A Critical Analysis of The Rape of The Lock

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      Introduction. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope has succeeded in harmonically blending a satire on contemporary London society with a witty parody of the epic or heroic style. In fact, it is the parody of epic which lends such a sting to the satire on the contemporary 18 century London society. As Geoffrey Tillotson puts it: "The best mock-heroic poets mock at the literary form for carrying the contemporary 'low' human material, but they mock more severely at the material for being so-unworthy of the form. For though the mock-heroic poet adopts a different angle from the epic poet, he is standing on the same ground. Both are serious, morally interested, and in earnest. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries considered the moral element in the epics their first glory, and they did not mock at that as they mocked at the machinery;”

      The Mock-Epic Elements. In The Rape of the Lock Pope parodies the content as well as the style of the epic. He introduces the supernatural machinery, a number of episodes like the game of Ombre, account of battles and single combats; journey to the underworld; threats of punishment to be inflicted by the chief of the supernatural on his followers and even parallels to particular epic scenes. In fact, Pope uses the technique of diminution. "The epic is a long poem. The Rape of the Lock is short. The story of the epic covers years; that of 'The Rape of the Lock' hours. The gods of the epic are stupendous creature; Pope's sylph is tiny" (Tillotson). In fact, the purpose of the mock-epic is satirical. The poet, by placing the subject in a framework entirely inappropriate to its importance, makes it look ridiculous.

      The central incident in this poem is the 'rape' of Belinda's beautiful lock of hair by the Baron and the quarrel between their two families because of this. All the main features of an epic surround this incident, we have the machinery; there is a visit to the underworld; a voyage though only on the river Thames and battles too! But the characters placed in this epic form cut a sorry figure and all their actions look very ridiculous. J.J. Cunningham puts it very succinctly. According to him, Pope, in this mock-epic yokes "together the ancient and the contemporary" and imparts "a modern, comparatively trivial subject, elevated treatment, simply by forcing ancient and modern into uncomfortable proximity." Belinda has hysterics, the Hector-like Baron sneezes and the apparently grand and dignified Sir Plume turns out to be a mere being mouthing such incoherent words:

And thus broke Out-My lord, why-what the Devil?
Z-ds! damn the Lock! 'fore Gad you must be civil!
'Plague on't! 'tis past a Jest-nay, prithee, Pox
Give her the Hair' - he spoke, and rappd his box. (L. 595—598)

      Pope's Concern for Morality: His Use of Satire. Dryden said: "The true end of satire is the amendment of vice by correction," and that is what Pope set out to do in his "Rape". By using the burlesque, mockery, innuendo and irony, Pope ridicules the deviations of his society, "Yet you may hear me witness," writes Pope in his Dedication to Mrs. Arabella Fermor, "it (The Rape) was intended only to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex's little unguarded follies, but at their own." The use of the mock-heroic technique facilitates Pope's effort at disclosing these "unguarded follies." In the very opening lines the poet laughs at "little men" engaging in tasks so "bold", and at gentle ladies who are capable of such "mighty rage." In the strange battle fought between the fashionable belles and the vain beaux, the fall of Dapperwit and Sir Fopling is particularly demonstrative of the hollowness of the people of his age:

"A Beau and Witling perish'd in the Throng,
One dy'd in Metaphor, and one in Song." (L. 703-704)

      And Pope does not spare the Queen either:

"Here thou, great Annal whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take-and sometimes Tea." (L. 297-298)

      He has equated the grave work of taking counsel on State matters with the triviality of taking tea. Pope is unremitting in his criticism of the ladies and lords of his time. Some "dire-disaster" is to overtake Belinda. But the guardian spirits do not know:

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's Law,
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw;
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,
Forget her Pray'rs or miss a Masquerade,

      The poet is making fun of the attitudes of the ladies of his time. To them, it seems, losing one's virginity is as big or small a disaster as the breaking of a China Vase! Honour is no more important than a new brocade and forgetting to say one's prayer is like missing a mask ball.

      Fact and Fiction. But The Rape of the Lock is not only an edification. Belinda's stuff is a perfect contemporary reference. "Coffee, tea, and chocolate... are now become capital branches of this nation's commerce," wrote Defoe in 1713 and all these beverages find a place in Pope's poem. The time when Belinda challenges two gallants to a game of Ombre is the time,

"When hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,
And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine."

