The Rape of the Lock

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The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic Narrative Poem written by Alexander Pope, first published anonymously in Lintot's Miscellany in May 1712 in two cantos (334 lines), but then revised, expanded and reissued under Pope's name on 2 March 1714, in a much-expanded 5-canto version (794 lines). The final form was available in 1717 with the addition of Clarissa's speech on good humour.

The poem satirises a minor incident by comparing it to the epic world of the gods. It was based on an actual incident recounted by Pope's friend, John Caryll. Arabella Fermor and her suitor, Lord Petre, were both from aristocratic recusant Catholic families at a period in England when under such laws as the Test Act, all denominations except Anglicanism suffered legal restrictions and penalties (for example Petre could not take up his place in the House of Lords as a Catholic). Petre, lusting after Arabella, had cut off a lock of her hair without permission, and the consequent argument had created a breach between the two families. Pope, also a Catholic, wrote the poem at the request of friends in an attempt to "comically merge the two." He utilised the character Belinda to represent Arabella and introduced an entire system of "sylphs," or guardian spirits of virgins, a parodied version of the gods and goddesses of conventional epic.

Pope’s poem uses the traditional high stature of classical epics to emphasize the triviality of the incident. The abduction of Helen of Troy becomes here the theft of a lock of hair; the gods become minute sylphs; the description of Achilles’ shield becomes an excursus on one of Belinda's petticoats. He also uses the epic style of invocations, lamentations, exclamations and similes, and in some cases adds parody to imitation by following the framework of actual speeches in Homer's Iliad. Although the poem is humorous at times, Pope keeps a sense that beauty is fragile, and that the loss of a lock of hair touches Belinda deeply. As his introductory letter makes clear, women in that period were essentially supposed to be decorative rather than rational, and the loss of beauty was a serious matter.

The humor of the poem comes from the storm in a teacup being couched within the elaborate, formal verbal structure of an Epic Poem. It is a satire on the contemporary society which showcases the lifestyle led by some people of that age. Pope arguably satirizes the society by being a part of it rather than standing outside and looking down on the fellow beings. Belinda's legitimate rage is thus alleviated and tempered by her good humor, as directed by the character, Clarissa.

Three of Uranus's moons are named after characters from The Rape of the Lock: Belinda, Umbriel, and Ariel, the last name also (previously) appearing in Shakespeare's The Tempest.

It is one of the most commonly cited examples of high burlesque.

The original text is available on WikiSource.

Tropes used in The Rape of the Lock include: