Study Guide Prepared by Michael J.
Revised in 2012
the beginning of "The Rape of the Lock," Pope
identifies the work as a
“heroi-comical poem.” Today, the poem—and others
like it—is referred to
as a mock-epic and sometimes as a mock-heroic.
Such a work
parodies the serious, elevated style of the
classical epic poem—such as
Iliad or The Odyssey, by
poke fun at human follies. Thus, a mock-epic is a
type of satire;
it treats petty humans or insignificant occurrences
as if they were extraordinary
or heroic, like the great heroes and events of
Homer's two great epics.
In writing "The Rape of the Lock," Pope imitated the
Homer's epics, as well as later epics such as The
Aeneid (Vergil), The Divine
Comedy (Dante), and Paradise
Lost (Milton). Many of these
characteristics are listed below,
under "Epic Conventions."
published three versions of The Rape of the Lock.
The first was
a two-canto version published in 1712. The second,
published in 1714, was
a five-canto version that added references to sylphs
and other supernatural
creatures. The final version, published in 1717 in a
volume of Pope's poetry,
added Clarissa's speech in Canto V.
takes place in
London and its environs in the early 1700's on a
single day. The story
begins at noon (Canto I) at the London residence of
Belinda as she carefully
prepares herself for a gala social gathering. The
scene then shifts (Canto
II) to a boat carrying Belinda up the Thames. To
onlookers she is as magnificent
as Queen Cleopatra was when she traveled in her barge.
The rest of the
story (Cantos III-V) takes place where Belinda
debarks—Hampton Court Palace,
a former residence of King Henry VIII on the outskirts
for a brief scene in Canto IV that takes place in the
cave of the Queen
lady with wondrous hair, two locks of which hang
gracefully in curls.
of Belinda who plots to cut off one of her locks.
sylph (supernatural creature).
Young lady who gives the Baron scissors.
enters the cave of the Queen of Spleen to seek help
goddess who gives Umbriel gifts for Belinda.
of Belinda. Thalestris urges Sir Plume to defend
Thalestris. He scolds the Baron.
Demons, Phantoms and Other Supernatural Creatures
a Real-Life Incident
based The Rape of the Lock on an actual
incident in which a British
nobleman, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of hair
dangling tantalizingly from
the head of the beautiful Arabella Fermor. Petre’s
daring theft of the
lock set off a battle royal between the Petre and
Fermor families. John
Caryll—a friend of Pope and of the warring
families—persuaded the great
writer to pen a literary work satirizing the
absurdity and silliness of
the dispute. The result was one of the greatest
satirical poems in all
of literature. In writing the poem, Pope also drew
upon ancient classical
sources—notably Homer’s great epics, The
Iliad and The Odyssey—as
to imitate in style and tone. He also consulted
the texts of medieval
and Renaissance epics.
ever curs'd be this detested Day, / Which
snatch'd my best, my fav'rite
Michael J. Cummings...©
opens with a statement announcing the topic of his
poem: A gentleman—a
lord, in fact—has committed a terrible outrage
against a gentlewoman, causing
her to reject him. What was this offense? Why did it
incite such anger
in the lady?
woman in question is named Belinda. She is sleeping
late one day in her
London home when a sylph—a dainty spirit that
inhabits the air—warns her
that “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend.” The
sylph, named Ariel, does
not know what this event is or where or how it will
manifest itself. But
he does tell Belinda to be on guard against the
machinations of men.
rises and prepares herself for a social gathering,
sitting before a mirror
and prettying herself with “puffs and powders” and
scenting herself with
“all Arabia.” Afterward, she travels up the Thames
River to the site of
the social festivities, Hampton Court, the great
palace on the north bank
of the river that in earlier times was home to King
Henry VIII. As she
sits in the boat, “Fair Nymphs, and well-drest
Youths around her shone,
/ But ev'ry Eye was fix'd on her alone.” In other
words, she was beautiful
beyond measure. She smiled at everyone equally, and
her eyes—bright suns—radiated
goodwill. Especially endearing to anyone who looked
upon her were her wondrous
Nymph, to the Destruction
Belinda’s admirers is a young baron at Hampton Court
awaiting her arrival.
