The Rape of the Lock as a Mock-Heroic or Mock-epic or Heroi-Comical Poem



            Before going into the details of The Rape of the Lock as a mock-epic, we must be aware of what an epic is. An epic is a long narrative poem. On a large scale, actually, it gives the details of deeds of heroes and warriors. We have so many examples of epic poems which include Homeric’s epic “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”, Dante’s “Divine Comedia”, and Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” All these epics further tell us the features of an epic. An epic contains some serious theme having universal appeal. On the other hand, a “Mock-Epic”, or a “Heroi-Comical” or a “Mock-Heroic” poem is a parody of serious and comic style of the classical epics. In such poem, a very common or trivial subject is treated in a sublime and lofty manner, but its first and foremost purpose is to ridicule both the subject and theme and to poke fun at the human follies. Thus we can say: “A mock epic is a type of satire that treats petty humans or insignificant occurrences as if they were extraordinary.”

            Pope completely follows the true epic tradition and makes “The Rape of the Lock” a parody of the epic tradition. It belongs to a literary class which is called “Burlesque.” It treats an ordinary matter in full epic style. It is the supreme example of mock-heroic verse in the English language. A critic has observed: “It is the epic of trifling; a page torn from the petty, pleasure-seeking life of fashionable beauty; mise-en-scene of the toilet chamber and the card table; in short, the veritable apotheosis  in literary guise of scent, patches and powders.”

            Pope himself makes it clear at the very outset that his poem is a mocking one when he promises us a narrative of towering anger and conflict arising from “amorous causes.” This poem is based on a true incident involving actual persons and invokes the Muse. Thus, we can say that this poem is based on social as well as literary context. But as we know that Homer’s or Virgil’s subjects were grand and serious, Pope’s epic is about the cutting of a lock of a society lady. So, the object of the poem is mockery but it is civilized.

 “Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,

                          If she inspire and approve my lays.

            Now let’s discuss the poem as a mock-epic. First, an epic always begins with an invocation. The theme of the poem is also pointed out in the invocation. This poem “The Rape of the Lock” also begins with the invocation and the theme is also suggested in the invocation.

“Say, what strange motive, Goddess! could compel

A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle?

            Second important point which makes the poem a mock-epic is its title. We know that rape is a very serious and alarming crime in which the chastity of a woman is violated by force. But Pope has used this term in an amusing manner. The hero of the poem, the Baron takes the possession of Belinda’s lock but this has been treated in mocking style. The title evokes nothing but fosters mock-heroic sensation.

            Another parallel between an epic and a mock-epic is that the action of the poem is based on trivial incident. The central idea is the quarrel between two families. The reason of quarrel between these two families is the theft of lock of hair. The way the poet has depicted and converted a small incident into a big one is not only ludicrous but a sort of violation of the rules and mechanics. A critic says: “No poet has ever succeeded so well in using a vast force to lift a feather.”

            In so far as the action of the poem is concerned, it opens in a mock-heroic manner with the awakening of Belinda. She is portrayed as the goddess of beauty. Her beauty outshines  the sun which peeps through the white curtains of Belinda’s room.

“Sol thro’ white curtains shot a tim’rous ray,

                                    And opened those eyes that must eclipse the day.

            Fourth mock-epic element is the comparison between Belinda’s dressing and the arming of an epic warrior like Achilles. She dresses herself and uses cosmetics to kill her followers with her beauty.

“Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;

                                    The fair each moment rises in her charms,

                                    Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace,

                                    And calls forth all the wonders of her face;

                                    Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,

                                    And keener lightning quicken in her eyes.

            Fifth important feature of an epic is that an epic contains episodes also. Pope in “The Rape of the Lock” has introduced the epic of the game of Ombre. In true mock-epic style, fans and snuffare used in battle instead of swords and spears.

            Sixth striking feature of an epic is the use of supernatural machinery which in epics controls the affairs of human beings. Therefore, Pope has also introduced machinery in the poem. It means its characters are partly human and partly super human. The poet adds four bodies of fairy creatures as agents in his poem. The gods of the epics are heroic while Pope’s machinery is tiny. The poet himself describes his four creatures as “the light militia of the lower sky.” All the sylphs are guided by Ariel. It also makes lofty the mock-heroic effect of the poem.

