The Rape of the Lock

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The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope 1714

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary



Historical Context

Critical Overview



For Further Study

“The Rape of the Lock,” originally published as The Rape of the Locke: An Heroi-Comical Poem (1712), is a mock-epic based upon an actual disagreement between two aristocratic English families during the eighteenth century. Lord Petre (the Baron in the poem) surprises the beautiful Arabella Fermor (Belinda) by clipping off a lock of hair. At the suggestion of his friend and with Arabella Fermor’s approval, Alexander Pope used imagination, hyperbole, wit, and gentle satire to inflate this trivial social slip-up into an earth-shaking catastrophe of cosmic consequence. The poem is generally described as one of Pope’s most brilliant satires.

The poem makes serious demands upon the reader, not only because of its length but also because it requires a background knowledge of epic literature and some understanding of the trappings of upperclass England. “The Rape of the Lock” constantly shifts between mocking silly social conventions of the aristocracy (such as elaborate courtship rituals) and satirizing serious literary conventions of traditional epic literature (such as its lofty style, exhaustive descriptions of warriors readying for battle, and heavy doses of mythology). With many allusions to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the speaker compares the loss of Belinda’s hair to the great battles of classic epic literature. The speaker describes Belinda applying makeup as if she were a warrior going to battle. While playing a game of cards, the Baron sneaks up behind Belinda and performs the “tragic” snipping of the lock

of hair. An army of gnomes and sprites attempts to protect Belinda to no avail. Belinda demands the restoration of her lock and another “battle” ensues. Finally, the lock ascends skyward as a new star to beautify the heavens.

Author Biography

Pope was born on May 21, 1688, in London, England, the son of Alexander Pope, a London linen merchant, and his second wife, Edith Turner. Pope attended two Catholic academies before the family moved from London in 1700 to live in the village of Binfield. A new law, prohibiting Catholics from living within ten miles of the city of London, forced the family to move. The relocation to Binfield enabled Pope to make enduring friendships with other Catholic exiles like himself. Pope’s early education was sporadic. He learned to read and write at home and was taught Latin and Greek by priests. By the age of twelve, he was already well versed in Greek, Roman, and English literature, and he diligently emulated the works of his favorite poets. At twelve, Pope contracted Pott’s disease, a tuberculosis of the spine, from infected milk. The disease left him with a crooked spine and a severe weakness, which caused him almost continual headaches for the rest of his life.

Pope’s first published work, “Pastorals,” a group of lyric poems on rural themes, was published in 1709. Two years later, he published “An Essay on Criticism,” a treatise on literary theory written in verse couplets. The impressiveness of this feat caught the attention of English literary society, and with the publication of the first two cantos of The Rape of the Lock in 1712 (expanded to five cantos in 1714) Pope was regarded as one of the most prominent poets of the age. He eventually became the first independently wealthy, full-time writer in English history.

Despite such success, Pope suffered throughout his career from recurring attacks against him for his Catholicism, his political sympathies, and his literary criticism, which often raised the anger of the authors he analyzed. Some of these attacks were personal, commenting unfavorably upon his physical appearance. Much of Pope’s later satirical writings were aimed at those who had criticized him over the years. Pope’s last years were spent revising the body of his writings in preparation for a complete, edited edition of his works. He died on May 30, 1744 of acute asthma and dropsy before the task was completed.

Poem Text

canto i

    What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryll, Muse! is due:
This, even Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,             5
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.
    Say what strange motive, Goddess! could
A well-bred Lord to assault a gentle belle?
Oh, say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?                 10
In tasks so bold can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?
    Sol through white curtains shot a timorous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day.
Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,          15
And sleepless lovers just at twelve awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knocked the
And the pressed watch returned a silver sound.
Belinda still her downy pillow pressed,
Her guardian Sylph prolonged the balmy rest:             20
’Twas he had summoned to her silent bed
The morning dream that hovered o’er her head.
A youth more glittering than a birthnight beau
(That even in slumber caused her cheek to glow)
Seemed to her ear his winning lips to lay,               25
And thus in whispers said, or seemed to say:
    “Fairest of mortals, thou distinguished care
Of thousand bright inhabitants of air!
If e’er one vision touched thy infant thought,
Of all the nurse and all the priest have taught,         30
Of airy elves by moonlight shadows seen,
The silver token, and the circled green,
Or virgins visited by angel powers,
With golden crowns and wreaths of heavenly
Hear and believe! thy own importance know,               35
Nor bound thy narrow views to things below.
Some secret truths, from learned pride concealed,
To maids alone and children are revealed:
What though no credit doubting wits may give?
The fair and innocent shall still believe.               40
Know, then, unnumbered spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky:
These, though unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o’er the Box, and hover round the Ring.
Think what an equipage thou hast in air,                 45
And view with scorn two pages and a chair.
As now your own, our beings were of old,
And once inclosed in woman’s beauteous mold;
Thence, by a soft transition, we repair
From earthly vehicles to these of air.                   50
Think not, when woman’s transient breath is fled,
That all her vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding vanities she still regards,
And though she plays no more, o’erlooks the cards.
Her joy in gilded chariots, when alive,                  55
And love of ombre, after death survive.
For when the Fair in all their pride expire,
To their first elements their souls retire:
The sprites of fiery termagants in flame
Mount up, and take a Salamander’s name.                  60
Soft yielding minds to water glide away,
And sip, with Nymphs, their elemental tea.
The graver prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
In search of mischief still on earth to roam.
The light coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,              65
And sport and flutter in the fields of air.
    “Know further yet; whoever fair and chaste
Rejects mankind, is by some Sylph embraced:
For spirits, freed from mortal laws, with ease
Assume what sexes and what shapes they please.           70
What guards the purity of melting maids,
In courtly balls, and midnight masquerades,
Safe from the treacherous friend, the daring spark,
The glance by day, the whisper in the dark,
When kind occasion prompts their warm desires,           75
When music softens, and when dancing fires?
’Tis but their Sylph, the wise Celestials know,
Though Honor is the word with men below.
    “Some nymphs there are, too conscious of their
For life predestined to the Gnomes’ embrace.             80
These swell their prospects and exalt their pride,
When offers are disdained, and love denied:

Then gay ideas crowd the vacant brain,
While peers, and dukes, and all their sweeping
And garters, stars, and coronets appear,                 85
And in soft sounds, ‘your Grace’ salutes their ear.
’Tis these that early taint the female soul,
Instruct the eyes of young coquettes to roll,
Teach infant cheeks a hidden blush to know,
And little hearts to flutter at a beau.                  90
    “Oft, when the world imagine women stray,
The Sylphs through mystic mazes guide their way,
Through all the giddy circle they pursue,
And old impertinence expel by new.
What tender maid but must a victim fall                  95
To one man’s treat, but for another’s ball?
When Florio speaks what virgin could withstand,
If gentle Damon did not squeeze her hand?
With varying vanities, from every part,
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart;           100
Where wigs with wigs, with sword-knots sword-
       knots strive,
Beaux banish beaux, and coaches coaches drive.
This erring mortals levity may call;
Oh, blind to truth! the Sylphs contrive it all.
    “Of these am I, who thy protection claim,           105
A watchful sprite, and Ariel is my name.
Late, as I ranged the crystal wilds of air,
In the clear mirror of thy ruling star
I saw, alas! some dread event impend,
Ere to the main this morning sun descend,               110
But Heaven reveals not what, or how, or where:
Warned by the Sylph, O pious maid, beware!
This to disclose is all thy guardian can:
Beware of all, but most beware of Man!”
    He said; when Shock, who thought she slept too      115
Leaped up, and waked his mistress with his tongue.
’Twas then, Belinda, if report say true,
Thy eyes first opened on a billet-deux;
Wounds, charms, and ardors were no sooner read,
But all the vision vanished from thy head.              120
    And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
First, robed in white, the nymph intent adores,
With head uncovered, the cosmetic powers.
A heavenly image in the glass appears;                  125
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.
The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,
Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride.
Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here
The various offerings of the world appear;              130
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil.
This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
The tortoise here and elephant unite,                   135
Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.
Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux.
Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,               140
Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace,
And calls forth all the wonders of her face;
Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,
And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling care,            145
These set the head, and those divide the hair,
Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown;
And Betty’s praised for labors not her own.

canto ii

    Not with more glories, in the ethereal plain,
The sun first rises o’er the purpled main,              150
Than, issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launched on the bosom of the silver Thames.
Fair nymphs, and well-dressed youths around her
But every eye was fixed on her alone.
On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,         155
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,
Quick as her eyes, and as unfixed as those:
Favors to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.                160
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.
Yet graceful ease, and sweetness void of pride,
Might hide her faults, if belles had faults to hide:
If to her share some female errors fall,                165
Look on her face, and you’ll forget ‘em all.
    This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourished two locks which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspired to deck
With shining ringlets the smooth ivory neck.            170
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.
With hairy springes we the birds betray,
Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey,
Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,               175
And beauty draws us with a single hair.
    The adventurous Baron the bright locks
He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired.
Resolved to win, he meditates the way,
By force to ravish, or by fraud betray;                 180
For when success a lover’s toil attends,
Few ask if fraud or force attained his ends.
    For this, ere Phoebus rose, he had implored
Propitious Heaven, and every power adored,
But chiefly Love—to Love an altar built,                185
Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt.
There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves,
And all the trophies of his former loves.
With tender billet-deux he lights the pyre,
And breathes three amorous sighs to raise the fire.     190
Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent eyes
Soon to obtain, and long possess the prize:
The powers gave ear, and granted half his prayer,
The rest, the winds dispersed in empty air.
    But now secure the painted vessel glides,           195
The sunbeams trembling on the floatingtides,
While melting music steals upon the sky,
And softened sounds along the waters die.
Smooth flow the waves, the zephyrs gently play,
Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay.              200
All but the Sylph—with careful thoughts
The impending woe sat heavy on his breast.
He summons strait his denizens of air;
The lucid squadrons round the sails repair:
Soft o’er the shrouds aërial whispers breathe           205
That seemed but zephyrs to the train beneath.
Some to the sun their insect-wings unfold,
Waft on the breeze, or sink in clouds of gold.
Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight,
Their fluid bodies half dissolved in light,             210
Loose to the wind their airy garments flew,
Thin glittering textures of the filmy dew,
Dipped in the richest tincture of the skies,
Where light disports in ever-mingling dyes,
While every beam new transient colors flings,           215
Colors that change whene’er they wave their
Amid the circle, on the gilded mast,
Superior by the head was Ariel placed;
His purple pinions opening to the sun,
He raised his azure wand, and thus begun:               220
    “Ye Sylphs and Sylphids, to your chief give
Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Daemons, hear!
Ye know the spheres and various tasks assigned
By laws eternal to the aërial kind.
Some in the fields of purest ether play,                225
And bask and whiten in the blaze of day.
Some guide the course of wandering orbs on high,
Or roll the planets through the boundless sky.
Some less refined, beneath the moon’s pale light
Pursue the stars that shoot athwart the night,          230
Or suck the mists in grosser air below,
Or dip their pinions in the painted bow,
Or brew fierce tempests on the wintry main,
Or o’er the glebe distill the kindly rain.
Others on earth o’er human race preside,                235
Watch all their ways, and all their actions guide:
Of these the chief the care of nations own,
And guard with arms divine the British Throne.
    “Our humbler province is to tend the Fair,
Not a less pleasing, though less glorious care:         240
To save the powder from too rude a gale,
Nor let the imprisoned essences exhale;
To draw fresh colors from the vernal flowers;
To steal from rainbows e’er they drop in showers
A brighter wash; to curl their waving hairs,            245
Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs;
Nay oft, in dreams invention we bestow,
To change a flounce, or add a furbelow.
    “This day black omens threat the brightest fair,
That e’er deserved a watchful spirit’s care;            250
Some dire disaster, or by force or slight,
But what, or where, the Fates have wrapped in
Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honor or her new brocade,                  255
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball;
Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must
Haste, then, ye spirits! to your charge repair:
The fluttering fan be Zephyretta’s care;                260
The drops to thee, Brillante, we consign;
And, Momentilla, let the watch be thine;
Do thou, Crispissa, tend her favorite Lock;
Ariel himself shall be the guard of Shock.
    “To fifty chosen Sylphs, of special note,           265
We trust the important charge, the petticoat;
Oft have we known that sevenfold fence to fail,
Though stiff with hoops, and armed with ribs of
Form a strong line about the silver bound,
And guard the wide circumference around.                270
    “Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,
His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,
Shall feel sharp vengeance soon o’ertake his sins,
Be stopped in vials, or transfixed with pins,
Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,               275
Or wedged whole ages in a bodkin’s eye:
Gums and pomatums shall his flight restrain,
While clogged he beats his silken wings in vain;
Or alum styptics with contracting power
Shrink his thin essence like a riveled flower:          280
Or, as Ixion fixed, the wretch shall feel
The giddy motion of the whirling mill,
In fumes of burning chocolate shall glow,
And tremble at the sea that froths below!”
    He spoke; the spirits from the sails descend;       285
Some, orb in orb, around the nymph extend;
Some thread the mazy ringlets of her hair;
Some hang upon the pendants of her ear:
With beating hearts the dire event they wait,
Anxious, and trembling for the birth of Fate.           290