He has resolved to snip off a lock of her hair as
the trophy of trophies.
Before dawn, before even the sun god Phoebus Apollo
arose, the Baron had
been planning the theft of a lock of Belinda's hair.
To win the favor of
the gods, he had lighted an altar fire and, lying
face down before it,
prayed for success.
two Locks which
graceful hung behind
Curls, and well
conspir'd to deck
shining Ringlets the
smooth Iv'ry Neck.
Belinda arrives at Hampton Court with her company of
friends, the partygoers
play Ombre, a popular card game in which only 40 of
the 52 cards are dealt—the
eights, nines, and tens are held back. It appears that
the Baron will win
the game after his knave of diamonds captures her
queen of hearts. However,
Belinda yet has hope, even after the Baron plays an
ace of hearts:
wins! Coffee is served, the vapors of which go to the
Baron’s brain and
embolden him to carry out his assault on Belinda’s
hair. Clarissa, a lady
who fancies the Baron, withdraws scissors from a case
and arms him with
the weapon. When he closes in behind Belinda, she
bends over her coffee,
exposing a magnificent lock. But a thousand sprites
come to her aid, using
their wings to blow hair over the lock. They also tug
at one of her diamond
earrings to alert her to the danger. Three times they
warn her and three
times she looks around. But all is for naught. The
Baron opens wide his
weapon, closes it around the lock, and cuts.The
rape of her lock enrages Belinda:
her Hand, and
mourn'd his captive Queen.
with an eager Pace,
like Thunder on
the prostrate Ace
with Shouts the Sky;
the Woods, and
long Canals reply.
flash'd the living
Lightnings from her Eyes,
gnome named Umbriel descends to the Underworld on
Belinda’s behalf and
obtains a bag of sighs and a vial of tears from the
Queen of Spleen. With
these magical gifts, he means to comfort poor Belinda.
First, he empties
the bag on her. A gentleman named Sir Plume—prompted
by his belle, Thalestris,
a friend of Belinda—then roundly scolds the Baron for
his grave offense.
But the Baron is unrepentant. Umbriel then empties the
vial on Belinda.
Grief overcomes her as her eyes half-drown in tears
and her head droops
upon her bosom. She says:
of Horror rend
th' affrighted Skies.
Shrieks to pitying
Heav'n are cast,
Husbands, or when Lapdogs
breathe their last,
rich China Vessels,
fal'n from high,
glitt'ring Dust and painted
curs'd be this
tries to mollify Belinda in a long speech, but fails.
A bit of a melee
ensues when Belinda attempts to retrieve her lost
lock. “Fans clap, Silks
russle, and tough Whalebones crack.” Belinda proves a
She attacks the Baron “with more than usual Lightning
in her Eyes” and
throws a handful of snuff from Sir Plume's box up his
nose. But, alas,
when the battle ends, the lock is nowhere to be
snatch'd my best,
my fav'rite Curl away!
ten times happy
had I been,
Hampton-Court these Eyes
had never seen!
the poem ends on a happy note for Belinda, Pope says,
because the trimmed
lock of her golden hair has risen to the heavens,
there to become a shining
central theme of The
Rape of the Lock is the fuss that high society
makes over trifling
matters, such as breaches of decorum. In the poem, a
feud of epic proportions
erupts after the Baron steals a lock of Belinda’s
hair. In the real-life
incident on which Pope based his poem, the Petre and
the Fermor families
had a falling-out after Lord Petre snipped off one
of Arabella Fermor’s
locks. Other themes that Pope develops in the poem
include human vanity
and the importance of being able to laugh at life’s
little reversals. The
latter motif is a kind of “moral to the story.”
