The Rape of The Lock: A Masterpiece of Art & Construction

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      Introduction. At the advent of the 19th century; Pope's reputation as a poet suffered a set back. The growth of Romanticism in English literature in the late years of the 18th century and the strong roots it took in the 19th century was a reaction to the 18th-century poetry of which Pope and Dryden are representatives and stand out the most prominent. In this connection, Arnold's indictment of Dryden and Pope in his The Study of Poetry is an outstanding example. In this essay; Arnbld, applying his principle of "high seriousness" to the history of English poetry delivers his judgment to the effect that Dryden and Pope are "masters of prose", and not masters of poetry because their works according to him are lacking in grand subject, seriousness of treatment, and nobility of sentiments.

      But this view' of poetry and the Arnoldian attitude towards Augustan poetry was rejected later by such critics as T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis and others. According to these modern critics the criterion to judge poetry is not the subject matter but what is made of the subject matter however trivial and commonplace it may be. As Aristotle put it, a poet was primarily a maker; a maker of language adequate to the experience. And Pope's poetic craftsmanship, his sense of structure and his handling of language and rhythm prove him to be a great poet.

      "The Rape of the Lock", says Lowell: "(it) ranks itself as one of the purest works of human fancy." But more than the fancy of the poem, the perfect keeping (harmony) of the poem deserves admiration. There is unity of construction and harmony in all the conceptions and images of the poem, and therein lies the supreme art of The Rape of the Lock.

      The Rape of the Lock certainly does not belong to the highest class of poetry; its range is extremely limited, and it deals with artificial life. It is not to be compared with a great poem like Paradise Lost, but within its limits, it shows perfection of artifice, which rises to the height of art. The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem in which the petty actions and sufferings of the fine world are epically treated and the contrasts, continually suggested with bigger things, reveal the poet’s art.


      Harmony of Design and Perfect Execution. In the true epicstyle, Pope opens his mock epic piece with an invocation, suggesting the theme of the poem:

Say what strange Motive, Goddess! cou'd compel
A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle Belle?
O, say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor'd,
Cou'd make a gentle Belle reject a Lord? (L. 7-10)

      The keynote of the poem is struck here, and we put ourselves in tune with it. The poet then introduces the heroine Belinda. She awakes but falls asleep again to dream of the well-dressed youth who, it appears, is the chief of the pigmies of the sky.

      The Supernatural Machinery in Conformity with Artificial Atmosphere of the Poem. The supernatural machinery of the poem is just in keeping with the atmosphere of the poem. The airy beings are as artificial as the life with which the poem deals, and the functions, apportioned to different spirits, have all the insignificance of foppery and folly. These airy beings are not and cannot be the gay fairies of The Midsummer Night's Dream. They belong to the ethereal world of foppery and are as vain and pleasure-loving as their human counterparts.

Think not when Woman's transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are Dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, o'erlooks the Cards. (L. 51-54)

      The souls of fashionable ladies, when they die, retire to their first elements, and form the light militia of the sky. It is a band of these spirits that are now waiting on Belinda. The mythology of the sylphs is Pope's own creation, and shows his fanciful wit at its best. Indeed, "wit infused with fancy is Pope's peculiar merit." The punishments with which delinquent spirits are threatened are charmingly appropriate an ingenious:

Whatever Spirit, careless of his Charge,
His Post neglects, or leaves the Fair at large'
Shall feel sharp Vengeance soon ov'rtake his Sins,
Be stopt in Vials, or transfixed with Pins;

      Pope's The Rape of the Lock contains very few of the directly "diminishing" image of direct and blunt satire in which Dryden's Mac Flecknoe abounds. Pope usually makes use of the mock-heroic image which heightens the effect of the fundamental irony This is made clear by these lines from the poem:

Not fierce Othello in so loud a strain
Roar'd for the Handkerchief that caus'd his Pain.
(L. 749-750)

      As Belinda, for the stolen lock. Earlier in the poem, the sustained use of similes, allusions of the tiny celestial beings, elevates the game of Ombre to a higher level which in itself a merely a battle of the sexes.

      When Pope compares Belinda with the sun it is not in the same strain as when Dryden compares Shadw'ell with Hanibal. The comparison of Belinda with the sun is a wild exaggeration but it is nonetheless absurd merely because it is a common place image in love poetry. Pope, of course, was quite aware of this absurdity. Though the comparison is absurd it does contain an element of imaginative truth as is reflected in a different way in this line:

Belinda smil'd and all the World was gay. (L. 200)

      The supernatural machinery employed in describing the battle scene fits in with the artificial though the humorous atmosphere of the poem:

No common Weapons in their Hands are found,
Like Gods they fight, nor dread a moral Wound. (L. 687-688)

      And Pope goes on to compare this battle of the sexes, the warriors employing such fantastic weapons like fans and bodkins-with the battle of the great gods which Homer describes:

So when bold Homer makes the gods engage
And heav'nly Breasts with human Passions rage;
'Gainst Pallas, Mars; Latona, Hermes arms;
Jove's Thunder roars, Heav'n tremble all around;
Blue Neptune storms, the bellowing Deeps resound; (L. 689-694)


Triumphant Umbriel on a Sconce's Height
Clapt his glad Wings, and sate to view the Fight. (L. 697-698)

