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The Rape of the Lock

The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic narrative poem written by Alexander Pope, first published anonymously in Lintot’s Miscellany in May 1712 in two cantos (334 lines), but then revised, expanded and reissued under Pope’s name on March 2, 1714, in a much-expanded 5-canto version (794 lines).

The poem satirises a petty squabble by comparing it to the epic world of the gods. It was based on an incident recounted by Pope’s friend, John Caryll. Arabella Fermor and her suitor, Lord Petre, were both from aristocratic Catholic families at a period in England when Catholicism was legally proscribed. Petre, lusting after Arabella, had cut off a lock of her hair without permission, and the consequent argument had created a breach between the two families. Pope wrote the poem at the request of friends in an attempt to “comically merge the two.” He utilised the character Belinda to represent Arabella and introduced an entire system of “sylphs,” or guardian spirits of virgins, a parodic version of the gods and goddesses of conventional epic.

Pope’s poem mocks the traditions of classical epics: the rape of Helen of Troy becomes here the theft of a lock of hair; the gods become minute sylphs; Aeneas’ voyage up the Tiber becomes Belinda’s voyage up the Thames, and the description of Achilles’ shield becomes one of Belinda’s petticoat. He also uses the epic style of invocations, lamentations, exclamations and similes, and in some cases adds parody to imitation by following the framework of actual speeches in Homer’s Iliad. Although the poem is extremely funny at times, Pope always keeps a sense that beauty is fragile, and that the loss of a lock of hair touches Belinda deeply. As his introductory letter makes clear, women in that period were essentially supposed to be decorative rather than rational, and the loss of beauty was a serious matter.

The humour of the poem comes from the tempest in a teapot of vanity being couched within the elaborate, formal verbal structure of an epic poem. When the Baron, for example, goes to snip the lock of hair, Pope says,

The Peer now spreads the glittering Forfex wide,
T’ inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Ev’n then, before the fatal Engine clos’d,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos’d;
Fate urged the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,
(But Airy Substance soon unites again)
The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, for ever and for ever
!
— Canto III

Using epic battle imagery to describe a small pair of ladies’ scissors satirises the ridiculous nature of the whole situation.

Source: Wikipedia

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Filed under: All poetry, Neoclassicism, Western Literature,

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