Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great classical epic. Pope developed a heroic mock-epic in the eighteenth century. Pope follows the tradition of a classical epic with a slight difference that he produces The Rape of the Lock as a mock-heroic epic.
In the ordinary sense, it may be taken to be a parody or imitation of a classical epic. It means all the elements of a classical epic invocation, theme, characters, composition, sensuous descriptions, emotions, high imagination and mock-heroic style are present in it. But there is a lack of high seriousness for the motive of The Rape of the Lock is to produce humour.
Following the structure of a classical epic like Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pope introduces the theme and invocation in the opening lines. The post points out the great irony of human life.
It is strange that love becomes the cause of terrible incidents and small matters become the cause of serious conflicts. The poet has composed this epic at the suggestion of his friend John Caryl. Belinda is the heroine in the epic.
The poet hopes that both the Persons will appreciate his labour and work. The theme of the verse is ordinary yet the Muse will bless him and his work shall earn admiration.
The poet asks the Muse to guide him in the matter by telling why a refined lord attacked a gentle beautiful lady unlawfully. He does not know why the lady did not accept the proposal of love made by the handsome lord. In such bold matters, ordinary people can’t be involved. It too is very strange that a soft-hearted lady becomes so angry.
Milton’s Paradise Lost introduces a noble theme but being a mock-heroic epic The Rape of the Lock introduces a comic theme.
A Baron cuts off a beautiful lock of hair from the head of a beautiful lady. No doubt the act is shameful and is not important in the least for mankind.
Yet Pope makes it a theme for this epic. For it is a mock-heroic epic in which an important thing is presented as an unimportant thing and likewise a quite unimportant thing is claimed to be very important.
A classical epic consists of inspiring characters as we see in Paradise Lost that even Satan’s character is highly inspiring. But in this mock-heroic epic, the characters are lacking in nobility.
They are comic characters. For example, the hero is hardly heroic in his action; he wants to get possession of the beautiful bright locks hanging behind the ivory white neck of fair Belinda.
He wants to get it done by fair or foul means. He knows success is important. Nobody thinks if it is obtained by honest or dishonest means. First of all, he attempts at pleasing the gods. For it, he gets up before the sun-rise and begins to worship all gods and goddesses yet he prays chiefly the god of love.
Pope divides the whole action into five cantos. Canto I introduces the characters as well as Ariel’s warning that a misfortune may fall in Benindas life that day.
The action is limited to one day. It tells about the supernatural machinery and Belinda’s make-up. Belinda looks very beautiful when the make-up is over.
In Canto II the poet describes Belinda with other youths in a boat in the middle of the river Thames. There are a number of well-dressed youths but all eyes are fixed only on Belinda. Belinda is already so beautiful yet she has grown two beautiful ringlets of her hair.
The Baron decides to possess a lock. Arial posts his sylphs to protect Belinda. In Canto III the poet tells about the majestic beauty of Hampton Court.
Belinda plays the game of Ombre and defeats the Baron. She shouts in joy. At this time she is very happy without knowing that just a few moments after she has to suffer miserably.
Her pride of getting victory shall be removed. She will remember this day as a sorrowful experience.
The game of cards is over. It is time to drink coffee. Coffee affects the Baron also. His brain becomes sharp enough to make a plan for possessing Belinda’s bright lock. The poet warns the Baron not to act like a thoughtless hasty youth.
Baron cuts off the lock and claims that he is the greatest victor. In Canto IV Belinda shows her grief. Ariel decides to leave Belinda when he sees the image of an earthly lover in her heart. Umbriel, a gnome, visits the cave of Spleen.
The spleen is the goddess of melancholy. The cave of Spleen shows strange sights. Men imagine that they are pregnant. There are girls who claim to be bottled.
The goddess of Spleen gives a bag and a bottle filled with quarrelling force of women, the force of their lungs, sighs, laments and anger. In Canto V they all fight like warriors with extraordinary weapons like pins and snuff boxes, smiles to work as weapons.
Belinda succeeds in defeating the Baron. By that time the lock of her hair is seen mounted to the Moon. Now the lock illuminates others like a star.
Pope shows his high imagination in the introduction of the new type of supernatural machinery. Pope points out how these strange creatures are called sylphs to perform wonderful activities.
