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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 6 - 17th & 18th Century Works 


Alexander Pope:
Social Comment and the Mock-Heroic Spirit

In 1712, a few years after publishing "The Episode of Sarpedon," Alexander Pope drew on his knowledge of epic poetry to write The Rape of the Lock. This narrative poem employs what Pope calls the "machinery" of epic in a dedicatory note that explains, "For the ancient Poets are in one respect like many modern Ladies; Let an Action be never so trivial in it self, they always make it appear of the utmost Importance."

The person addressed in this letter, a young woman named Arabella Fermor, like Pope belonged to the small circle of Catholic families who bolstered each other with friendship and support against the religious bias they encountered in heavily Protestant England, where the Anglican Church as the officially Established Church reserved special privileges for Anglicans.(1)

At a party, Arabella Fermor's fiancé, Lord Robert Petre, had playfully snipped off one of her beautifully arranged curls. As a result, to the consternation of their friends, she called off their engagement in anger. Pope wrote his poem as a humorous comment on this "dire offense," as the invocation calls it, in the hope that Mistress Fermor would laugh and be reconciled with her assailant. Apparently recognizing how this subject matter, no less than Homer's, enabled him to examine the moral values of the society in which such incidents occur, Pope twice expanded the poem, first in 1714 and finally in 1717, while in the midst of translating Homer. In all its guises, The Rape of the Lock wittily sets up parallels between Homer's ancient aristocratic warriors and Pope's eighteenth-century aristocratic lovers.

The most explicit and perhaps the most surprising of these parallels emerges in the final version of Pope's poem, to which he appended the following note to explain the addition of Clarissa: "A new Character introduced in the subsequent Edition, to open more clearly the MORAL of the Poem, in a parody of the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus in Homer." In Homer's Iliad, Sarpedon, a man about to lose his life in battle, endorses the behavior expected of him in a mortal crisis by the society in which he has prospered. In Pope's Rape of the Lock, Clarissa (whose name means "Clarifier") tries to explain to Belinda (the character based on Arabella Fermor, whose nickname "Belle" means "beautiful" in French) what her society expects of beautiful young women in times of stress.

Belinda's crisis, Pope makes clear, is of her own creation. She shrieks hysterically upon discovering the damage done to her hairdo, concluding the speech that precedes Clarissa's with this exclamation to the man who raped her lock: "Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!" As you read Clarissa's speech, compare it to Pope's version of its model, printed above. Watch carefully to see how she redefines the warrior's ideal of heroism so that it becomes a maiden's ideal of heroism, intended to calm Belinda by encouraging her to think sensibly about her real motives and needs. (Incidentally, The Rape of the Lock failed to change Arabella Fermor's mind; she and Lord Petre never repaired their rift.)

Excerpt From The Rape Of The Lock, Canto V, ll. 9-34

"Say why are beauties praised and honored most,
The wise man's passion, and the vain man's toast?
Why decked with all that land and sea afford,
Why angels called, and angel-like adored?
Why round our coaches crowd the white-gloved beaux,
Why bows the side box from its inmost rows?
How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains;
That men may say when we the front box grace,
'Behold the first in virtue as in face!
'Oh!, if to dance all night, and dress all day,
Charmed the smallpox, or chased old age away,
Who would not scorn what housewife's cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use?
To patch, nay ogle, might become a saint,
Nor could it sure be such a sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray;
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man must die a maid;
What then remains but well our power to use,
And keep good humor still whate'er we lose?
And trust me, dear, good humor can prevail
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul."

Questions for Discussion

  1. If a warrior's role in life is to accept the consequences of going into battle, what, according to Clarissa, is a maiden's? How is a woman's honor achieved? Sarpedon tells Glaucus that they must uphold a certain standard of heroism to earn the respect of their social inferiors. What analogy does Pope draw here?
  2. Why do you suppose Pope called this poem The Rape of the Lock instead of, say, The Loss of a Curl? How does Belinda's lament over her hair betray the hypocrisy in her pose of virtue?
  3. By comparing events in a drawing room with those on the battlefield, does Pope only make fun of them? In what sense does mock-epic help us see the serious side of everyday life even while cautioning us not to take it too seriously?
  4. Can you cite parodies in any medium that have caused you to readjust your perspective on the subject matter treated? (Think, for example, of the way a TV show like Saturday Night Live mocks typical television commercials.)


(1) Until 1829, when a bill for Catholic Emancipation was passed, Catholics were prohibited from participating in English public life. Pope, for example, always believed that he would have been more proficient in Greek had he been permitted to study at Oxford or Cambridge University.


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Alexander Pope: Translation and the Heroic Ideal in the Augustan Age
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