Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
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Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.
It's Alexander Pope time! I am so excited because we are talking about Alexander Pope. He was one of the foremost British authors and satirists of the 18th century. He, in a highly relatable way, built his reputation on the foundations of a sharp satirical tongue and a love of bringing classical Greek and Roman literature into the modern day (as we all do).
Alexander Pope was awesome and hilarious, and we're going to talk about his most famous work, which is rather unfortunately titled The Rape of the Lock. I'd like to specify right now that, in this instance, the word 'rape' does not imply sexual assault - I just really want to get that out of the way.
This work is really entertaining. It combines both his foundations of satire and his influences from the Greek and Roman traditions to really make something awesome but also trivial at the same time. Let's just jump right into The Rape of the Lock and find out why it's so great and why it's so funny and still enjoyed today.
This work was originally published anonymously in May of 1712, but Pope would eventually expand The Rape of the Lock and publish it again under his own name a few years later. That's the version - the second version - that we're going to look at today. It's known as a mock-epic or a mock-heroic, which should be pretty self-explanatory. It's a work that takes on the form of a classic Greek or Roman epic, like Homer's Odyssey, but with a satirical twist, and that's where the 'mock' comes in.
Satire, remember, is a literary form that uses exaggeration and ridicule to expose truths about society. In The Rape of the Lock, the satire comes from the fact that Pope is using high-and-mighty classical epic form - the tradition of Homer - but he's really telling a story that is incredibly trivial.
Before we get into that story, there are three other things you should know about the poem. First, like typical epics, The Rape of the Lock is divided into cantos. That's the standard division for epic poems that comes from the Italian word for 'song.' If you've read any of Dante's Divine Comedy or if you are a fan of Ezra Pound (as so many of us are), you'll be familiar with that term. Unlike an epic, though, The Rape of the Lock is not incredibly long - it's just 5 cantos and only about 600 lines. I guess he figured satire would wear out its welcome after a while. Also, it's a mock-epic - it's not a real one.
Second, the poem is written in heroic couplets, which means rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter - so if Shakespeare had rhymed all of his lines, that would be heroic couplets. Pope was an early adopter of this form and should deserve a lot of credit for making it popular. Heroic couplets make a very pleasing, melodious reading and listening experience; you'll find that the passages of this poem have kind of a song-like quality to them.
Finally, just an interesting side-note - The Rape of the Lock is based on real events that Pope had related to him by a friend. That same friend had asked Pope to write this mocking poem in an attempt to show the groups involved how silly they were being and hopefully get them to reconcile. But of course Pope ends up the real winner here, because The Rape of the Lock is considered one of the greatest satirical poems in English literature. If you write great poems, you don't need friends. You heard it here first.
Let's get to the story. As I mentioned earlier, we should not interpret the word 'rape' here as sexual assault. So what does it actually refer to? Well, as we mentioned, the events of this poem are very trivial. Basically, it's the tale of a lock of hair getting stolen from a beautiful girl at a party - that's the 'rape.' And while this may sound pretty upsetting, it's not as intense as Queen Helen getting stolen from Troy and launching the Trojan War, which is the basis for a lot of other epics. So right away, they're lampooning this event by comparing it to something huge, like the start of the Trojan War.
Pope's point there - and this is where the satire starts - is that the society of his day placed too much emphasis on trivial things like surface beauty (thank God we're over that...). He's trying to compare that maybe someone would find getting their hair cut off as depressing as having their queen stolen or a massive war with another land. That means that the poem is both satirizing the genre of epic and also the modern sensibility at the same time. It's a double satire - he's working hard.
The main character here is Belinda, a beautiful woman called the 'Fairest of the Mortals' by Pope in the first canto, which, if you're familiar with Homer, might sound a little bit like Helen of Troy (and I don't think that was an accident). In this section of the poem, Belinda wakes up and gets ready to go to a ball, and that's about it. If Stephenie Meyer - the Twilight lady - had written The Rape of the Lock, this section would take like 35 pages and it would be told in excruciating detail (because that book is terrible). But Alexander Pope was much more skilled than Stephenie Meyer (sorry Twilight fans).
However, since this epic is modeled after the likes of Homer, Belinda gets some supernatural help getting ready. The gods are always interfering in Homer's works, and this happens here, too. Belinda's supernatural help comes from someone named Ariel, her guardian sylph - basically an 'air spirit' that Pope uses as a satirical equivalent of a major god or goddess who intercedes in the hero's life - like Athena, for example, except Ariel's a dude. If you're familiar with Shakespeare's The Tempest, you might recognize Ariel as the name of Prospero's servant, but, realistically, you're probably thinking of The Little Mermaid. However, Ariel's a man, so that's not a good association.
Ariel and his fellow sylphs, Pope says, have the duty of protecting virgins - to quote from the poem, 'Whoever fair and chaste / Rejects Mankind, is by some Sylph embraced.' You can see the rhyming couplet right there - chaste/embraced. Nice work. Ariel, in keeping with his duty as a protector, warns Belinda of dark omens on the horizon, but he's not exactly sure what they are. We know what they are - someone's going to cut her hair.
Those omens, we learn, are there because of the Baron, the poem's main antagonist, who we meet in Canto 2. The Baron is an admirer of Belinda's who's been plotting to steal her most prized trait, which Pope says are 'two Locks which graceful hung behind / In equal Curls, and well conspir'd to deck / with shining Ringlets the smooth Iv'ry neck.' He's talking about her hair - it's really pretty and hanging in curls around her pale neck. In other words, Belinda is known for her hair, and the Baron, who's obsessed with her, wants to steal some of it for himself - that's all that's going on so far.
