The Rape of the Lock – A mock-epic poem/ Heroic-comical poem

Heroic or Epic poems, according to Maynard Meck, are poems like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost dealing with man in his exalted aspects. Their action is weighty, their personages are dignified and their style is elevated.

The Iliad, for example, deals with the tough and prolonged battle between the Greek and the Trojan Heroes, while the Odyssey describes the adventures of Odysseus, one of the Greek kings in the war of Troy. Similarly, Virgil’s Aeneid deals with the adventures of Aeneas and ends with the hero’s finding his divinely ordained destiny as the founder of the Roman Empire. Milton Paradise Lost represents the fall of the rebellious angles from Paradise and justifies the ways of God to man. In all the epics, gods and daemons, take active part in human affairs and guide the destiny of their chosen participants.  The mock-epic is a poetic form which uses the epic structure but on a miniature scale and has a subject that is mean and trivial. The purpose of the mock-epic or mock-heroic poem is satirical. The writer makes the subject look ridiculous by placing it in a framework entirely inappropriate to its importance. Pope’s description of the Rape of the Lock as a mock-heroic poem misled some readers into thinking that the comic attack was intended against heroic-poetry. In fact, a mock-heroic poem is not a satire on poetry itself, but the target of the attack may be a person or persons, an institution or institutions or the whole society. The subject of such a poem is trivial or unimportant, but the treatment of the subject is heroic or epic and such exaggeration of the trivial naturally arouses laughter. The pleasure of the poem, as Ian Jack points out, ensues from “comparing small men to giants and making pygmies of them in the process”. A mock-epic parodies the epic in the sense of which Dr. Johnson described parody as “a kind of writing in which the word of an author or his thoughts are taken and by a light change are adapted to some new purpose.”  Pope was fully conscious of his intentions to make The Rape of the Lock a mock-epic poem is evident from the title he has given it. Homer’s Iliad which describes the events arising out of Helen’s elopement with a Trojan prince, Paris and the subsequent war between the Greeks and the Trojans can be appropriately described as a poem dealing with the “Rape of Helen”.  That is how the Greeks took this whole episode. The title of Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock is thus a parody of the Iliad in this sense; for in this poem, the mighty contest ensues from the rape or assault on the lock of Belinda’s hair. The Rape of the Lock parodies the serious epics not only in it title but also in the overall structure. The poem is divided into five cantos like the five acts of a drama. At the beginning, there is a statement of purpose and invocation to the Muse as in a serious epic. Homer, for example, begins his Iliad thus: chilles’ wrath to Greece the direful spring Of woes unnumbered heavenly goddess sing Virgil declares in Aenied that “Of arms and man I sing” Milton starts his epic “Of man’s first disobedience to and to justify the ways of God to man” Pope imitate these conventions when he declares in his poem.


What dire offence from am’rous causes springs what mighty contests arise from trivial things  I sing – this verse to Caryll Muse!
 is due  This ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:                 
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise                     
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.  
It is through these words that we understand that the beginning is like that of most epics. Subsequent events of the poem parody the epic structure in the similar way. The opening invocation, the description of   the heroine’s toilet, the journey to Hampton  Court , the game of ombre  magnified into a   pitched battle all lead up to the moment when the peer produces the fatal pair of scissors, but the action of the mortals was not enough. Pope knew that in true epics the affairs of men were aided or thwarted by the Heavenly Powers. He, therefore, added the bodies of the supernatural beings – sylphs, gnomes, nymphs and salamanders – as   agents in the story. The gods of the epic are heroic beings, but pope’s deities are tiny. Pope describes the diminutive gods of the       poem as “the light militia of the lower sky”.  Belinda screams like the Homeric poems and dashed like the characters of the great epics, but she is a mere slip of a girl. This is the ironic contrast. We find a battle drawn     to combat like the Greek warriors. But it is only a game of cards on a dressing table. We find a supernatural being who threatens his inferiors with torture. But it is a Sylph, not Jove. The poem contains parodies of Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Spenser and Milton as well as reminiscences of Catallus, Ovid and the Bible. There are several instances of Burlesque-treatment. There is Belinda’s voyage to Hampton Court which suggests the voyage of Aeneas up to the Tiber in Virgil. There is a coffee party which is a parody of the meals frequency described in Homer. The combat at the end recalls the fighting which is found anywhere in the ancient epics. The Cave of Spleen is a parody of an allegorical picture, examples of which may be found in poets like Spenser. Just before the cutting of the lock, when Ariel searches out the close recess of the virgin’s thoughts. There he finds an earthly lover lurking in her heart, and Pope tells us that Ariel retires with a sigh, resigned to fate. This situation echoes the moment in Paradise Lost when after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Angles of God retire mute and sad to heaven. The angles could have protected Adam and Even against Satan, but man’s own free choice of will they are as helpless as Ariel and his comrades are in the face of Belinda’s free choice of earthly lover. An outstanding mock-heroic in the poem is the comparison between arming of an epic hero and Belinda’s dressing herself and using cosmetics in order to kill. Pope describes a society-lady in terms that would suit the arming of a warrior like Achilles. The Rape of the Lock is a poem ridiculing the fashionable world of Pope’s day. But there are several occasions when we feel that the epic world of homer and Virgil has in this poem been scaled down, wittily and affectionately, to admit the coffee-table and the fashionable lady’s bed-chamber. 
Supernatural Machinery: In all epics, god and daemons, whether pagan or Christian, participate in the action side by side with the human agents. In an epic poem, as Le Bossu had emphasized, “the machine crowns the whole work” Pope, therefore, gives a mock dignity to the action of the Rape of the Lock by the use of machinery of sylphs and gnomes. Taken from the Rosicrucian cult, which Bayle had described as the “sect of mountebanks”, the sylphs and gnomes reduce the divine and demonic agents of an epic poem to their diminutive status.  Unlike the deities of the epics, who act guardian agents of the epic heroes, Belinda’s guardian sylph, Ariel is an ineffectual/airy being who deserts her at the most critical moment. The supernatural machinery of the poem thus provides a gentle mockery of the epic deities and increases the charm of the poem as a mock-heroic.
The Epic Style: Within this framework, The Rape of the Lock contains many allusions to Homer, Virgil, Milton and Shakespeare. Ariel’s description of the metamorphosis of a prudish woman into a sylph –

