The Rape of the Lock: Critical Commentary

English poet Alexander Pope dominated the first half of the 18th century. He was a Roman Catholic. In his time, the Catholics were legally prohibited from practicing their religion openly. He was prohibited as a Catholic from taking degrees. He was also prohibited from sitting in the parliament. He pays a double tax. These elements influenced Pope to prefer to Tory part which are conservatives because the whig was against the Catholics.Pope was a social poet, dealing with the subjects of the time. His subject mainly is human natures, pleasures, and crimes. His poems have a lot to say about politic (either directly or indirectly). Also, economics, education, literature, and morals. Byron said: "Pope is the moral poet of all civilizations." His language is social; he has a selected language to bring out the moral meaning of objects. He inherited some of the characteristics of the Augustan Age: reducing the complicated things into the simple. The ideal poem for Pope has a maximum of tension, and it has resulted from a struggle of contraries and opposites. These contraries may live in the style, theme, and manners. The structure of his poems or any of his satires is a kind of debate between a way of life and a pursuit of virtue. Pope's world is that of limits. Love and grief has limits. In his world ideals are strictly limited. He is the social poet dealing with the problems of social time. 

The Rape of the Lock (1712; revised 1714) is a mock epic. The mock epic developed in the 18th century, since learning was spreading. Readers could understand the epic references and the criticism they reflected at contemporary life. It is based on the use of epic language, action, structure, but in narrating trifling incidents with the aim of proving insignificance. It derives much of its humor from applying the grandeur of the epic form to a trivial (and true) incident, in which a feud developed between two rich families over a lock of hair. Pope revels in linking the serious with the banal as if they were of equal value, as in the formulation "Does sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea." The humor is successful precisely because the reader knows that taking advice and drinking tea are not of comparable importance. Pope pokes gentle fun at aristocrats who, like Belinda (the woman whose lock of hair is taken), spend so much time on appearances. 

The Rape of the Lock carries an implied satire. This satire is directed at persons, customs, social activities, the weaknesses in both sexes, fashions of the time, and at the superstitions of the time. 

Satire is seen through many situations:Belinda: still asleep at noon and this is a custom of fashionable people, but lovers are supposed to pass sleepless hours during the night (this is the contrast). 

There is exaggerated descriptions of everything. Pope satirizes Queen Anne, judges and the courts for the way they carry justice. He introduces Clarissa (clarity) to represent the voice of reason, but at the same time pointing at human vanities and the lack of clear reason and imagination. 

Pope makes fun of people who are ruled by emotion rather than reason and who let mighty contest rise from trivial things. The poem is correcting the follies of this society and teaching people to depend on reason and common sense rather than emotion. Therefore, Clarissa represents Pope's view that beauty without common sense has no value. 

Extract from The Rape of the Lock:
Canto III
Close by those meads, for ever crown'd with flow'rs, 
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising tow'rs, 
There stands a structure of majestic frame, 
Which from the neighb'ring Hampton takes its name. 
Here Britain's statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign Tyrants and of Nymphs at home; 
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey. 
Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes Tea.

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.
Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that

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;
The merchant from th' Exchange returns in peace,
And the long labours of the Toilet cease.

The following lines raise the question or issue of music because Pope is insisting on it when he says "There stands a structure of majestic frame," he thinks this is the best form to write poetry. Words and music are elements that are not found in poetry; we have to know the target of poetry which is a controversial (Pope followed the track of Dryden in his ideals "heroic, long, slow) imitation and representation. Rhythm, rhyme, meter, couplet of Dryden are standards in which we have dissociation of sensibility. Music in poetry is an intellectual process of both the poet and the reader (poetry is composed not written). Moreover, the slow motion of regular iambic pentameter ending in heroic couplet gives a need range "The long majestic march, and energy divine."  

The way The Rape of the Lock opens is Shakespearean (Antony & Cleopatra) ... A majestic atmosphere trying to impose this informal atmosphere in regular beats enriched with seriousness versus informal title. 

The characters in this extract aren't individualized (too many), thus this is in compliance with quotation. Poetry is an imitation and representation of human nature. Aristotelean theory states that the function of poetry is to represent what is universal and permanent (universality is presentation of human nature). Those figures are representatives of certain class of society. In other words a possible improbability, for example: a king playing cards with a clown (in a poem it's possible); however in reality it is impossible. There is no need to visualize in this kind of poetry because it can't be sustained by imagery rather by the heroic couplet. There is sense in this poetry, but it doesn't require reasoning on the behalf of the reader. 

Dr. Johnson said: "Pope exhibits every mode of excellence that can embellish or dignify didactic composition selection of matter, novelty of arrangement, justness of precepts, splendor of illustration and propriety of digression."