Background The Rape of the Lock was based on a real-life quarrel between two affluent Roman Catholic families, the Fermors and the Petres. The feud began when young Lord Petre (the “Baron” in the poem) snipped a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor (“Belinda”). The dispute escalated out of all proportion, and a friend of Pope’s asked him to intervene, hoping that he could “laugh them together again.” Pope rose to the occasion, mocking the folly of the dispute by portraying it as if it were a battle of epic scale.
In the first of the poem’s five cantos, a Muse is evoked for inspiration (a tradition in epic poetry) and Belinda is warned of impending danger by Ariel, a spirit sent to protect Belinda. In Canto 2, Belinda rides up the Thames River to a Hampton Court party and is noticed by the scheming Baron, who resolves to possess one of the two curly locks spiraling down Belinda’s back.
from Canto 3
Close by those meads, forever crowned with f lowers,
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising towers,
There stands a structure of majestic frame,
Which from the neighboring 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 the instructive hours they passed,
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 every word a reputation dies.
Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.
Meanwhile declining from the noon of day,
The sun obliquely shoots his burning ray;
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
And wretches hang that jurymen may dine;
The merchant from the Exchange returns in peace,
And the long labors of the toilet cease.
Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites,
Burns to encounter two adventurous knights,
At ombre singly to decide their doom,
And swells her breast with conquests yet to come. . . .
The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;
The embroidered King who shows but half his face,
And his refulgent Queen, with powers combined,
Of broken troops an easy conquest find.
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild disorder seen,
With throngs promiscuous strew the level green.
Thus when dispersed a routed army runs,
Of Asia’s troops, and Afric’s sable sons,
With like confusion different nations fly,
Of various habit, and of various dye,
The pierced battalions disunited fall
In heaps on heaps; one fate o’erwhelms them all.
The Knave of Diamonds tries his wily arts,
And wins (oh, shameful chance!) the Queen of Hearts.
At this, the blood the virgin’s cheek forsook,
A livid paleness spreads o’er all her look;
She sees, and trembles at the approaching ill,
Just in the jaws of ruin, and Codille.
And now (as oft in some distempered state)
On one nice trick depends the general fate.
An Ace of Hearts steps forth: The King unseen
Lurked in her hand, and mourned his captive Queen.
He springs to vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like thunder on the prostrate Ace.
The nymph exulting f ills with shouts the sky,
The walls, the woods, and long canals reply.
O thoughtless mortals! ever blind to fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate:
Sudden these honors shall be snatched away,
And cursed forever this victorious day.
For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crowned,
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,
While China’s earth receives the smoking tide.
At once they gratify their scent and taste,
And frequent cups prolong the rich repast.
Straight hover round the fair her airy band;
Some, as she sipped, the fuming liquor fanned,
Some o’er her lap their careful plumes displayed,
Trembling, and conscious of the rich brocade.
Coffee (which makes the politician wise,
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes)
Sent up in vapors to the Baron’s brain
New stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.
Ah, cease, rash youth! desist ere ’tis too late,
Fear the just Gods, and think of Scylla’s fate!
Changed to a bird, and sent to flit in air,
She dearly pays for Nisus’ injured hair!
But when to mischief mortals bend their will,
How soon they find f it instruments of ill!
Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting grace
A two-edged weapon from her shining case:
So ladies in romance assist their knight,
Present the spear, and arm him for the fight.
He takes the gift with reverence, and extends
The little engine on his fingers’ ends;
This just behind Belinda’s neck he spread,
As o’er the fragrant steams she bends her head.
Swift to the Lock a thousand sprights repair,
A thousand wings, by turns, blow back the hair,
And thrice they twitched the diamond in her ear,
Thrice she looked back, and thrice the foe drew near.
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin’s thought;
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,
Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.
The Peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide,
To enclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Even then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interposed;
Fate urged the shears, and cut the Sylph in twain
(But airy substance soon unites again):
The meeting points the sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, forever and forever!
Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend the affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last;
Or when rich china vessels fallen from high,
In glittering dust and painted fragments lie!
“Let wreaths of triumph now my temples twine,”
The victor cried, “the glorious prize is mine!
