The Rape of the Lock
By Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Plot Summary
Epic Conventions
Publication Information
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics Biography of Pope Complete Annotated Text Index of Study Guides
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2005
Revised in 2012

Type of Work
At the beginning of "The Rape of the Lock," Pope identifies the work as a “heroi-comical poem.” Today, the poem—and others like it—is referred to as a mock-epic and sometimes as a mock-heroic. Such a work parodies the serious, elevated style of the classical epic poem—such as The Iliad or The Odyssey, by Homer—to poke fun at human follies. Thus, a mock-epic is a type of satire; it treats petty humans or insignificant occurrences as if they were extraordinary or heroic, like the great heroes and events of Homer's two great epics. In writing "The Rape of the Lock," Pope imitated the characteristics of Homer's epics, as well as later epics such as The Aeneid (Vergil), The Divine Comedy (Dante), and Paradise Lost (Milton). Many of these characteristics are listed below, under "Epic Conventions."

Publication Information

Pope published three versions of The Rape of the Lock. The first was a two-canto version published in 1712. The second, published in 1714, was a five-canto version that added references to sylphs and other supernatural creatures. The final version, published in 1717 in a volume of Pope's poetry, added Clarissa's speech in Canto V. 

The action takes place in London and its environs in the early 1700's on a single day. The story begins at noon (Canto I) at the London residence of Belinda as she carefully prepares herself for a gala social gathering. The scene then shifts (Canto II) to a boat carrying Belinda up the Thames. To onlookers she is as magnificent as Queen Cleopatra was when she traveled in her barge. The rest of the story (Cantos III-V) takes place where Belinda debarks—Hampton Court Palace, a former residence of King Henry VIII on the outskirts of London—except for a brief scene in Canto IV that takes place in the cave of the Queen of Spleen. 
Belinda Beautiful young lady with wondrous hair, two locks of which hang gracefully in curls. 
The Baron Young admirer of Belinda who plots to cut off one of her locks.
Ariel Belinda's guardian sylph (supernatural creature).
Clarissa Young lady who gives the Baron scissors.
Umbriel Sprite who enters the cave of the Queen of Spleen to seek help for Belinda. 
Queen of Spleen Underworld goddess who gives Umbriel gifts for Belinda.
Thalestris Friend of Belinda. Thalestris urges Sir Plume to defend Belinda's honor.
Sir Plume Beau of Thalestris. He scolds the Baron.
Sylphs, Fairies, Genies, Demons, Phantoms and Other Supernatural Creatures

Source: a Real-Life Incident
Pope based The Rape of the Lock on an actual incident in which a British nobleman, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of hair dangling tantalizingly from the head of the beautiful Arabella Fermor. Petre’s daring theft of the lock set off a battle royal between the Petre and Fermor families. John Caryll—a friend of Pope and of the warring families—persuaded the great writer to pen a literary work satirizing the absurdity and silliness of the dispute. The result was one of the greatest satirical poems in all of literature. In writing the poem, Pope also drew upon ancient classical sources—notably Homer’s great epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey—as models to imitate in style and tone. He also consulted the texts of medieval and Renaissance epics.

For ever curs'd be this detested Day, / Which snatch'd my best, my fav'rite Curl away! 

Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2005
Pope opens with a statement announcing the topic of his poem: A gentleman—a lord, in fact—has committed a terrible outrage against a gentlewoman, causing her to reject him. What was this offense? Why did it incite such anger in the lady?

The woman in question is named Belinda. She is sleeping late one day in her London home when a sylph—a dainty spirit that inhabits the air—warns her that “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend.” The sylph, named Ariel, does not know what this event is or where or how it will manifest itself. But he does tell Belinda to be on guard against the machinations of men. 

