Skip to main content
Humanities Libertexts

6.1: Pope, “The Rape of the Lock”

Why is it that when I watch a sporting event on television and something exciting happens, I call whoever is nearby to come in and see the replay. Why is that when I taste something I really like, I invite friends to have a taste as well? Am I making the point that I have it and they do not? Am I trying to make them jealous? I hope not—at least not usually. I am, instead, doing what people often do, sharing the things I enjoy. Writing this book is another way for me to share things that I enjoy. In choosing which works I will discuss, I have been guided by my sense of what I enjoy and what I hope readers will enjoy. (I have, in addition, tried to choose works from a number of different historical periods.)

I thought I should mention this subject again at the beginning of this chapter because I am not certain how much general readers will enjoy Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” At the same time, I hope they will, because it is a marvelous poem that deserves to be read and enjoyed. Although it was written in response to a trivial event that took place in the early eighteenth century, it is still a very funny poem, and, like the best funny things, it is also very serious.

Why, then, do I have doubts? Pope’s style of writing is out of fashion today in at least two ways. First, the poem is written in iambic pentameter rhyming couplets, known as heroic couplets, a style that can make modern readers feel uncomfortable, especially on a first reading. It takes getting used to. Consequently, the reader of “The Rape of the Lock” must be patient until the verse form feels more familiar. Ultimately the observant reader will be amazed at how Pope uses the form, at how many effects he can produce with what at first seems like a severe set of constraints.

The second reason for my doubt is that this poem is a satire, and satire is seldom appreciated as much as it should be (or as much as I think it should be). Satire was extraordinarily popular in the eighteenth century, and it has become popular today through television personalities like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but because it so often depends on a knowledge of specific events or people, it often seems far removed from people who lack that knowledge. For example, Samuel Butler’s verse satire Hudibras requires knowledge of late seventeenth-century politics and religion, as does John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel. Once the reader has that knowledge, these works become effectively satiric, but until that time, they can seem awfully tedious. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels can be appreciated without such detailed knowledge of eighteenth-century concerns, but having such knowledge makes the work even more effective. Fortunately, the knowledge required for appreciating “The Rape of the Lock” is fairly straightforward, and perhaps because its inspiration was so trivial, the satire in the poem seems more universal that the satire of Butler or Dryden. Since the poem is based on such a minor incident, Pope was forced to find ways to make it significant. That Pope thought his poem was significant can be seen in his having written it in 1712, revised it extensively in 1714, and then revised it again in 1717.

The incident that lay behind the poem occurred when Robert, Lord Petre, cut a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair without having secured that lady’s permission. This act caused a rift between the two principals’ families, and Pope’s light treatment of the incident was originally intended to reconcile them. As he said, the poem was meant as a diversion to point out certain follies. Of course, when people become exercised over trivia, they are generally not anxious to be calmed down, and Pope’s poem was, in that regard, unsuccessful. As he revised it, however, it became much more than a peace offering. In fact, it became a masterpiece.

Although Pope himself called the poem “An Heroi-Comical Poem,” critics like to call it a “mock epic,” for Pope, who had immersed himself in classical and modern literatures, was an expert on the conventions of epic poetry and he includes many of them in this poem. The way he tells the trivial story by dressing it up in epic garb, borrowed largely from The Iliad (which Pope had translated into English) and from Milton’s Paradise Lost, adds to the comic nature of the poem. Instead of Homer’s gods and Milton’s angels, for instance, Pope uses sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders, supernatural figures that Pope borrowed from the Rosicrucian religion. These airy sprites flutter through the poem, imitating in a miniature way the supernatural machinery of the real epics. Similarly, while The Iliad and Paradise Lost contain numerous battle scenes—Trojans against Greeks or fallen angels against unfallen angels—“The Rape of the Lock” contains two major battles: one is a military description of a card game called ombre and the other the battle that ensues after the lock has been cut. Again, Pope has taken the lofty conventions of epic poetry and reduced them to the size of his poem, thereby achieving humorous effects and simultaneously making a comment about the nature of eighteenth-century society, as we will see.

Pope’s verse, as I said earlier, can be difficult for modern readers. Not only might the heroic couplets sound strange to our ears, but Pope, who was schooled, like his contemporaries, in Latin, often uses a Latinate style, which also may seem strange, as we can see in the poem’s opening lines:

 

What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,

What might Contests rise 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.