While fish in streams, or birds delight in air,
Or in a coach and six the British fair,
As long as Atalantis shall be read,
Or the small pillow grace a lady’s bed,
While visits shall be paid on solemn days,
When numerous wax-lights in bright order blaze,
While nymphs take treats, or assignations give,
So long my honor, name, and praise shall live!
“What time would spare, from steel receives its date,
And monuments, like men, submit to fate!
Steel could the labor of the Gods destroy,
And strike to dust the imperial towers of Troy;
Steel could the works of mortal pride confound,
And hew triumphal arches to the ground.
What wonder then, fair nymph! thy hairs should feel,
The conquering force of unresisted steel?”
In Canto 4, following an epic tradition, a melancholy sprite descends to the Underworld—which Pope calls the “Cave of Spleen”—and returns to the party with a vial of grief and “f lowing tears” and a bag of “sobs, sighs, and passions,” which are emptied over Belinda’s head, fanning her fury even further.
from Canto 5
“To arms, to arms!” the fierce virago cries,
And swift as lightning to the combat f lies.
All side in parties, and begin the attack;
Fans clap, silks rustle, and tough whalebones crack;
Heroes’ and heroines’ shouts confusedly rise,
And bass and treble voices strike the skies.
No common weapons in their hands are found,
Like Gods they fight, nor dread a mortal wound. . . .
See, fierce Belinda on the Baron flies,
With more than usual lightning in her eyes;
Nor feared the chief the unequal fight to try,
Who sought no more than on his foe to die.
But this bold lord with manly strength endued,
She with one finger and a thumb subdued:
Just where the breath of life his nostrils drew,
A charge of snuff the wily virgin threw;
The Gnomes direct, to every atom just,
The pungent grains of titillating dust.
Sudden, with starting tears each eye o’erflows,
And the high dome re-echoes to his nose.
“Now meet thy fate,” incensed Belinda cried,
And drew a deadly bodkin from her side.
(The same, his ancient personage to deck,
Her great-great-grandsire wore about his neck,
In three seal rings; which after, melted down,
Formed a vast buckle for his widow’s gown:
Her infant grandame’s whistle next it grew,
The bells she jingled, and the whistle blew;
Then in a bodkin graced her mother’s hairs,
Which long she wore, and now Belinda wears.)
“Boast not my fall,” he cried, “insulting foe!
Thou by some other shalt be laid as low.
Nor think to die dejects my lofty mind:
All that I dread is leaving you behind!
Rather than so, ah, let me still survive,
And burn in Cupid’s f lames—but burn alive.”
“Restore the Lock!” she cries; and all around
“Restore the Lock!” the vaulted roofs rebound.
Not f ierce Othello in so loud a strain
Roared for the handkerchief that caused his pain.
But see how oft ambitious aims are crossed,
And chiefs contend till all the prize is lost!
The lock, obtained with guilt, and kept with pain,
In every place is sought, but sought in vain:
With such a prize no mortal must be blessed,
So Heaven decrees! with Heaven who can contest?
Some thought it mounted to the lunar sphere,
Since all things lost on earth are treasured there.
There heroes’ wits are kept in ponderous vases,
And beaux’ in snuffboxes and tweezer cases.
There broken vows and death-bed alms are found,
And lovers’ hearts with ends of riband bound. . . .
But trust the Muse—she saw it upward rise,
Though marked by none but quick, poetic eyes. . . .
A sudden star, it shot through liquid air,
And drew behind a radiant trail of hair. . . .
Then cease, bright nymph! to mourn thy ravished hair,
Which adds new glory to the shining sphere!
Not all the tresses that fair head can boast
Shall draw such envy as the Lock you lost.
For, after all the murders of your eye,
When, after millions slain, yourself shall die:
When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,
This Lock the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And ’midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name.
Comprehension: Recall and Interpret
1.What happens in the card game in lines 29–54?
2.How does the Baron obtain the lock of Belinda’s hair?
3.At the end of the poem, what happens to the lock of Belinda’s hair?
Literary Analysis: Evaluate and Connect
4. Make InferencesJudging from the excerpts you read from The Rape of the Lock, how do you think Pope felt about vanity?
5. Identify IronyA contrast between expectations and actual outcomes is referred to as situational irony.What is ironic about the ending of The Rape of the Lock?