canto iii

      Close by those meads, forever crowned with
Where Thames with pride surveys his rising towers,
There stands a structure of majestic frame,
Which from the neighboring Hampton takes its
Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom          295
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;               300
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;            305
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;               310
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,               315
Burns to encounter two adventurous knights,
At ombre singly to decide their doom,
And swells her breast with conquests yet to come.
Straight the three bands prepare in arms to join,
Each band the number of the sacred nine.                320
Soon as she spreads her hand, the aërial guard
Descend, and sit on each important card:
First Ariel perched upon a Matadore,
Then each according to the rank they bore;
For Sylphs, yet mindful of their ancient race,          325
Are, as when women, wondrous fond of place.
    Behold, four Kings in majesty revered,
With hoary whiskers and a forky beard;
And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a
The expressive emblem of their softer power;            330
Four Knaves in garbs succinct, a trusty band,
Caps on their heads, and halberts in their hand;
And parti-colored troops, a shining train,
Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain.
    The skilful nymph reviews her force with care;      335
“Let Spades be trumps!” she said, and trumps they
    Now move to war her sable Matadores,
In show like leaders of the swarthy Moors.
Spadillio first, unconquerable lord!
Led off two captive trumps, and swept the board.        340
As many more Manillio forced to yield,
And marched a victor from the verdant field.
Him Basto followed, but his fate more hard
Gained but one trump and one plebeian card.
With his broad sabre next, a chief in years,            345
The hoary Majesty of Spades appears,
Puts forth one manly leg, to sight revealed,
The rest, his many-colored robe concealed.
The rebel Knave, who dares his prince engage,
Proves the just victim of his royal rage.               350
Even mighty Pam, that kings and queens o’erthrew
And mowed down armies in the fights of loo,
Sad chance of war! now destitute of aid,
Falls undistinguished by the victor Spade.
    Thus far both armies to Belinda yield;              355
Now to the Baron fate inclines the field.
His warlike amazon her host invades,
The imperial consort of the crown of Spades.
The Club’s black tyrant first her victim died,
Spite of his haughty mien, and barbarous pride.         360
What boots the regal circle on his head,
His giant limbs, in state unwieldy spread?
That long behind he trails his pompous robe,
And of all monarchs only grasps the globe?
    The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;             365
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.         370
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,                  375
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
At this, the blood the virgin’s cheek forsook,
A livid paleness spreads o’er all her look;             380
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           385
Lurked in her hand, and mourned his captive
He springs to vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like thunder on the prostrate Ace.
The nymph exulting fills with shouts the sky,
The walls, the woods, and long canals reply.            390
      Oh thoughtless mortals! ever blind to fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate:
Sudden these honors shall be snatched away,
And cursed for ever this victorious day.
    For lo! the board with cups and spoons is           395
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.          400
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,       405
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.               410
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,     415
How soon they find fit 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.           420
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 sprites repair,            425
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
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin’s thought;             430
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Suddenly he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,           435

Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.
    The Peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide,
To inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Even then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interposed;                 440
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,    445
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!           450
“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,                     455
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!          460
What Time would spare, from Steel receives its
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,         465
And hew triumphal arches to the ground.
What wonder then, fair nymph! thy hairs should
The conquering force of unresisted Steel?”

canto iv

      But anxious cares the pensive nymph
And secret passions labored in her breast.              470
Not youthful kings in battle seized alive,
Not scornful virgins who their charms survive,
Not ardent lovers robbed of all their bliss,
Not ancient ladies when refused a kiss,
Not tyrants fierce that unrepenting die,                475
Not Cynthia when her manteau’s pinned awry,
E’er felt such rage, resentment, and despair,
As thou, sad virgin! for thy ravished hair.
    For, that sad moment, when the Sylphs
And Ariel weeping from Belinda flew,                    480
Umbriel, a dusky, melancholy sprite,
As ever sullied the fair face of light,
Down to the central earth, his proper scene,
Repaired to search the gloomy Cave of Spleen.
    Swift on his sooty pinions flits the Gnome,         485
And in a vapor reached the dismal dome.
No cheerful breeze this sullen region knows,
The dreaded east is all the wind that blows.
Here in a grotto, sheltered close from air,
And screened in shades from day’s detested glare,       490
She sighs forever on her pensive bed,
Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head.
    Two handmaids wait the throne: alike in place,
But differing far in figure and in face.
Here stood Ill-Nature like an ancient maid,             495
Her wrinkled form in black and white arrayed;
With store of prayers, for mornings, nights, and
Her hand is filled; her bosom with lampoons.
    There Affectation, with a sickly mien,
Shows in her cheek the roses of eighteen,               500
Practiced to lisp, and hang the head aside,
Faints into airs, and languishes with pride,
On the rich quilt sinks with becoming woe,
Wrapped in a gown, for sickness, and for show.
The fair ones feel such maladies as these,              505
When each new nightdress gives a new disease.
      A constant vapor o’er the palace flies,
Strange phantoms rising as the mists arise;
Dreadful as hermit’s dreams in haunted shades,
Or bright as visions of expiring maids.                 510
Now glaring fiends, and snakes on rolling spires,
Pale specters, gaping tombs, and purple fires;
Now lakes of liquid gold, Elysian scenes,
And crystal domes, and angels in machines.
    Unnumbered throngs on every side are seen,          515
Of bodies changed to various forms by Spleen.
Here living teapots stand, one arm held out,
One bent; the handle this, and that the spout:
A pipkin there, like Homer’s tripod, walks;
Here sighs a jar, and there a goose pie talks;          520
Men prove with child, as powerful fancy works,
And maids, turned bottles, call aloud for corks.
    Safe passed the Gnome through this fantastic
A branch of healing spleenwort in his hand.
Then thus addressed the Power: “Hail, wayward           525
Who rule the sex to fifty from fifteen:
Parent of vapors and of female wit,
Who give the hysteric or poetic fit,
On various tempers act by various ways,
Make some take physic, others scribble plays;           530
Who cause the proud their visits to delay,
And send the godly in a pet to pray.
A nymph there is that all thy power disdains,
And thousands more in equal mirth maintains.
But oh! if e’er thy Gnome could spoil a grace,          535
Or raise a pimple on a beauteous face,
Like citron-waters matrons’ cheeks inflame,
Or change complexions at a losing game;
If e’er with airy horns I planted heads,
Or rumpled petticoats, or tumbled beds,                 540
Or caused suspicion when no soul was rude,
Or discomposed the headdress of a prude,
Or e’er to costive lapdog gave disease,
Which not the tears of brightest eyes could ease,
Hear me, and touch Belinda with chagrin:                545
That single act gives half the world the spleen.”
    The Goddess with a discontented air
Seems to reject him though she grants his prayer.
A wondrous bag with both her hands she binds,
Like that where once Ulysses held the winds;            550
There she collects the force of female lungs,
Sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues.
A vial next she fills with fainting fears,
Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears.
The Gnome rejoicing bears her gifts away,               555
Spreads his black wings, and slowly mounts to day.
    Sunk in Thalestris’ arms the nymph he found,
Her eyes dejected and her hair unbound.
Full o’er their heads the swelling bag he rent,
And all the Furies issued at the vent.                  560
Belinda burns with more than mortal ire,
And fierce Thalestris fans the rising fire.
“Oh wretched maid!” she spread her hands, and
(While Hampton’s echoes, “Wretched maid!”
“Was it for this you took such constant care            565
The bodkin, comb, and essence to prepare?
For this your locks in paper durance bound,
For this with torturing irons wreathed around?
For this with fillets strained your tender head,
And bravely bore the double loads of lead?              570
Gods! shall the ravisher display your hair,
While the fops envy, and the ladies stare!
Honor forbid! at whose unrivaled shrine
Ease, pleasure, virtue, all, our sex resign.
Methinks already I your tears survey,                   575
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded toast,
And all your honor in a whisper lost!
How shall I, then, your helpless fame defend?
’Twill then be infamy to seem your friend!              580
And shall this prize, the inestimable prize,
Exposed through crystal to the gazing eyes,
And heightened by the diamond’s circling rays,
On that rapacious hand forever blaze?
Sooner shall grass in Hyde Park Circus grow,            585
And wits take lodgings in the sound of Bow;
Sooner let earth, air, sea, to chaos fall,
Men, monkeys, lapdogs, parrots, perish all!”
      She said; then raging to Sir Plume repairs,
And bids her beau demand the precious hairs             590
(Sir Plume of amber snuffbox justly vain,
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane),
With earnest eyes, and round unthinking face,
He first the snuffbox opened, then the case,
And thus broke out—“My Lord, why, what the              595
Z—-ds! damn the lock! ’fore Gad, you must be
Plague on’t! ’tis past a jest—nay prithee, pox!
Give her the hair”—he spoke, and rapped his box.
    “It grieves me much,” replied the Peer again,
“Who speaks so well should ever speak in vain.          600
But by this Lock, this sacred Lock I swear
(Which never more shall join its parted hair;
Which never more its honors shall renew,
Clipped from the lovely head where late it 
That while my nostrils draw the vital air,              605
This hand, which won it, shall forever wear.”
He spoke, and speaking, in proud triumph spread
The long-contended honors of her head.
    But Umbriel, hateful Gnome, forbears not so;
He breaks the vial whence the sorrows flow.
Then see! the nymph in beauteous grief appears,
Her eyes half languishing, half drowned in tears;
On her heaved bosom hung her drooping head,
Which with a sigh she raised, and thus she said:
    “Forever cursed be this detested day,               615
Which snatched my best, my favorite curl away!
Happy! ah ten times happy had I been,
If Hampton Court these eyes had never seen!
Yet am not I the first mistaken maid,
By love of courts to numerous ills betrayed.            620
Oh, had I rather unadmired remained
In some lone isle, or distant Northern land;
Where the gilt chariot never marks the way,
Where none learn ombre, none e’er taste bohea!
There kept my charms concealed from mortal eye,         625
Like roses that in deserts bloom and die.
What moved my mind with youthful lords to roam?
Oh, had I stayed, and said my prayers at home!
’Twas this the morning omens seemed to tell,
Thrice from my trembling hand the patch box fell;       630
The tottering china shook without a wind,
Nay, Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind!
A Sylph too warned me of the threats of fate,
In mystic visions, now believed too late!
See the poor remnants of these slighted hairs!          635
My hands shall rend what e’en thy rapine spares.
These in two sable ringlets taught to break,
Once gave new beauties to the snowy neck;
The sister lock now sits uncouth, alone,
And in its fellow’s fate foresees its own;              640
Uncurled it hangs, the fatal shears demands,
And tempts once more, thy sacrilegious hands.
Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!”

