on 24 August 2001
"The Rape of the Lock" (1714) is a major contribution to a long, on-going series of literary games played with tone and structure. Wherever the great epic poets of Greece and Rome have been prized a sort of reflex has generated parodial imitations. The language of Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad" and the "Aeneid" of Virgil is so serious about humanity and its destiny that it virtually defies the reader to remember that human life is as much concerned with very small things as it is with gods and men and the course of history. The Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could boast a wealth of writers quick to join the game of writing a mock epic. Italy's Alessandro Tassoni, for instance, wrote "La Secchia Rapita" (1622), in which the people of Bologna and Modena go to war over the theft of a bucket, squabbling in a mixture of heroic discourse and dialect. Similarly, the French Jacques Boileau produced "Le Lutrin" (1674) which relates the tale of a provincial quarrel over the position of a church lectern. In "An Essay on Criticism" (1711), Alexander Pope took a swipe at both Boileau and France when he wrote, 'The Rules, a Nation born to serve, obeys, /And Boileau still in Right of Horace sways'. If Boileau was France's Horace then, for Voltaire, "The Rape of the Lock" positioned Pope as 'the English Boileau'.
The subject of "The Rape of the Lock" was supplied by a contemporary cause célèbre. Lord Petre, a young Roman Catholic peer, had cut a lock of hair from Arabella Fermour. This apparently trivial act on the part of the zealous suitor caused dissention between their families and the Catholic establishment to which they, and Alexander Pope himself, belonged. Pope's poem, a 'jest to laugh them together again', with its sustained allusion to the texts of Homer and Virgil, is not a 'mock epic' in the sense that it sends up the primary form of classical poetry. Its supreme position within the mock epic genre in English lies in the use of scale to consider the subjects and objects of the epic tradition from a different perspective.
'The Ancient Poets are in one respect like many modern Ladies', Pope quipped in his dedicatory 'letter' to Arabella Fermour, 'Let an Action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost Importance'. His poem traces the trifling course of events from the morning Belinda, a society beauty, wakes so that her maids, Clarissa and Betty, might transform her into a goddess decked with 'the glitt'ring spoil' of India and Arabia. Belinda, 'heaven'nly image in the glass appears, /To that she bends, to that her eye she rears' while 'Th' inferior priestess, at her altar's side, /Trembling, begins the sacred rights of pride'. The Baron, whom 'to Love an altar built /Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt', desires to lay upon it the 'labyrinths' of Belinda's hair in place of 'three garters, half a pair of gloves /And all the trophies of his former loves'.
In Homer's "Iliad", the gods look down upon their favoured mortals and realize that their love cannot save them from the fates they have invited. It is a moment that Pope parallels when Belinda plays a game of ombre, flirts with the Baron and suffers the ravishment of her hair. Ariel, one of many 'Strange phantoms', 'pale spectres' and 'angels in machines' summoned out of 'lakes of liquid gold' and 'Elysian scenes', realizes that he cannot protect Belinda as the Baron takes hold of Clarissa's scissors. 'He takes the Gift with rev'rence, and extends /The little Engine on his Fingers' Ends'. Images of the waters of Helicon and Pieria dance through the couplets when the scissors are opened 'just behind Belinda's Neck' and 'As o'er the fragrant Streams she bends her Head'. The theft of the lock of Belinda's hair, an object which is without value but irreplaceable and therefore invaluable, correlates with emotions surrounding loss of virginity or marital chasteness that we read of in the Graeco-Roman epics. 'Sooner let earth, air, sea, to Chaos fall /Men, monkeys, lap-dogs, parrots, perish all!', cries Belinda, knowing that what has been lost can never be restored.
Pope was to describe "Rape of the Lock" as 'a sort of writing very like tickling'. His mastery of scale, correlating the small object of the lock of hair with sexual enticement, abduction, or rape encourages us to question whether an object is something of import or next to nothing. If an event is described in dazzling heroic discourse, how can we gauge its importance? Indeed, is it important? Or is it all rather absurd? These matters continue to itch: and that is just what Alexander Pope wanted!
"The Rape of the Lock" is among the foremost literary primary sources for any student of the arts in eighteenth-century Europe and this is probably the best edition available. To readers who wish to explore the background to Pope's writing I recommend "An Introduction to Pope" and "The Augustan Vision" both of which are by Pat Rogers.