The Rape of the Lock – a social satire

Introduction: Poetic satire may be regarded as didactic poetry or the object it has in view is the reformation of man and his manners and to this end, the satirist takes the liberty of boldly censuring vice and vicious characters. “The true end of satire is the amendment of vice by correction”, says Dryden. Most people agree that satire is the criticism of life and an exposure of human weaknesses, follies, absurdities and shortcomings. The satirist uses humor, wit, mockery, ridicule and irony to achieve his goal – his moral end. 

The Rape of the Lock is a satire on the aristocratic strata of the 18th century society. In the very opening lines, the poet laughs at “little” men engaging in “bold” tasks and at gentle ladies who are capable of such “Mighty rage”

In tasks so bold little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwell such mighty rage
The contrast between “tasks so bold” and “Little men” and another between “soft bosoms” and “Mighty rage” is very wittingly constructed and cuts down to size these vain people of Pope’s time. Juvenal and Horace are the two well-known satirists in the verse of Roman Literature. The former’s satire is pointed, full of force and often savage like that of Swift, but Horace’s irony is more graceful and easy. He chides with a smile. Satire is a distinct element in Chaucer and yet he cannot be called a  satirist. There is no misanthropy or cynicism            in him. In the Elizabethan Age, John Donne and John Marston wrote poetic satires, but their work lack vigor. In the seventeenth century, Dryden wrote a number of satires such as the Hind and the Panther, the Dunciad and the Progress of Dullness. According to Richard Garnett, “The expression in adequate terms of the sense of amusement for disgust excited by the ridiculous or unseemly, provided that humor is a distinctly recognized element. Without humor satire is invective; without literary form it is mere clownish jeering.”
Pope’s satire: The true objective of satire is moral. It amends vice by castigation. The satirist, in the words of Dryden, “is no more an enemy to the offender than the physician to the patient when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease”. Pope’s satire, too, functions in somewhat the same manner. Satire predominates the work of Pope. Even a cursory glance at his poetry reveals that the major part of it consists of satire. The Rape of the Lock, the Dunciad and Moral Essays are the best of his satires. Pope wrote many satires against individuals, which were deadly, sharp and bitter marked by malice. Stopford Brook in comparing Dryden and Pope as satirists says, “Dryden’s satire has relation not to the man he is satirizing, but to the whole of human race. Pope’s satire is thin, it confines itself to the person and has no relation to the world.”  In the Rape of the Lock, the whole panorama is limited to the 18th century aristocratic life. In the strange battle fought between the fashionable belles and the vain beau, the fall of Dapperwit and Sir Fopling is particularly demonstrative of the hollowness of the people of this age:

A beau and witling perished in the throng
One died in metaphor, and one in song

Even the greatest of the great, the Queen herself is satirized to produce a truly comical and witty effect.
Here thou, a great Anna whom three realms obey/ Dost sometimes counsel take – and sometimes tea.  
The satire in the Rape of the Lock is directed not against any individual, but against the follies and vanities in general of fashionable men and women. Pope started writing this poem to reconcile two quarreling families but as the poem progressed, the poet forgot his original intention and satirized female follies and vanities. Belinda is not Arabella Fermore. She is the type of the fashionable ladies of the time and in her the follies and frivolities of the whole sex is satirized. The Baron represents not Petre alone but typifies the aristocratic gentleman of that age. The strange battle between the sexes shows what kind of people they are.

When bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down,
Chloe stepped in, and killed him with a frown;
She smiled to see the doughty hero slain,
But, at her smile, the beau revived again.

Instances of Satire: The poet has satirized the system of judges that they, at 4 o’clock, hurriedly sign the sentence so that they could have their dinner in time.

Meanwhile, declining from the noon of day,
The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray,
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
And wretches hand that jurymen may dine;

Even the concept of friendship has been attack. Friends are hollow and fickle. Belinda’s friend Thalestris is as shallow as the age he lives in. As soon as Belinda’s reputation is gone, she doesn’t like to be called her friend. Thus it a direct satire on the upper-class society of Pope’s time. It doesn’t condemn like Swift, but simply and lightly exposes the frivolities and dandies of the people.
It is in fact a satire on feminine dandies. Women are all frivolous beings, whose genuine interest lies in love-making. The same sentiment is really implied in the more playful lines of the Rape of the Lock. The sylphs are warned by omens that some misfortune impends; but they don’t know that. Use Diana’s Passage above! Pope was inspired by a prevailing sentiment of contempt against the whole female sex. The witty lines are read not with kindly irony but as disagreeable sneers.
Conclusion: The poem is a reflection of this artificial and hollow life, painted with a humorous and delicate satire. It paints the ideal life of the pleasure-seeking young men and women. It introduces to us a world of fashion and frivolities. These pleasures are petty – flirting, card-laying, driving in Hyde Park, visiting theaters and writing love-letters. Their whole day’s program seems to be nothing but a waste. Their whole day’s program seems to be nothing but a waste.
Give here a synopsis of the poem.
Pope’s satire is unique, intellectual and full o wit and epigram.  Lowell rightly says that “Pope stands by himself in English verse as an intellectual observer and describer of personal weaknesses”.

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