      Such vivid pictures of the contemporary society in which "lovers just at twelve, awake" is juxtaposed on to a world of the ethereal:

Do thou, Crispissa, tend her favorite lock;
Ariel himself shall be the guard of Shock;
"To fifty chosen sylphs, of Special Note,
We trust the important Charge, the Petticoat: (L. 263-266)

      Thus, we see that the real is blended with the unreal, the fact with the fiction, creating a world of the mock-heroic.

      Poetic Diction. For any work of art, its diction is of great importance. By diction is meant the choice and arrangement of words so as to achieve the desired effect. Naturally, it differs according to the subject, the literary form, and the age in which a particular work is written. In a good poem, the diction is in character with the person who is speaking.

      One of the peculiarities of epic poetry is its grand style. Joseph Warton rightly puts this question before us: "If Virgil has merited such perpetual commendation for exalting his bees, by the majesty and magnificence of his diction, does not Pope deserve equal praise, for the pomp and luster of his language on so trivial a subject?" Pope shunned words which were considered low or common-place. He would rather go in for periphrasis or circumlocution and use a phrase like "finny prey," "Earth of China," and "The little engine" than employ such common-place words like "Fish" "Cup" and "Scissors." Latinisms and personifications, again, are used frequently by him to achieve the effect of elevation and dignity. Words like "Sol," "irriguous" and "umbrageous" are used to produce exactly this effect. Another device which Pope was fond of using was the antithesis; that is, he brought together in the same line the great and the small, the significant and the insignificant, thereby producing a stunning effect. In the following lines from the "Rape" the antithesis is used with great effect:

Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,
Forget her Prayers, or miss a Masquerade,
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball; (L. 255-257)

      The mocking effect, it is clear, appears due to the pairing of such disparate things like "honor" with a "new brocade" and "prayers" with a "masquerade."

      A Specimen of "Filigree Work": A Lack of True Characterisation. It was William Hazlitt who had called the Rape "the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented." But inspite of all the wealth of ornament and detail, the main subject of the poem is never lost sight of. In fact, all this "filigree work" serves as a purpose and is not merely introduced to give a brightness and dazzle to the work. All this ornamentation and decoration has been introduced so as to perch the characters on the pedestal and then let them fall; to show them in all their pomp and grandeur only to reveal their real hollowness and levity. These lines from Canto III will amply illustrate this:

Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the Pleasures of a Court;
In various Talk th' instructive hours they past,
Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:
A third interprets Motions, Looks and Eyes;
At ev'ry Word, a Reputation dies. (L. 299-306)

      This is what the great aristocratic ladies and gentlemen do-gossiping, talking scandal and discussing such inane topics like dance and courtesy calls.

      All this reminds us that the characters in the "Rape" are mere types and not whole, rounded characters. Nowhere do we get the true feelings and emotions of these characters. But if we keep in mind the nature of the work it will become amply clear why this is so. As it is, a poet in his satirical work of art has to paint his characters in "extremes of colours;" otherwise "the amendment of vices by correction" would not be possible.

      Conclusion. Pope's poem is a highly successful mock-epic which not only dazzles but also edifies. It is remarkable for its wit and fancy and in Tillotson's words "it mocks at the maximum amount of the epic." It would not be wrong to conclude with Dr. Johnson's words that ''To the praises which have been accumulated on The Rape of the Lock by readers of every class, from the critic to the waiting-maid, it is difficult to make any addition. It is universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions."


      Hazlitt. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no splendor of poetic diction, to set off the meanest thing. The balance between the concealed irony and the assumed gravity is nicely trimmed, the little is made great and the great is made little. It is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic. Thus, in The Rape of the Lock the poet has heightened the little, exalted the insignificant, in order to make the little and the insignificant look more ridiculous. He employs the mock-heroic form, not to travesty or mock the epic form, but to show the triviality of mean things by contrasting them with great things. This is the true mock-heroic style.

      Dr. Johnson. To the praises which have been accumulated on The Rape of the Lock by readers of every class, from the critic to the waiting-maid, it is difficult to make any addition. It is universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions.

      Prof. Dobree. You can take the poem as simply as you like, if you like you can find it full of complexities, and of values which go far outside its ostensible meaning.

      Louis Cazamian. This is not to say that The Rape of the Lock is a parody in quite the same way as so many other contemporary works; the subject, however unimportant it may be, has an interest in itself; and the contrast of its delicacy with its serious tone and the traditional trappings in which it is set, brings out its somewhat quaint grace.

      Ricardo Quintana. The richness of invention and coloring that everywhere marks The Rape of the Lock is Pope's and his alone.

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