Some sylphs perform higher duties and regulate the movement of planets. Some inferior sylphs move heavenly bodies at night in the sky. Some sylphs dip their wings in the rainbow.
Ariel points out that sylphs perform great activities like the raising of terrible tempests in the ocean or causing gentle rains in fields and farms.
Some sylphs dominate human activities by watching their behaviour and guiding their actions. They guard the nations and their greatest guard is the British crown.
Having discussed the important duties performed by sylphs, Ariel talked about their less important duties. One of them looks after a beautiful girl. This duty is very amusing but it is not important.
When the winds are strong, rude sylphs control them to save powder on the faces of beautiful girls. Pope shows how in the cave of Spleen people imagine strangely that their bodies are changed to different shapes.
One person claims to be an earthen pot while the other claims to be a stool with three legs and walks strangely. A person imagines it to be a jar and takes a long sigh of grief.
It all happens under an illusion based on strong imagination. There are girls who claim to be bottled.
Mock Heroic Style
In The Rape of the Lock, Pope uses the mock-heroic style. In this style, the great is placed with the small as well as the important with the unimportant. For example, Pope has used ‘mighty contests’ with trivial things.
But the best example of mock-heroic style appears when Ariel thinks over probable misfortunes that may trouble Belinda. She may lose her virginity or her beloved decorative piece of China clay may get a hard shock or fall on the ground.
She may spoil her respect or a new silk dress. She may neglect her religious duties or forget to attend a programme of entertainment. She may fall in love with someone or lose a costly necklace. Ariel fears that a greater loss may be in the form of an injury to her pet dog named Shock.
It suggests that for a girl the breaking of a China jar is as important as the loss of her chastity. Another example of this style appears when the poet accounts for the importance of hair.
Belinda’s beautiful locks of hair are like a labyrinth, a complex arrangement. It is difficult to come out of it. The passion of love succeeds in enslaving the youngmen by winning their hearts with the help of the beloved’s beautiful hair.
Great warriors are imprisoned in the bright hair of a beautiful girl. Beautiful hair enslaves kings and emperors.
Use of Mythological References
The epic is full of mythological references. The poet warns the Baron not to act like a thoughtless hasty youth. He should check his foul action before it is too late. He should not think of cutting off Belinda’s lock for it is a very serious matter.
Before doing the act he should think about the Eternal Justice of God. He should think about Scully’s fate. She had cut hair from her father Nisus’ head and for that crime, she was punished heavily. She was turned into a sea bird and sent to fly in the air.
Pope refers to gods and goddesses taking part in the battle. Against Pallas the goddess of wisdom, Mars, the god of war; and against Latora, Jupiter’s wife; Hermes, the messenger of gods, takes arms.
The moral of the epic appears in Clarissa’s speech. According to Clarissa, physical beauty is temporary and weak enough to decay; it is not important if the hair is curly or attractive.
In old age, the locks are bound to be grey. They should use the power of their beauty in making all happy Then the loss of physical beauty will not affect their honour.
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.
The Aim of Mock Epic
The chief aim of a mock-heroic epic is to satirise the evils spread in contemporary society and The Rape of the Lock is counted among the greatest satires. It is a perfect satire in the sense that its purpose is to improve the manners of society.
Pope passes satire on the vain romanticism of the fashionable young boys and girls of aristocratic families. But he has not spared any section of society where he finds corruption.
Pope satirizes the weaknesses of women in a mock-heroic style. Ariel satírises the immortality of women when we see that even after their death, their love for clubs and card games does not end.
They remain active in invisible form. Now they cannot play but they simply watch the players and enjoy themselves. There is a satire on beautiful women for their loose character. They spend much of their time dancing and enjoying themselves in the clubs or before the dressing table.
They do not care for prayers but love letters are more important for them. The toilet scene in The Rape of the Lock is a great satire on the craze of women. Even after putting on makeup, Belinda tries to look more beautiful by smiling.
Pope has satirized contemporary young boys also. Their only work of life is to flatter and seduce the beautiful ladies. In the club, there are many well-dressed young men but all of them are thoughtless fools. Thus, it is a perfect satire and performs the purpose of a true mock-epic.