canto v

      She said: the pitying audience melt in tears.     645
But Fate and Jove had stopped the Baron’s ears.
In vain Thalestris with reproach assails,
For who can move when fair Belinda fails?
Not half so fixed the Trojan could remain,
While Anna begged and Dido raged in vain.               650
Then grave Clarissa graceful waved her fan;
Silence ensued, and thus the nymph began:
    “Say why are beauties praised and honored
The wise man’s passion, and the vain man’s toast?
Why decked with all that land and sea afford,           655
Why angels called, and angel-like adored?
Why round our coaches crowd the white-gloved
Why bows the side box from its inmost rows?
How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains;           660
That men may say when we the front box grace,
‘Behold the first in virtue as in face!’
Oh! if to dance all night, and dress all day,
Charmed the smallpox, or chased old age away,
Who would not scorn what housewife’s cares              665
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use?

To patch, nay ogle, might become a saint,
Nor could it sure be such a sin to paint.
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray       670
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man must die a maid;
What then remains but well our power to use,
And keep good humor still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, dear, good humor can prevail,            675
When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.”
    So spoke the dame, but no applause ensued;
Belinda frowned, Thalestris called her prude.          680
“To arms, to arms!” the fierce virago cries,
And swift as lightning to the combat flies.
All side in parties, and begin the attack;
Fans clap, silks rustle, and tough whalebones crack;
Heroes’ and heroines’ shouts confusedly rise,          685
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.
    So when bold Homer makes the Gods engage,
And heavenly breasts with human passions rage;         690
’Gainst Pallas, Mars; Latona, Hermes arms;
And all Olympus rings with loud alarms:
Jove’s thunder roars, heaven trembles all around,
Blue Neptune storms, the bellowing deeps resound:
Earth shakes her nodding towers, the ground gives      695
And the pale ghosts start at the flash of day!
    Triumphant Umbriel on a sconce’s height
Clapped his glad wings, and sat to view the fight:
Propped on their bodkin spears, the sprites survey
The growing combat, or assist the fray.                700
    While through the press enraged Thalestris
And scatters death around from both her eyes,
A beau and witling perished in the throng,
One died in metaphor, and one in song.
“O cruel nymph! a living death I bear,”                705
Cried Dapperwit, and sunk beside his chair.
A mournful glance Sir Fopling upwards cast,
“Those eyes are made so killing”—was his last.
Thus on Maeander’s flowery margin lies
The expiring swan, and as he sings he dies             710
      When bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down,
Chloe stepped in, and killed him with a frown;
She smiled to see the doughty hero slain,
But, at her smile, the beau revived again.
    Now Jove suspends his golden scales in air,        715
Weighs the men’s wits against the lady’s hair;
The doubtful beam long nods from side to side;
At length the wits mount up, the hairs subside.
      See, fierce Belinda on the Baron flies,
With more than usual lightning in her eyes;            720
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,       725
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.               730
      “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,         735
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.)           740
    “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,              745
And burn in Cupid’s flames—but burn alive.”
    “Restore the Lock!” she cries; and all around
“Restore the Lock!” the vaulted roofs rebound.
Not fierce Othello in so loud a strain
Roared for the handkerchief that caused his pain.      750
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,           755
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 heros’ wits are kept in ponderous vases,
And beaux’ in snuffboxes and tweezer cases.            760
There broken vows and deathbed alms are found,
And lovers’ hearts with ends of riband bound,
The courtier’s promises, and sick man’s prayers,
The smiles of harlots, and the tears of heirs,
Cages for gnats, and chains to yoke a flea,            765
Dried butterflies, and tomes of casuistry.
    But trust the Muse—she saw it upward rise
Though marked by none but quick, poetic eyes
(So Rome’s great founder to the heavens withdrew,
To Proculus alone confessed in view);                  770
A sudden star, it shot through liquid air,
And drew behind a radiant trail of hair.
Not Berenice’s locks first rose so bright,
The heavens bespangling with disheveled light.
The Sylphs behold it kindling as it flies,             775
And pleased pursue its progress through the skies.
    This the Beau monde shall from the Mall
And hail with music its propitious ray,
This the blest lover shall for Venus take,
And send up vows from Rosamonda’s Lake.                780
This Partridge soon shall view in cloudless skies,
When next he looks through Galileo’s eyes;
And hence the egregious wizard shall foredoom
The fate of Louis, and the fall of Rome.
    Then cease, bright nymph! to mourn thy             785
       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:        790
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.

Poem Summary

Lines 1–6

The speaker, in typical epic fashion, invokes his muse to inspire him in his composition. Traditionally, the goddess presiding over epic poetry is Calliope. In this case, Pope’s friend John Caryll is the “muse” who suggested the poet attempt a playful satire to cure the family squabble that erupted when Lord Petre cut a lock of hair from Miss Arabella Fermor. The speaker’s aim is to raise this insignificant dispute to a “mighty contest.”

Lines 7–12

In these three couplets, the speaker poses three questions the mock-epic will attempt to answer: why would a lord assault a gentle maiden?; why would an aristocratic lady reject a lord?; how can “mighty rage” hide in polite society?

Lines 13–26

The speaker uses personification, describing the sun as “Sol” who tries to awaken the poem’s heroine, Belinda, and her lapdog, Shock. Pope uses the word “sylph” to mean an imaginary fairy—a creature that inhabits the air.

Lines 27–66

Ariel’s speech takes up most of Canto I, continuing to line 114. The speaker introduces an army of supernatural, imaginary creatures because it is one of the conventions of epic poetry being satirized. Homer, Virgil, and Milton made use of classical mythology to puff up the significance of their heroes’ exploits. Pope uses characters from Rosicrucian mythology such as Ariel (Canto I), Umbriel (Canto IV), and Thalestris (Canto V). According to Rosicrucian myth and the theories of metaphysical philosopher Paracelsus, all things were believed to have been made of four Aristotelian elements: fire, water, earth, and air. In lines 59–66, the speaker mentions all four elements and the supernatural creatures associated with them: salamanders (fire); nymphs (water); gnomes (earth); and sylphs (air). The intent of this section

Media Adaptations

  • A recording of “The Rape of the Lock” is included in the two-cassette set, Penguin English Verse: The Eighteenth Century: Swift to Crabbe, Volume 3. The tapes were released in 1996 by Penguin Highbridge Audio.

is to elaborate on the background of the mythological creatures that come and go throughout the course of “The Rape of the Lock.” The mythology contributes weight and gravity to an otherwise light social satire. The speaker satirizes the conventions of epic poetry and literary tradition as well as the social vanity of the aristocratic Belinda.

Lines 67–114

Ariel tells Belinda that sylphs embrace all the fair and chaste maidens of society by assuming any shape they want, an allusion to Milton’s description of the army of devils in Paradise Lost. Ariel issues the vague warning of “some dread event” impending upon her before the day is out, but he does not specify what this dread event may be. Ariel concludes his long speech by saying that Belinda should above all “beware of men,” a hint that the impending doom relates to her flirtations with men. Line 101, “where wigs with wigs, with sword-knots sword-knots strive” is an allusion to Homer’s Iliad and his description of the Greek forces readying their weapons to battle the Trojans. Also in this speech, Ariel resembles the angel Raphael, the angel who came to Eve in the Garden of Eden to warn her of Satan’s approach, in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Lines 115–120

Shock, Belinda’s lapdog, thinks that his mistress has slept too long and licks Belinda with his tongue. As Belinda pulls herself out of bed, she sees a “billet-deux” or love-letter on her bed. Reading the charming words of some admirer, Belinda’s “vision” or lesson from Ariel disappears from her memory. Belinda forgets Ariel’s warning about the need to beware of jealousy, vanity, pride, and impertinent men.

Lines 121–148

Belinda goes to her toilet or cosmetic table to prepare herself for the day to be spent in fashionable society. With the help of her servant Betty, whom the speaker describes as “the inferior priestess,” Belinda grooms herself and accumulates intense pride in her beauty. This masterfully written section catalogues the exotic jewelry, pins, powders, perfumes, mirrors, tortoise shell and ivory combs, blushes, and rouges that Belinda uses to heighten her exquisite beauty and egoistic sense of importance. The speaker says in line 139 that “Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms,” meaning “awful” as “aweinspiring” the way the enemy watches the epic hero prepare his battle gear for combat and is awestruck at his weaponry and prowess. Also, the speaker presents Belinda at the “altar” of her beauty as a religious analogy, satirizing Belinda as the high priestess of vanity. The speaker also uses the catalogue of beauty aids as an allusion to the serious epic convention of describing soldiers readying for battle. Thus, Belinda “arms” herself for “battle” with the Baron, about whom Ariel has indirectly warned her.

Lines 149–166

Like many chapters of the Iliad or the Odyssey, Canto II begins with the sun rising over “the purple main,” or sea reddened by dawn to a royal purple. Belinda is presented as the sun’s rival because her self-appointed radiance shines as she drifts in a boat upon the river Thames. Surrounded by well-dressed admirers and nymphs, Belinda sails from London to Hampton Court, the royal palace about fifteen miles up the river. Belinda extends her smile to all surrounding courtiers like a true coquette. The speaker says that one look at Belinda’s beautiful face would make anyone forget her female faults, if any were to be found.

Lines 167–182

The speaker mentions Belinda’s two locks of hair that gracefully hang behind her in “sparkling ringlets,” using similes to compare the locks with a labyrinth that enslaves admirers to her love or snares that trap the unsuspecting courtier dazzled by her beauty. The first mention of the Baron comes in line 177 as he admires the radiant locks and resolves to possess one by any fraudulent or deceptive means. So captivated by the beautiful Belinda, the Baron must possess her beauty somehow.

Lines 183–194

The speaker writes that before the sun rose, the Baron had built an altar to the goddess Love and arranged around it all his symbols of success with former mistresses: twelve French romances bound in gold, garters, gloves, “trophies,” and love letters. The Baron had thrown himself prostrate before this Love altar, a parallel to Belinda’s cosmetic altar, and prayed for powers from the goddess that would allow him to capture the lock and keep it forever. However, Love grants the Baron only half of his prayer that he might acquire the lock but not keep it forever. This line (193) foreshadows the conclusion of the poem.

