The Rape of the Lock is, in its title page, described as a heroic-comical poem. The mock-heroic is singularly effective in exposing the follies of the fashionable society without betrayal of rancour.
Lord Petre had, in an amorous prank, cut off a lock of hair of a society beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, to her great indignation. Out of this trivial incident, Pope makes an epic with Invocation, supernatural machinery, battles and other epic paraphernalia. The Invocation is the conventional epic address to the Muse.
Say, what strange motive, Goddess! Could compel
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle.
What was merely a social frivolity had acquired the lofty note of a classical epic. And the supernatural beings who attend the charming heroine, Belinda, impart fairy brilliancy to the poem. The attendant sylph was much perturbed over some calamity threatening Belinda
Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law
Or some frail China receive a flaw
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Or stain her honour, or her new brocade
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade.
Here is a delicious jumble of secular and religious values, and this we find again in the clutter of “puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux” on Belinda’s dressing table. We find a similar mixture of disparate objects when husbands are equated with lap dogs. All these are of equal value to Belinda, whose world moves according to its own code of rules.
In mock-heroic fashion Belinda’s toilet is to an altar raised to the goddess of vanity. Her adorning parallels Achilles’ donning of armour. Her sallying forth in a barge on the Thames recalls Aeneas’ voyage up the Tiber. In the card game of ombre with its kings, queens and battles, the scattering of the cards is likened to the dispersal of a routed army. The scissors that severed Belinda’s locks are compared to the weapon that razed Troy. The loss of the curl is compared to the loss of an empire when Troy fell, and Belinda’s lament to Dido’s lament on her desertion by her lover Aeneas. The visit to the Cave of Spleen parodies Aeneas’ journey to the underworld. The battle of the beaux and belles is dignified by comparison to a cosmic convulsion in a war of the Olympian gods and goddesses. Everywhere the solemnity of treatment contrasts with the shallowness of events.
In this mock-heroic epic, Pope also uses the tricks of style of Homer and Virgil, for instance, the rhetorical question, inversion of the order of words and personification, which also add to the heroic colouring of the poem.
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