Clarissa touches upon both
of these themes when addressing tearful Belinda,
shorn of her lock:
alas! frail Beauty
Locks will turn to grey;
painted, or not painted,
all shall fade,
And she who
scorns a Man,
must die a Maid,
remains but well
our Pow'r to use,
good Humour still
whate'er we lose?
climax of The Rape of the Lock occurs when
the Baron snips away
one of Belinda's locks.
a mock-epic parodies a classical epic, it uses the
same conventions, or
formulas, as the classical epic—but usually in a
humorous way. For example,
a convention of many classical epics is a sea voyage
in which perils confront
the hero at every turn. In The Rape of the Lock,
the sea voyage
is Belinda's boat trip up the Thames River. Her
guardian sylph, Ariel,
sees "black omens" that foretell disasters for
Belinda even though the
waves flow smoothly and the winds blow gently. Will
she stain her dress?
Lose her honor or her necklace? Miss a masquerade?
Forget her prayers?
So frightful are the omens that Ariel summons 50 of
his companion spirits
to guard Belinda's petticoat, as well as the
ringlets of her hair. Following
are examples of the epic conventions that Pope
of the Muse: In ancient Greece and
Rome, poets had always requested
“the muse” to fire them with creative genius when
they began long narrative
poems, or epics, about godlike heroes and villains.
In Greek mythology,
there were nine muses, all sisters, who were
believed to inspire poets,
historians, flutists, dancers, singers, astronomers,
other thinkers and artists. If one wanted to write a
great poem, play a
musical instrument with bravado, or develop a grand
scientific or philosophical
theory, he would ask for help from a muse. When a
writer asked for help,
he was said to be “invoking the muse.” The muse of
epic poetry was named
Calliope [kuh LY uh pe]. In "The Rape of the Lock,"
does not invoke a goddess; instead, he invokes his
friend, John Caryll
(spelled CARYL in the poem), who had asked
Pope to write a literary
work focusing on an event (the snipping of a lock
of hair) that turned
the members of two families—the Petres and the
Fermors—into bitter enemies.
Caryll thought that poking fun at the incident
would reconcile the families
by showing them how trivial the incident
of the Poem Into Books or Cantos: The
traditional epic is long, requiring
several days several days of reading. Dante's Divine
example, contains 34 cantos. When printed, the
work consists of a book
about two inches thick . Pope, of course, presents
only five cantos containing
a total of fewer than 600 lines. Such
miniaturizing helps Pope demonstrate
the smallness or pettiness of the behavior
exhibited by the main characters
in the poem.
of Soldiers Preparing for Battle: In The
Iliad, Homer describes
in considerable detail the armor and weaponry of
the great Achilles, as
well as the battlefield trappings of other heroes.
In The Rape of the
Lock, Pope describes Belinda preparing
herself with combs and pins—with
"Puffs, Powders, Patches"—noting that "Now awful
Beauty puts on all its
of Heroic Deeds: While Homer describes the
exploits of his heroes during
the Trojan War, Pope describes the "exploits" of
Belinda and the Baron
during a card game called Ombre, which
involves three players and
a deck of 40 cards.
of a Great Sea Voyage: In The Odyssey,
Odysseus (also known
as Ulysses) travels the seas between Troy and
Greece, encountering many
perils. In The Aeneid, Aeneas travels the
seas between Troy and
Rome, also encountering perils. In The Rape of
the Lock, Belinda
travels up the Thames in a boat.
of Deities or Spirits in the Action: In The
Rape of the Lock—as
in The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The
Divine Comedy, and Paradise
Lost—supernatural beings take part in the
of Scenes in the Underworld: Like
supernatural beings in classical
epics, the gnome Umbriel visits the Underworld in
The Rape of the Lock.
wrote The Rape of the Lock in heroic
couplets. A heroic couplet
is a unit of two rhyming lines in iambic
pentameter. (See Meter,
below.) The entire poem consists of one heroic
couplet followed by another, as demonstrated by
the first four lines of
dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
mighty contests rise from trivial things,.......................[First
Couplet: springs and things rhyme]
sing—This verse to CARYL, Muse! is due:
ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view............................[Second
Couplet: due and view rhyme]
Each of the lines has ten syllables
in a succession of accented and unaccented pairs
called iambic pentameter.