Lines 195–220

All the sailing company enjoys the leisurely cruise upon the Thames river except the sylph Ariel, who is oppressed with gloom because his warning against vanity was lost upon Belinda. Line 199 demonstrates Pope’s use of onomatopoeia because the sound of the words mimics the sense of the gentle ride upon the water. Ariel summons his army of sprites and sylphs—inhabitants of the air whose fluid bodies disappear in transparent forms. Ariel stands tall before the other sylphs just as the typical epic hero—Odysseus, Achilles, or Agamemnon—towers before the troops addressing them before combat.

Lines 221–290

The second long speech by Ariel concludes Canto II. Ariel reminds the sylph army that their humble purpose is to guard the fair maiden Belinda, protecting her beauty from harsh winds and brightening her complexion when she needs it. The impending threat approaches, says Ariel, the “black day” of some dire disaster or threat to Belinda’s chastity and beauty. Therefore, special assignments are dealt out by Ariel. Ariel shows special care in assigning duties associated with the sylph’s name: Zephyretta (the west wind) protects Belinda’s fan; Brilliante protects the diamond earrings; Momentilla protects the watch; Crispissa (a word for curling) protects Belinda’s favorite lock of hair. Ariel himself will guard Shock, the lapdog. Fifty sylphs are chosen to guard Belinda’s petticoat, associated with her virginity. Though the petticoat is armed with stiff hoops and stout whale rib, danger is still possible, and so the sylphs are needed. Ariel concludes his speech admonishing that any sylph who neglects his watch “shall feel sharp vengeance” and severe physical punishment—like Ixion, who in Greek mythology was punished in the underworld by being bound to an ever-turning wheel. After Ariel’s pep talk, the sylphs disperse to their assigned guardian posts, waiting anxiously for the disaster that beats down quickly upon them.

Lines 291–308

Belinda’s boat approaches Hampton Court, a royal palace where the Baron lies in wait. Hampton Court is one home of Queen Ann of England. With Britain’s noble statesmen, Queen Ann plots the fall of foreign tyrants and then engages in trivial social bantering at teatime. Belinda and her retinue of servants, admirers, and unseen sylphs enter the social scene of the court. Belinda is very much aware that her social reputation depends on how she might hold her fan or chit-chat with nobles and dignitaries.

Lines 309–334

In the afternoon, Belinda desires to play “ombre,” a Spanish card game resembling whist or bridge, against two suitors, the Baron and a young man. The speaker describes each card in elaborate detail, its ranking suit and number, along with the invisible sylphs who guard each card. This resembles armies assembling for combat in epic poems such as the Iliad. Pope has carefully arranged the cards exactly according to the rules of ombre. The game is played with forty cards, the 10s, 9s, and 8s removed from play. Each player holds nine cards and Belinda’s cards are winning at first. Ariel is perched upon a “Matadore,” the highest trump cards. The trump cards are the ace of spades (Spadillio), the two of spades (Manillio), and the ace of clubs (Basto). The descending order of kings, queens, and jacks are described as readied for “the velvet plain” (or card table) a term used for the battlefield in epic poetry.

Lines 335–390

In this section, the actual game of ombre is described in astonishing detail. While Belinda is winning at first, the tide of “battle” turns in line 356 when the Baron sends his “warlike amazon” or Queen of spades to win the first of four tricks. The Baron’s egoistic pride shows through as he wins the card game/battle. When the “routed army” begins to run away in line 371, confusion sets in. The speaker uses a parody of an epic simile in lines 371–376 to compare the losing cards with a confused army retreating from battle.

Lines 391–414

The speaker foreshadows “the fall” of Belinda’s lock of hair in elevated language, comparing it to the fall of Eve in Paradise Lost. After the card game is finished and the Baron relishes his victory, coffee is served to the guests. Another convention of epic poetry is parodied, the epic repast or feast wherein warriors refresh themselves after battle or during a long journey. The speaker luxuriates in the lavish detail of the coffee beans, silver pots, lacquered tables, and delicate chinaware of the “feast.” However, the strong smell of the coffee travels to the Baron’s brain and inspires him to new stratagems to get the lock of hair. The speaker compares the Baron to Scylla in Greek mythology, the daughter of Nisus who was punished and turned into a sea bird because she cut from her father’s head the purple lock upon which his safety depended.

Lines 415–436

Suddenly, Clarissa, one of the Baron’s assistants—and also the heroine of a famous novel by Samuel Richardson—draws a pair of scissors out of her case. The speaker compares this action with the knight who is presented a battle-axe before a joust. Just as Belinda bends over to smell the fragrant aroma of coffee, a thousand sylphs rush over to guard her hair. They attempt in vain to warn Belinda by blowing back her hair and twitching her earrings. Ariel himself tries to enter into Belinda’s thoughts to warn her, but he gives up in vain, resigned to the disastrous fate.

Lines 437–468

The “fatal engine” or the scissors held by the Baron draw close to Belinda’s lock; at the last moment, a sylph interposes and gets cut into two. Pope’s use of phrases like “fatal engine” for scissors (line 439) or “the finney prey” for fish (line 174) are examples of poetic diction, a highly refined system of words used for exaggeration here but used seriously by lesser eighteenth-century poets. Poetic diction was criticized by later generations of poets and critics who felt that words elevated too far beyond their common usage distorted their meaning. While the sylph’s parts can soon come together because he is made of a magical airy substance, as the scissors close, the lock is permanently severed from Belinda’s head. Belinda screams as the lock falls into the Baron’s hands. The Baron yells “the glorious prize is mine” and praises the scissors, comparing them with the Greek swords that brought down the walled fortress-city of Troy in the Iliad. The Baron yells that his honor, name, and praise will live forever because of his great conquering act of snipping the lock of hair— much like Odysseus did as he was leaving the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops in the Odyssey.

Lines 469–484

Ariel, the guardian sylph, cries bitterly and flies away. Because of the loss of her lock, Belinda feels more rage, resentment, and despair than all the scorned kings, virgins, and lovers of history— according to the speaker in his typically hyperbolic fashion. A melancholy gnome named Umbriel, whose name suggests shade or darkness, travels to the cave of Spleen. This is a digression or sub-plot and not a part of the main action of the poem. Queen Spleen is the Queen of all bad tempers, ill-nature, affectation, and every negative human quality. This section focusing on Umbriel’s journey is a parody of the journey to the underworld that takes place in traditional epics such as Odyssey, Aeneid, and Paradise Lost.

Lines 485–546

The gnome Umbriel travels through the gloomy recesses of the underworld into the cave sheltered from all sunlight and air. Once Umbriel approaches the throne of Spleen, he notices the Queen’s attendants and the languid, sickly atmosphere surrounding the place. Strange specters, phantoms, and snakes arise from the ground. The cave surely seems to be the pits of Hell. Umbriel begins his speech to Spleen in line 525, singing her praises because of her powers. Spleen rules over women with her “vapors” of hypochondria, melancholy, and peevishness. These were actual diagnoses used to describe the maladies of fashionable ladies of Pope’s day. Spleen makes women act with inappropriately bad social manners. Umbriel says that Belinda has disdained Spleen’s powers on earth because of Belinda’s beauty and happiness. Umbriel asks Spleen for some power to touch Belinda with ill humor because if Belinda suffers, half the world will suffer with her (another of many wild exaggerations).

Lines 547–556

The cave goddess Spleen grants the request of Umbriel, giving him a bag filled with terrifying noises such as those expressed by female lungs: sighs, sobs, passions, and complaints typically associated with disappointment in love. This is an allusion to Homer’s Odyssey, in which Odysseus gets a bag of winds from Aeolus, the god of wind, in order to propel his ship. In a vial, Spleen places fainting fears, sorrows, griefs, and flowing tears. The gnome rejoices and his black wings carry him away, back to earth.

Lines 557–588

Umbriel travels back to earth and finds Belinda in Thalestris’ arms. Thalestris, another character from Rosicrucian mythology, is Queen of the Amazons, who are fierce and warlike women. Umbriel pours over Belinda’s head the bag of noxious noises given to him by Spleen. Thalestris magnifies Belinda’s suffering by chastising her, blaming her “rape” or loss of the lock of hair upon her carelessness; Ariel had attempted to warn Belinda in Canto I about such a catastrophe. Thalestris asks what good the elaborate beauty preparation did when Belinda fell prey to the Baron’s scissors? Thalestris complains that fashionable ladies and gentlemen are talking behind Belinda’s back about the rape and Belinda’s loss of reputation. For someone who so values the pleasantries of social discourse amongst the upper crust, this is a fate worse than death. Meanwhile, the Baron gazes upon his “inestimable prize” of the lock of hair as it is encased in a ring upon his hand. All of Belinda’s honor appears to be lost.

Lines 589–608

Thalestris goes to her brother, Sir Plume, and requests that he go to the Baron and demand the return of the lock of Belinda’s hair. Sir Plume curses against the loss of the lock and considers the whole episode a worthless waste of time. However, Sir Plume honors Thalestris’ request by going to the Baron. The Baron refuses to return his precious prize as long as he lives because he feels he won it for himself. The Baron wants to wear the ring with the lock of hair forever—against the prophecy given by the goddess Love in Canto II.

Lines 609–644

In these lines, Umbriel breaks the vial of sorrows, tears, and griefs over Belinda’s head as she continues her intolerable suffering. Canto IV concludes with a long speech of lament by Belinda, in which she cries for the return of happy times. Belinda expresses regret that she ever came to Hampton Court and played ombre with the Baron. Belinda wishes that she had led a simple country life instead of entering into the dangerous affairs of polite society. If Belinda had kept her beauty concealed, she feels that she never would have suffered. Belinda would have dutifully uttered her prayers at home. In line 633, Belinda finally recalls the speech of Ariel, her guardian sylph who had warned her of the disaster. But Belinda did not listen at the time. Now, the other lock of hair sits “uncouth, alone” upon Belinda’s head as she suffers in vain. If only she had listened to Ariel!

Lines 645–678

Thalestris’ attempt to retrieve the lock through Sir Plume has failed. Clarissa, who had given the Baron the pair of scissors, speculates in a long speech about the vanity of women and the stupidity of the men who court them. All the luxuries of the rich are wasted upon this idle game of courtship, says Clarissa, since beauty must fade with age. These superficial attributes of beauty and charm pale in comparison with lasting qualities. The speech is summarized in the couplet in lines 677–678: “Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll; / Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.” Clarissa’s speech is a parody of a speech given by the Greek warrior Sarpedon to Glaucus in Homer’s Iliad. Alexander Pope knew the Iliad and Odyssey so well because he had translated both of them from Greek into English. Today, Pope’s translations are still highly regarded.

Lines 679–700

Belinda frowns after Clarissa’s speech. Thalestris calls Clarissa a prude for her moralizing tone. Thalestris gets ready an army of sylphs for another epic battle, the concluding action of the poem. Umbriel, sitting on a candlestick holder mounted on the wall, delights at the prospect of another battle, clapping his wings.

Lines 701–756

While the battle between Thalestris and Belinda’s enemies, the Baron and Clarissa, rages on, Belinda surprises the Baron by pouncing upon him in line 720. Belinda throws some snuff into the Baron’s face to confuse him and to make him sneeze. “Now meet thy fate,” Belinda yells to the Baron as she draws a “deadly” weapon from her side—a bodkin or ornamental pin. The speaker compares Belinda’s pin with Agamemnon’s scepter in lines 733–740 in another parody of an epic simile. Belinda demands restoration of the lock. According to the speaker, Belinda is more fierce than Shakespeare’s Othello when he screamed for the return of Desdemona’s handkerchief. However, confusion reigns supreme and no one can locate the lock of hair. After all this fighting and quarreling, the prize has apparently disappeared.

