Question 4. ”The Rape of the Lock’ is a very empty trifle without anysolidity or sensible meaning’ (John Dennis, a contemporary critic of theeighteenth century). Was he right?A ‘trifle’ is defined as being ‘something of littleimportance or value’ (www.dictionary.com). Thus, ‘a veryempty trifle’ would appear to be near devoid ofimportance or value. Criticism as bold as this must beput into context, since modern critics hold the generalconsensus that Alexander Pope’s poetry has a rightfulplace in the canon of English literature. Pat Rogersenthuses; “Alexander Pope is a literary artist of thefirst rank, whose poems have stood their share of testsof time…” continuing Rogers states:”Indeed, there has scarcely been a literary fadsince the 1920s which has not some how bent toaccommodate Pope.” (An introduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat,Methuen and Co.1975, page 1)So, with such acclaim in the retrospective criticalclimate of the twentieth century, why did John Dennis (acontemporary of Pope’s) deign that ‘The Rape of the Lock’was without importance, ‘solidity’ and ‘sensiblemeaning’? Ostensibly, it is true that any criticism willbe entirely subjective but the disparity between thecriticism cast by Dennis and that of Rogers is alarming.
John Dennis was a prolific critic during the eighteenthcentury who circulated his work amongst the circles thatPope himself moved in. At the time of Dennis’s criticismof ‘The Rape of the Lock’ he was feuding with Pope, a warof words. This can be validated by the fact that Popeused his stint as a pamphleteer to mock Dennis; thisdirectly preceded his writing of ‘The Rape of the Lock’.
“Pope had turned to a new mode of expression, thesatirical pamphlet. His first shot, The Critical Specimen(1711), was only partially successful…But Pope homedright on to the target with the Narrative of Dr RobertNorris (1713), in which Dennis is shown as a ravinglunatic attended by the quack ‘mad-doctor’ Norris” (Anintroduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat, Methuen and Co.1975,page 132)Additionally, some critics would suggest Popeconsolidated his onslaught by hinting at Dennis’s vacantstupidity through his portrayal of ‘Sir Plume’ in ‘TheRape of the Lock’.
“It is worth noting that he makes the most of thefaces of his victims. The lines on Dennis in the Essay onCriticism fix on his facial expression…And there arethe ‘earnest eyes, and round thinking face’ of Sir Plume.
Pope’s own face was of course the only unimpeachable itemin his appearance.” (On the Poetry of Pope, Tillotson,Geoffrey, Oxford University Press 1950, page 38)Dennis’s commentary is obviously tainted then, by his ownpersonal opinions and grudges he bears with Pope.
However, the quality found throughout ‘The Rape of theLock’ is evidence enough from which to counter Dennis’sjudgment.
As a ‘mock epic’ or a ‘heroi-comical’ piece Pope hadto observe some epic characteristics in order to give thetext solidity. There are three typical epiccharacteristics which Pope employed to great effect.
Firstly epic poems use divine machinery to give the poemanother layer and also add essential gravity to thenarrative, since there is much at stake if God isinvolved. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is littered with thismachinery; most prominently the presence of the sylphsthroughout. Sylphs being supernatural creatures thatinhabit the air from which they are made from. Their usemay be emblematic of God’s intentions or conversely,fate. Secondly, epic poetry must contain a battle. ‘TheRape of the Lock’ observes this in a very comical sensewhich, in turn, suits the ‘mock epic’ genre. There aretwo battles, the first of which is played out through agame of cards in Canto 3. Pope illustrates thisridiculous battle to great comic effect in his use ofperiphrasis when both identifying and describing thecards being played. Instead of simply saying the Queen ofSpades, Pope identifies the card as being, “The imperialconsort of the crown of Spades.” (‘The Rape of the Lock’,Canto 3, line 68) Or, when describing the King of Clubs,”…of all the monarchs only grasps the globe?” (Canto 3,line 74) On traditional card illustrations it is the Kingof Clubs who carries the ‘globe’. This elaboratedepiction could be seen as an ’empty trifle,’ however itserves a purpose comically. The use of periphrasis shouldnormally dignify the subject whereas this examplehighlights the ridiculous situation of a figurativebattle and the equally ridiculous aftermath from whichBelinda looses a lock of hair. The nature of the cardgame is indicative of the disproportionate nature of thepoem where there is much incongruity between the subjectand the style. Slight is the subject and, on the otherhand, grand is the style. The disproportionate,hyperbolic style ironically allows us the ‘sensiblemeaning’ as well. Through this disproportionate portrayalPope may have hoped that the real life incident could belooked upon from a proportionate perspective, since noone was actually raped and all battles where figurative.
The third and final epic motif in ‘The Rape of the Lock’is the inclusion of an underworld. Pope uses ‘the cave ofspleen’ which is seen as being “emblematic of the illnature of female hypochondriacs.” (The Norton Anthologyof English Literature, seventh edition, volume 1, page2526)To further counter Dennis’s claim that ‘The Rape ofthe Lock’ is an ’empty trifle’ would be to highlight theway in which Pope fills the text with important anddelightful uses of figurative language. Pope employsbathos to illustrate life at the court in Hampton Court.
Interestingly, it was this; the most upper of socialechelons, that Pope (a catholic) was excluded from.
“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.”(‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 3, lines 15-18)At the time, the bathetic effect of this mundanedescription of every day life at the court must have beenvery powerful satirically. It gives the impression ofmuch gossip and a banal loss of conversation which givepurpose to the ritualistic accoutrements like the ‘Snuff,or the fan…’ ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is also pepperedwith many uses of zeugma. Pope uses this technique toconstantly unite the important with the unimportant, thisreinforces the notion that the incident, from which thetale is taken, should be looked upon in proportion.
“Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;” (‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 3, lines 5-6)Here Pope yolks together the fall of a ‘tyrant’ and thatof a ‘nymph’. This use of zeugma sparks parallels withthe main feature of metaphysical wit where the poetplaces two heterogeneous elements together for comiceffect. However, it is Pope’s exploitation of doublemeanings within certain lines which has the most powerfuleffect.
“Or stain her honor, or her new brocade, Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,” (‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 2, line 107)This slight at the materialistic preoccupation of a courtapparently lacking morals is executed in a subtle yetpowerful fashion. A stain on ‘her honor’ is surely moreimportant than a stain on ‘her new brocade’ (?), but thisis compounded here by the dilemma of whether to pray orpartake in a ‘masquerade’.
It would seem fair to say then, that Dennis’scomments were the ones without any ‘solidity’ or’sensible meaning’. So impressive is the artistrydisplayed throughout ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and theimportance this mock epic had within Pope’s socialcircle, it may be that jealousy was the catalyst behindDennis’s comments. In the same letter that John Dennisbrands ‘The Rape of the Lock’ ‘an empty trifle’ he alsoclaims that ‘there is not so much as one Jest in theBook’. Could it have been that the real ‘Jest’ was atDennis’s expense?