This paper discusses Pope’s objectives when writing “The Rape of the Lock” which the author calls a mock epic without any universal goal, or moral pronouncements to make as did Milton.
Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” The destruction of the grand style of the epic is just what Pope was after in his mock epic, “The Rape of the Lock.” Pope had no such universal goal, or moral pronouncements to make as did Milton. His purpose was merely to expose the life of the nobility of his time. While Milton chose blank verse to express the immensity of the landscape of his epic, Pope chose to utilize the heroic couplet to trivialize this grandeur. Pope’s quick wit bounces the reader along his detailed description of his parlor-room epic. His content is purposefully trivial, his scope purposefully thin, his style purposefully light-hearted, and therefore his choice of form purposefully geared toward the smooth, natural rhythm of the heroic couplet. The caesura, the end-stopped lines, and the perfect rhymes lend the exact amount of manners and gaiety to his work. Writing for a society that values appearances and social frivolities, he uses these various modes of behavior to call attention to the behavior itself. Pope compares and contrasts. He places significant life factors (i.e., survival, death, etc.) side by side with the trivial (although not to Belinda and her friends: love letters, accessories). Although Pope is definitely pointing to the “lightness” of the social life of the privileged, he also recognizes their sincerity in attempting to be polite and well-mannered and pretend to recognize where the true values lie. Pope satirizes female vanity. He wrote the poem at the request of his friend, John Caryll, in an effort to make peace between real-life lovers. The incident of the lock of hair was factual; Pope’s intention was to dilute with humor the ill feelings aroused by the affair. He was, in fact, putting a minor incident into perspective, and to this end, chose a mock-heroic form, composing the poem as a “take-off” epic poetry, particularly the work of Milton. He is inviting the individuals involved to laugh at themselves, to see how emotion had inflated their response to what was really an event of no consequence. For the reader, the incident becomes a statement about human folly, a lesson on female vanity, and a satire of the rituals of courtship. Perhaps Pope also intended to comment on the meaningless lives of the upper classes. The poem was published in 1712 and again in 1714; probably the satire is more biting in the later version than in the one presented to Miss Fermor. Pope could hardly have hope to soothe the lady’s wounded pride by pointing out her vanity and empty-headedness. In keeping with his choice of mock-heroic form, Pope employs a “high-toned” poetic diction and the stately iambic pentameter of dignified epics like Paradise Lost. And of course, Pope’s mastery of the heroic couplet, and the balanced, measured rhythms of his lines, lend an even greater air of solemnity. To achieve this effect, he inverts the syntax of ordinary speech, as in these lines: “Her lively looks a spritely mind disclose” (ii, 9), “”Favors to none, to all she smiles extends” (II, 11), and “Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike” (ii, 13). The effect of this inversion is to add rhetorical weight to the end of the line; the sentence feels particularly “complete.” At the same time, the reader is always aware that the poem is a joke. Pope comes right out and says so. For example, one epic tradition is to open with a statement of purpose and an invocation to the Muse. Pope states his purpose as being to sing of the “dire offense” that springs from “amorous causes” and the “mighty contests” that rise from “trivial things” (1-2) hardly the lofty and weighty subjects of epic poetry and names his Muse “Caryll” (3) for his friend John Caryll, the relative of the young lord who stole the lock of hair from Arabella Fermor not the proper sort of Muse for epic poetry. By way of mythological spirits hovering over earthly concerns, Pope gives us sylphs that are really the spirits of young women like Belinda. Milton’s Adam had the angel Raphael looking out for him; Belinda has Ariel, one of the “light militia of the lower sky” (42). He jokingly raises Belinda to the exalted stature proper to epic heroines by addressing her as “Fairest of mortals, thou distinguished care/ Of thousands bright inhabitants of air” (27-28) and exorts her: “thy own importance know” (35); but because Belinda is really only a “gentle belle” (8), a pampered and privileged young woman, capable of mere “infant thought” (29), the effect is humorous. The stakes in this mock-heroic epic are Belinda’s maidenhood, and the convention of the epic warning comes by way of Ariel’s reading of bad omens: “Late as I ranged the crystal wilds of air,/ In the clear mirror of thy ruling star/ I saw, alas! some dread event impend/ . . . Beware of all, but most beware