Lines 757–794

Belinda’s precious lock of hair cannot be found. Perhaps the lock has gone to the moon “since all things lost on earth are treasured there” (line 758), apparently a popular belief of the time. The moon is also home of heroes’ wits, love letters, broken vows, lovers’ hearts, courtiers’ promises, and other tokens of tender passions. However, the muse of poetry—either John Caryll or Calliope—saw the lock rise towards heaven and become a star. The speaker compares this ascension of the lock to Romulus of Roman mythology, the legendary founder of Rome who was snatched up to heaven in a storm cloud while he was reviewing his army. Thus, the lock will become visible to astronomers and consecrate Belinda’s name to eternity. Belinda has at last achieved her desired honor.



“The Rape of the Lock” concerns a teenage coquette whose lock of hair is cut off by a suitor. Ordinarily, such an act would be regarded as bizarre, but certainly not as terrible as the “rape” mentioned in the poem’s title. However, to the characters of the poem, the ruin of one’s hair is like a rape, since their egos are so all consuming that they think of little besides their own appearance.

The poem’s protagonist, Belinda, is one of the most vain creations in English literature. A spoiled and beautiful girl, she begins the poem by awaking from a prophetic dream, the important contents of which she forgets because she opens her eyes on a love letter, which appeals to her vanity and thus causes her to dismiss more important matters. Pope’s long description of Belinda’s readying herself for her trip to Hampton Court likens the application of her makeup to a religious service: the “sacred rites of pride” that Belinda initiates (with the help of her lady-in-waiting, an “inferior priestess”) reveal the great attention she pays to her appearance. Once at Hampton Court, Belinda flirts with “well-dressed youths” to draw attention to herself, and her skill in doing so reflects the degree to which she has perfected her coquettish arts:

Her lively looks a sprightly mind disclose,
Quick as her eyes, and as unfixed as those:
Favors to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.

Belinda knows she is beautiful and uses her beauty as a way to satisfy her desire to be noticed and admired.

Belinda, however, is not the poem’s only proud person: the baron, who covets Belinda’s beauty and aspires to possess her, has an ego to rival that of Belinda. After being defeated in a card game by Belinda—and thus humiliated at such a prominent

Topics for Further Study

  • Write a short story that shows the foolishness of male or female vanity. Set your story in an imaginary land that you have made up just for this occasion.
  • Compare Poepe’s poem to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is also extremely lengthy. Which poet’s style do you think makes reading a long poem easier? Which story is a reader more likely to become absorbed in? Why?
  • Do you agree with the roles of the two sexes as shown in Pope’s poem? Refer to specific examples in explaining your thoughts.

social gathering—the Baron cuts Belinda’s hair (or “rapes her lock”) to assert himself after such a devastating defeat. After snipping and seizing the hair that was Belinda’s trademark, the baron exalts his power to the sky and bombastically boasts of his strength:

“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!”

Like Belinda, the baron is obsessed with his reputation and status—both of which he assumes will skyrocket with his possession of the lock. In a poem where egos as large as these clash, the reader is invited to examine his or her own ego to see if it ever approaches such ridiculous heights.


While Belinda is certainly vain, she also possesses an undeniable beauty. Her very name means “beautiful” in Spanish, suggesting that she is the personification of physical attractiveness. Ariel, her guardian sylph, addresses her as “Fairest of mortals” and tells her that a troop of airy spirits hover round her, always on the lookout to address any lapses in beauty that might occur:

“Our humbler province is to tend the Fair . . .
To save the powder from too rude a gale,
Nor let the imprisoned essences exhale;
To draw fresh colors from the vernal flowers;
To steal from rainbows e’er they drop in showers
A brighter wash; to curl their waving hairs,
Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs;
Nay oft, in dreams invention we bestow,
To change a flounce, or add a furbelow.”

Belinda is so “fair” that her invisible army perfects her “powder” and “fresh colors” (makeup), “imprisoned essences” (perfume), and “waving hairs,” as well as the ornaments of her dresses (“a flounce” or a “furbelow”). Only the “fairest of mortals” warrants such treatment.

When Belinda arrives at Hampton Court, Pope describes the effects of her beauty on all who see her; calling her “the rival” of the sun, he remarks that “every eye was fixed on her alone.” Pope even remarks, “On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore, / Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore,” stressing, in the poem’s hyperbolic fashion, the power of Belinda’s physical charms. Pope also narrows the reader’s focus to Belinda’s locks, which epitomize her overall beauty, and its effect on the men who see it:

Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.
With hairy springes we the birds betray,
Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey,
Fair tresses man’s imperial race ensnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair.

Here, Belinda’s hair—and, by extension, her beauty—is likened to a trap: as materials like hair are used to catch birds and fish (the “finny prey”), Belinda’s hair is so stunning that it “ensnares” all who gaze at it. This, according to the poem, is an unalterable law of nature—a law whose truth is demonstrated in the acts of the baron, who “the bright locks admired” and who “implored / Propitious Heaven” to gain the “prize.”

After Belinda’s hair is “raped” by the baron, she is naturally upset and laments her newly-marred appearance. However, Pope informs her in the poem’s final lines that her lock has become a constellation, forever brightening the night sky like the lock of Bernice, the wife of Ptolemy III whose hair was also enshrined in the stars. The poem’s final couplet—“This Lock the Muse shall consecrate to fame, / And ’midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name”—explains that Belinda’s beauty will be forever admired, as true beauty has been since people first gazed at the sky. Like the stars themselves, Belinda’s beauty is a source of inspiration to all who see her; and it always will be.


“The Rape of the Lock” is the finest example of a mock-epic in English. The poem’s 794 lines are divided into five cantos or sections. The word “canto” is derived from the Latin cantus or song; it originally signified a section of a narrative poem sung by a minstrel. “The Rape of the Lock” is written in heroic couplets, lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming aa, bb, cc, and so forth. The description “heroic” was first used in the seventeenth century because of the frequent use of such couplets in epic poems. This couplet style was first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Pope was the greatest master of the metrical and rhetorical possibilities of the heroic couplet; he turned this concise, restrictive form into a dynamic world of ideas and characters. Pope achieved diversity of style within the couplet by changing the position of the caesura or line break. He expertly balanced the two lines, often using a slight pause at the end of the first line and a heavy stop at the end of the second line. Moreover, he frequently balanced a statement of a thesis and antithesis somewhere within each line, as in these lines from his “Essay on Criticism:”

Careless of censure, nor too fond of fame; Still pleased to praise, yet not afraid to blame; Averse alike to flatter, or offend; Not free from faults, nor yet too vain to mend.

The caesura moves around within each line, sometimes coming after four syllables and sometimes after seven. Moreover, Pope balances a main idea or thesis within each line with a statement of its opposite or antithesis. He displays great ingenuity and wit in his skillful compression of ideas. The structure of “The Rape of the Lock” roughly corresponds to that of many epics: invocation to a muse (Canto I), conference of the protective gods (Canto II), games and epic banquet (Canto III), the journey into the underworld (Canto IV), and heroic battle and climax (Canto V). Pope both satirizes and honors the elevated style of epic poetry and many of its conventions such as a formal statement of theme, division into cantos, grandiose speeches, challenges, boasts, description of warriors’ battle equipment, warfare, epic similes, and supernatural elements. However, the poem ridicules the silly social manners of the aristocracy and deflates the elevated sense of importance in the affairs of wealthy ladies and gentlemen. Yet, the poem also displays some fondness for the grace and beauty of that world. Pope enjoys all the ivory and tortoise shell, cosmetics and diamonds, expensive furniture, silver coffee service, fancy china, and light conversation—this was the world in which he moved attempting to find patronage for his poetry.

Historical Context

The eighteenth century is alternatively known as “The Enlightenment” or “The Age of Reason,” two labels indicative of the era and the personality of the time. In the broadest sense, the term eighteenth-century literature encompasses writing from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s collection of Romantic poems, Lyrical Ballads, in 1798. Of course, literary periods overlap, and new styles and attitudes do not arrive or disappear as with the flip of a switch. However, one can gain a general understanding of eighteenth-century literary forms and content by examining the ways in which historical events shaped the minds of the writers living through them, as well as reviewing the subjects of some of the era’s most notable books.

The seventeenth century saw the outbreak of a terrible civil war, in which Puritan Parliamentary forces clashed with Royalist supporters of King Charles I. Eventually, the Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, prevailed, and in 1649 Charles I was tried and beheaded by the victors. A period known as the Interregnum began, where Cromwell led the country as Lord Protector until his death in 1658, when his son, Richard, assumed the title—only to abdicate and set the scene for more national chaos. Eventually, through a series of negotiations, Charles II—the former king’s son—was brought out of hiding and returned to London, where the monarchy was restored in 1660. England now yearned for an era of lasting peace, which it mostly enjoyed, although peace was deterred by the outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London, which occurred in 1666. Civil unrest and war, therefore, drove the English mind to search for ways in which to establish an ordered understanding of the world, and this search was fueled by the 1662 formation of the Royal Society, an organization of scientists working to share their findings with each other.

As scientists struggled to cultivate a view of the world based on reason rather than superstition, authors of the time likewise sought to explore their world from an intellectual rather than emotional stance. In 1660, John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, a philosophical work exploring (among other things) the ways in which the five senses apprehend the world and thereby form one’s mind. The year 1726 saw the publication of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, a satiric look at the ways in which mankind abuses his reasonable faculties. In 1755, Samuel Johnson completed what could be called the most representative eighteenth-century work: his Dictionary of the English Language. This first, exhaustive English dictionary reflects the Enlightenment desire for order, for a dictionary’s primary purpose is to fix the language at a given point in time. Even recreation was viewed as an orderly activity, as seen in the publication in 1760 of Hoyle’s Rules for Whist and Other Popular Card Games. Other notable monuments to reason published in this era include the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1768), Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature (1774), Burke’s Reflections of the Revolution in France (1760), and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776).

Part of the era’s love of reason manifested itself in a renewed interest in heralded classical authors, resulting in the era sometimes being called the Neoclassical Age. Homer’s Iliad (composed circa 750–650 B.C.) was viewed as the pinnacle of poetry, and when Pope began his translation of this epic in 1715 (completed in 1720), he guaranteed himself financial stability. Because of the great number of readers familiar with Homer’s epic, Pope was able to parody it in both “The Rape of the Lock” (1714) and “The Dunciad” (1728). Like many poets of his day, Pope felt that his work, in part, should illuminate the tendencies of humanity as a whole; in this sense, art was thought to be a kind of science, which examined the world as intensely as the Royal Society. Pope’s satiric style, keen wit, lofty diction, and strict meter are all qualities associated with Enlightenment poets; his stature as a public figure—rather than a solitary, “tortured” artist—is also indicative of the way writers were perceived by the reading public. However, the publication (and success of) Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798 took poetry in a new direction, away from the reason-based literature

Compare & Contrast

  • 1687: Sir Isaac Newton publishes his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), the revolutionary book containing his work on gravity. The book marks the Enlightenment as a time of great scientific progress.

    1859: Charles Darwin publishes his Origin of Species, the work containing his theory of natural selection.

    1921: Albert Einstein publishes The Meaning of Relativity in which he explores the workings of the space-time continuum. His mathematical formula for relativity is added to the book in 1950.
  • 1755: Samuel Johnson finishes his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, printed in two large folio volumes.

    1884: The Oxford English Dictionary, containing the history of every word in the English language, begins publication, which will be complete in 1928.

