Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1714)
Demaria p. 530
The Happy Critic, chaps. 3 & 4
Also read the introductory statements for the authors in Demaria.
DUE: Weekly Post #5 Ireland and Scotland groups
Note that I've moved the recommended reading in The Happy Critic
to this week because
it addresses technical matters that will truly help you understand
Pope's poetry. Pay attention to the forms and figures explained by
Beranbaum and apply that understanding to Pope's poem.
With "The Rape of the Locke" (RoL) we introduce a very different
style from what we have been reading. We closed our
discussion last time with reference to the tremendous
influence Milton has on eighteenth-century writers.
Where were they to go since he had achieved the highest
success in the highest genre? One response is the development
of the mock-epic. Keep in mind that mock-genres
(which proliferate in this era) are both celebratory
and critical, and that imitation is both the highest
flattery and the departure for original creation.
I used to entitle this section of the syllabus "From
the Epic to the Domestic," because you can clearly see
in these works the development of Miltonic ideas on a
humbler, and indeed more human, scale. Consider some
of the problems we had (and Johnson had) with Milton's
representation of humanity. How has Pope, and later Barbauld, changed
the representation of human nature? What do they take
from Milton (in tribute) and where do they depart?
We will spend two classes on Pope's RoL,
but I will include all of the notes here and on the link
for the next class. For those writing posts for Thursday's class,
please concentrate on the early cantos. Those writing for Tuesday's class,
please focus on the ending cantos.
Notes and Discussion Questions:
Happy Critic chapters 3-4:
In Beranbaum's explanation of how language becomes
literature, he offers some helpful ways to understand
the specific nature of literary language. In particular
I find useful his suggestion that we think of language
not simply as an object on a page but also as constitutive
of our consciousness. He suggests that we read language
as experience. As you read Pope, imagine the world he
is describing and try to understand the psychology of the
characters that he creates. Note how the images, the
details, the setting and the sounds construct an environment
that has meaning for the poem.
On page 60, Beranbaum asks a series of questions about style.
These are useful for you to try in your assessment of a
passage of poetry/prose. Notice the language. What is
the effect? How is it achieved?
He also suggests that although we may not be familiar with
the language (indeed much of this eighteenth-century literature
is highly stylized), it is nonetheless the language of ordinary
speech and thought. Begin to assess the language with the
words you recognize, and move through context clues to a fuller
understanding of the lines -- compressed though they be.
There is a meaning to comprehend in these lines. Also be aware
that some words do not mean the same thing then as they do now,
or may have more specific meanings. Read the notes and look up
any word you do not recognize in the dictionary.
On page 68, Beranbaum offers an explanation of the structure of
the metaphor using I.A. Richards' terms, "vehicle" and "tenor."
Try to identify the metaphors of Pope's poem using these terms
and come to an understanding of the signficance of the comparison.
I find helpful his distinction between the meaning of metaphor --- a fusion
--- versus simile -- a comparison: "Metaphor and simile
... are different states of mind. In metaphor we enter an
imaginative world where two disparate things become one. In
simile we think with our conscious intelligence about a particular
similarity, remaining aware that the similarity is a limited one" (71).
As you read Pope, identify the usage of synedoche,
metonymy, personification, synesthesia, transferred epithet
(discussed on pages 74-76).
Perhaps figures of logic are even more central to understanding Pope
than figures of speech. The work is deeply
ironic -- in which sense it achieves a rich complexity of meaning
beyond simple mockery. Examine and understand (raise questions about?)
the figures of logic: irony, (sarcasm), verbal irony, stylistic
irony, parody, dramatic irony, paradox, puns, overstatement or
hyperbole, zeugma, understatement. However, I hope we can offer
a fuller and more interesting discussion of mock-epic than is
offered on page 83.
"Tying the right tag around the neck of an expression should help
us to notice that it is a figure of speech and to appreciate the
fact that figures do come in varieties. If you want to see how
a poem is working, however, this should be only the first step.
It is more important to explain the logic of the figure:
exactly what it is that the two parts of a metaphor or simile
have in common, why an irony is ironical, a paradox paradoxical,
hyperbole hyperbolic. This kind of analysis is one of the main
features of explication. More important yet is describing and
accounting for the effect that the figure has. What does the poet
achieve by using this figure?" (my emphasis, p. 86).
I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. The more difficult
but more meaningful part of your writing comes in explaining
the signficance of the features you have identified.
Two further notes -- on chapter four: 1) the psychological
environment is important to understanding the symbolic reality
of the literary work. Read carefully for details that convey
the psychology of the poem/character. What does it mean for
Pope to open his poem in the bedroom of Belinda, while she wakes
from a dream at noon?
2) When you are evaluating a work of literature, keep your
analysis on the work rather than the poet or the intentions of
the poet. While biographical details of the author may help
contextualize the work, literature cannot be reduced to the author.
