The Rape of the Lock: Pope's Mock Heroic Poetry

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  • 0:05 The Rape of the Lock
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Alexander Pope is one of the premiere satirists in the English language, and The Rape of the Lock is his crowning achievement. Here, Pope writes about an incredibly trivial event as though it's a war involving gods and epic heroes. Watch our lesson for more details on this classic!

The Rape of the Lock

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.

Plot Synopsis

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.

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