Rape of the Lock as Mock Heroic Epic
“THE RAPE OF THE LOCK”—MOCK-EPIC POEM: The epic is a narrative poem of supposed divine inspiration treating of a subject of great and momentous importance for mankind, the characters of the story are partly human and partly divine, and the language and style in which the incidents are related are full of elevation and dignity. If a long narrative poem should satisfy all the tests of epic poetry, but if the subject which is celebrated be of a trivial nature, like the cutting off a lock of a woman’s hair, which is the story that is related in Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, then such a poem is called a mock-epic.
A mock-epic poem is supposed to be the inspiration of a Muse and the language is stilted and grandiose, but the subject is of very frivolous and of commonplace nature. Mock-epic or mock-heroic or heroi-comical terms are applied to literary works in which the epic or heroic tradition is ridiculed. Characteristics of “The Rape of the Lock” as a mock-epic poem: 1. Parody: Hazlitt has called the poem ‘the perfection of the mock-epic’. It belongs to the literary type, called burlesque or parody. , on a large scale.
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In it, not a single poem, but the whole type or style of literature is parodied; the language and thought, proper to a serious theme are reproduced in describing something ridiculous or trivial. The eighteenth Century with its passion for the ancients, was familiar with the whole epic tradition and conventions. It was rich, particularly, in bad epics itself. Pope makes the framework of his poem a parody of the epic tradition. The most crucial parallel to epic is the scene which occurs just before the cutting of the lock, when Ariel discovers the secret longing of the beautiful Belinda.
He finds an earthly lover lurking in Belinda’s heart: “Sudden he viewd, in spite of all her art, An earthly lover lurking at her heart. Amazed to fate, and with sigh retired. ” The situation is apparently an echo of the moment in “paradise Lost” when, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the angle retire, to heavenly abode feeling sorry for them. Pope called “The Rape of the lock” a heroi-comical poem. It belongs to the class of literature called “burlesque”.
A burlesque is a parody on a large scale, in which not a single poem but a whole type of style of literature is parodied, the language and thought proper to a serious theme being reproduced in setting forth something ridiculous or trivial. The burlesque is partly a matter of treatment and partly a matter of language. By treating an insignificant subject in the manner of an epic the poem parodies that from poetry. Instead of grand passions and great fights between heroes in which the immortals take part, we have as the theme of “The Rape of the lock” a petty amorous quarrel assisted by the spirits of the air.
The epic portrays an age round the personality of a god or semi god, and its characters are heroes. “The rape of the lock”, on the other hand, gives us a picture of fashionable society. The central figure in that picture is a pretty society girl, and the other characters are a rash youth, a foolish dandy and few frivolous women. Instead of deep and genius passions as found in ancient epics, we come across a succession of mock passions in “The Rape of the lock”. 2. The Title: The mock-heroic character of the poem is perceived in the very title. Rape is a serious moral offence which means the violation of a woman’s chastity by force.
It also refers to the seizure of a lady by some ruffians in grossly inhuman manner. In any case, rape is a grave crime, affecting the social decency of a human being. Pope has used this term in an amusing manner. The possession of the hair of Belinda by the Baron is described by him in a mock vein. The title evokes nothing but the mock heroic sensation and well indicates the mock-heroic character of Pope’s work. 3. The Action and Theme: The action of “The Rape of the Lock” turns on trivial incident—the cutting of a lock of hair from a lady’s head.
Such a thing has taken place. One lord Peter cut off a lock of hair from the head of a lady Arabella Fermor. The theme of the poem is suggested in invocation, as in an epic poem, but the theme is ridiculously trivial, in comparison with the grand theme of an epic. The action opens in a mock-heroic manner with the awakening of Belinda, the heroine of the poem. Belinda is the very goddess of beauty and the luster of her eyes surpasses that of the sun who peeped timorously through the white curtains in Belinda’s room. 4.
The Structure of the Poem: The whole structure in “The Rape of the lock” is cast in the epic mould, but it could not be a serious epic because the incident is trivial—so we have the mock-heroic poem. The poem is divided into cantos like an epic poem, and there are ironical parallels to the main incident of the epic. The poem begins with an invocation like in epics. As in epics, in “The Rape of the Lock”, too, divine beings are portrayed. Belinda is in the divine care of the sylphs. But then the sylphs are fragile, airy beings and they are helpless before the caprice of men.
Despite all their concern for Belinda, her beautiful lock is raped by the naughty Baron. There is a mischievous gnome, too, who like Milton’s “Satan” is intent upon making Belinda miserable and thereby all her admirers. 5. Function of Machinery: The epic always uses the supernatural element. In “The Iliad” there are gods and goddesses; in “The Rape of the lock”, there are the sylphs and gnomes. These aerial spirits are small and insignificant things, and are, therefore, exactly in keeping with the triviality of the theme.
They guard the person of the heroine and when there is fight between the followers of Belinda and those of the Baron, they take part in fight, like gods and goddesses in the Trojan War. 6. Episode in the Mock-epic: An epic poem must contain episodes also. In keeping with this practice Pope has introduced the episodes of the game of Omber which is described in great detail. There is also the hazardous journey of Umbriel to the Cave of Spleen. Then there is the battle between the lords and ladies just like the battles in epic poetry.
But in true mock-heroic style this battle is fought with fans and snuff instead of with swords and spears. There are single combats also between Belinda and the Baron and between Clarissa and Sir Plume. Thus, to conclude, in “The Rape of the Lock” the poet has heightened the title, exalted the insignificant, in order to make the little and the insignificant look more ridiculous. He employs the mock-heroic form, not to mock the epic form, but to show the triviality of mean things by contrasting them with great things. This is the true mock heroic epic.