of Man!” (105-114). Belinda’s performance of her toilette, assisted by Betty, her “inferior priestess” (127), is described as the arming of the epic hero: “Now awful Beauty put on all its arms” (138), and the images evoked in Pope’s description of the various creams and perfumes on Belinda’s vanity invests them with a value and exoticism they don’t deserve: “Unnumbered treasures,” “glittering spoil,” “India’s glowing gems,” “all Arabia breathes from yonder box,” “The tortoise here and elephant unite” (129-135) By means of hyperbole, Pope manages to reveal the true worthlessness of these substances. Pope advocates the use of concrete, Saxonate words over abstract, Latinate ones in poetry, and offers numerous examples from eighteenth century poetry of how the effect of abstraction is to show a lack of emotional engagement and possibly even a physical distance between the poet and his subject. Yet Pope defends Miltonian “poetic diction,” in “Rape,” as sometimes being the most proper and natural style for a particular poet to use. Certainly such a style is well-suited to “The Rape of the Lock,” exactly because it does strike the reader as “too much,” as “too high” for the subject matter. “Not with more glories, in the ethereal plain,/ The sun first rises o’er the purpled main,/ Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams/ Launched on the bosom of the silver Thames” (ii, 1-4). The use of such “high falutin'” rhetoric to describe a young lady on her way to Hampton Court to play cards is witty and hilarious. Further, it allows the reader a sense of satisfaction to be “in” on the joke. Besides, Pope balances such abstract, Miltonian description with concrete images as well. He explains, for instance, that such female vanities as a “love of ombre” survive after death (56), certainly a specific, concrete image, and shows us “lapdogs giv[ing] themselves the rousing shake” (15). Particularly effective is when Pope combines the abstract with the concrete in a single couplet, as in such lines as “Think what an equipage thou hast in air,/ And view with scorn two pages and a chair”(45-46), or when he combines Miltonian style with upper class English slang, as in “If to her sharesome female errors fall,/ Look on her face, and you’ll forget ’em all” (ii, 17-18). This shows that just because the subject of Pope’s writing is mere frivolity, it should not be concluded that the writing itself is whimsical. Pope can brag that he wrote his timeless epic merely about two quarreling Catholic families and a lock of hair, whereas Milton had Satan, God, Eve, Adam, and the entire creation of the universe to ponder about. In conclusion, Pope focuses on a particular woman and thus succeeds in creating a convincing portrait that the reader accepts and applies to a general population of young women. Belinda may be superficial and rather empty-headed , possessed of “a sprightly mind . . ./ Quick as her eyes, and as unfixed as those” (9-10), but she is charming and innocent, too. Many of the works that have been read in this class depict Time as a destructive and baleful force. Time plays a significant role in Pope’s underlying message which is that all earthly things must succumb to the inevitable nature that is Time: “But since, alas! Frail beauty must decay, Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn gray; Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade, And she who scorns a man must die a maid;” (V, 25-28) “For, after all the murders of your eye, When, after millions slain, yourself shall die: When those fair suns shall set, as set they must, And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,” (V, 145-148) Pope questions why a society with so much potential wastes its energy in trite behavior, thinking, and judgment. She is the product of her culture, her social class and the times. At times, we can see that Pope can relate with Belinda. Much of the blame for her can be pointed to the needless customs of her society. When Pope says, “Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride,/Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide” (II, 15-16) the reader knows he’s being generous; we’ve already seen her fault. Pope elevates Belinda to the stature of a goddess, although the rest of the poem effectively strips her of this undeserved title. Pope seems to be pointing his critical and sarcastic finger at human nature. There is a sense of duality in his style that praises his subjects on one level and criticizes them the next. That is why the ending is so fitting. He addresses the duality of human beings as an animal capable of reason, but an animal nevertheless. It is the internal human struggle that Pope wishes to address, and hopefully, bring to light. By using a satirical and cynical approach to address the values and ideas of a maladjusted society, along with a combination of such elements as sarcasm, wit, and humor, Pope complete a narrative worthy to be ranked amongst the greatest literary works of all time.