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Title: Critical Essay on "The Rape of the Lock" Author(s): Mary Mahony Source: Poetry for Students. Ed.

Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. From Literature Resource Center. In "The Rape of the Lock," Pope uses the mock epic to present a multi-layered exploration of the foibles of the genteel society of the eighteenth century in a manner that is both satiric and sympathetic. Part of the poem's charm, as well as its richness and complexity, lies in the fact that this literary form creates a variety of levels of meaning, frequently challenging the reader's expectations. Symbols are open to multiple interpretations; words can be seen as innocent or shocking. Issues of importance and triviality are often confused. The title itself provides a clear illustration of this technique as it pairs the harsh, sexually violent connotations of the word rape with the delicate use of lock to describe the pillaged curl. This word use engages both critics and casual readers in an exploration for meaning. Most critics believe that the exaggeration implicit in the title phrase indicates the extreme foolishness of making such ado about nothing. A few, however, take the rape more seriously, feeling that the poem ultimately admits, given the rules of the society in which it is set, that a violation has actually occurred. "The Rape of the Lock" is filled with a multitude of such contrasts that keep critics debating still. Part of the poem's charm, as well as its richness and complexity, lies in the fact that this literary form creates a variety of levels of meaning, frequently challenging the reader's expectations. Pope employs this mock-heroic style to satirically recount the social turmoil that occurred when Lord Petre impulsively snipped off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair, creating hostility between their two families. The genre seems ideally suited to the topic, since it combines the elegant language and tone of the literary epic with subjects that are more suitable for satire than seriousness. To fully appreciate Pope's handling of this style, however, it is necessary to review some of the history and characteristics of epic poetry. The epic poem has a long tradition in literature. These works recount events of national or historic importance, starring heroes and gods. They employ skillfully polished language and images, enhancing a dramatic presentation of conflicts involving serious moral issues. Homer's classic narratives of the Trojan War and its aftermath, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are perhaps best known to the modern reader. However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epic form was a mainstay of literature. Homer's classics, along with other works such as Virgil's Aeneid and John Milton's Paradise Lost, were widely read and analyzed. In fact, since the Renaissance, literary theorists such as Le Bossu, whose work Pope greatly admired, had attempted to codify rules for the epic form. While Pope himself challenged some aspects of the rigid application of a code to the epic form, certain key elements are standard in most epic literature. The mock epic form adapts many of the standard characters and situations of these traditional narratives and presents them in a tone and style that are seemingly inappropriate for such trivial matters. Much of the allure of "The Rape of the Lock" occurs as the epic machinery is deflated from its original stature in a heroiccomical style, presenting contrasts that underscore the poem's humor. These contrasts also endow the work with its various levels of complexity and meaning. The first epic convention that appears is the "Invocation to the Muse." In the opening six lines of Canto I, Pope acknowledges his muse and friend, John Caryll, who requested that he create a work that might defuse the animosity between the two families by allowing them to see the humor in the incident. This invocation carefully imitates the elevated style of the traditional epic. It also sets up the poem's theme or proposition, involving the battle between the sexes rather than a war between nations. Readers familiar with the form will immediately appreciate the contrast between style and subject since the theme of sexual bantering is traditionally the province of comedy. Because Pope operates on multiple levels, however, the reader should recognize that the introduction does include a serious purpose, since the poem is, in actuality, an attempt to ameliorate a dispute. Epics center around a hero or heroes. These are usually warriors who embody a whole series of masculine values: bravery, honor, and wisdom. When Pope introduces the poem's "hero," however, convention is again reversed. Instead of the traditional male champion, the reader meets a female, Belinda, who is still asleep in bed, indulging in a dream. The spirit in this dream first flatters Belinda then tells her of other spirits that surround her. His message ends, however, with a warning: I saw, alas! some dread event impend, Ere to the main this morning sun descend . . . This to disclose is all thy guardian can:

Beware of all, but most beware of man. This section illustrates Pope's use of the elevated language of the epic style. It also includes visions, guardian spirits, cryptic warnings--all frequent elements of epic form. The humorous contrast centers around the substitution of the trivial (the dreadful event that is foretold is, after all, only the loss of a piece of hair) for the significant, such as warnings of losses in battle, of betrayal, of the wrath of the gods. Ironically, however, the final warning proves genuine. Belinda is right to beware of man. Several critics also point out the relationship between this incident and Eve's dream in Milton's epic Paradise Lost. Like Belinda, Eve is first flattered, then warned in a dream of the danger that lies ahead of her. Both women, of course, ignore the warnings and succumb to their fate. The eighteenth-century reader would recognize an additional level of irony in the juxtaposition of these two falls: the banishment from Paradise and the loss of a lock of hair. The final lines of Canto I introduce another epic convention. This type of literature frequently dwells on the preparation for battle as the warrior dons both his armor and his virtue. In a parody of these martial displays, Pope presents Belinda's preparation for her foray into the war between the sexes. While the description is filled with ordinary feminine devices such as combs, pins, puffs, and powder, Pope greatly enhances the importance of a simple make-up session. First, he elevates the cosmetics themselves: This casket India's glowing gems unlocks And all Arabia breathes from yonder box. The tortoise here and elephant unite, Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white. In addition, he uses military images to describe Belinda as she dons her beauty to enter the fray: "Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms." Critics differ in their interpretation of this section. Some find the satire caused by the feminization of the warrior's rituals cruelly mocking of Belinda and therefore of women, believing that the poem has a misogynistic undertone. Others, however, believe that in spite of the irony, Pope demonstrates an admiration for Belinda's beauty, an acceptance of her right to do all she can to win the admiration of those who surround her. They feel the poem critiques the values of the society itself, rather than one individual. Thus while Canto II may indicate that Belinda is somewhat shallow, as she smiles graciously on "all alike," it is society that is truly guilty because it allows itself to be blinded to any faults by her beauty: "If to her share some female errors fall, / Look on her face and you'll forget 'em all." Canto II includes other lines that also deal with the artificial values of this society. In the traditional epic, the warrior is the representative of the noblest ideal of the society; if he is defeated, the entire society is likely to fall. In contrast to this, lines 105-110 list some possible disasters in eighteenth-century society: Whether some nymph shall break Diana's law, Or some frail china jar receive a flaw, Or stain her honor or her new brocade, Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade, Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball: Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must fall. Not only do these "disasters" fall short of the enormous consequences of a true epic, the list indicates a total inability to distinguish the trivial from the meaningful. Thus losing virginity is paired with getting a stain on a new dress. One of the most ingenious reversals of traditional epic form comes in Canto III where the traditional battle is replaced by a game of cards. Military imagery abounds throughout this section. Belinda's opponents are referred to as "adventurous knights." She is presented as a leader of a powerful army: not only do her spirit guardians descend to assist her, but the cards themselves are given personalities. In true epic fashion, the game rages back and forth, with Belinda winning the early skirmishes and eventually the game itself. Pope's detailed description of each separate trick is both humorous and suspenseful. However, it proves only a prelude to the real battle in the Canto, the Baron's assault on Belinda's hair. Pope's description of that momentous snip takes eight extravagantly dramatic lines as the scissors slowly open, then close on both the lock and a Sylph who gallantly tried to intervene. Belinda's reaction is immediate, loud, and out of proportion. Lines 445-450 compare her grief to the shrieks that occur "when husband, or when lapdogs breathe their last." The Canto ends with a reference to Troy, a city that seemed--like Belinda--invincible, until deceit and trickery brought the Greeks inside the city's walls. Given the fact that even mighty Troy could be destroyed, the speaker states it is no wonder that Belinda

herself should fall victim to the "conquering force of unresisted Steel." Pope blends the serious and comic elements so skillfully throughout this Canto that, although the game of cards is merely a humorous counterfeit of a true epic battle, it is engaging in its own right. The overblown language of the final sections mocks the incident, the reaction, and the values of the society, yet, to many critics, the overall drama of the Canto makes Belinda, the ultimate loser in the skirmish, a figure who is not entirely unsympathetic. The epic element in Canto IV involves a descent into the underworld that Pope vividly portrays as a gloomy cave where ill-nature and affectation serve the Goddess Spleen. The word spleen was open to multiple interpretations for the eighteenth-century reader, including anger, melancholy, and various sexual and emotional problems that plagued women. In this cave of "strange phantoms" and "expiring maids," the gnome Umbriel successfully begs the Goddess to "touch Belinda with chagrin." As a result, her outrage reaches new heights. Belinda curses the entire day in a long speech, whose final lines contain an example of the sexual double entendres that occur throughout the poem: "Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these." While the phrase may be interpreted as innocent (if poorly phrased) regret, it seems more likely that Belinda would rather lose her virginity than mar her beauty. Canto V recreates the epic form in a speech by Clarissa who advocates common sense and good humor, concluding that "merit wins the soul." Clarissa's advice is clearly adapted from Sarpedon's noble speech in Book XII of the Iliad. Many critics feel it provides the poem's true moral. While the final Canto does not resolve the conflict, Pope's narrative concludes with divine intervention, as the lock ascends to the sky, thus permanently establishing Belinda's role in the firmament. Pope's portrait of Belinda and her world is remarkably rich and detailed. His use of the mock-epic form invites the reader to explore this world from different perspectives since "The Rape of the Lock" contains a maze of meanings and images. Each journey through the poem can provide new and unexpected revelations. Source Citation Mahony, Mary. "Critical Essay on 'The Rape of the Lock'." Poetry for Students. Ed. Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Group, 2001. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 5 Nov. 2010. Document URL http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?&id=GALE%7CH1420035867&v=2.1&u=scschools&it=r&p=LitRG&sw=w