(I.1-6)

 

First, the new reader should not be put off by the eighteenthcentury convention of capitalizing nouns. Instead, look at how Pope loves to use balance as a stylistic device. In the first two lines, for example, we see “dire Offence” and “mighty Contests” balanced against “am’rous Causes” and “trivial Things” at the same time that we see “dire Offense” paired with “am’rous Causes” and “mighty Contests” paired with “trivial Things.” Schematically the pairing looks like this:

 

{Offence ⇔ Causes}

{Contests ⇔Things}

 

This balance is not only stylistically neat, but it also contributes to the themes of the poem, for it emphasizes that the “dire Offence” that led to the “mighty Contests” sprang from “am’rous Causes” which are, in truth, “trivial Things.” Pope uses such rhetoric over and over in this poem, and part of the pleasure in reading the poem lies in appreciating the ways in which Pope treats language and ideas within the constraints of his verse form. (And again I urge the reader to read sentences, not lines, and to read the poem aloud.)

Another part of the pleasure, of course, lies in understanding what Pope has to say about his characters, the situation in which they find themselves, and the society that produced them, all of which are subject to Pope’s satire. On a first reading, it might appear that the poem is hopelessly sexist, that it targets women and makes them look foolish and empty-headed. I will try to demonstrate that this reading is so incomplete that it is really mistaken, but at the same time there can be no doubt that women are the targets of much of the poem’s satire. For instance, early in the poem we are told by Ariel, the chief of the sylphs, that the sylphs are simply the spirits of women who have died:

 

Think not, when Woman’s transient Breath is fled,

That all her Vanities at once are dead…

(I.51-52)

 

According to Ariel, women are composed largely of “Vanities,” and when they die, the vanities live on in sylphs. Surely this description is not flattering, but Pope goes even further when Ariel explains that the sylphs are responsible for guarding the “honour” of young women, thereby associating honor and vanity. And then Pope takes this point even further when Ariel says,

 

With varying Vanities, from ev’ry Part

They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart,

Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots

strive,

Beaus banish Beaus, and Coaches Coaches drive.

This erring Mortals Levity may call,

Oh bling to Truth! the Sylphs contrive it all.

(I.99-104)

 

“The moving Toyshop of their Heart” implies that the young ladies whose honor is guarded by sylphs are hardly serious creatures, and especially not in matters of love. The lines about wigs, sword-knots, beaus, and coaches, while imitated from Homer, show the kinds of things that fill young society ladies’ toyshop hearts—not heroes and great deeds but young dandies whose swords are covered with decorations and are unfit for fighting. Of course, Pope is not saying that men should be like the Homeric heroes, but he is saying that if the women’s hearts are toyshops, the men who fill them are toys. These people who occupy the upper echelons of society, both the men and the women, are shallow and hardly deserving of their status. If the “dire Offence” rose from “trivial Things,” the people involved in the episode are equally trivial. The problem is that they can also be charming. These characters are not simply villains whose villainy is held up to ridicule. They are perfect products of their society who have adopted, without questioning, the attitudes and behaviors of that society.

So, when we see our heroine Belinda awaken after Ariel’s speech, the first thing she does is go to her dressing table, which, in epic fashion, is presented as an altar, with Belinda as both the goddess and the priestess who worships the goddess. In other words, she worships herself. Furthermore, her dressing recalls the scene in The Iliad when Hera is presented “arming herself ” in her finery in order to seduce Zeus. Like Hera, Belinda is preparing herself for battle—“Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms” (I.139)—but the enemy she wants to conquer is the male sex and her weapons are “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” (I138). 

Lest we think, however, that only women are satirized in this way, we can look at the beginning of Canto II for a description of the Baron’s religion:

 

For this, ere Phoebus rose, he had implor’d

Propitious Heav’n, and ev’ry Pow’r ador’d,

But chiefly Love—to Love an altar built,

Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.

Theree lay three Garters, half a Pair of Gloves;

And all the Trophies of his former loves.

(II. 35-40)

 

Belinda’s altar is covered with women’s weapons and the Baron’s, constructed of cheap love stories, is covered with trophies of his past romantic conquests. Clearly this couple were made for each other. Or they are destined for an incredible battle. Or both.

