the rape of the lock opera


Jack Lynch

                                                              Professor of English

                                        at The Newark campus of Rutgers University.


Prefatory Essay for The Rape of the Lock

In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope has given us one of the most beautiful poems

in all of English literature—and one of the strangest. The great critic Samuel Johnson

summed up its reputation in 1781: “To the praises which have been accumulated on The

Rape of the Lock by readers of every class, from the critick to the waiting-maid, it is

difficult to make any addition.” In 1818 Lord Byron wrote to a friend, “Your whole

generation are not worth a canto of The Rape of the Lock.” In 1930, Edith Sitwell called

The Rape of the Lock “a poem so airy that it might have been woven by the long fingers

of the sylphs in their dark and glittering Indian gauzes.”

Not all readers, though, have been so complimentary: many have accused the poem of being trivial. The critic John Dennis, for instance, Pope’s contemporary, wrote of The Rape of the Lock that “Nothing could be more ridiculous than the writing . . . upon so empty a Business as this trifling Poem.” And the critics were not content to savage the

poetry, but turned their sights on the poet as well. Dennis took aim at Pope this way:

“As there is no Creature in Nature so venomous, there is nothing so stupid and so

impotent as a hunch-back’d Toad.” His one-time friend Mary Wortley Montagu was

nastier still: after attacking his translation of Homer and his imitations of Horace, she

declared Pope the enemy of mankind:

When God created Thee, one would believe,

He said the same as to the Snake of Eve;

To human Race Antipathy declare,

'Twixt them and thee be everlasting War.

How can we reconcile the praise with the attacks, the fame with the infamy?

Pope’s whole career—in fact, his whole life—is about this paradox, about balancing

the high with the low. The Rape of the Lock in particular is all about incongruity: it is a

combination of high style and low matter, beautiful poetry and scurrilous behavior, the

most delicate imaginative fantasies and the coarsest dirty jokes. It’s the most famous

English example of “mock epic”—it takes a trivial tale of squabbling lovers and treats it

in the most serious and elevated poetic style, the sort usually reserved for subjects like

the foundation of empires and the downfall of civilizations. As Pope himself puts it in

his opening lines, The Rape of the Lock is about “What mighty Contests rise from trivial


Pope & Satire

The incongruity begins with the poet himself, for Pope was a strange creature. Pott’s

Disease, a tubercular infection of the bones, “crippled him,” as one biographer writes,

“and fixed his stature permanently at about that of a twelve-year-old boy”—only about

four feet six inches tall. The condition caused both physical and mental pain throughout

what he called “this long Disease, my Life.” It left him a hunchback, prompting Lady

Mary Wortley Montagu’s insults about his “wretched little Carcass.” He was also a Roman

Catholic at a time when Catholics were prohibited from attending the universities,

serving in the government, or even living in London. He was no more fortunate in

politics: he and his friends backed the Tory party just at the time the Tories fell from

grace, and they spent decades excluded from political influence.

Perhaps these misfortunes contributed to Pope’s waspishness and his often wicked

sense of humor. Late in his career his public persona was that of a beleaguered man of

letters, endlessly pestered by inferior poets who clamored for his attention. He was not

one to suffer fools gladly. His greatest strengths were satirical: no poet has been better at putting fools in their place. With a few well-chosen lines he could leave his enemies

twitching on the ground. A master of the stinging irony, no one was better at

eviscerating rivals with his wit.

His enemies saw only this side of him—the anger, the spite, the peevishness—but,

paradoxically, Pope was also able to write some of the most beautiful lines ever penned

by an English poet. Consider the scene in The Rape of the Lock where the chief sylph,

Ariel, summons up the “lucid Squadrons” of the “Denizens of Air”:

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 ever-mingling Dies,

While ev’ry Beam new transient Colours flings,

Colours that change whene’er they wave their Wings.

Few poets could hope to equal the delicacy and refinement of these lines, which capture so brilliantly the shifting colors on the sylphs’ diaphanous wings.

And nowhere do the two sides of Pope’s life—the bitterness and the beauty, the

imagination and the malice—come together in more perfect equipoise than in The Rape

of the Lock.

