British Literature 1616-1780
Oct. 25: Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock
Pope's Rape of the Lock NAEL pp. 2525-2544
With The Rape of the Lock we return to mode of mock-epic, but we introduce the
poetry of Alexander Pope for the first time. His couplets set the standard of versification
in the century. Please take the time to understand what each one says. We also enter the
world of high-society and courtship. As you read, consider what the poem has to say of the
behavior of men and women. If Dryden's mock-epic aimed to correct the bad taste of his audience,
then what does Pope's satire aim for?
Because we will probably spend part of the class finishing our discussion of Gulliver's
Travels, I will only expect you to be ready to discuss the first two cantos of Pope's poem.
It is a good idea, however, to read all the way through at least once, and then return to the
earlier cantos to read closely.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714, final form 1717)
The story goes... Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella
Fermor's hair, causing a feud between two of society's
leading Catholic families. John Caryll solicits his friend,
Alexander Pope, to write a poem that attempts to bring the
families back into good humor with one another. This
effort results in a pleasant two-canto poem, first
published in 1712. Pope decides to expand the narrative
and add the machinery (which he explains in his letter
to Fermor) for the larger 1714 version. Finally, in 1717
he adds Clarissa's speech to Canto five in order, as
he said, to clarify the moral.
Some ideas to clarify Pope's style:
The mock-epic style (or mock-heroic) is
that which treats the low, mean or absurd in the grand
language, lofty style and solemn tone of epic poetry.
The obvious disparity between the subject and the style
makes the satiric point. Such a gap between style and
subject, however, has a dual effect: to ridicule the
trivial by overstating its importance and to undercut
the heroic by humanizing or deflating the stature of
What features of heroic style does Pope borrow from
the epic? How does his use of epic convention differ
A Parody is a composition imitating
another, generally more serious work. The craft of
parody is minimal change from the original. Often it
is used to ridicule, but in many cases it can be seen
as a flattering tribute. The effect of ridicule or
tribute depends on the context.
The subject of a parody should be apparent; for instance,
Pope parodies the arming of the epic hero with Belinda
and the "cosmetic powers" in Canto 1; an epic battle
takes place on the card table in Canto 3; the visit
to the underworld takes us to the Cave of Spleen of
Canto 4; the epic battle of glances and snuff in Canto 5.
What is the effect of Pope's parodies of Homer and Virgil?
couplet form -- two lines, generally
iambic pentameter, with end rhymes; given to a structural
balance or antithesis
of ideas and sounds
caesura -- or the pause in a line of
balance -- an effect of evenness or
a structure of parts which offset one another on each
side of a pause in a line of poetry
antithesis -- an effect of contrast
between balanced parts of speech or ideas -- balancing
one term against another.
"true antithetical structure demands not only
that there be an opposition of idea, but that the oppostion
in different parts be manifested through similar grammatical
structure" (Holman and Harmon)
Zeugma (yoking); a version of which is
syllepsis -- taking counsel or tea;
transitive verb or preposition takes more than one object
Metonymy -- substitution
of the name of an object closely related to the object
itself: mask for woman at the theatre, "Garters, Stars
and Coronets" for members of the nobility (continuous
association from whole to part)
Synecdoche -- a trope
that substitutes a part for whole; arms for soldiers
The dedicatory letter:
This letter serves several functions, social and literary.
What does the letter accomplish?
What is Pope's tone in the letter? Examine the diminution
of Arabella and the "sex's little unguarded follies."
How does this compare with Pope's strategies of
characterization in the poem?
Lines 1-12 -- what is the object of parody? what
do the lines establish?
Compare Pope's object -- "what mighty contests rise
from trivial things" -- with Milton's.
First major development in the poem is Belinda's
dream, inspired by her guardian sylph, Ariel. Like Eve's
dream, this serves as a warning: ll 107-115 -- to warn
her of impending doom. A premonition of the fall to come.
How successful is this warning? How successful is
the comparison to Eve?
Pope takes the opportunity in this canto to introduce
his epic machinery -- the spirits of women passed into
eternity in four groups -- Salamanders (59-60); Nymphs
(61-62); Gnomes (63-4); and Sylphs (65-66) -- what are
The sylphs have the main role in the early cantos:
ll 67-78 -- to protect chastity. Explain social satire
"'Tis but their Sylph, the wise celestials know,
Though honour is the word with men below."
We might understand Pope's strategy in the poem as a
change in epic scale -- how does Pope change the scope
and scale of the epic by depicting Belinda invoking the
"cosmetic powers" to serve her in battle with the beaus
of Hampton Court.
Note also the details of Belinda's table spread with
treasures from around the empire. What is the significance
of this description?
Canto 2 introduces our "villain/hero" -- the Baron.
Compare the introduction of the Baron with the arming
of Belinda. What are the dominant characteristics of
our hero and our heroine? How does Pope convey these
to us? What moral dimensions are implied in their
Examine the boat-scene on the Thames, where Ariel is
informing his troops of their charges. Note the
poetry of Pope's description: ll 56-70; what do
the lines sound like? what is the effect? the
significance of the effect?
Ariel's speech to the sylphs ll 74-136 is like the
address to the Angels in Book V of Paradise Lost
. Again Pope proposes an implicit and explicit
comparison of great things to small: Ariel admits
their region of authority is of a different scale:
ll 91-92; Pope suggest in these lines that the
action of "dire offense" will be in the province
of make-up, perfume, flowers, hair and clothing.
How serious is this?
Look closely at ll 105-110 for classic
examples of antithesis:
* identify sense of the lines
* identify the caesura
* how is the information divided by the pause
* Is there balance? Where? In what way?
* Is there antithesis? What things oppose each other?
What is the effect of mentioning two
objects in each line?
What is the effect of scale in Ariel's speech?
To what extent do we identify with Pope's machinery?
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