The first three lines demonstrate the pattern:
.......1..................2................3..................4......................5You may have
noticed that Pope
turned amorous into two syllables by
eliminating the o. Poetic license permits
poets to make such adjustments
to achieve their ends. Also, he apparently wanted
-ial in trivial to be read as a single
DIRE..|..of FENCE..|..from AM..|..'rous CAUS..|..es SPRINGS,
What MIGHT..|..y CON..|..tests RISE..|..from TRIV..|..ial THINGS,
SING—..|..This VERSE..|..to CAR..|..yl, MUSE!..|..is DUE
main figure of speech in The Rape of the Lock
Pope uses it throughout the poem to exaggerate the
ordinary and the commonplace,
making them extraordinary and spectacular. In so
he makes them seem as they really are, small and
petty. Examples of hyperbole
include the following:
through white Curtains shot a tim'rous Ray,Follow are examples of other figures of
speech in the poem. For definition of figures of
speech, click here.
ope'd those Eyes that must eclipse the Day.
Belinda's eyes are so bright that they outshine
a ray of sunlight
Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
two Locks which graceful hung behind
Belinda is so beautiful—and her wondrous locks
so inviting—that she can
bring mankind to ruin with desire.
is the subject, but not so the praise (Canto I, line 5)
thus in whispers said,
or seem'd to say (Canto I, line 26)
truths, from learned pride conceal'd (Canto I, line 37)
Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots
banish Beaux, and Coaches
Coaches drive. (Canto I, 101-102)
dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial
things (Canto I, lines 1-2)
kind occasion prompts their warm desires,
When music softens, and when dancing fires? (Canto I, 75-76)
They shift the
of their heart (Canto 1, line 100)Metonymy
of the whims of a young woman to the Toyshop
of the heart
And mighty hearts are held
in slender chains. (Canto II, line 24)Personification
of hearts to represent Belinda's male admirers
Nymph, to the destruction
two Locks, which
graceful hung behind.....................
curls, and well
conspir'd to deck
shining ringlets the
smooth iv'ry neck. (Canto II, 19-22)
two locks conspire.
in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains (Canto II,
Comparison of love to a master
the sun, her eyes
the gazers strike,
the sun, they
shine on all alike. (Canto II, 13-14)
of the brightness of Belinda's eyes to the
brightness of the sun
of Belinda's gaze to the shining sun
and Writing Topics
a serious message about
the world, about human conduct, behind Pope's
to Greek and Roman mythology. Why did so many
writers of his time—and
why do so many writers today—allude to mythology
to make comparisons or
describe situations and characters?
short poem that uses
couplets and allusions.
essay explaining the
role of nature imagery (including references to
the sun, the sky, the moon,
lakes, rivers, grass, flowers, parks, and meadows)
in the poem. .
Rape of the
Complete Text With
Boldfaced Black or
Are Explained in the Notes
dire offence from am'rous causes
mighty contests rise from trivial
sing—This verse to CARYL, Muse!
ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
is the subject, but not so the praise,
She inspire, and He approve my lays.
what strange motive, Goddess!4 could compel
well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle
say what stranger cause, yet unexplor'd,
make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?.........
tasks so bold, can little men engage,
in soft bosoms dwells such mighty Rage?
thro' white curtains shot a tim'rous
those eyes that must eclipse the day:
give themselves the rousing shake,.........
sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the
the press'd watch return'd a
still her downy pillow prest,
guardian Sylph prolong'd the
He had summon'd to her silent bed
morning-dream that hover'd o'er her
Youth more glitt'ring than a Birth-night
ev'n in slumber caus'd her cheek to
to her ear his winning lips to lay,..........
thus in whispers said, or seem'd to say.
. . . sing: I am writing (I sing)
about a terrible offense resulting
from an amorous cause.
A friend of Pope, John Caryl, whom
Pope addresses as the muse. An
acquaintance of Caryl, Lord Petre, cut
a lock of hair of a young lady, Arabella
Fermor. A quarrel erupted between
the families. Caryl suggested that Pope
write a poem to point up the silliness
of the quarrel. Pope addresses Caryl as
if he were a muse.For further
information on "invoking the muse," see Epic Conventions