    1986: The final supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary is published.

    Today: The Oxford English Dictionary is available on CD-ROM.

  • 1720: Pope publishes the final books of his translation of Homer’s Iliad, which proves to be very successful. His translation is written in rhyming (or “heroic”) couplets of iambic pentameter.

    1990: After a period of years in which the general reading public’s interest in Homer has declined, Robert Fagles, a professor at Princeton University, publishes his translation of the Iliad to rave reviews and surprisingly high sales. Fagles’ translation is written in a looser meter than Pope’s.

of the Enlightenment and into the emotionally charged Romantic era.

Critical Overview

The criticism on a major author like Alexander Pope is so rich that a brief survey cannot adequately account for the diversity and breadth of analysis. However, the following three critics (one each from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries) agree on Pope’s enormous achievement. Samuel Johnson, one of Pope’s contemporaries, writes in “Pope” in his Lives of the English Poets that “The Rape of the Lock” is “the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions,” in which “new things are made familiar, and familiar things made new.” According to Johnson, “The Rape of the Lock” exhibits to a high degree the two most engaging powers of an author. Johnson says Pope creates a race of imaginary creatures never witnessed before and presents them in a style in perfect accord with his purpose. Although Johnson says the poem’s subject is “below the common incidents in common life,” he praises Pope’s wit and imagination in carrying off such an excellently silly composition. William Hazlitt wrote in “On Dryden and Pope” in his Lectures on the English Poets and the English Comic Writers that he considered “The Rape of the Lock” to be “the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented.” Hazlitt praises Pope’s ability to lend a decorous beauty to every element in the poem from characters to props to dialogue and description. Hazlitt writes that “a toilette is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the Goddess of Vanity, and the history of a silver bodkin [a pin] is given with all the pomp of heraldry.” According to Hazlitt, the true achievement of the poem is its ability to balance concealed irony and apparent seriousness. Great things are made trivial and trivial things elevated to ridiculous heights, leaving the reader dazzled and uncertain as to whether he or she should laugh or cry. A more recent evaluation by Stanley Edgar Hyman in “English Romanticism” in Poetry and Criticism: Four Revolutions in Literary Taste demonstrates several ways of interpreting “The Rape of the Lock.” In general, Hyman says it would be a mistake to look for hidden political messages, Marxist yearning for revolution, or mythological renderings of Belinda as the corn maiden “raped” by the Baron in a fertility ritual. However, Hyman goes on to find exactly these types of hidden meanings in the poem because it is so rich and allusive. Hyman believes that perhaps critics have been too easygoing in their reading of the poem, not finding the hidden messages that Pope carefully left behind. Perhaps most appealing to Hyman are the hidden sexual messages: “The poem is one vast comic symbolic defloration. . . . ‘Lock’ is a pun on Freud’s lock that all keys fit. . . . Its rape by the baron is a sex act.” Hyman also finds ample evidence for political and mythological interpretive possibilities. “The Rape of the Lock” seems capable of supporting many different kinds of readings.


Daniel Moran

Moran is a secondary-school teacher of English and American literature and has contributed to Drama for Students and Poetry for Students. In the following essay, Moran examines the ways in which Pope manipulates the reader’s reactions to Belinda’s vanity.

Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.

Jonathan Swift

The ease with which many readers of “The Rape of the Lock” cultivate a sense of superiority toward Belinda could cause one to assume that such a reaction is both solicited and warranted by Pope. “This silly girl,” a reader may invariably argue, “is a fool. Her concerns over her appearance, and her overblown reaction to losing her hair mark her as one of literature’s most shallow characters.” One may argue that Pope is satirizing people like her— the vain, the pompous, the self-absorbed—and stand correct, for if (according to Hamlet) frailty is the name of woman, then vanity is surely the name of Belinda. But this understandable attitude toward her is more of a critical quick-fix than what Pope actually asks readers to consider, for if the main thrust of the poem is to attack Belinda’s lack of substance, surely a poet as deft as Pope could have done so in less than five cantos. A more satisfying reading of the poem examines the ways in which the poem (to again quote Hamlet) “holds a mirror up to nature.” In other words, it is easy to scorn Belinda; but is that all Pope is asking the reader to do? Swift’s description of satire, cited above, likens it to a mirror in which one sees the faults of others, but never (because of vanity) those of him or herself; the problem lies not in the glass, but in the gazers. Readers of satire often feel that the joke is on somebody else; but a careful examination of “The Rape of the Lock” reveals that it works in much the same way as Swift’s mirror, and ultimately asks the reader if he or she can see his or her own figurative face in Belinda’s. In other words, to dismiss Belinda as an egoist and decide that the poem satirizes people like her only accounts for part of the poem’s meaning. Ultimately, the poem suggests that there is something worthwhile about Belinda, after all; and that she does possess something, the force of which no reader can deny. The poem works as Swift’s satirical glass, gently mocking those who gaze into it and forcing them to see themselves as well as the “Belindas” of the world.

To understand fully how Pope’s satiric glass operates, one must first examine the ways in which Pope manipulates the reader’s reaction to Belinda and her world. Every work of art presupposes its own world with its own values, assumptions, and laws; and the world of “The Rape of the Lock” is initially one where “normal” human attitudes toward beauty and love are reversed. The opening lines feature three seemingly unanswerable questions:

Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle?
Oh, say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?
In tasks so bold can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwell such mighty rage?

The first question here is a logical one, but the second seems ridiculous: the speaker finds the rejection of a lord more puzzling than the lord’s physical assault of a belle. Thus the reader is introduced to the dominant characteristic of the poem’s world: it is a place where assault is curious, but rejection is almost unexplainable; and social graces are more important than one’s real worth as a human being. This inversion of “normal” assumptions marks the milieu in which Belinda thrives, and Pope is never subtle about this point. His description of Belinda’s toilet is a clear example of the way in which Pope invites his reader to laugh at his heroine:

And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
First, robed in white, the nymph intent adores,
With head uncovered, the cosmetic powers.
A heavenly image in the glass appears;
To that she beds, to that her eyes she rears.
The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,
Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride.

The emphasis on Belinda’s physical vanity (the table where she applies her makeup) suggests a religious devotion to her emotional vanity: words like “mystic order,” “robed in white,” “powers,” “heavenly,” “priestess,” “trembling,” and “sacred rites” all combine to exaggerate the importance Belinda places on her appearance. Her beauty is her religion, and who cannot but laugh at a person so devoted to something so ephemeral and (as the adage goes) skin-deep? “Yes, I care about how I look,” the sensible reader says. “But she is ridiculous!” Indeed, she is, and the description of her cosmetics’ effects again stresses Belinda’s lack of depth: her makeup “awakens every grace” by making a “purer blush arise” and “keener lightnings quicken in her eye.” Paradoxically, only the addition of something artificial brings “purity” and “grace” to her appearance, as the world of the poem is one in which seeming is more important than substance. At this point, the reader sees only the faces of the vain in Pope’s satirical mirror.

After thus establishing Belinda’s vanity (and soliciting the reader’s amused disapproval of it), Pope throws Belinda into Hampton Court, where the inversion of “normal” values is further stressed and established as a rule:

Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;
Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,
Does sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.

As he does throughout the poem, Pope here employs a zeugma, a figure of speech where unlike things are yoked together with a single verb for comedic effect: thus, the problem of “Foreign tyrants” is as terrible as “nymphs at home,” and Queen Anne’s “counsel” is as important as her “tea.” In the world of the poem, local scandal is on a par with international upheaval, in keeping with the overall idea that the seemingly trivial parts of life (beauty, hair) are here regarded as monumental. Pope often employs a zeugma to reinforce the degree to which the values of those in the poem’s world are off-kilter. For example, when Ariel runs through the possibilities of what the omen might portend, he considers:

Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honor or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball;
Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must

“In other words, to dismiss Belinda as an egoist and decide that the poem satirizes people like her only accounts for part of the poem’s meaning.”

Belinda’s losing her virginity (“Diana’s law”) is on a par with a “frail china jar”; her “new brocade” needs to be defended as thoroughly as her “honor”; forgetting “prayers” is as sinful as forgetting a “masquerade”; her “heart” and “necklace” carry equal weight, as does the fate of Shock, her lapdog. The entire poem hinges on these kinds of comparisons—in this world, losing one’s hair elicits reactions like one would find in a poem about an actual rape. This is why, after the baron uses the “fatal engine” to cut the lock, he boasts of his conquest in language that only the most innocent reader could fail to read as smacking of masculine sexual triumph:

What Time would spare, from Steel receives its
And monuments, like men, submit to fate!
Steel could the labors 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
The conquering force of unresisted Steel?”

These words belong more in the mouth of a theatrical Roman soldier, fresh from the ravishing of a virtuous virgin, than that of a spiteful playboy. Of course, that is part of Pope’s design: as the words of the title are incongruous and zeugmatic so are the characters’ motives and reactions. Both the baron and Belinda respond to the rape with language more suited to an actual act of violence and terror than the cutting of one’s hair. Belinda’s reaction to her rape sounds like the one Thomas Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield would make almost two-hundred

What Do I Read Next?

  • Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism” (1711) is a long poem in which he prescribes his rules for good poetry and attacks a number of poetic clichés.
  • Like “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope’s “An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735) is a satirical work; this time, Pope’s targets are the amateur poets who constantly seek his approval.
  • One of Pope’s four Moral Essays (1735) is subtitled “Of the Characters of Women;” this poem is an interesting companion piece to “The Rape of the Lock” in the ways that it treats what Pope saw as the concerns and personalities of women.
  • Jonathan Swift’s poem “The Progress of Beauty” (1719), like “The Rape of the Lock,” examines the ways in which cosmetics altar a woman’s appearance.
  • The American novelist Henry James’ second novel, Roderick Hudson (1875), concerns a sculptor who, like Pope’s baron, is haunted by the beauty of a striking woman.
  • Samuel Johnson’s series of essays known as The Rambler addresses a number of topics; his “Rambler 155” (1751) examines the ways in which one’s own vanity prevents him or her from taking advice. This is a good essay to read after considering Clarissa’s speech about “good sense.”

years later, after her literal rape by Alec D’Urberville:

Happy! ah, ten times happy had I been,
If Hampton Court these eyes had never seen!
Yet am I not the first mistaken maid,
By love of courts to numerous ills betrayed.

But any pity one could have for Belinda is immediately undercut by the fact that she never denies her own beauty—the only thing she seems to have learned is that Hampton Court is a rough place, not that one’s appearance is hardly worthy of all this trouble. She describes herself as a victim of her own beauty, one too perfect for the imperfect world in which her admirers live. So the reader presses on, feeling superior to the superficial Belinda and confident that he or she can laugh at her, rather than with her. As the reader gazes into the glass of satire, he or she still sees only the face of Belinda.

The reader’s sense of superiority is heightened when he or she reads the speech of Clarissa in Canto V. Leaping out of the poem as the apparent voice of reason, she admonishes the zeugmatic values of those around her and urges Belinda to consider her virtue instead of her vanity:

How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains;
That men may say when we the front box grace,
“Behold the first in virtue as in face!” . . .
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.

This is exactly the kind of “literary moral pill” that many readers like to swallow: it tells the reader what he or she already suspects while simultaneously patting him or her on the back for having suspected it in the first place. It offers sound advice: beauty and charms only please one’s senses, but a person’s worth is much more important. The inversion of values that has characterized the poem seems momentarily halted, as if Pope is calling a time out before wrapping things up.

