The Rape of the Lock: Summary and Analysis

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Overview

The Rape of the Lock, a masterpiece of 18th-century mock-heroic satire, portrays the tale of a seemingly insignificant social faux pas in the lofty language of epic poetry. Alexander Pope used his impressive lyrical abilities to immortalise this otherwise unremarkable occurrence and, in the process, provide a cutting social satire of a culture preoccupied with wealth and appearances.

Background of “The Rape of the Lock”

As a response to a genuine historical occurrence, Alexander Pope penned “The Rape of the Lock.” At a formal event in 1711, Lord Petre, a young scion of a wealthy family, sneakily chopped off a lock of hair belonged to Arabella Fermor, the lovely young daughter of a wealthy family. The two families, who had been close friends before the incident, got into a fight.

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Pope’s friend John Caryll recommended he write a humorous poem about the situation in an effort to mend fences between the two sets of parents and children. Pope wrote a poem in two cantos, in the style of a mock-epic, with the intention of doing this. When the poem was well received, Pope revised it the following year to include a larger cast of characters, including otherworldly beings that attempt to influence the events being portrayed.

To clarify, the title does not refer to sexual assault in any way, even if the word “rape” is used. It’s true that Alexander Pope used the phrase in this way, but he was actually alluding to an earlier sense of the word that meant “to abduct” or “to grab.” Pope uses this tactic, along with many others, to heighten the significance of a rather insignificant occurrence and establish a connection to classical antiquity.

Summary and Analysis of “The Rape of the Lock”

A powerful mock-heroic poem in five cantos, The Rape of the Lock was first published in 1714. Here, Pope satirises the petty act of Lord Petre cutting a lock of hair from Miss Arabella Fermor’s head in a big heroic manner.

Belinda, a socialite, gets up at midday, takes an ornate shower, and then sails up the Thames to Hampton Court. Belinda plays the chic game of ombre with the male passengers on the ship. The baron sneaks up from behind and snips off a lock of hair as Belinda prepares the coffee. When Belinda starts crying, the other women resolve to take drastic action against the guys. Belinda elicits a sneeze from the Baron by throwing snuff in his direction. He is threatened with a hairpin until he hands over the lock.

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The poet’s appeal was praised by Dr. Johnson, who termed it the most charming of all absurd creations. Pope pokes fun at social trends and absurdities. As a teaching tool, the poem succeeds because of the stark contrast between the absurdity of the incident and the deadly seriousness with which its players approach it. The whole dispute is rendered comical by the mock-heroic tone. Its primary virtues lie in its lighthearted tone and clever wordplay.

Pope mimics the most prominent aspects of epic poetry, including its invocation, games, war, voyage similes and descriptions, and supernatural machinery sylphs and gnomes. The irony comes from the dissonance between the lofty style and the trivial subject. The delicate quality of the poem is thanks to the sylphs and gnomes who populate it. Indeed, there is a lot of subtle humour and wit in the satire. Pope’s creative energy shines through in his portrayals of the natural world.

The Rape of the Lock, which depicts the apparent elegance of the time, pairs well with the philosophy of the day, as seen in An Essay on Man. This worldview, generally known as Deism, sought to replace the Church and all revealed religion with a new, older norm of natural faith and morals.

Pope’s knowledge of this philosophical school was limited; but, he was intimately familiar with the discredited Bolingbroke, his “guide and friend,” who was a fluent exponent of the new ideology.

The fundamental structure of Pope’s Essay on Man was derived from Boling Broke. The poem is written in the form of four letters, each of which addresses a different topic related to man’s place in the cosmos, his moral nature, social and political ethics, and the challenge of finding happiness. These were discussed using a rational point of view, with both feet firmly planted on the ground the entire time.

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Throughout the entirety of the poem, these two tenets of Deism are kept in mind: first, that there is a God, a Mystery, who resides aside from the world; and second, that man ought to be pleased, even glad, in his ignorance of matters that are beyond his horizon.

In terms of philosophy, the outcome is worthless, yet among the jumble of contradictory words that Pope compiles, there is a sizeable number of phrases that are worthy of being quoted, such as “Honour and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honor lies.”

The Essay on Man holds such a prominent position in the canon of literary works produced during the eighteenth century as a direct result of lines like these, as well as the meticulous care with which the entirety of the poem is polished, and the occasional apparition of genuine beauty.

Considering how well his strengths and weaknesses are reflected in the poems already mentioned, it seems unnecessary to look at any further works by Pope.

His strengths lie in the creation of poetic norms, the satire of the trendy, and the creation of exquisite epigrams in flawless couplets. His inauthentic, unnatural life away from nature and humanity, combined with his second-hand philosophy and incapacity to experience or express emotion, explain why he has failed to move or even interest us tremendously.

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When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare, we get the sense that they could have lived in any time or place, since they deal with human problems that are the same yesterday, today, and forever; but it’s hard to picture Pope being at home in any group or era other than his own. He reigns dominant only in his own time period, which valued formality highly and for which he wrote.


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