We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

Discuss Alexander Pope’s ‘The Rape Of The Lock’ as a ‘Mock Heroic Poem’

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

One of the finest examples of mock heroic poetry in the English language was composed after John Caryll, a friend of Pope’s, informed the poet of an incident regarding two land owning, Catholic families, the Petres & the Fermors. The young lord Petre had cut off a lock of hair from the fashionable society lady Arabella Fermor, and both she and her family had taken offence. Caryll suggested that Pope should ‘write a poem to to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again’. The result was the publication of The Rape of the Lock, in May 1712. However due to a favourable reaction, Pope published an expanded version in 1714, containing the card battle, the Cave of Spleen and the major addition of the supernatural elements that pope refers to as the ‘machinery’. In 1717 a new edition containing the speech of Clarissa was introduced and published in response to criticism that the poem lacked a moral. The harmonious & polished poem fulfils qualities associated with the cultural achievements of the renaissance period – working the values of the eighteenth century and serving the Horatian outlook to delight and teach.

The Rape of the Lock is referred to, by Pope himself as An ‘Heroi-Comical Poem’ or a mock epic. In it the familiar social reality in which the poem is rooted undergoes a transformation through the comic use of the epic parallel so that what is created is a unique blend of fantasy (supernatural deities) and reality. Pope is a satirical poet of civilised life, defining its positives by exposing its negatives with great argumentative structure and verbal artistry. This is shown in The Rape of the Lock as it oscillates between comicality & mockery as Pope juxtaposes the seriousness of epic, with its battles of human suffering in which life and death are decided, against the triviality of the subject matter of the poem, a quarrel over the loss of a lock of hair – which is comically exalted, and the social brouhaha and fuss associated with it. There is a conscious disparity between content and form : ‘Slight is the Subject, but not so is the praise’ (canto 1 line5). Pope deliberately turns the eighteenth century concept of decorum upside down. He takes a trivial subject matter and describes it in grand style.

Canto 1 opens in true epic mode with a proposition of the subject and an invocation to the muse ‘This Verse to Caryll, Muse! Is due’ (3). The serious opening later gives way to aristocratic mockery when Pope states that the ‘sleepless lovers, just at twelve awake,’ (16). The machinery or ‘light militia of the lower sky’ is then introduced in which the Gods of classical epic are beautifully miniaturised. By making them correspond to certain female types in their previous mortal existence, Pope integrates them into the social world. Here Belinda (Fermor) is warned by a Sylph named Ariel, of women’s frailty and the danger presented by men: ‘Beware of all, but most beware of man!’ (14). At the end of the canto Belinda finally wakes up and prepares herself for the day – like an epic hero arming for battle – she applies her warpaint. This also shows that The Rape of the Lock is a light-hearted satire on the ritual surrounding eighteenth-century, English, high-society courtship. ‘Belinda preens herself in front of her dressing table in order to entice the Baron, but finally over-displays and pays a penalty for doing so. Just as Belinda over-displays, the Baron over-responds. He as heartily acts the expected male role as she willingly performs the female’ (Gordon. 2001).

Canto 2 extravagantly and grandly stresses Belinda’s beauty as she sails the Thames ‘with [her] Shining Ringlets’. Pope’s hyperbole even goes so far as to liken her to the sun by referring to her as ‘the rival of his beams’ (3). This bold metaphor shows that the sun is afraid that it will be eclipsed by her looks. The Baron (Lord Petre) notices young Belinda and smitten by her fair tresses, resolves, either by force or fraud, to win the prize. He builds an alter of love tokens, which he turns into a ritual offering by lighting them with ‘tender Billet – Doux’. Here the Baron’s sacrifice to the heavenly powers is comically reminiscent of the sacrifices and prayers made before battle by epic heroes. Ariel, meanwhile, is concerned at the prospect of impending woe, and summons his ‘denizers of air’ to heighten the security around Belinda. He commands the squadrons of Sylphs to repair to their various charges, especially to the heroine’s mock epic shield:

To fifty chosen Sylphs, of special Note,

We trust th’ important Charge the Petticoat.


The variety of disasters ominously threatened is comic in itself but also contains some moral point. The moral and the spiritual, the physical and material, the serious and less serious are comically joined and wittily expressed through the zeugma. They all seem to have the same value, as if to suggest that in Belinda’s world there is no proper moral hierarchy or fixed moral certainties. This joining also stresses a serious perspective – the triviality and ridiculing of the beau monde in general in which ethical values are as lasting as the latest fashion, and the characters of the poem in particular, who have allowed a trivial incident to be blown out of proportion (Sanders.2004:294).

Canto 3 discovers our ‘heroine and hero’ socialising at Hampton court. They play a fashionable game of ‘ombre’ wittingly conceived as a mock heroic battle within the larger mock epic war in which Belinda is triumphant. The epic parallel serves to put a perspective upon the importance attached to card games in this mundane social world and at the same time to bring out the intensity and passion with which human beings can become involved in play. The Baron then conceives his idea of cutting the lock as they partake of the coffee, and armed with Clarissa’s ‘two-edg’d weapon from her shining case’ (128) fulfils his desire.

Belinda, furious at what has occurred, ‘flashe[s] the living lightening from her eyes and [her] screams of horror rend affrighted skies’ (155-6). Although we may feel that Belinda has a right to be annoyed, her exaggerated expression has the comic and deflationary effect of reducing her reaction to absurdity. The Baron proceeds to give a mock version of the victorious speech allowed to heroes after they have killed their opponent in battle: At a climactic action in epic, the epic narrator often intervenes in his story directly to address his characters as does the poet here with his serio-comic disquisition on the ‘conquering force of unresisted steel’.