However, the question remains: Who is really listening to these words of sense? Surely not Belinda or any of the other characters, who begin their final melee of dirty looks and slanderous accusations without showing any signs of heeding Clarissa’s advice. But also deaf to Clarissa’s advice is Pope himself, who transforms the lock into a constellation, destined to hover in the heavens forever. The poem’s last ten lines, where Pope speaks directly to his heroine, contain the poem’s greatest surprise and expand the breadth of Pope’s satire:

Then cease, bright nymph! to mourn thy ravished
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.

These lines force the reader to reevaluate his or her attitude toward Belinda. Pope’s attitude toward her seems very much like the reader’s: he placates her by appealing to her vanity, telling her that her lock will forever “draw such envy”; she is, in effect, immortalized. However, the question remains of why, if Belinda is so superficial, she is rewarded at the end of the poem with her own constellation? The answer is simple: she is beautiful. Despite what readers may have been taught by their parents and teachers about a person’s looks (and locks) being unimportant, despite the reader’s mounting his or her high horse throughout the poem, despite Clarissa’s sage advice, and despite even Pope’s own attempts to portray her as the most shallow of coquettes, Belinda does possess something—like the stars—that is nonetheless inspiring. Merit may “win the soul” (as Clarissa remarks), but beauty ignites it. Only the insensible would deny the powers of beauty, and only the reader looking for an easy moral could read Pope’s poem and feel wholly superior to Belinda at its end. Scorning Belinda is effortless, but turning Swift’s glass of satire to the readers’ own faces—and thus seeing how Belinda’s reward is one that cannot be denied her— demands more from a reader solely interested in seeing only Belinda’s face in the satirical glass. Part of the overall joke therefore lies in the fact that, because of the reader’s own vanity, he or she may have a difficult time seeing him or herself in Belinda. She may be unbearably vain, but only slightly more so than other people—for who will deny that he or she is susceptible to the powers of beauty, whether in the night sky or the face of a fellow human being? Gazing into Swift’s mirror and finding other people ridiculous only serves to assuage the very egos that readers might fault Belinda for possessing. Rather, everyone, in a sense, is a “Belinda”: a lover of beauty who finds it inspiring and fascinating. If not, why would anyone spend time gazing at the Mona Lisa, admiring Michelangelo’s David, listening to Mozart’s symphonies, or reading poems as wonderfully crafted as Pope’s? Everyone knows they are supposed to live by Clarissa’s words, and, much of the time, they do. But it is impossible to deny that readers are also entranced by the very beauty that they say is so trivial when reading the poem.

At the end of George Orwell’s 1984, Winston Smith is finally brainwashed into submission by the Totalitarian Party; the famous last sentences read, “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” Like Winston, Pope’s reader may try to rebel against the great concern for beauty shared by the characters—but, in the final analysis, he or she must, like Winston, submit to an undeniable power. Readers do love Belinda, precisely for the

“Part of the poem’s charm, as well as its richness and complexity, lies in the fact that this literary form creates a variety of levels of meaning, frequently challenging the reader’s expectations.”

very things they claim to be unimportant as they read the poem. Only after finishing it and stepping back do they see themselves in Swift’s glass. “The Rape of the Lock” is therefore not only a satire of people like Belinda, but also of those who would deny the power of her beauty.

Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on “The Rape of the Lock,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Mary Mahony

Mahony is an English instructor at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, Michigan. In the following essay, she discusses Pope’s use of the mock-epic form to create both the humor and the multiple levels of meaning in Pope’s poem.

In “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope uses the mock epic to present a multi-layered exploration of the foibles of the genteel society of the eighteenth century in a manner that is both satiric and sympathetic. Part of the poem’s charm, as well as its richness and complexity, lies in the fact that this literary form creates a variety of levels of meaning, frequently challenging the reader’s expectations. Symbols are open to multiple interpretations; words can be seen as innocent or shocking. Issues of importance and triviality are often confused. The title itself provides a clear illustration of this technique as it pairs the harsh, sexually violent connotations of the word rape with the delicate use of lock to describe the pillaged curl. This word use engages both critics and casual readers in an exploration for meaning. Most critics believe that the exaggeration implicit in the title phrase indicates the extreme foolishness of making such ado about nothing. A few, however, take the rape more seriously, feeling that the poem ultimately admits, given the rules of the society in which it is set, that a violation has actually occurred. “The Rape of the Lock” is filled with a multitude of such contrasts that keep critics debating still.

Pope employs this mock-heroic style to satirically recount the social turmoil that occurred when Lord Petre impulsively snipped off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, creating hostility between their two families. The genre seems ideally suited to the topic, since it combines the elegant language and tone of the literary epic with subjects that are more suitable for satire than seriousness. To fully appreciate Pope’s handling of this style, however, it is necessary to review some of the history and characteristics of epic poetry. The epic poem has a long tradition in literature. These works recount events of national or historic importance, starring heroes and gods. They employ skillfully polished language and images, enhancing a dramatic presentation of conflicts involving serious moral issues. Homer’s classic narratives of the Trojan War and its aftermath, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are perhaps best known to the modern reader. However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the epic form was a mainstay of literature. Homer’s classics, along with other works such as Virgil’s Aeneid and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, were widely read and analyzed. In fact, since the Renaissance, literary theorists such as Le Bossu, whose work Pope greatly admired, had attempted to codify rules for the epic form. While Pope himself challenged some aspects of the rigid application of a code to the epic form, certain key elements are standard in most epic literature. The mock epic form adapts many of the standard characters and situations of these traditional narratives and presents them in a tone and style that are seemingly inappropriate for such trivial matters. Much of the allure of “The Rape of the Lock” occurs as the epic machinery is deflated from its original stature in a heroic-comical style, presenting contrasts that underscore the poem’s humor. These contrasts also endow the work with its various levels of complexity and meaning.

The first epic convention that appears is the “Invocation to the Muse.” In the opening six lines of Canto I, Pope acknowledges his muse and friend, John Caryll, who requested that he create a work that might defuse the animosity between the two families by allowing them to see the humor in the incident. This invocation carefully imitates the elevated style of the traditional epic. It also sets up the poem’s theme or proposition, involving the battle between the sexes rather than a war between nations. Readers familiar with the form will immediately appreciate the contrast between style and subject since the theme of sexual bantering is traditionally the province of comedy. Because Pope operates on multiple levels, however, the reader should recognize that the introduction does include a serious purpose, since the poem is, in actuality, an attempt to ameliorate a dispute.

Epics center around a hero or heroes. These are usually warriors who embody a whole series of masculine values: bravery, honor, and wisdom. When Pope introduces the poem’s “hero,” however, convention is again reversed. Instead of the traditional male champion, the reader meets a female, Belinda, who is still asleep in bed, indulging in a dream. The spirit in this dream first flatters Belinda then tells her of other spirits that surround her. His message ends, however, with a warning:

I saw, alas! some dread event impend,
Ere to the main this morning sun descend . . .
This to disclose is all thy guardian can:
Beware of all, but most beware of man.

This section illustrates Pope’s use of the elevated language of the epic style. It also includes visions, guardian spirits, cryptic warnings—all frequent elements of epic form. The humorous contrast centers around the substitution of the trivial (the dreadful event that is foretold is, after all, only the loss of a piece of hair) for the significant, such as warnings of losses in battle, of betrayal, of the wrath of the gods. Ironically, however, the final warning proves genuine. Belinda is right to beware of man. Several critics also point out the relationship between this incident and Eve’s dream in Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Like Belinda, Eve is first flattered, then warned in a dream of the danger that lies ahead of her. Both women, of course, ignore the warnings and succumb to their fate. The eighteenth-century reader would recognize an additional level of irony in the juxtaposition of these two falls: the banishment from Paradise and the loss of a lock of hair.

The final lines of Canto I introduce another epic convention. This type of literature frequently dwells on the preparation for battle as the warrior dons both his armor and his virtue. In a parody of these martial displays, Pope presents Belinda’s preparation for her foray into the war between the sexes. While the description is filled with ordinary feminine devices such as combs, pins, puffs, and powder, Pope greatly enhances the importance of a simple make-up session. First, he elevates the cosmetics themselves:

This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
The tortoise here and elephant unite,
Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.

In addition, he uses military images to describe Belinda as she dons her beauty to enter the fray: “Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms.” Critics differ in their interpretation of this section. Some find the satire caused by the feminization of the warrior’s rituals cruelly mocking of Belinda and therefore of women, believing that the poem has a misogynistic undertone. Others, however, believe that in spite of the irony, Pope demonstrates an admiration for Belinda’s beauty, an acceptance of her right to do all she can to win the admiration of those who surround her. They feel the poem critiques the values of the society itself, rather than one individual. Thus while Canto II may indicate that Belinda is somewhat shallow, as she smiles graciously on “all alike,” it is society that is truly guilty because it allows itself to be blinded to any faults by her beauty: “If to her share some female errors fall, / Look on her face and you’ll forget ’em all.”

Canto II includes other lines that also deal with the artificial values of this society. In the traditional epic, the warrior is the representative of the noblest ideal of the society; if he is defeated, the entire society is likely to fall. In contrast to this, lines 105–110 list some possible disasters in eighteenth-century society:

Whether some nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail china jar receive a flaw,
Or stain her honor or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball:
Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must

Not only do these “disasters” fall short of the enormous consequences of a true epic, the list indicates a total inability to distinguish the trivial from the meaningful. Thus losing virginity is paired with getting a stain on a new dress.

One of the most ingenious reversals of traditional epic form comes in Canto III where the traditional battle is replaced by a game of cards. Military imagery abounds throughout this section. Belinda’s opponents are referred to as “adventurous knights.” She is presented as a leader of a powerful army: not only do her spirit guardians descend to assist her, but the cards themselves are given personalities. In true epic fashion, the game rages back and forth, with Belinda winning the early skirmishes and eventually the game itself. Pope’s detailed description of each separate trick is both humorous and suspenseful. However, it proves only a prelude to the real battle in the Canto, the Baron’s assault on Belinda’s hair. Pope’s description of that momentous snip takes eight extravagantly dramatic lines as the scissors slowly open, then close on both the lock and a Sylph who gallantly tried to intervene. Belinda’s reaction is immediate, loud, and out of proportion. Lines 445–450 compare her grief to the shrieks that occur “when husband, or when lapdogs breathe their last.” The Canto ends with a reference to Troy, a city that seemed—like Belinda—invincible, until deceit and trickery brought the Greeks inside the city’s walls. Given the fact that even mighty Troy could be destroyed, the speaker states it is no wonder that Belinda herself should fall victim to the “conquering force of un-resisted Steel.” Pope blends the serious and comic elements so skillfully throughout this Canto that, although the game of cards is merely a humorous counterfeit of a true epic battle, it is engaging in its own right. The overblown language of the final sections mocks the incident, the reaction, and the values of the society, yet, to many critics, the overall drama of the Canto makes Belinda, the ultimate loser in the skirmish, a figure who is not entirely unsympathetic.

The epic element in Canto IV involves a descent into the underworld that Pope vividly portrays as a gloomy cave where ill-nature and affectation serve the Goddess Spleen. The word spleen was open to multiple interpretations for the eighteenth-century reader, including anger, melancholy, and various sexual and emotional problems that plagued women. In this cave of “strange phantoms” and “expiring maids,” the gnome Umbriel successfully begs the Goddess to “touch Belinda with chagrin.” As a result, her outrage reaches new heights. Belinda curses the entire day in a long speech, whose final lines contain an example of the sexual double entendres that occur throughout the poem: “Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these.” While the phrase may be interpreted as innocent (if poorly phrased) regret, it seems more likely that Belinda would rather lose her virginity than mar her beauty.

