Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock.
The poem is based on an actual episode that provoked a quarrel between two families. Lord Petre had cut off a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, which caused much indignation on the part of the lady and her family.
The original version of the poem from 1712 consisted of two cantos only. The final version, written in rhymed couplets, is divided into five cantos. Later Pope rewrote the poem, added the "machinery" (i.e. the supernatural agents in epic action) of the Sylphs, Belinda's toilet, the card game, the visit to the Cave of Spleen and Clarissa's speech on good humour.
Pope elaborates a trivial episode into a playful and fanciful comic-heroic poem resembling an epic in miniature. The poem abounds in parodies and echoes of the Iliad, the Aeneid and Paradise Lost. It constantly compares small things with great: e.g. the war, but a drawing-room war between the sexes; the quest, here Umbriel's journey to the underworld Cave of Spleen; the battle, here fought with frowns and angry glances etc.
The poem presents a world dense with beautiful objects: brocades, ivory, tortoiseshell, cosmetics, diamonds, lacquered furniture, silver teapots, delicate chinaware etc. Pope laughs at this world and its creatures but at the same time makes the reader aware of its beauty and charm.
The poem is introduced with a Latin epigraph saying "I was unwilling, Belinda, to ravish your locks; but I rejoice to have conceded this to your prayers". The epigraph is taken from Martial's Epigrams.
"To Mrs. Arabella Fermor"
Pope introduces the poem with a prefatory prose letter addressed to the lady whose loss of hair occasioned the poem. He explains the addition of the "machinery", i.e. the supernatural, to the revised and expanded version of the poem presented here. The poet assures the lady that all of the poem is a fabrication but for the incident of the loss of her hair. Signed "Your most obedient, humble servant, A. Pope".
The poet addresses his friend John Caryll. Then he introduces the subject of the poem by musing what makes a gentleman assault a lady and what makes a lady reject a gentleman.
The poet starts with an image of a late morning. Lady Belinda is attended in her sleep by her angelic guardian Sylph who gives her dreams. The beauty of the lady is described. Then the poet continues to explain the four elements, or "humours", which were believed to constitute all things.
Returning to the lady, she has been just woken up by her lapdog Shock. She sits down to a mirror and starts her elaborate toilet, putting on powders etc. Her toilet is assisted by the Sylphs who polish her beauty to perfection.
The sparkling and shining beauty of the lady is compared to the sun. She flirts with her admirers, but accepts none. Among her admirers there is a baron who pays compliments to the two locks lining Belinda's face. His love to the lady inspires him to develop a secret plan.
Meanwhile, the chief of the Sylphs summons the dutiful winged creatures and assigns each of them a specific task. Their general task is to guard Belinda, but each of the Sylphs is appointed to watch a particular item. One Sylph must guard her earrings, another her favourite lock, a whole group of Sylphs attends her petticoat etc.
Briefly describes the work of politicians, Queen Anna and the court, suggesting that more time is spent in trifling conversation rather than with work. Belinda visits the court. She plays a game of cards with two knights, one of them being the baron admiring her lock. Her Sylphs assist Belinda so that she wins the game.
The baron plans how to get hold of Belinda's lock. After coffee is served, he pursues Belinda to cut off the lock with scissors. Though the Sylphs try hard to prevent baron's action, the lock falls a prey and Belinda cries out, most terribly shocked.
Belinda is angry and desperate about her loss. The wicked elf Umbriel repairs to the Cave of Spleen to seek out his mistress. He passes by various broken objects and distorted human figures. He asks his queen to grant Belinda ill humour. The queen summons her ills in a bag, which is compared to the bag of Ulysses, and gives it to Umbriel. (Note: Ulysses was presented a bag holding contrary winds to arrive home safely, but when his ship was in sight of Ithaca, his men opened the bag and the storms drove them away).
Belinda condemns the day she went to the court and lost her favourite lock. She gives an emotional speech wishing she had obeyed the ill signs that accompanied her that morning and had rather stayed at home.
Clarissa, one of the ladies, interrupts the ensuing silence. She makes the point that female beauty is passing and that ladies should better devote their efforts to other things than nursing their vanity only. Her proposal is not welcome, and Belinda declares war.
A severe battle bursts out and the gnome Umbriel enjoys the terrible spectacle. Belinda seeks to slay the villainous baron who deprived her of her lock. She searches for the lock but it gets lost. The poet claims he saw it rising up to heaven. He comforts Belinda, promising her that her lock, though lost, will be made immortal.
AuthorAlexander Pope. (1688 - 1744).
Full TitleThe Rape of the Lock.
Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.
Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. (1717).The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999. 2526-2544.