But there is a serious level to all this foolishness as well. Belinda, to whom Honor (by which we are to understand her reputation for chastity) is the highest good, does everything in her power to make herself seductive, though she is required to fight off anyone whom she seduces. Sort of self-defeating, isn’t it? At the same time, the baron, under the pretense of love, is himself bent on seduction. They are both operating within accepted societal boundaries. As the poem says,

 

For when Success a lover’s Toil attends,

Few ask, if Fraud or Force attain’d his Ends.

(II. 33-34)

 

Those social boundaries, then, encourage them to adopt hypocritical roles: the emphasis on success means that any method of achieving that success is fair. Consequently, she must pretend that she wants to be seduced, though she does not (we assume), and he must pretend that he does not want to seduce her, though he most certainly does. Much of the poem, then, revolves around the subjects of honor, chastity, and hypocrisy, and Pope has some interesting things to say on those subjects. In fact, the poem approaches them on at least three levels. The first level is the literal story of a trivial event that is blown out of proportion. The second level describes the societal approach to dealing with honor and chastity, an approach that promotes hypocrisy and a kind of double standard for both sexes. And the third level explores what is really at stake in questions of honor and chastity.

In dealing with the first level, we can see Pope’s feelings about the shallowness of the people he is describing reflected everywhere in the poem, but it shows most clearly at the beginning of Canto III, where he describes the activities of his characters at Hampton Court:

 

Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,

To taste awhile the Pleasures of a Court;

In various Talk th-instructive hours they past,

Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:

One speaks the Glory of the British Queen,

And one describes a charming Indian Screen;

A third interprets Motions, Looks, and Eyes;

At ev’ry Word a Reputation dies…

Mean while declining from the Noon of Day,

The Sun obliquely shoots his burning Ray;

The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,

And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine…

(III. 10-22)

 

With lines like these, it is no wonder that Pope was regarded as a dangerous, stinging writer. From the sarcastic labeling of these fops and flirts as “Heroes and Nymphs” to his description of their character assassinating gossip, he is obviously critical of these unproductive but self-important people. (Later he will give the names of some of the “Heroes,” names like Sir Plume, Sir Fopling, and Dapperwit, names that further indicate their vapidity.) We can also see in this passage a technique that Pope uses throughout the poem: he frequently pairs items, one serious and one trivial, to indicate how this society trivializes everything. They give equal attention to politics (“the Glory of the British Queen”) and interior decorating (“a charming Indian Screen”). But if these people are shallow and obsessed with trivia, what difference does it make? Is anyone being hurt? The answer, Pope says, is yes. Not only do reputations die, but because judges are more concerned with their comfort than with justice, people die. The judges are quick to sign death warrants so that they can more quickly get to dinner. In a society that glorifies the transformation of substance into trivia, trivia rules. Dinner becomes more important than justice, or than human life. This society, notable for its conspicuous consumption while people starve, is hardly as charming as it thinks it is. It is, in fact, dangerous.

The second level of the poem, that dealing with the societal appeal to honor and chastity, we have already touched on by considering the altars of Belinda and the baron, but there are numerous other references in the poem to the hypocrisy that society imposes on its unthinking members. For instance, we read that before the game of ombre, Belinda “swells her Breast with Conquests yet to come” (III.28). Since the game is presented as the equivalent of an epic battle, Belinda’s gesture is perfectly appropriate; but in the context of the war between the sexes, that gesture could just as well be seen as provocative. Belinda, in gearing herself up for the card game-battle, flaunts her sexuality.

In fact, Belinda’s sexuality is a constant focus of the poem, as it is a constant focus of her own attention. When Ariel tells the other spirits about his premonition that something terrible is about to happen, he lists several possibilities:

 

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law,

Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,

Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,

Forget her Pray’rs, or miss a Masquerade… `

(II. 105-108)

 

Here again, Pope gives us some significant pairings. One set of alternatives, breaking Diana’s law (that is, losing one’s virginity) or breaking a piece of China, offers a telling comment on the inherent value of Belinda’s virginity. Virginity is not to be preserved for its spiritual value or out of a sense of purity. It is, rather, a commodity, like “some frail China Jar” which, when once broken, cannot be repaired and therefore loses its financial value. And, like the China Jar, it is frail. As Ariel says, “Belinda’s petticoat must be guarded,” because “Oft have we known that sev’nfold Fence to fail” (II.119). In plainer words, the petticoat is there to protect the frail treasure of her virginity, but even such daunting fortresses as eighteenth-century petticoats often are ineffective in protecting what lies beneath. Similarly, there is no difference between Belinda’s staining her honor or her new brocade. To outsiders, like Pope and like the readers he envisioned for his poem, there may be a big difference, but not to the society represented in the poem, for whom honor, like virginity, is an important and valuable commodity.