Therefore, concentrate on the effect of the literature and
the ways in which the effects are achieved and finally the
significance of the effect.
Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock
What other writers had to say of Pope:
Samuel Johnson in his Life of Pope writes that
"Pope had ... genius; a mind active, ambitious, and adventurous,
always investigating, always aspiring; in its widest searches still
longing to go forward, in its highest flights still wishing
to be higher; always imagining something greater than it knows,
always endeavouring more than it can do" (from Tillotson, et al,
The Eighteenth Century 1100).
He was primarily known as a verse satirist; Jonathan Swift writes of
Pope in his "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift":
"In Pope I cannot read a Line, / But with a Sigh, I wish it
mine: / When he can in one Couplet fix / More Sense than I
can do in Six" (47-50).
Mock-epics belong to the satirical mode of writing. Johnson
describes the purpose of satire: "All truth is valuable,
and satirical criticism may be considered useful when it
rectifies error and improves judgment" (Tillotson, et al, 1105).
How do these comments aid our understanding of the poem?
What sort of style does Swift envy? What errors are rectified
in R of L?
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.
How does this publication history exemplify the spirit
described by Johnson above?
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 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?
Note the instances of political satire Pope
includes in this mock-epic:
ll. 5-8 Here Britain's statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of Foreign tyrants, and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anne! whom three realms obey,
Dost sometimes counsel take - sometimes tea.
What is he satirizing? How does he do it?
Note the antithesis of his comparisons.
The satire in ll 21-22 is legendary: "The hungry
judges soon the sentence sign/ And wretches hang
that jurymen may dine." Analyze.
The main events of this canto are the game of Ombre
and the cutting of the lock, both described in
epic parody. Observe and comment on the effect.
To summarize the game: Belinda, with a sylph on
each card "wondrous fond of place," takes the first
four tricks, because she calls trumps; the Baron,
the very same who sacrificed his trophy's of love,
takes the next four. There are nine to give, and
there is some doubt as to who will take the final one.
Belinda triumphs in the end, because her King of
hearts beats the Ace.
Belinda's triumph is extreme: ll 99-100: "The
nymph exulting fill with shouts the sky / the wall
, the woods, and long canals reply" (echo).
What happens in this moment of hubris? What is
Why don't the sylphs interfere? Why can't the sylphs
protect Belinda? ll 139-147.
How does the Baron respond ll. 161- 170?
Examine the Cave of Spleen as a parody of the
epic trip to the underworld: supernatural,
mythological event. Also analyze the allegorical
significance of the cave of Spleen, the goddess of
this peculiarly feminine disease. How does Pope
depict the event? What does this suggest about
the nature of the spleen, the disease? And what
happens as a result to Belinda?
* Canto closes with Belinda's lament, based
on Achille's lament for his friend Patroclus, who
has died on the field in honor. She projects a
contrite heart from ll. 147 through the end, beginning:
"For ever cursed be this detested day, / Which
snatched my best, my favorite curl away! . . ."
How does the literary parallel add to the meaning of
Read the closing lines of the canto: ll 176-177; what
do the lines suggest about Belinda's contrition?
Recall that Pope adds Clarissa's speech here to
clarify the moral of the poem. Examine the speech
carefully. What is the moral? How effective is
What social commentary does Pope make through the mock
battle that ensues?
How is the conflict resolved? To what extent is this
an example of deus ex machina.
How does Belinda achieve the immortal status that
the poet claims?
Note also the poet's role in the ending of the poem.
What effect does this reflection on the poet have?
compare this ending with the ending of An Essay
What is the object of satire in this poem? What is
Pope's attitude toward Belinda? Toward the Baron?
Toward his society?
In the introductory note, Demaria writes that
"The Rape of the Lock is too attractive to
leave out," suggesting that the poem has an irresistable
aesthetic attraction akin to that which Belinda
appears to have. To what extent is this poem about
beauty? What does it ultimately say about beauty?
What types of beauty are represented?
Examine the meaning of the title. "Rape" has the
now obsolete meaning of "the act of taking anything
by force" as in the epic rape of Helen of Troy.
In the Oxford English Dictionary, Pope's
The Rape of the Lock is the last dated example
of this usage. The word also had and continues to
have the meaning of taking away and /or violating a
woman sexually. What does the play on words suggest
in the title?
To what extent is this a poem about proper sexual
behavior? What is the symbolism of the lock and
the cutting of the lock?
What virtue(s) is/are recommended in the poem?
How does the satiric mode affect the representation
of truth? Do you ultimately think that Johnson's
understanding of the usefulness of satire -- that
it "rectifies error and improves judgment" -- applies
to this poem? To what extent is that important for
its literary value?
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