      Toilet enhances the grace of the poem. The toilet was an important feature of a fashionable lady's daily life, and so Belinda's toilet is described in detail. The most glittering appearance is given to everything-to paste, to pomatum, billet-doux and patches. "The toilet is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity." Belinda, now armed with all the charms and smiles, goes out for boating. Her locks have captivated the heart of Baron, who wants to possess them by any means. He prays for success to the Goddess of Love who grants his prayer. The ceremony accompanying the prayer is in keeping with fashionable triviality of the theme:

With thunder Billet-doux he lights the Pyre,
And breathes three am'rous Sighs to raise the Fire.
(L. 189-190)

      Various Episodes. The game of Ombre forms the episode of the heroic-comic epic and shows the frivolity of the age. Belinda wins and is overjoyed, but is unaware of the coming disaster, which is the crisis of the story:

O thoughtless Mortals! ever blind to Fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate!
(L. 391-392)

      Immediately after Belinda's triumph, comes the crisis. Clarissa offers to Lord Petre a pair of scissors - "a two edged weapon" in the manner of ladies assisting their Knight. When the Baron is cutting off the curl,

Swift to the Lock a thousand Sprights repair,
A thousand Wings, by turns, blow back the Hair,
The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever,
From the fair Head, for ever, and for ever.
(L. 425-444)

      The idea of the goddess of Spleen, dwelling in her place where "the dreaded East is all the wind that blows", is a very happy one, and fits in with the story. A fight in the mock-heroic manner begins between the followers of Belinda and those, of the Baron. The spirits help in the fight just as gods and goddess did in the Trojan war described by Homer. Belinda wins the fight and demands the return of her lock:

Restore the lock, She cries, and all around "Restore the lock" the vaulted Roofs rebound.
(L. 747-748)

      In the meantime, the lock had ascended to the sky. It is changed into a constellation. This is the end of the poem: the lock of hair round which the poem turns is exalted to the position of a star:

This Lock; the Muse the stars consecrate to Fame,
And, mid'st the stars inscribe Belinda's Name!
(L. 793-794)

      Artistic Handling of The Couplets. The heroic-couplet is the fitting medium of the heroic-comical poem. The couplets are artistically handled so as to suit on the one hand the triviality of the subject and on the other, the exigencies of the narrative where there is occasion for satire, they are full of brilliancy and wit, balance and epigram:

Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
The Fair each moment rises in her Charms;
Repairs her Smiles, awakens ev'ry Grace
And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face. (L. 139-142)
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands, or when Lap-dogs breathe their last. (L. 447-448)

      Conclusion. Thus, wit, fancy, and satire, combined together in a harmonious form and design make The Rape of the Lock a masterpiece of art and construction within its limited sphere. "The whole poem more truly deserves the name of a creation than anything Pope ever wrote. The action is confined to a world of his own; the supernatural agency is wholly of his own contrivance and nothing is allowed to overstep the limitations of the subject .... The perfection of form in The Rape of the Lock is to me conclusive evidence that in it the natural genius of Pope found fuller and freer expression than in any other of his poems. The others are aggregates of brilliant passages rather than harmonious wholes." (Lowell)


      Joseph Warton. If Virgil has merited such perpetual commendation for exalting his bees, by the majesty and magnificence of his diction, Pope deserves equal praise for the pomp and luster of his language on so trivial a subject.

      Leslie Stephen. The successive scenes are given with so firm and clear a touch—there is such a sense of form, the language is such a dexterous elevation of the ordinary social twaddle into the mock-heroic, that it is impossible not to recognize a consummate artistic power. The dazzling display of true wit and fancy binds us for the time to the want of that real tenderness and humor, which would have softened some harsh passages, and given a more enduring charm to the poetry. It has, in short, the merit that belongs to any work of art which expresses in the most finished form the sentiment characteristic of a given social phase; one deficient in many of the most ennobling influences, but yet one in which the arts of converse represent a very high development of shrewd sense refined into vivid wit....

      Prof. Bentley but in its blending of mock-heroic, satire and delicate fancy, this exquisite specimen of filigree work, as Hazlitt called it, remains unmatched.

      Edmund Gosse. In its own class and degree, The Rape of the Lock is as perfect as these; as entirely successful and satisfactory; poetic wit was never brighter or verse never more brilliantly polished, the limited field of burlesque never more picturesque filled, than by this little masterpiece in Dresden China. Its faults are a certain hardness and want of sympathy, are the faults of the age, and mark little more than a submission to the prevalent Congreve's ideal of polite manners.


"The effect of The Rape of the Lock lies in the exquisite, adjustment between the epic and mundane planes on which it moves." Analyze the art structure of this poem in the light of the view quoted above.
Illustrate from a study of The Rape of the Lock, Pope's ever scrupulous labor of the artist.
Write a note on the characteristics of Pope brought out in this affirmation: "Pope is a memorable example of a conscious literary artist, the type in (England) of the classical spirits."
Dr. Johnson describes The Rape of the Lock as 'the most airy; the most ingenious, the most delightful of Pope's composition.' Do you agree?
The Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece of poetic art. Discuss.
'Indeed the amazing feat which this poem The Rape of the Lock constitutes, is that, besides being a joke it is a profound work of art.' (B. Dobree). Discuss and amplify.

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