Canto V recreates the epic form in a speech by Clarissa who advocates common sense and good humor, concluding that “merit wins the soul.” Clarissa’s advice is clearly adapted from Sarpedon’s noble speech in Book XII of the Iliad. Many critics feel it provides the poem’s true moral. While

“This low style to discuss high things is an interesting reversal of the usual practice in the rest of the poem, where a very elevated style, full of heroic and mythic allusions, is used to discuss low things, like a card game or Belinda putting on her make-up.”

the final Canto does not resolve the conflict, Pope’s narrative concludes with divine intervention, as the lock ascends to the sky, thus permanently establishing Belinda’s role in the firmament.

Pope’s portrait of Belinda and her world is remarkably rich and detailed. His use of the mock-epic form invites the reader to explore this world from different perspectives since “The Rape of the Lock” contains a maze of meanings and images. Each journey through the poem can provide new and unexpected revelations.

Source: Mary Mahony, Critical Essay on “The Rape of the Lock,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Sheldon Goldfarb

Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, he discusses Clarissa’s speech in Pope’s poem.

Clarissa’s speech stands out in Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.” As John Trimble puts it, in his essay “Clarissa’s Role in ‘The Rape of the Lock ,’” Clarissa sounds like a grown-up talking to children. Belinda and the other characters in the poem are mostly interested in dancing, flirting, putting on make-up, playing cards, and stealing a lock of hair. Clarissa, in contrast, talks of serious things: aging, disease, and death. For this reason, critics have sometimes taken her for Pope’s mouthpiece, as the voice of seriousness in the midst of frivolity. There is even encouragement to do this in a note appended to Clarissa’s speech. This note, which first appeared in the 1751 edition of the poem after Pope’s death, says that Clarissa was a new character introduced in later editions to “open up more clearly the Moral of the Poem. . . .”

Following the suggestion of the 1751 editor, most critics have accepted the note as being written by Pope, but it is not clear that it was. Even if it was, it is not clear that people should take it seriously: Pope was a master of irony, after all. And even if people are to take the note seriously, what exactly does it mean? That people are to accept Clarissa’s attitude to life: that she speaks the moral directly? Or does it perhaps mean something a little more complicated? Perhaps Clarissa opens the moral in spite of herself, revealing something she herself does not understand.

Some critics do simply accept Clarissa’s view as being Pope’s own. Reuben Brower, in his essay “Am’rous Causes,” sees her as “the voice of common sense in the midst of much ado about nothing.” Aubrey Williams, in his essay “The ‘Fall’ of China and ‘The Rape of the Lock,’” speaks of “the fundamental validity of Clarissa’s attitude.”

In contrast, other critics point out that the supposedly virtuous Clarissa who speaks such apparent good sense in Canto V is the same character who earlier helped the baron cut off Belinda’s lock. John Trimble sees her speech as her means of continuing a jealous attack on Belinda. Robin Grove, in The Art of Alexander Pope, speaks of her “high-minded insincerity.” Reuben Brower notes that though she talks of serious things, Clarissa’s language is low and common, bordering on burlesque.

This low style to discuss high things is an interesting reversal of the usual practice in the rest of the poem, where a very elevated style, full of heroic and mythic allusions, is used to discuss low things, like a card game or Belinda putting on her make-up. The mock-heroism in the rest of the poem creates a double vision of Belinda’s world: the contrast with true heroism and with religion, the fact that Belinda keeps her Bibles with her make-up, and the fact that glittering appearance and reputation matter more in Belinda’s world than does true virtue—all these things suggest that her world is superficial and trivial. And yet, as critics such as Cleanth Brooks and J. S. Cunningham have noted, despite the mockery of Belinda’s world, there is admiration for it in Pope’s poem. Pope makes this world seem attractive, charming, and fun.

But long before Clarissa raises more serious matters in Canto V, Pope lets people know that there is a sterner world beyond Belinda’s, a world where “wretches hang that jury-men may dine,” an uglier, unfair world, in other words. The baron, in a way, is part of that uglier world. Although he moves in the same circles as Belinda, he functions as something of an intruder or even a marauder. In Belinda’s world, there is empty but charming flirtation. She is constantly smiling yet rejecting—but rejecting without giving offence. The baron, however, gives great offence, by cutting off Belinda’s lock of hair. In doing so, he breaks the spell surrounding Belinda’s world and introduces an ugly note, marked by such words as “force” and “fraud,” “ravish” and “betray.” This is the ugly outside world breaking into Belinda’s fashionable one, as it is no doubt bound to do. One can’t live forever in a world of charming glitter: that is one of the points of Clarissa’s speech. Smallpox will strike, she says, or old age: “frail beauty must decay,” she explains, and even the most charming of locks will turn to grey.

To this extent Clarissa does indeed talk sense. She is quite correct to point out the realities of life (and death). And yet she combines this accurate perception with an approach to life that is not particularly inspiring or heroic. Not only is her language low, as in such phrases as “trust me, dear!” but when examined closely, her message seems rather limited.

At first it seems that Clarissa is criticizing the emptiness of such things as the attentions that “white-glov’d Beaus” pay to beautiful young women. “How vain are all these glories,” she says. If one stopped stopped reading there, Clarissa might seem to be advocating a moralistic rejection of the whole notion of women seeking to win men. But in fact Clarissa is not telling Belinda and others to give up the pursuit of men; she is saying she has a better way to pursue them. If people finish the rest of her sentence about the vanity of pursuing men, they find that she is merely saying that it is vain to pursue them if one has no means of holding onto them, and though beauty may attract, only good sense can hold onto what has been attracted:

How vain are all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains

Clarissa ends up recommending good sense, good humour, and virtue, not as ends in themselves but as ways to hold onto men. It is instructive to compare what she says with what Pope wrote to the real Belinda (Arabella Fermor) when she got married. As reported by Valerie Rumbold, in Women’s Place in Pope’s World, Pope told Arabella that he was sure she would become “a great many better things than a fine Lady; such as an excellent wife, a faithful friend, a tender parent, and at last as a consequence of them all, a saint in heaven.”

Pope based Clarissa’s speech on his own translation of a heroic speech by Sarpedon in Homer’s Iliad. Sarpedon spoke of pursuing virtue as an end in itself; Clarissa, sounding much less heroic, speaks of pursuing virtue as a means to hold on to men. One might object that Clarissa cannot possibly match Sarpedon’s heroism or virtue because she lives in a non-heroic world; but in his letter to Arabella, Pope showed how one could talk heroically even on a non-heroic scale. Pope could have had Clarissa tell Belinda to look to such serious things as being a good wife and mother; instead, he has her advocate a better way to hold on to a man.

The result is that it is hard to take Clarissa seriously. And yet her speech does help open the moral, though not in the way she intends. Clarissa reminds people that there is a cruel world out there, one they have had glimpses of already: a world of death and decay. Clarissa also warns people that dancing and dressing up will not stave off this death and decay. The real world will eventually destroy the beautiful fantasy world in which Belinda moves, just as the baron destroys the beautiful arrangement of her hair. Clarissa’s conclusion, based on these perceptions, is that one should give up the fantasy world and be virtuous, win a man you can hold onto, and settle down as a good housewife.

But is this what Pope is recommending? “The Rape of the Lock,” for all its mockery of Belinda’s world, essentially celebrates that world. The poem as a whole does not seem in accord with what Clarissa recommends; rather than give up Belinda’s glittering world, the poem encourages people to enjoy it and indulge themselves in it. Clarissa may indeed be the grown-up in the poem, but there are pleasures in being a child, and the poem celebrates those.

The point seems to be, and this emerges in part because of Clarissa’s speech, that people should value Belinda’s world precisely because it is so fragile, because it is transient, because all its charms will eventually decay. Critics like Cleanth Brooks and Aubrey Williams have noted the depiction of fragile China jars in the poem and have suggested that one should see a comparison between the fragile jars and Belinda’s chastity, which, in Williams’ words, “is somehow rendered more precious . . . by recognition of how easily it can be marred or shattered.” This comparison should perhaps be extended to Belinda’s whole world: the beau monde as a whole is like a fragile China jar, to be valued all the more for its fragility.

It is instructive to note that Clarissa does not get the last word in the poem. Instead, the ladies reject her advice and return to a flirtatious “war” with the gentlemen, the culmination of which is a cry to “Restore the Lock.” Of course, the lock cannot be restored to Belinda’s head, but in a way the lock is restored at poem’s end: Pope has it elevated to the heavens, where it will be adored long after other locks have turned to dust. Pope’s closing lines remind people again, as did Clarissa, that death will come; but in the face of death he seeks to make the lock immortal, the lock that symbolizes Belinda’s world of fashion and fantasy. The true moral of the poem, then, is that it is precisely because of life’s serious aspects that people must treasure its less serious ones.

Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on “The Rape of the Lock,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.


Brower, Reuben A., “Am’rous Causes,” reprinted in Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Rape of the Lock,” edited by G. S. Rousseau, Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 52–68.

Grove, Robin, The Art of Alexander Pope, excerpt reprinted in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House, 1988, pp. 33–65.

Hazlitt, William, “On Dryden and Pope,” in Lectures on the English Poets and the English Comic Writers, edited by William Carew Hazlitt, George Bell and Sons, 1894, pp. 91–113.

Hyman, Stanley Edgar, “English Romanticism,” in Poetry and Criticism: Four Revolutions in Literary Taste, Athenaeum, 1961, pp. 85–128.

Johnson, Samuel, “Pope,” in Lives of the English Poets, Vol. II, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 223–344.

Pope, Alexander, “Essay on Criticism,” in English Critical Essays, edited by Edmund D. Jones, Oxford University Press, 1922.

———, The Poems of Alexander Pope, Yale University Press, 1993.

Rumbold, Valerie, Women’s Place in Pope’s World, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 80.

Trimble, John, “Clarissa’s Role in ‘The Rape of the Lock,’” in Texas Studies in English, Vol. 15, 1974, pp. 673–691.

Williams, Aubrey, “The ‘Fall’ of China and ‘The Rape of the Lock,’” reprinted in The Rape of the Lock, edited by David G. Lougee and Robert W. McHenry Jr., Merrill, 1969, pp. 119–128.

For Further Study

Bernard, John, ed., Pope: The Critical Heritage, Routlage & Kegan Paul, 1973.

This collection features original reviews of Pope’s work when it first appeared. It provides some of the very first reactions to “The Rape of the Lock.”

Johnson, Samuel, Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1952.

This anthology of Johnson’s writing features his entire Life of Pope, which was published in 1781, thirty–seven years after Pope’s death.

Mack, Maynard, Alexander Pope: A Life, W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Mack’s text is an exhaustive and definitive biography of Pope that illuminates his poetry as well as his times.

Rousseau, G. S., ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Rape of the Lock,” Prentice-Hall, 1969.

These collected critical essays feature examinations of the poem’s mock-heroic elements as well as a section of shorter critical passages.

Tillotson, Geoffrey, ed., Eighteenth Century English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969.

This brilliantly edited anthology features extensive selections by Pope, copious notes to the allusions in his poems, and a short but comprehensive introductory essay on Enlightenment literature as a whole. This is a valuable source for the student who wants to learn about the literary climate of Pope’s day.