English Literature » Notes » The Rape of the Lock: A Mock-Epic

The Rape of the Lock: A Mock-Epic

The Rape of The Lock is an excellent example of mock-epic or heroi-comical poem in English Literature. The epic had always been considered as the most serious of literary forms; it is grand in style, deals with weighty subject; Its personages are dignified. For example- Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

In contrast, the mock-epic is a poetic form which uses the epic structure but on a miniature scale, and has a subject that is trivial and unimportant. The purpose of the mock-epic or mock-heroic poem is satirical. In fact, a mock-heroic poem is not a satire on poetry itself, but the target of the attack may be a person or an institution or the whole society. Though, the subject of such a poem is trivial or unimportant, the treatment of such subject is heroic or epic and such exaggeration of the trivial naturally arouses laughter.

The grand style with which Milton applied the genre of epic to the intricacies of the Christian faith is evident of its heights. Pope, in a seemingly lofty manner of great epics, wants to expose the life of the nobility of his time. He does not want to mock the form of epic rather his aim is to mock his society in its very failure to rise to epic standards. He exposes the meanness of his age’s nobility by contrasting it with the bravery and noble height of traditional noble heroes. He makes his purpose clear in the beginning of the mock epic:

What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing …slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.

Where Milton used blank verse to suit his grand task, Alexander Pope has used heroic couplet to “trivialize the grandeur”. He has purposely involved such content that is trivial to suit his goals in writing a mock epic. His scope is purposefully narrow as well as his style purposefully light-hearted. Pope declares that his poem will treat “amorous causes” and “mighty contests,” the usual subjects of epic poetry. His characters are no gods or of great sizes. He creates a world of miniatures whether it is in the form of degradation of human character or the aerials that aid Belinda. The subject of the poem is the Baron’s love for Belinda’s icon (her hair). Therefore, the poem’s “mighty contests” arise from the theft of Belinda’s hair, and not from the revolt of Satan in Heavens, his defeat or “man’s first disobedience”.

Say what strange motive, goddess! could compel
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle?
O say what stranger cause, yet unexplored,
Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?

Pope has presented the careless and casual response of aristocracy in matters of life; he presents a society where high ups are busy in pursuit of their own goals though trivial and vain. The society on display in this poem is one that fails to distinguish between things that matter and things that do not. What they care about is their own personal life, card games, pomp, vanity and a life that is matchless to the ordinary and the common. He makes fun of their stupid deeds. He considers it serious that a woman’s hair is cut but by the nobility because she has rejected a lord and such crimes are frivolities and funs of life! There is a war! Alexander Pope exposes moral values prevalent in nobility by use of irony:

In tasks so bold, can little men engage?
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?

Pope has made fun of women and their unthinking minds which are concerned for their beauty aids alone. He presents Belinda like an epic heroin. The stakes in this mock-heroic epic are Belinda’s maidenhood. Pope does not invoke a heavenly muse like Milton rather Ariel reads of bad omens: “Beware of all, but most beware of Man!” Belinda’s performance of her toilette, assisted by Betty, her “inferior priestess”, is described as the arming of the epic hero: “Now awful Beauty put on all its arms” and then poet describes the various creams and perfumes on Belinda’s vanity invests them with a value and exoticism they don’t deserve: “Unnumbered treasures,” “glittering spoil,” “India’s glowing gems,” and “all Arabia breathes from yonder box”. The “Fairest of Mortals” has “unnumbered Spirits round” flying as guards:

To Fifty chosen Sylphs, of special Note,
We trust th’ important Charge, the Petticoat.

Like great epic poems, we find aerial creatures in this poem too. While numberless fallen angels are at hand for Satan to build a meeting place of gold; there are unnumbered sylphs which help Bellinda protect her chastity. They are punished if they are careless:

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 stopt in Vials, or transfixt with Pins.