This commodification of virginity has always been part of the double standard that required virginity in a woman but not in a man, and Belinda, like other young women, knows that she must keep her virginity—or her reputation for virginity—in order to marry well. But it is difficult for a woman to preserve either in a society where gossip is a full-time occupation and where men are encouraged to make conquests, where

 

When Success a Lover’s Toil attends,

Few ask, if Fraud or Force attain’d his Ends.

(II. 33-34)

 

The result is the repression of true feelings on both sides and behavior that is necessarily hypocritical. Everything becomes a matter of show, as reality and truth give way to deception. Perhaps the most revealing lines in the whole poem come at the end of Canto IV, when Belinda cries out in frustration

 

Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize

Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!

(IV. 175-76)

 

As early readers of the poem (including Arabella Fermor) realized, Pope is again making a covert sexual reference. What Belinda is really saying here is that she would have preferred it had the Baron made an even more intimate assault upon her, as long as his doing so could be hidden from society. She may regret the loss of the lock of hair, but even more she regrets the public nature of his action. And, she implies, she would not have objected so strenuously to a more sexual assault if it had been discreetly done, so that once again we are made aware of the nature of virginity in this society: whether Belinda has it or not, she must seem to have it.

This recognition brings us to the poem’s third level, in which we see that what is at stake is neither honor nor chastity but the reputation for honor and chastity and that a good deal of societal hypocrisy concerns sexual matters. Even the poem’s title contributes to this theme. One meaning of “rape” is the seizure of something that is not one’s own, and the Baron does indeed seize the lock of hair; but “rape” also means forcible sex, and a lock is an often-used symbol of the female genitalia. (Anyone who doubts that should take a look at the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice encounters a problem involving locks and keys.) Furthermore, locks protect treasures, and, as we have seen, Belinda’s virginity (or her reputation for virginity) is her treasure. The real subject of the poem, then, is sex, how it is treated in this society, how it forms the foundation for actions and relationships, and how the society tries to pretend that it does not. In this sense, hypocrisy or no, the Baron’s assault on the lock is a kind of rape, as Pope constantly plays on the sexual meanings of events.

For example, we saw in Ariel’s speech the equation of Belinda’s virginity and a “frail China Jar.” Later, after the Baron cuts the lock, we hear Belinda’s screams:

 

Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,

When Husbands or when Lap-Dogs breathe their last.

Or when rich China vessels, fal’n from high,

In glittering Dust and painted Fragments lie!

(III. 157-60)

 

Lapdogs are equivalent to husbands, both equally mourned by society ladies, and China vessels are equivalent to virginity. Thus, the Baron’s actions, given that he lives in this society and has agreed to play by its rules, are equivalent to rape.

Elsewhere Pope is even more emphatic about the sexual foundation of both the incident and the poem. When one of the spirits, Umbriel, visits the Cave of Spleen, he sees “maids turned bottles, call aloud for corks” (IV.54), and when Jove, in imitation of a scene from

 

Weighs the Men’s Wits against the Lady’s Hair;

The doubtful Beam long nods from side to side;

At length the Wits mount up, the Hairs subside.

(V. 72-74)

 

And finally, Pope tells us that the Baron “sought no more than on his foe to die” (V.78), which seems innocent enough unless we know that “to die” meant to achieve a sexual climax. These double entendres and sexual references provide a sexual undercurrent to the poem, just as there is a sexual undercurrent to the actual incident that the poem commemorates. The incident, Pope is telling us, was trivial and was blown out of proportion; but on another level, a level not recognized by the participants, the incident was indeed important. It not only revealed truths about the society in which Pope lived and about the individuals in that society, but about human relationships, specifically about human sexual relationships. The way Pope makes this point is brilliant, for he does so with wit and humor and even delicacy. The satire is so finely done that we can see Pope’s point, laugh at the folly he reveals, and not feel that we or the poem’s characters have been bludgeoned.

Nor, at the end, do we feel that the poem is hopelessly sexist. Of course, women are satirized in the poem, but so are men. Belinda may be vain, but so is the Baron. Belinda may treasure her virginity for its economic value, but it is the men who have given it that value and who attack it. And we can never forget that, regardless of all other considerations, the Baron’s assault on the lock is absolutely wrong; nor can we possibly think that Pope’s portraits of Sir Plume, Sir Fopling, or Dapperwit are meant to be flattering to those gentlemen.

