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Epic Conventions In Rape Of The Lock English Literature Essay

The Rape of the Lock is a mock epic poem written by Alexander Pope who was one of the most influential writers of the eighteenth century. Alexander Pope was one of the best satirist of the Augustan age who also aims to educate and entertain readers at the same time. The Rape of the Lock was first published in the year 1712 with only two cantos. In the year 1717 however the final form of this poem was published and it had five cantos and in heroic couplet too. The poem is based on a true story about two feuding aristocratic families, the Petres and the Fermors. “The young lord Petre had cut a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, a fashionable young society lady, and both she and her family had taken offence. Pope had been told of the incident by his catholic friend John Caryll who asked if he could write a poem to make a jest of the division between the two families and laugh them together again” (scribd).

The epic poem also known as the heroic poem tells a story of a hero whose actions are of great importance and have a national significance too. It is usually a long narrative poem written in a grand style to suit its important subject matter. Some of the examples of the heroic poems are Homer’s Iliad, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, King Arthur by Richard Blackmore, Joan of Arc by Robert Southey and Hyperion by Keats. Mock epic poem on the other hand is the parody of the serious epic poems. It uses the structure of an epic poem where the language is grand but on miniature scale and the meaning of the subject is trivial. Mock-heroic poetry combines the characteristics of various discourses such as epic, comedy, parody and satire. Alexander pope uses the mock heroic style in The Rape of the Lock is not to ridicule the heroic genre but to mock and satirize the fashionable society of his time.

In the beginning of an epic poem, the writer usually invokes and prayers the muse to afford him with divine encouragement to tell the tale of a great hero. Usually the writer calls upon one of the “nine daughters of Zeus  ” (homepage) to sanctify his poetry. The hero of an epic poem is always a grand figure of national importance or even cosmic significance. “He often has superhuman or divine traits.  He has an imposing physical stature and is greater in all ways than the common man” (homepage). However in The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope invokes his catholic friend John Caryll instead, as a muse to provide him with blessings to narrate a story of not a great hero but a rich, vain woman called Belinda. Alexander Pope uses Belinda and the Baron as his main characters in his poem to poke fun at the men and women of the aristocratic families. Belinda is not a powerful hero but a beautiful young woman from a fashionable society who has no other responsibilities but looking presentable in front the society every day. For instance Belinda only wakes up around twelve o’clock, has a lapdog and servants to dress her for every occasion.

“Sol thro’ white Curtains shot a tim’rous Ray,

And op’d those Eyes that must eclipse the Day;

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Now Lapdogs give themselves the rowzing Shake,

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” (Pope).

Hence it is clear that Pope is satirizing the fashionable society for not being responsible and doing things as they please. They waste money for they were rich and even needed maids to look after them as though they were infants.

Next, in an epic poem a hero will get well prepared for a great battle by armoring himself with chain mail, shield, sword, axes, daggers, bow and arrows. These weapons and armor will not only protect a hero but also make his enemy fear of him. For example in Iliad the arming of Achilles by Thetis for the battlefields of Troy was described with great grandeur. Belinda on the other hand armors herself with beautiful brocade, make-ups, Arabian perfumes, and glittering Indian jewelries and uses combs and pins made out of elephant tusks and tortoise shell in order to face the upper-class society every day. She goes through the long process of beautifying herself with the help of her maid Betty in order to look presentable and attractive to the young men and make women envious of her beauty.

“The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,

Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white.

Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,

Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.

Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;

The Fair each moment rises in her Charms,

Repairs her Smiles, awakens ev’ry Grace,

And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face;

Sees by Degrees a purer Blush arise,

And keener Lightnings quicken in her Eyes”.(Pope)

In these lines of The Rape of the Lock, Pope mocks the vanity of the fashionable society, where they put a lot of importance in physical beauty rather than intellectual. They spend several hours in front of their mirrors preparing themselves as though they were getting ready for a great siege; but in reality they were only going to meet their friends and have fun. Belinda in The Rape of the Lock went through the long arduous dressing up session just to meet up her friends and play a card game of ombre and attract possible suitors. In the poem Pope even states that when a person looks at Belinda’s beautiful face all her faults will melt away further emphasizing that beauty is far more valuable than knowledge for the aristocrats of his time.”Yet graceful ease and sweetness void of pride Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide; If to her share come female errors fall” (Pope).

