Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock

Synopsis

The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope's mock-heroic satire, spoofs the grandiose epic conventions of Homer's Iliad and Milton's Paradise Lost. Here, the armies are drawn from a deck of cards arrayed in a game of ombre (forerunner of whist and bridge) in an eighteenth-century drawing room at Hampton Court. The warring heroes are the lovely Belina, who, after primping at her dressing table, engages in a flirtation at the card table, and her opponent, the Baron, who eventually manages to ravish a lock of her hair.

Beneath the delightfully frothy surface of this poem, the "double vision" of the mock-heroic scale suggests more profound questions of human behavior and the relation of manners to morals- an issue explored, in various ways, by Harold Bloom in his introduction and by Martin Price and Emrys Jones. Among other distinguished critics represented in this volume, William K. Wimsatt focuses on the poem's fascinating employment of the game of ombre, while C. E. Nicholson discusses the implications for social history.

Excerpt

The character of Belinda, as we take it in this third View, represents the
Popish Religion, or the Whore
of Babylon; who is described in the state
this malevolent Author wishes for, coming forth in all her Glory upon the

Thames, and overspreading the Nation with Ceremonies.

A Key to the Lock

In April 1715, writing under the splendid name of Esdras Barnikelt, apothecary, Pope published A Key to the Lock, with the subtitle “Or a Treatise proving, beyond all Contradiction, the dangerous Tendency of a late Poem entitled The Rape of the Lock to Government and Religion.” the continued use of the Key is to warn critics not to seek a key to Pope’s mock-epic, which is to say, do not apply critical “methods” to one of the most poised and artful poems in Western literature.

Critics long have recognized that the genres of epic and mock-epic are not clearly distinct in or for Pope. The Rape of the Lock participates in the heroic mode rather more subtly than Pope’s Homer does. the most surprising assertion as to this is the judgment of Reuben Brower:

By inventing the sylphs Pope solved the almost impossible prob
lems that the theorists set for the heroic poet. He is almost
certainly the only modern poet to create a company of believable
deities which are not simply the ancient classical divinities in
modern dress, and which are not offensive to a Christian
audience.

What makes Brower’s remarks problematical centers in the phrase “offensive to a Christian audience,” though “believable deities” also perhaps begs the question. Milton’s angels remain Milton’s, and the deities of late Shakespearean romance are persuasive (if not “believable”) and offensive to no one. This is to cite only the greatest; examples are too profuse to be . . .

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