In Canto 4 Belinda’s smiling beauty is disfigured by anger and vexation. In lines 3-10 anaphora of the word ‘not’ gives emphasis and pattern to Belinda’s trivial situation and the rhetorical climax in the concluding couplet (which wittily also proves to be an anticlimax – for the final word ‘hair’ skilfully paired with its rhyme word despair) weighs very lightly; when all is said and done, the ‘ravished’ ‘virgin’ (an antithesis) has only lost her

hair! Nevertheless, Umbriel, after his visit to the Cave of Spleen, replaces the failed Ariel as Belinda’s guardian. The Cave of Spleen is a version of the classical underworld tailor-

made for the small world of polite society, touching on a world of violence and aggression beneath the dazzling surface of society life. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero journeys to the underworld and encounters the the stuff of nightmares, all the terrifying monsters of classical myth and a variety of horrors in allegorical form, like Famine, Disease and Poverty (Sanders.2004:294). In the cave, the allegorical monsters are Headaches and Affectation and the monstrous takes a form appropriate to the female world as jars sigh and a ‘goose-pye’ talks (52). The references to ‘China Vessels’, like the ‘living Teapots’ are images of human fragility, images moreover with a powerful sexual resonance. This concept is repeated in a different context at the end of the poem when Pope gently (almost liturgically) reminds Belinda that she too will be reduced to such a state:

When those fair Suns shall sett, as sett they must,

And all those Tresses shall be laid in Dust;


In this same canto, the long set speech of Thalestris is a powerful piece of rhetoric, comic in its reference, but seriously revealing the shallowness of the code of honour by which high society lives. The mood suddenly changes to the purely comic with the clipped utterance of the absurd Sir Plume. Belinda’s lament, a mock version of the sort of speech in which a tragic figure recognises past error, ends with a comic couplet revealing that appearances are the be-all and end-all in this shallow world.

The final canto begins with the ‘grave’ Clarissa’s realistic and worldly advice parodying

Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucous in the Iliad, Book 12, and opening ‘more clearly the moral of the poem’. Here Pope confronts the reader with the transience of human life and the mutability of female beauty, warning that ‘frail beauty must decay’ and that ‘painted or not painted, all shall fade’. Clarissa appeals to the virtues of good sense and good humour (she would have to see the funny side of the situation- after all she gave the Baron the scissors) as well as warning of the dire consequences of female petulance: ‘ she who scorns a man, must die a maid’ (128). This reference to loss surely puts the whole world of The Rape of the Lock into perspective as well as the triviality of what has been lost in the poem. Clarissa is suggesting that Belinda gives up the hysterics and tries a good humoured approach which will have more chance of an happier outcome for herself.

The miniaturisation of the epic original has a comic effect. The action, place and time of The Rape of the Lock are highly compressed (half a day in London in 5 cantos), compared to that of the long narrative classical epics. Nevertheless Pope parodies Homer, which is no surprise as Pope is regarded as one of the chief exponents of neoclassicism. In his Essay on Criticism he stated: ‘learn hence for ancient rules a just esteem; / To copy nature is to copy them; (139-40). The style of the comic battle of the belles and beaux that ensues, achieves the same high pitch that we find illustrated in the extract from Pope’s Homer translation; the comedy arises from the incongruous content that inhabits the style – clapping fans, rustling silks and tough whalebones that crack.

But when Pope comes to the simile ‘So when bold Homer’ (45), the narrative in itself is entirely serious and differs little from its source. However what is comic is the incongruous application of the simile. From the grand gods of Homer with their earth-shattering power that throws the whole creation into turmoil, we come now to their counterparts in the little world of the polite society as they survey the mortal fight below (Sanders.2004:293).

The language in which the battle is described recalls epic but the weapons are metaphorical frowning looks and cutting remarks until Belinda resorts to snuff. For example Thalestris kills figuratively with her looks, and Dapperwit, whose name suggests neatness of wit, dies ‘in metaphor’ saying that he bears ‘a living death’. When Jove announces that Belinda’s hair outweighs the men’s wits, the comic conclusion deflates the men and gives the victory to Belinda. But, in epic, the sinking scale means death, which here signifies the loss of the hair and the fact that it will not be restored in the poem (or in life). Pope’s wit gives this allusion like many of the others a double significance which perfectly foreshadows the outcome he has designed. The lock, having been lost in the confusion, is finally transfigured and becomes a constellation. In the final couplet, this lock will inscribe Belinda’s name in the stars for eternity. Thus the poem ends, as it had begun, with praise for Belinda’s beauty that must ellipse the day.

I conclude by adding that the Rape of the Lock is most certainly a mock heroic poem. However although this term may suggest that this work is mainly designed to mock epic, this is not the case. The form, motifs and style of epic employed by Pope are designed to put a perspective upon the triviality of the characters and their actions by comically blowing it up to absurd proportions. Pope satirises moral values in upper-class eighteenth-century English society – both male and female, showing that the beaux are no more deserving than the belles. Folly is wittily mocked in a good natured, humorous way whilst Pope also projects a moral statement: beauty is not a weapon, and elegance and social manners are never enough to succeed in life.


Gordon, I (2001) The Literary Encyclopedia, Alexander Pope: WWW.LitEncy.com.

Pope, A (1714) The Rape of the Lock.

Pope, A (1711) Essay on Criticism.

Sanders, A (2004) The Short Oxford History of English Literature, 3rd ed: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59