Belinda rises and prepares herself for a social gathering, sitting before a mirror and prettying herself with “puffs and powders” and scenting herself with “all Arabia.” Afterward, she travels up the Thames River to the site of the social festivities, Hampton Court, the great palace on the north bank of the river that in earlier times was home to King Henry VIII. As she sits in the boat, “Fair Nymphs, and well-drest Youths around her shone, / But ev'ry Eye was fix'd on her alone.” In other words, she was beautiful beyond measure. She smiled at everyone equally, and her eyes—bright suns—radiated goodwill. Especially endearing to anyone who looked upon her were her wondrous tresses:

    This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
    Nourish'd two Locks which graceful hung behind
    In equal Curls, and well conspir'd to deck
    With shining Ringlets the smooth Iv'ry Neck.
Among Belinda’s admirers is a young baron at Hampton Court awaiting her arrival. He has resolved to snip off a lock of her hair as the trophy of trophies. Before dawn, before even the sun god Phoebus Apollo arose, the Baron had been planning the theft of a lock of Belinda's hair. To win the favor of the gods, he had lighted an altar fire and, lying face down before it, prayed for success. 

After Belinda arrives at Hampton Court with her company of friends, the partygoers play Ombre, a popular card game in which only 40 of the 52 cards are dealt—the eights, nines, and tens are held back. It appears that the Baron will win the game after his knave of diamonds captures her queen of hearts. However, Belinda yet has hope, even after the Baron plays an ace of hearts: 
    ...........................................The King unseen
    Lurk'd in her Hand, and mourn'd his captive Queen.
    He springs to Vengeance with an eager Pace,
    And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace
    The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky;
    The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply.
Belinda wins! Coffee is served, the vapors of which go to the Baron’s brain and embolden him to carry out his assault on Belinda’s hair. Clarissa, a lady who fancies the Baron, withdraws scissors from a case and arms him with the weapon. When he closes in behind Belinda, she bends over her coffee, exposing a magnificent lock. But a thousand sprites come to her aid, using their wings to blow hair over the lock. They also tug at one of her diamond earrings to alert her to the danger. Three times they warn her and three times she looks around. But all is for naught. The Baron opens wide his weapon, closes it around the lock, and cuts.The rape of her lock enrages Belinda:
    Then flash'd the living Lightnings from her Eyes,
    And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies.
    Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
    When Husbands, or when Lapdogs breathe their last,
    Or when rich China Vessels, fal'n from high,
    In glitt'ring Dust and painted Fragments lie!
A gnome named Umbriel descends to the Underworld on Belinda’s behalf and obtains a bag of sighs and a vial of tears from the Queen of Spleen. With these magical gifts, he means to comfort poor Belinda. First, he empties the bag on her. A gentleman named Sir Plume—prompted by his belle, Thalestris, a friend of Belinda—then roundly scolds the Baron for his grave offense. But the Baron is unrepentant. Umbriel then empties the vial on Belinda. Grief overcomes her as her eyes half-drown in tears and her head droops upon her bosom. She says:
    For ever curs'd be this detested Day,
    Which snatch'd my best, my fav'rite Curl away!
    Happy! ah ten times happy had I been,
    If Hampton-Court these Eyes had never seen!
Clarissa tries to mollify Belinda in a long speech, but fails. A bit of a melee ensues when Belinda attempts to retrieve her lost lock. “Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack.” Belinda proves a fierce combatant. She attacks the Baron “with more than usual Lightning in her Eyes” and throws a handful of snuff from Sir Plume's box up his nose. But, alas, when the battle ends, the lock is nowhere to be found. 

However, the poem ends on a happy note for Belinda, Pope says, because the trimmed lock of her golden hair has risen to the heavens, there to become a shining star. 

The central theme of The Rape of the Lock is the fuss that high society makes over trifling matters, such as breaches of decorum. In the poem, a feud of epic proportions erupts after the Baron steals a lock of Belinda’s hair. In the real-life incident on which Pope based his poem, the Petre and the Fermor families had a falling-out after Lord Petre snipped off one of Arabella Fermor’s locks. Other themes that Pope develops in the poem include human vanity and the importance of being able to laugh at life’s little reversals. The latter motif is a kind of “moral to the story.” Clarissa touches upon both of these themes when addressing tearful Belinda, shorn of her lock: 

    But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
    Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey;
    Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
    And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid,
    What then remains but well our Pow'r to use,
    And keep good Humour still whate'er we lose?

The climax of The Rape of the Lock occurs when the Baron snips away one of Belinda's locks. .