In an epic poem the hero always prays at his altar to receive blessings from gods and goddesses such as “Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera, Aries, Athena, Apollo, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus”( GreekMythology) in order to succeed in everything they wished for. For example Odysseus prays to the goddess Athena  so that he could finally return to his wife and son again after years of battle. In The Rape of the Lock on the other hand we find that Belinda worships and admires her own heavenly image in front of the mirror every day. Her maid then becomes the priestess who, perform beautifying rites day by day for her. Instead of gods and goddesses, Belinda’s altar is filled with “Files of Pins extend their shining Rows, Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux” (Pope). However Baron keeps garters, gloves, love letters and trophies from his former lovers on his altar. Now he plans to add Belinda’s lock in his collection at the altar as well. In these lines of the poem, Pope seems to say that religion and faith for the women and men from the upper class is insignificant. They treasure their beauty and material stuff way higher than education, religion and morality. For Belinda, the Bible is just an unimportant object placed among on her make ups and love letters. Further more in canto two of The Rape of the Lock, we can see that Belinda wears a cross around her neck as a piece of jewelry and not on act of piousness. “On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore, which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore”(Pope).

The divine characters in epic poetry are family of gods living Mount Olympus who intervene often in lives of humans observing and influencing their lives and decisions. They help guide humans who are in trouble both physically and psychologically especially in great battles. The gods sense that it is their obligation to get involved if they feel that man is traveling off course from his destiny. These powerful characters are termed as epic machineries. For example in Homer’s Odysseys Zeus helped Odysseus to escape from the island of Ogygia where Odysseus was a prisoner for seven years. On the contrary, in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Belinda was aided by inhabitants of the air such as fairies, gnomes, nymphs, sylphs and salamanders. Belinda receives special attention from the sylphs. These magical creatures in the poem did not aid her in battle but helped Belinda look beautiful and respectable the whole day. Each sylph assigns themselves to protect her hair, dress, makeup, jewelries, her lap dog Shock and most importantly her petticoat for Ariel  have “saw, alas, some dread event impend” (Pope). Ariel did warn Belinda beforehand but she forgot all about it the minute she saw her “Billet-doux” (Pope). So now it is up to them to protect her appearance and her honor.

“He spoke; the Spirits from the Sails descend;

Some, Orb in Orb, around the Nymph extend,

Some thrid the mazy Ringlets of her Hair,

Some hang upon the Pendants of her Ear;

With beating Hearts the dire Event they wait,

Anxious, and trembling for the Birth of Fate” (Pope).

In epic poems such as The odyssey and The Aeneid, both Odysseus and Aeneas travelled the seas for important missions and encountered many perils on the way. Pope In The Rape of the Lock parodies these epics by Belinda travels up the Thames River in a boat to Hampton Court to play the game of ombre with her friends of same social status.

“Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow’rs,

There stands a Structure of Majestick Frame,

Which from the neighb’ring Hampton takes its Name”(Pope).

Next Pope also, parodies the battles portrayed in heroic poetry in his poem The Rape of the Lock. In the epic poem Beowulf, Beowulf had to face three battles with terrifying beasts in order to save innocent lives. In The Rape of the Lock, Belinda’s game of ombre with her friends was portrayed as war by Pope. The cards where depicted as warriors and words such as troops, combat, war, invade and armies where used by Pope to describe and intensify the tension during a game of ombre between Belinda and her aristocratic friends who took the game seriously. Even the magical creatures get themselves involve in the game so that Belinda wins the game.

“Thus far both Armies to Belinda yield;

Now to the Baron Fate inclines the Field.

His warlike Amazon her Host invades,

Th’ Imperial Consort of the Crown of Spades.

The Club’s black Tyrant first her Victim” (Pope).

Later in the poem, when the Baron had cut off one of Belinda’s lock, a large argument ensued which was also portrayed as battle by Alexander Pope. Instead of weapons, scream, frowns, bodkins and dangerous stare where used during the huge argument between Belinda and the Baron.

“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” (Pope).

The game of ombre and the fight after Belinda’s lock got cut off were exaggerated in The Rape of the Lock, because Pope wanted to point out that the upper class society regards seriously about them when in reality they are trivial matters. Because insignificant matters are taken too seriously, the Petres and the Fermors split and this poem was to show them how silly they were.

In conclusion Alexander Pope most definitely used the epic conventions for satiric purpose in his poem The Rape of the Lock especially to mock the aristocrats, their lifestyles and their perceptions. Since Alexander pope is Augustan man, he wrote this poem using the epic conventions to exaggerate the silliness of the upper class society so that readers will not only laugh at the satires in the poem but will also learn and change for the better.

Work cited

Hamilton, Edith. “The Olympians”. 1 April 2010 .

Leadbetter, Ron. “Zeus”. Encyclopedia Mythicaâ„¢. 2 April 2010 .

Effinger,Sandra. “The Epic”. 3 April 2010 .

“The Rape of the Lock “. 3 April 2010 .

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. London: Signet Classic Poetry Series, 1906.

Michael, Cummings. “The Rape of the Lock: A Study Guide”. 4 April 2010 .


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