But Pope words this in a way to let us know that the Baron is a total creep - he's not a lovestruck Romeo, he's a weirdo. Here's what he says: 'Th' Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir'd, / He saw, he wish'd, and to the Prize aspir'd: / Resolv'd to win, he meditates the way, / By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray.' I guess just asking her for some hair is out of the question. Besides introducing us to the Baron, Canto 2 also brings Belinda to the party by a sea voyage, which is another element of epic poetry that Pope's making fun of - there are always ships sailing somewhere in Homer's works.
In Canto 3, after a game of cards is written up like a grand battle, the Baron sets himself for his nefarious task. He's aided by Clarissa, a young lady who fancies the Baron for herself. This is one of those sad kind of 'if I do this for someone, maybe he'll like me' approach that you might observe in people you know from time to time or perhaps have been guilty of yourself (we've all been there - no judgment). Clarissa's role in the plot is to hand the Baron the scissors and not much else. This is really where the overblown satire comes in. All she's doing is handing the Baron the scissors to cut some hair from a girl who doesn't know her hair is about to be cut.
But this is how Pope dramatizes the handoff: 'Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting Grace / A two-edg'd Weapon from her shining Case; / So Ladies in Romance assist their Knight, / Present the Spear, and arm him for the Fight.' He's just cutting some hair, but he's saying she's the lady assisting the knight before a duel. He's trying to elevate it while also making fun of it. The third canto ends tragically with Belinda finally losing a prized lock of her celebrated hair.
In the fourth canto, another otherworldly creature appears and takes the place of the sylphs. This is a gnome called Umbriel, who travels from the 'Cave of Spleen' to procure for Belinda 'a bag of sighs and a vial of tears' from its Queen. Now we've met the Queen of Spleen. It's too bad Pope never actually uses those words, because that would be hilarious. If the use of spleen doesn't make a lot of sense, it helps to keep in mind that people in Pope's time thought that your spleen was where all your angry feelings come from. So basically Canto 4 uses a supernatural metaphor to explain that Belinda's overflowing with emotions after her very upsetting event.
Now we're on to Canto 5, where Belinda is overcome with bad feelings thanks to Umbriel, and Clarissa's role in the poem sort of changes from scissor-hander; all of a sudden, she's meant to present the story's moral. She attempts to calm Belinda down with a speech about how beauty will eventually wither but good humor and a positive attitude can last forever - that's really supposed to represent Pope's own idea about the events of the poem and the real events that inspired them, too. Let's hear how he says it:
But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey;
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid,
What then remains, but well our Pow'r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate'er we lose?
That's what Pope says - beauty fades, but if you're a cool person who rolls with the punches, that's more important. But Belinda isn't hearing it because who's going to listen to the weirdo who just helped some creep cut your hair? Instead of just trying to calm down, Belinda starts a violent fight at the party, which is great. In the scuffle, it appears that Belinda's treasured lock is now lost forever... or is it?
As it happens, the poem delivers something of a twist ending here. Let's let Pope explain: 'But trust the Muse -- she saw it upward rise, / Tho' mark'd by none but quick Poetic Eyes.' If you're thinking 'What?' then you're correct - I am too. It turns out that the stolen lock of Belinda's hair is supposed to have ascended to the heavens, the final resting place for all great and beautiful things. Kind of a cop out? Maybe.
Pope does a little poetic trickery here and even inserts himself a bit into the proceeding - 'Poetic Eyes' - he's the poet. The Rape of the Lock closes with these four lines that tie a nice little bow on this surprising development: 'When those fair Suns shall sett, as sett they must, / And all those Tresses shall be laid in Dust; / This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame, / And mid'st the Stars inscribe Belinda's Name!' In case anyone didn't know, 'tress' just means 'lock' - it's just a synonym for hair (you can only say 'lock' so many times, realistically).
In other words, now that the lock has been championed before the Muse - the Muses were supernatural beings that were supposed to inspire poets and artists, so it's kind of a reference to Pope - it shall live forever among the stars. This brings The Rape of the Lock back to its classical roots, because invoking the Muse is a classic move for any epic poet worth his salt - a lot of epic poets will start by praising the Muse and asking the Muse to inspire them. So Pope's really nailing it here. This ending also introduces a bit of sympathy to Belinda's cause because it's like she gets this consolation prize for losing her temporary beauty, and that consolation prize is pretty grand - that her name will live forever among the stars.
So that's really all that happens in this poem - there's not a whole lot going on in The Rape of the Lock. We can sum up most of the poem's plot in five easy sentences, one per canto. Let's go.
Alright, that last one was a compound sentence. So sue me. You get what I'm saying - not a whole lot, plot-wise.
That's basically it except for that weird ending where Belinda's lock is elevated to the heavens because Pope told its tale - it's weird but appropriate. In total, Pope takes about 600 lines of these rhyming couplets to tell this story, and that's because he's writing it as a mock-epic, so it's mocking both the events that inspired it and also the epic tradition like Homer or Virgil. His purpose in doing this is to satirize what he considers to be a folly of his age - that's the preoccupation with surface beauty.
But he also manages to poke some fun at the conventions of epic poetry along the way because he's just that good. In the end, you see that Pope finds a bit of sympathy for Belinda despite her folly - her obsession with her beauty - and he manages to sneak in a bit of a moral for anyone who's paying close enough attention. The moral, of course, is: beauty fades, but good humor lasts forever. Coming from a comedy poem, that's probably not that surprising - that he values humor over beauty. Humor, sharp language and a good lesson - it's (I think) no wonder that this poem has maintained its fame 300 years after it was first published. I hope you'll check it out!
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Back To CourseEnglish 101: English Literature
15 chapters | 138 lessons | 10 flashcard sets