Her joy in gilded chariots, when alive
And love of Ombre, after death survive
is a direct parody of Aeneid in Dryden’s translation;
The love of horses which they had, alive,
And care of chariots, after death survive.

Though the subject-matter of the Rape of the Lock is trivial and ridiculous, the style, diction and versification are rarely so. The diction is exalted throughout, the heroic-couplets are carefully polished and chiseled and the classical device of periphrasis is frequently resorted to. The very opening line of The Rape of the Lock – What dire/my lays could very well open a serious epic. At the end of Canto II, one notices a similar elevation of style:

What time would spare, from steel receives it dates And moments like men submit to fate!
Steel cou’d the labour of the gods destroy,
And strike to dust the’ imperial tow’rs of Troy

The rhetoric style is the same that occurs in  epic poetry. The Mock-heroic effect is  produced by the context which emphasizes  that the invincible “steel” referred to here is the steel of the pair of scissors with which  the Baron cuts off Belinda’s lock.

But when to mischief mortals bend their will,
How soon they find fit instruments of ill!
Just ‘hen, Clarissa drew with tempting grace
A two-edged weapon from her shining case.

The use of the periphrases – “two-edged weapon”, “glittering Forfex” and the fatal engine for a tiny pair of scissors.
Collateral of the Great with the Little: A mock-epic or mock-heroic in the Augustan sense of the term in itself is an example of the collation of the great with the little. In the Rape of the Lock, Pope frequently juxtaposes the heroic with the trivial to produce the mock-epic effect. The very opening couplet juxtaposes “Mighty contest” with trivial things”.  Elsewhere, Pope achieves this effect by reducing the great to the level of the trivial.

Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail China jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honour, or hew brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or a necklace, at a ball;
Or whether Heaven has doom’d that
Shock must fall.

In these three couplets, chastity is equated with ‘frail China jar’ honor with new brocade, rayer with a masquerade, heart             with a necklace. The effect of this collation is highly amusing and startling. The confusion of values which informs Belinda’s world could not have been presented in a way better than this juxtaposing of the great with the little.
Conclusion: All these devices make The Rape of the Lock a highly subtle and complex mock-epic. Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe appears rather simple and straightforward when compared with Pope’s poem. In the Rape of the Lock, however, satire is mixed with genuine charm which surrounds Belinda, Is central figure. Pope does not deny the charm and glamour and the artificial world she presides over. In her barge over Thames, she is genuinely fascinated fascinating and remains so in the rest of the poem. It is only when one notices that this brilliance and gaiety are at the expense of something much more important that they appear to be trivial and hollow. Belinda’s description in the second Canto is both a genuine admiration for her beauty and charm and a mild criticism of her pride and coquetry.

On her white breast a sparking cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
Favors to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And like the sun, they shine on all alike.           

The Rape of the Lock is a nearly perfect example of its genre, the genre of the mock-epic not only because it parodies the epic conventions and devices throughout, but also because it provides a highly amusing drama of its own rights. The greatness of the poem is due to Pope’s genius as well as to the care and pains he took in a different form. The balance between the concealed irony and the assumed gravity is as nicely trimmed as the balance of power in Europe. The little is made great and the great little. You hardly know whether to laugh or weep. It is the triumph of insignificance of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic.  
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