6. Interpret SatireIn addition to satirizing a quarrel, Pope used The Rape of the Lock to point out flaws in British society and upper-class behavior. For each ofthe following passages, describe the flaw that Pope is criticizing:
• lines 15–16 (“A third interprets ... dies.”)
• lines 21–22 (“The hungry judges ... dine;”)
• lines 111–114 (“Not louder shrieks ... lie!”)
7. Examine Heroic CoupletOne of the drawbacks of heroic couplets is that they can begin to sound monotonous in a long poem. Reread lines 167–168. How does Pope vary the rhythm in this couplet? What does the variation in the rhythm suggest about the Baron?
8. Analyze Mock EpicThe Rape of the Lock parodies the epic form by treating a trivial subject in a grand, lofty style. Citing specific examples from the text, describe how Pope makes fun of these elements of traditional epic poetry:
• elaborate descriptions of weapons and battles
• poet’s use of formal language
• plot affected by supernatural intervention
• boasting speeches
9. Draw Conclusions About Elevated LanguageReview the chart you filled in as you read, comparing your paraphrases with the original lines. In what ways does Pope’s use of elevated language enhance the poem?
10. Different PerspectivesPope’s friend Jonathan Swift once wrote, “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” While the mock epic The Rape of the Lock was written nearly 300 years ago to poke fun at vanity, beauty, and pride, in what ways does the satire reflect today’s society?
Reading Focus IV: from a Modest Proposal
(Essay by Jonathan Swift)
KEY IDEA There’s an old proverb that states, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Jonathan Swift wielded his pen like a rapier, using it to slash away at injustice. Though some may claim the power of the pen is greatly diminished these days, people still fight injustice with words—in speeches, in newspapers and magazines, and on the Internet.
Before Reading: Meet Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)
Jonathan Swift has been called the greatest satirist in the English language. His genuine outrage at man’s inhumanity to man and his commitment to championing liberty found voice in his biting satire and unflinching criticism of his times. Few writers of the 18th century were as politically and socially influential as Swift.
A Priest with a PenJonathan Swift was born of Anglo-Irish parents in Dublin, Ireland. Though his family was not wealthy, Swift attended the prestigious Trinity College. After graduating, he moved to Surrey in England to accept a position as secretary to a retired diplomat. In 1695, Swift was ordained as an Anglican priest and became a full-fledged satirist, with two completed works ready for publication.
Swift was a clergyman and a political writer for the Whig party. His first two satires, The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub, quickly established his acerbic style. Whether lampooning modern thinkers and scientists (John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton among them), religious abuses, or humanity at large, Swift raged at the arrogance, phoniness, and shallowness he saw infecting contemporary intellectual and moral life. Though his early publications were anonymous, people began to recognize his vicious and witty political writing through his contributions to London periodicals such as Richard Steele’s and Joseph Addison’s The Spectator. When the Whigs lost power to the Tories in 1710, the Tories courted the conservative Swift to join their side. As a man of principle and a strict moralist, however, he ultimately became disenchanted with the compromises and manipulations of politics.
Did you know that Jonathan Swift . . .
• had learned to read by the time he was three?
• coined the term yahoo to refer to a boorish and ignorant person?
• left much of his fortune to go toward the building of a mental hospital?
Irish PatriotIn 1713, Swift was appointed dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Though Swift at first felt exiled in Ireland, in time he regained his interest in politics. Angered by the way England tyrannized Ireland, Swift fought back in a series of publications called The Drapier’s Letters, in which he wrote, “Am I a freeman in England, and do I become a slave in six hours by crossing the channel?” For Irish Catholics and Protestants alike, Swift became a hero. His last major work about Ireland, A Modest Proposal, is one of the most famous satires ever written.
Gulliver’s SuccessIn 1726, Swift anonymously published the masterly satire Gulliver’s Travels, in which he vents his fury at political corruption and his annoyance with the general worthlessness of human beings. Though Swift aroused controversy, Gulliver’s Travels turned out to be surprisingly popular, and it remains a classic for readers of all ages.