the rape of the lock opera


Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock

Opera/Oratorio by Deborah Mason

Once upon a time, handsome Lord Petre stole up behind beautiful Arabella Fermor and snipped off a lock of her hair, sparking a family dispute that was not quite Capulet and Montague, and which the young poet Alexander Pope was called in to moderate:

The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor’s hair was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they had lived long in great friendship before. A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both desired me to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was in this view that I wrote my Rape of the Lock, which was well received and had its effect in the two families. Nobody but Sir George Browne was angry, and he was so a good deal and for a long time. He could not bear that Sir Plume should talk nothing but nonsense.

–Pope, June 1739

The Rape of the Lock is essentially a five-act drama of a day in the life of the Beautiful People of early eighteenth-century London, a mock-epic that laughs at its characters and their passions but at the same time celebrates their glamor and elegance with language and meter and rhyme that bring to dazzling life a shimmering visual world, including the aerial sylphs, who rule young women’s destinies:

Some to the Sun their Insect-Wings unfold,

Waft on the Breeze, or sink in Clouds of Gold.

Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal Sight,

Their fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light.

Loose to the Wind their airy Garments flew,

Thin glitt’ring Textures of the filmy Dew;

Dipt in the richest Tincture of the Skies,

Where Light disports in every-mingling Dies,

While ev’ry Beam new transient Colours flings,

Colours that change whene’er they wave their Wings. (II.59-68)

But the poem is as much about sound and rhythm as it is about light and color.  Poems are meant to be read aloud as well as read alone, to be heard as well as seen, to underscore the world of sound illustrating the patterns of sense in expanding vowels and tapping consonants and verbal repetitions and leaping participials.  Pope himself put his theory of poetry to music, in the early experimental Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day (1708):

In a sadly-pleasing strain
Let the warbling lute complain:
Let the loud trumpet sound,
’Till the roofs all around
The shrill echo’s rebound:
While in more lengthen’d notes and slow,
The deep, majestic, solemn organs blow.
Hark! the numbers, soft and clear,
Gently steal upon the ear;
Now louder, and yet louder rise,
And fill with spreading sounds the skies;
Exulting in triumph now swell the bold notes,
In broken air, trembling, the wild music floats;
’Till, by degrees, remote and small,
The strains decay,
And melt away,
In a dying, dying fall.  (I.5-21)

So goes the first stanza of Alexander Pope’s Ode on St. Cecilia’s Day (1708), a poem not in his usual mode of heroic couplets (in iambic pentameter, or five metrical feet), but in an orchestral variation of rhythm and meter, matching smooth tetrameter with the strings, blasts of trimeter for trumpets, stretching deeply into pentameter for the organ, varying syllabic emphasis, and swelling all sound before dying softly into dimeter, with a last lingering resonance into silence.  All of Pope’s poetry virtually clamors to be put to music, and The Rape of the Lock , with its comic drama, its visual delight, and its musical language, was an opera waiting to be born.


Quoted in Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, Collected from Conversation, ed. James M. Osborn (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).  See Wall edition of The Rape of the Lock, 129.

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1714), ed. Cynthia Wall (Boston and New York: Bedford Books, 1998), 60-61.





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