Epic Conventions

Because a mock-epic parodies a classical epic, it uses the same conventions, or formulas, as the classical epic—but usually in a humorous way. For example, a convention of many classical epics is a sea voyage in which perils confront the hero at every turn. In The Rape of the Lock, the sea voyage is Belinda's boat trip up the Thames River. Her guardian sylph, Ariel, sees "black omens" that foretell disasters for Belinda even though the waves flow smoothly and the winds blow gently. Will she stain her dress? Lose her honor or her necklace? Miss a masquerade? Forget her prayers? So frightful are the omens that Ariel summons 50 of his companion spirits to guard Belinda's petticoat, as well as the ringlets of her hair. Following are examples of the epic conventions that Pope parodies: 
Invocation of the Muse: In ancient Greece and Rome, poets had always requested “the muse” to fire them with creative genius when they began long narrative poems, or epics, about godlike heroes and villains. In Greek mythology, there were nine muses, all sisters, who were believed to inspire poets, historians, flutists, dancers, singers, astronomers, philosophers, and other thinkers and artists. If one wanted to write a great poem, play a musical instrument with bravado, or develop a grand scientific or philosophical theory, he would ask for help from a muse. When a writer asked for help, he was said to be “invoking the muse.” The muse of epic poetry was named Calliope [kuh LY uh pe]. In "The Rape of the Lock," Pope does not invoke a goddess; instead, he invokes his friend, John Caryll (spelled CARYL in the poem), who had asked Pope to write a literary work focusing on an event (the snipping of a lock of hair) that turned the members of two families—the Petres and the Fermors—into bitter enemies. Caryll thought that poking fun at the incident would reconcile the families by showing them how trivial the incident was. 

Division of the Poem Into Books or Cantos: The traditional epic is long, requiring several days several days of reading. Dante's Divine Comedy, for example, contains 34 cantos. When printed, the work consists of a book about two inches thick . Pope, of course, presents only five cantos containing a total of fewer than 600 lines. Such miniaturizing helps Pope demonstrate the smallness or pettiness of the behavior exhibited by the main characters in the poem.   

Descriptions of Soldiers Preparing for Battle: In The Iliad, Homer describes in considerable detail the armor and weaponry of the great Achilles, as well as the battlefield trappings of other heroes. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope describes Belinda preparing herself with combs and pins—with "Puffs, Powders, Patches"—noting that "Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms."  

Descriptions of Heroic Deeds: While Homer describes the exploits of his heroes during the Trojan War, Pope describes the "exploits" of Belinda and the Baron during a card game called Ombre, which involves three players and a deck of 40 cards.

Account of a Great Sea Voyage: In The Odyssey, Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) travels the seas between Troy and Greece, encountering many perils. In The Aeneid, Aeneas travels the seas between Troy and Rome, also encountering perils. In The Rape of the Lock, Belinda travels up the Thames in a boat.

Participation of Deities or Spirits in the Action: In The Rape of the Lock—as in The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost—supernatural beings take part in the action.

Presentation of Scenes in the Underworld: Like supernatural beings in classical epics, the gnome Umbriel visits the Underworld in The Rape of the Lock.

    Pope wrote The Rape of the Lock in heroic couplets. A heroic couplet is a unit of two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter. (See Meter, below.) The entire poem consists of one heroic couplet followed by another, as demonstrated by the first four lines of the poem:

      What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
      What mighty contests rise from trivial things,.......................[First Couplet: springs and things rhyme]
      I sing—This verse to CARYL, Muse! is due:
      This, ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view............................[Second Couplet: due and view rhyme]

    Each of the lines has ten syllables in a succession of accented and unaccented pairs called iambic pentameter. The first three lines demonstrate the pattern:
    What DIRE..|..of FENCE..|..from AM..|..'rous CAUS..|..es SPRINGS,
    What MIGHT..|..y CON..|..tests RISE..|..from TRIV..|..ial THINGS,
    I SING..|..This VERSE..|..to CAR..|..yl, MUSE!..|..is DUE
    You may have noticed that Pope turned amorous into two syllables by eliminating the o. Poetic license permits poets to make such adjustments to achieve their ends. Also, he apparently wanted -ial in trivial to be read as a single syllable.

    Figures of Speech

    The main figure of speech in The Rape of the Lock is hyperbole. Pope uses it throughout the poem to exaggerate the ordinary and the commonplace, making them extraordinary and spectacular. In so doing, paradoxically, he makes them seem as they really are, small and petty. Examples of hyperbole include the following:
    Sol through white Curtains shot a tim'rous Ray,
    And ope'd those Eyes that must eclipse the Day.
    Hyberbole: Belinda's eyes are so bright that they outshine a ray of sunlight 

    This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
    Nourish'd two Locks which graceful hung behind
    Hyperbole: Belinda is so beautiful—and her wondrous locks so inviting—that she can bring mankind to ruin with desire.
    Follow are examples of other figures of speech in the poem. For definition of figures of speech, click here.

    Slight is the subject, but not so the praise (Canto I, line 5)

    And thus in whispers said, or seem'd to say (Canto I, line 26)

    Some secret truths, from learned pride conceal'd (Canto I, line 37)

    Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,
    Beaux banish Beaux, and Coaches Coaches drive. (Canto I, 101-102)
    What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
    What mighty contests rise from trivial things (Canto I, lines 1-2)

    When kind occasion prompts their warm desires,
    When music softens, and when dancing fires? (Canto I, 75-76)
    They shift the moving Toyshop of their heart (Canto 1, line 100)
    Comparison of the whims of a young woman to the Toyshop of the heart
    And mighty hearts are held in slender chains. (Canto II, line 24)
    Use of hearts to represent Belinda's male admirers
    This Nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
    Nourish'd two Locks, which graceful hung behind.....................
    In equal curls, and well conspir'd to deck
    With shining ringlets the smooth iv'ry neck. (Canto II, 19-22)
    The two locks conspire.

    Love in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains (Canto II, line 23)
    Comparison of love to a master with slaves
    Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
    And, like the sun, they shine on all alike. (Canto II, 13-14)
    Comparison of the brightness of Belinda's eyes to the brightness of the sun
    Comparison of Belinda's gaze to the shining sun

    Study Questions and Writing Topics

    • Is there a serious message about the world, about human conduct, behind Pope's mischievous mockery? 
    • Pope uses many allusions to Greek and Roman mythology. Why did so many writers of his time—and why do so many writers today—allude to mythology to make comparisons or describe situations and characters?
    • Write a short poem that uses heroic couplets and allusions
    • Write an essay explaining the role of nature imagery (including references to the sun, the sky, the moon, lakes, rivers, grass, flowers, parks, and meadows) in the poem. .

     The Rape of the Lock
    By Alexander Pope
    Complete Text With Detailed Explanatory Notes
    Boldfaced Black or Colored Words Are Explained in the Notes

    Canto I
    Stanza 1

    What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
    What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
    I sing—This verse to CARYL, 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.
    Say what strange motive, Goddess!4 could compel
    A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle Belle?
    O say what stranger cause, yet unexplor'd,
    Could make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?......... 10
    In tasks so bold, can little men engage,
    And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty Rage?
    Sol thro' white curtains shot a tim'rous ray,
    And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day:
    Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,......... 15
    And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
    Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
    And the press'd watch return'd a silver sound.
    Belinda still her downy pillow prest,
    Her guardian Sylph prolong'd the balmy rest:........... 20
    'Twas He had summon'd to her silent bed
    The morning-dream that hover'd o'er her head;
    A Youth more glitt'ring than a Birth-night Beau,
    (That ev'n in slumber caus'd her cheek to glow)
    Seem'd to her ear his winning lips to lay,.......... 25
    And thus in whispers said, or seem'd to say.

    Notes, Stanza 1

    What . . . sing: I am writing (I sing) about a terrible offense resulting from an amorous cause.
    Caryl, Muse: A friend of Pope, John Caryl, whom Pope addresses as the muse. An acquaintance of Caryl, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of hair of a young lady, Arabella Fermor. A quarrel erupted between the families. Caryl suggested that Pope write a poem to point up the silliness of the quarrel. Pope addresses Caryl as if he were a muse.For further information on "invoking the muse," see Epic Conventions, above. 
    Belinda: Arabella Fermor. Belinda is a poetic name associated with gentleness.For further information about Arabella Fermor, see Source, above. 
    Goddess: Another reference to Caryl as the muse.
    Sol: the sun
    curtains: the curtains on Belinda's bed
    tim'rous: timorous, meaning shy, timid
    oped: opened
    must eclipse the day: Belinda's eyes are so bright that they rival the brightness of the sun.