On the other hand, one of the strangest and funniest sections of the poem clearly does satirize upper-class women like Belinda. This section is Umbriel’s visit to the Cave of Spleen in Canto IV. Once again Pope is borrowing from epic conventions, relying on Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld in The Odyssey, Aeneas’ similar visit in The Aeneid, and the scenes in the House of Morpheus and the Cave of Mammon in Books I and II of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. This visit, however, is to the Cave of Spleen. In Pope’s day, the spleen was considered to be the source of an ill-defined collection of symptoms that afflicted wealthy ladies, so naturally Pope, as he skewered the upper classes, included spleen in his picture. In the Cave of Spleen, watched over by Ill-nature and Affectation, Umbriel gathers, among other things, “Sighs, Sobs, and Passions” (IV.84), which he brings back to aid Belinda in the battle. This scene, which does actually satirize a particular class of women, may strike modern readers as rather strange, but to Pope’s contemporaries, who would have been intimately acquainted with his epic sources, this passage would surely have seemed both brilliant and extremely funny.

There is, however, one serious speech in the poem, that of Clarissa in Canto V. Clarissa recognizes the foolishness that surrounds her, and she recognizes how that foolishness victimizes especially the women, who are forced to subordinate their good sense to their quest for youth and beauty. Youth and beauty are bound to disappear, she tells them, and too much pointless flirting will result in no marriage at all:

 

What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,

And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?...

Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;

Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.

(V. 29-34)

 

She acknowledges that in society as it was then constructed, women were at a clear disadvantage, but she charges her listeners nevertheless to assert their power by focusing on what was truly important. She tells them not to play the game according to the rules established by and favoring the men but to “keep good Humour” and rely on “Merit.” It is interesting that she urges women to “keep good Humour still whate’er we lose,” since she seems to suggest compliance with rape, or with the gossip that destroys reputations. In fact, she seems to acknowledge that men and women are both playing a game whose rules they have tacitly agreed to follow, even though the women are at a distinct disadvantage; and she suggests that women ought, perhaps, to work at changing the rules. Despite the realistic confrontation with fact in her argument, however, “no Applause ensu’d” (V.35). Instead she is completely ignored, as the men and women attack each other with mock-epic ferocity. As in every society that has ever existed (or is likely to), common sense and good advice hold no appeal for Pope’s characters.

“The Rape of the Lock,” then, is a sharp satirical attack on Pope’s society as well as a comment on the relationships between men and women that we see even now; but Pope made his attack with such delicacy and wit that we read the poem with laughter rather than with horror at the harsh realities that Pope uncovers. The poem’s conclusion, too, adds to the sense of delicacy, and even of elegance, that Pope has achieved, for as the battle reaches its climax, it appears that the lock, like the Holy Grail, has disappeared, and the narrator assures Belinda—and Arabella, and us—that the lock has been taken to the heavens as a constellation, where it will be seen by the whole fashionable world.

And then Pope makes an interesting point. He says that after many years have passed, after Belinda and all those involved in this trivial affair will have died,

 

This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame,

And mid’st the Stars inscribe Belinda’s Name!

(V. 149-50)

 

The fashionable world, the belles and the beaux, will all have passed away, but Belinda’s name, like Belinda’s lock, will still exist, thanks to the Muse upon whom Pope called on in the poem’s third line. In short, Belinda will be immortal not because of her beauty or her charm but because Pope has written about her. It is true that Pope is using a poetic convention about the power of the poet to immortalize his subject. It is also true that he was right.

It is vital to remember that Pope’s poetry, like all poetry, must be read in sentences rather than lines and that the iambic pentameter, along with Pope’s variations on it, requires close attention. For readers who enjoy “The Rape of the Lock,” I recommend Pope’s “Epistle to Arbuthnot” and for those who are really willing to take a chance, “The Dunciad.” The latter is another mock-epic, this time concerned with “glorifying” contemporary writers whom Pope thought of as dunces, followers of the goddess Dullness. Reading “The Dunciad” requires careful attention to footnotes, because the writers Pope castigates are barely known today except through Pope’s poem. It is, however, another very funny poem and a work that shows that people have been proclaiming the disintegration of civilization for at least the past two hundred fifty years. So far, they have been wrong.

  • Was this article helpful?