The Background

The story behind the poem is well documented. Two Catholic families found themselves

feuding in the wake of an attempt at late-adolescent flirting went wrong. Some time in

1711, Arabella Fermor, a society beauty, was passing the day with several friends—

among whom was Robert, 7th Lord Petre. Both were around twenty-one years old, and

both were famously fashionable and attractive—as Pope calls them, “a well-bred Lord”

and “a gentle Belle.” As fashionable and attractive people have always been wont to do,

they spent much of the day flirting with one another. But eventually Lord Petre took this

“little piece of gallantry” (as Joseph Warton called it) too far, and cut off a lock of

Arabella’s hair—the “dire Offence” that sprang from “am’rous causes” which Pope

mentions in the opening lines.

The Fermor and the Petre families had once been on good terms but, when the

children had their falling-out, the families followed. The feud continued for several

months until, working through a shared friend, John Caryll, the families called on Pope

to reconcile the two sides. As Pope told his biographer Joseph Spence,

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.

The result was The Rape of the Lock, in which Arabella Fermor is metamorphosed into Belinda, Lord Petre becomes the Baron, and the snipping of a lock of hair is transformed into the occasion of a battle on an epic scale. It is perhaps Pope’s most enduring poem, and certainly his most immediately successful: as he told Spence, it “was well received and had its effect in the two families.”

Sales were slow for the first version of The Rape of the Locke, published in 1712 in

two cantos, but a revised and expanded version of 1714—now without the extra e—sold

more than three thousand copies in its first four days. The new five-canto version

introduced what Pope called the “machinery”—the supernatural paraphernalia of sylphs

and gnomes. In expanding the poem Pope also expanded his sense of scale: his

imaginative conception of Belinda’s world now ranged from the combs and pins on

Belinda’s dressing table to the grotesquerie of the Cave of Spleen, from card games to

the lock’s transformation into a star.

Incongruities & Tensions

The Rape of the Lock is all about the distance between these two worlds—the minutiae

of everyday life on the one hand, the grandeur of poetic imagination on the other. This

is Pope’s notion of the human condition of itself: as he puts it in An Essay on Man, the

human race is

Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,

A being darkly wise, and rudely great. . . .

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, and yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

Puzzling out this riddle is our mission on earth; making it more entertaining is Pope’s

mission as a poet. And in The Rape of the Lock, his favorite technique is to transform

the everyday into poetry.

In his Life of Pope, Samuel Johnson called The Rape of the Lock the world’s “most

exquisite example of ludicrous poetry.” Johnson recognized that Pope’s greatest

distinction was his ability to bring the exquisite together with the ludicrous—and not

merely to bring them together, but to metamorphose the one into the other. In this way

the minutiae of everyday life become a subject of real fascination, even beauty.“In this

work,” wrote Johnson, “are exhibited, in a very high degree, the two most engaging

powers of an author. New things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.”

It’s easy to see this in Pope’s descriptions of all the quotidian items in an eighteenth-

century dressing room: fans, screens, watches, romance novels, love letters, all of which

are metamorphosed into the stuff of legend. Consider the items scattered across

Belinda’s dressing table:

This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.

The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,

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

A jewelry box, a container of perfume, and two combs (one of tortoise-shell, the other of

ivory)—nothing special here. And yet in Pope’s poem they open imaginative pathways to

the exotic Orient, part of England’s expanding empire.

Another recent imperial import was coffee, first offered for sale in England around

1650. The fashion caught on quickly, and within fifty years there were two thousand

coffee houses in London alone. We can watch Pope turning the most drab details of life

into poetry, as when the coffee beans are ground, brewed on a lacquered (“japanned”)

table, and then poured into china cups:

For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,

The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.

On shining Altars of Japan they raise

The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.

From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,

And China’s Earth receives the smoking Tyde.

To describe coffee as “grateful Liquors” poured into “China’s Earth” is absurdly

inappropriate—but that’s the comic point of the passage.

Poetic Techniques

The coffee scene is typical of the technique of The Rape of the Lock, for Pope gets many

of his effects from describing trivia in inappropriately elevated language. Consider, for

instance, what happens when the lock is cut:

Then flash’d the living Lightning from her Eyes,

And Screams of Horror rend th’ affrighted Skies.

Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,

When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last.

Pope had developed the serious style in his translation of Homer’s Iliad; here he uses that

serious style to comic ends. A pair of scissors is promoted to a “two-edg’d Weapon”; a petticoat

becomes a suit of armor; a huffish fit of bad humor becomes a descent into the

underworld; a card game becomes mortal combat between rival armies. The serious and

the trivial are always being juggled.