            Then there are two battles which have been treated ironically. There are touches of Troy and Carthage in these battles. The first battle is the card game between Belinda and the Baron. Here Belinda’s words have an epic status. “Let spades be trumps! She said, and trumps they were.” The second battle is of sexes which can be compared to the battles of gods and goddesses as described by Homer. “Like gods, the fight nor dread a mortal wound.”The genealogy of Belinda’s pin is also a parody of the history of Agamemnon’s scepter in the Iliad. Then, we observe a dream of pride and glory insinuated in Belinda’s ear. This dream is comparable to the dream insinuated into Eve’s ears in the Paradise Lost.

            We have another mock-epic element in the poem when we observe Belinda’s voyage to Hampton Court. This voyage is comparable to the voyage of Aeneas up the Tiber in Virgil. Then, we see coffee party in the poem. It is the parody of meals discussed in Homer. Belinda screams after the cutting of the lock in the following words. “Restore the lock, restore the lock.” Her screaming reminds us the screams of Homeric heroes. Clarissa’s plea for good will also works as a reminder of Sarpedon’s speech in Iliad.

           One of the most interesting parallels takes place before the cutting of Belinda’s lock when Ariel peeps into her thoughts and finds an earthly lover lurking at her heart. He retires with a sigh and resigns to his fate.

                       “Sudden he view’d, in spite of all her art,

An earthly lover lurking at her heart.

                        Amaz’d, confus’d, he found his pow’r expir’d,

                          Resign’d to fate, and with a sigh retir’d.”

This situation can be compared to the situation in the Paradise Lost when after the fall of Adam and Eve, God’s angels retired. They had the strength to guard Adam and Eve against any action taken by Satan but as it was result of man’s own free will, they felt helpless as Ariel and his followers are helpless before Belinda’s free choice of an earthly lover.

The rape of the lock here reminds us the rape of Helen of Troy. The Cave of Spleen is also a parody of an allegorical picture. Moreover, the ladies and the gentlemen exchange repartee with one other instead of having war in the fields. Instead of gods and goddesses, sylphs and gnomes intervene but with the duty assigned to their nature. An epic struggle is presented with winks and nods not by lethal weapons. As a critic remarks: In “The Rape of the Lock, the great is made small and small is made great.

            There is no doubt in the fact that “The Rape of the Lock” is a true mock-epic. However, there are certain objections which have been raised against it. First objection is its length. An epic is long narrative poem but “The Rape of the Lock” is a very short poem as compared to any other epic. Second objection is that the story of an epic covers long periods of history whereas “The Rape of the Lock”does not meet this feature as it covers hours. Third objection is Pope’s use of inadequate machinery. The machinery in all the great epics is a stupendous  creature whereas Pope’s machinery is tiny and ineffectual.

            The first objection may be acceptable but the other two can be rejected. In reply to the second objection, I would like to say that no doubt, the poem does not cover history but we must be aware of the fact that to write a mock-epic, we need not the stories which cover long periods of history because we need just an ordinary incident to write a mock-epic. In so far as the third objection of Pope’s futile and tiny machinery is concerned, it can also be denied because to make the poem a mock-epic, it was necessary for the poet to do something contrary to the machinery depicted in the great epics. If the poet had used the machinery as we see in Iliad and Paradise Lost, I think the poem would have lost its flavor as a mock-epic.

            To conclude, Pope in the poem has converted the lofty into lower one and the insignificant into exalted so that he may make the little and ordinary more ridiculous. He has employed the mock-heroic form not to mock the epic form but to display the triviality of mean things comparing them with great things. No doubt, it is a true mock-heroic style. We fully agree with the remarks of Hazlitt who says: No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no splendor of poetic diction, to set off the meanest thing. The balance between the concealed irony and the assumed gravity is nicely trimmed, the little is made great and the great made little. It is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of mock-heroic.”              (Words: 1723)