The Rape of the Lock: Summary critical analysis

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       Alexander Pope's one of the important poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712), is his most original and readable work. The occasion of the poem was that a fop stole a lock of hair from a young lady, and the theft plunged two families into a quarrel which was taken up by the fashionable set of London. Pope made a mock-heroic poem on the subject, in which he satirized the fads and fashions of Queen Anne's age. Ordinarily Pope's fancy is of small range, and proceeds jerkily, like the flight of a woodpecker, from couplet to couplet; but here he attempts to soar like the eagle.


Alexander Pope's one of the important poem, The Rape of the Lock (1712), is his most original and readable work.
The Rape of the Lock


      He introduces dainty aerial creatures, gnomes, sprites, sylphs to combat for the belles and fops in their trivial concerns: and herein we see a clever burlesque of the old epic poems, in which gods or goddesses entered into the serious affairs of mortal. The craftsmanship of the poem is above praise; it is not only a neatly pointed satire on eighteenth-century fashions but is one of the most graceful works in English verse.

      An excellent supplement to The Rape of the Lock, which pictures the superficial elegance of the age, is An Essay on Man, which reflects its philosophy. That philosophy under the general name of Deism, had fancied to abolish the Church and all revealed religion, and had set up a new-old standard of natural faith and morals.

      Of this philosophy Pope had small knowledge; but he was well acquainted with the discredited Boling broke, his "guide, philosopher and friend," who was a fluent exponent of the new doctrine, and from Boling broke came the general scheme of the Essay on Man. The poem appears in the form of four epistles, dealing with man's place in the universe, with his moral nature, with social and political ethics, and with the problem of happiness. These were discussed from a common-sense viewpoint, and with feet always on solid earth. As Pope declares:

      Know then thyself, presume not God nto scan; The proper study of mankind is man.... Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endlesserror hurled; The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

      Pope's most famous poem is The Rape of the Lock, first published in 1712, with a revised version published in 1714. A mock-epic, it satirises a high-society quarrel between Arabella Fermor (the "Belinda" of the poem) and Lord Petre, who had snipped a lock of hair from her head without her permission. The satirical style is tempered, however, by a genuine and almost voyeuristic interest in the "beau-monde" (fashionable world) of 18th-century English society.

      Throughout the poem these two doctrines of Deism are kept in sight: that there is a God, a Mystery, who dwells apart from the world; and that man ought to be contented, even happy, in his ignorance of matters beyond his horizon: "All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good; And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite, One truth is clear: whatever is, is right."

      The result is rubbish, so far as philosophy is concerned, but in the heap of incongruous statements which Pope brings together are a large number of quotable lines, such as: "Honour and shame from no condition rise; Act well your part, there all the honour lies."

      It is because of such lines, the care with which the whole poem is polished, and the occasional appearance of real beauty (such as the passage beginning, "Lo, the poor Indian") that the Essay on Man occupies such a high place in eighteenth- century literature.

      It is hardly necessary to examine other works of Pope, since the poems already named give us the full measure of his strength and weakness. His talent is to formulate rules of poetry, to satirize fashionable society, to make brilliant epigrams in faultless couplets. His failure to move or even to interest us greatly is due to his second-hand philosophy, his inability to feel or express emotion, his artificial life apart from nature and humanity. When we read Chaucer or Shakespeare, we have the impression that they would have been at home in any age or place, since they deal with human interests that are the same yesterday, to-day and forever; but we can hardly imagine Pope feeling at ease anywhere save in his own set and in his own generation. He is the poet of one period, which set great store by formality, and in that period alone he is supreme.

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