense of importance in the affairs of wealthy ladies and gentlemen. Yet, the poem also displays some fondness for the grace and beauty of that world. Pope enjoys all the ivory and tortoiseshell, cosmetics and diamonds, expensive furniture, silver coffee service, fancy china, and light conversation— this was the world in which he moved attempting to find patronage for his poetry.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope: Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 2 Sep. 2014,