Critical Analysis of the "Rape of the Lock" by Pope

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The destruction of the grand style of the epic is just what Pope was after in his mock epic, 'The Rape of the Lock.' Pope had no such universal goal, or moral pronouncements to make as did Milton. His purpose was merely to expose the life of the nobility of his time. While Milton chose blank verse to express the immensity of the landscape of his epic, Pope chose to utilize the heroic couplet to trivialize this grandeur. Pope's quick wit bounces the reader along his detailed description of his parlor-room epic. His content is purposefully trivial, his scope purposefully thin, his style purposefully light-hearted, and therefore his choice of form purposefully geared toward the smooth, natural rhythm of the heroic couplet. The caesura, the end-stopped lines, and the perfect rhymes lend the exact amount of manners and gaiety to his work.

Writing for a society that values appearances and social frivolities, he uses these various modes of behavior to call attention to the behavior itself. Pope compares and contrasts. He places significant life factors (i.e., survival, death, etc.) side by side with the trivial (although not to Belinda and her friends: love letters, accessories). Although Pope is definitely pointing to the 'lightness' of the social life of the privileged, he also recognizes their sincerity in attempting to be polite and well-mannered and pretend to

recognize where the true values lie.

Pope satirizes female vanity. He wrote the poem at the request of his friend, John Caryll, in an effort to make peace between real-life lovers. The incident of the lock of hair was factual; Pope's intention was to dilute with humor the ill feelings aroused by the affair. He was, in fact, putting a minor incident into perspective, and to this end, chose a mock-heroic form, composing the poem as a 'take-off' epic poetry, particularly the work of Milton. He is inviting the individuals involved to laugh at themselves, to see how emotion had inflated their response to what was really an event of no consequence. For the reader, the incident becomes a statement about human folly, a lesson on female vanity, and a satire of the rituals of courtship. Perhaps Pope also intended to comment on the meaningless lives of the upper classes. The poem was published in 1712 and again in 1714; probably the satire is more biting in the later version than in the one presented to Miss Fermor. Pope could hardly have hope to soothe the lady's wounded pride by pointing out her vanity and empty-headedness.

In keeping with his choice of mock-heroic form, Pope employs a 'high-toned' poetic diction and the stately iambic pentameter of dignified epics like Paradise Lost. And of course, Pope's mastery of the heroic couplet, and the balanced, measured rhythms of his lines, lend an even greater air of solemnity. To achieve this effect, he inverts the syntax of ordinary speech, as in these lines: 'Her lively looks a spritely mind disclose' (ii, 9), ''Favors to none, to all she smiles extends' (II, 11), and 'Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike' (ii, 13). The effect of this inversion is to add rhetorical weight to the end of the line; the sentence feels particularly 'complete.' At the same time, the reader is always aware that the poem is a joke. Pope comes right out and says so. For example, one epic tradition is to open with a statement of purpose and an invocation to the Muse. Pope states his purpose as being to sing of the 'dire offense' that springs from 'amorous causes' and the 'mighty contests' that rise from 'trivial things' (1-2) -- hardly the lofty and weighty subjects of epic poetry -- and names his Muse 'Caryll' (3) for his friend John Caryll, the relative of the young lord who stole the lock of hair from Arabella Fermor -- not the proper sort of Muse for epic poetry. By way of mythological spirits hovering over earthly concerns, Pope gives us sylphs that are really the spirits of young women like Belinda. Milton's Adam had the angel...
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