One way Pope manages this juggling is by writing lists that mix the high with the

low. On Belinda’s toilette, for example, we find “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-

doux”—a catalogue that almost loses the Holy Scripture amidst the bric-a-brac of a

dressing table. One humorless editor suggested “Bibles” was a misprint in the early

editions for “Baubles”; a more perceptive commentator argued, correctly, that the

“disorder on Belinda’s dressing table is fundamentally a moral disorder.” In Belinda’s

world, the word of God is no more than a fashion accessory. Or notice how much sense

hangs on the little word or in this passage:

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law,

Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,

Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,

Forget her Pray’rs, or miss a Masquerade,

Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball;

Or whether Heav’n has doom’d that Shock must fall.

The effect is to suggest that, in the topsy-turvy moral world of the Fermors and the

Petres, losing a necklace is every bit as important as losing a heart—or, conversely, that

staining honor is just as trivial as staining a new piece of cloth. This is a famous example

of a rhetorical figure called zeugma, the Greek word for “yoking”—two nouns are

“yoked” together by one verb, but the verb takes on different meanings for the two

objects. You can lose your heart and you can lose a necklace, but “lose” has very

different meanings in these two cases; you can lose stain honor and you can stain cloth,

but “stain” likewise has to shift its meaning. Throughout his works Pope is a master of

tying together the high and the low, and it makes good sense that he should be drawn to

this kind of wordplay.

Not all of Pope’s jests are so high-minded. He satirizes empty-headed noblemen in

Sir Plume, a vapid boob who, when angry, can summon up nothing more than

inarticulate sputtering:

My Lord, why, what the Devil?

Zounds! damn the Lock! ’fore Gad, you must be civil!

Plague on’t! ’tis past a Jest—nay prithee, Pox!

And there’s a persistent undercurrent of dirty jokes throughout, as when Belinda

laments that she might not have minded other sorts of violation quite so much:

Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize

Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!

Always, though, the effect is to keep the two worlds, the dignified and the debased, next to each other. The satire emerges from our ability to compare the two.

Classic vs. Modern

Pope ranged widely to bring together all these incongruous materials. On one side he

worked with the trivial knick-knacks of fashionable life, as catalogued by his sharp eye

for detail and his keen sense for ephemera: the cosmetics, the playing cards, the

snuffboxes. On the other he had all the enduring resources the Western literary

tradition had to offer: Homer’s epic poetry (Pope even parodied his own wildly

successful translation of the Iliad), Ovid’s Fasti (Pope’s title recalls the rape of the

Sabine women), Shakespeare (Ariel’s name comes from The Tempest), and Milton (the

battle scenes are inspired by Paradise Lost). He also turned to various systems of

mythology—not only Greek and Roman myths but traditional English fairy lore and

even Rosicrucian cosmology.

Most important in this list, though, are the Greek and Roman classics. For many of

his contemporaries the classics marked the pinnacle of human achievement, and they

provided the model of artistic perfection. Pope knew his classics well: he published a

translation of Homer’s epics and imitations of Horace’s poems; the works of Ovid and

Virgil were also strong influences on his poetry. From them he learned the lessons of

balance, of decorum, of meticulous craftsmanship. He therefore offered this advice to

would-be critics and poets in his Essay on Criticism:

You then whose Judgment the right Course wou’d steer,

Know well each ANCIENT’s proper Character. . . .

Be Homer’s Works your Study, and Delight,

Read them by Day, and meditate by Night.

If your knowledge of this classical world falls short, then “Cavil you may, but never

Criticize.” Of course every poet should aspire to copy Nature itself—but for Pope, Nature

and Homer were the same.

The modern world, though, too often failed to live up to lofty classical ideals. One of Pope’s recurring concerns, therefore, is pointing out just how far modernity falls short

of antiquity—by setting his own debased world next to the dignified world of his ancient

heroes he reminded his readers of what they had lost. This is what it means to be a

satirist, for a satirist is always a moralist. But the moralist needn’t always be stern: the

magic of Pope’s poetry is that it lets us live in both of those worlds. At the same time we

get to laugh at the triviality of the modern world, we get a glimpse, through his works, of

the more dignified world that had been.

    This is the key to understanding The Rape of the Lock—the way Pope blends our

most distinguished cultural legacy with the trivialities of everyday eighteenth-century

life. And although he is a moralist, lecturing us on the inadequacies of our debased

world, he lets us enjoy both at once. After all, as his beloved Horace taught him, the best

literature instructs only by pleasing, and he knew that we could draw pleasure from

both worlds. This is, after all, only fitting for human beings in the “middle state”

between beast and angel, between modern and ancient, between low and high—the

glory, jest, and riddle of the world.

            Rutgers University                    


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