The Rape of the Lock
Poem, 1712–14
730 lines,
approx. 5,500 words

First line:

What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—

Great lines:

Oh! If to dance all night and dress all day,
Charm'd the smallpox, or chas'd old-age away;
Who would not scorn what housewife's cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use?

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.

About the author:

Alexander Pope is one of those old literary guys you've heard of, but you've never read, right? You certainly don't know any of his poetry. Or do you? Ever heard the.... more

It really broke them up in 1712

I'm not sure why The Rape of the Lock is Pope's most famous poem.

I can understand why it might have been popular in its day. It satirizes an incident that was infamous in a certain aristocratic crowd at the time, in which a lord snatched a lock of hair from a prominent young lady. Pope supposedly first wrote a short version of the poem to end the quarrel between the two. The names are changed but it's so clear (to readers of the time) who is being depicted that Pope prefaces it with a disclaimer, telling the lady in question the poetic Belinda "resembles you in nothing but beauty".

It's humorous in a pseudo-learned kind of way. Pope himself calls it "heroi-comical". Nymphs and fairies, who have nothing better to do than devote their nether lives to watching our heroine and swooning over her wonderfulness, help Belinda with her toilet in preparation for a social event at which a fateful card game is to take place. The game is presented as an epic medieval battle and the attack on the victorious lady's hairdo by the losing Baron is as perfidious an act as ever carried out against humankind, a disaster as momentous as the fall of Rome. It's played out over pages of hyperbole intimating the end of Christendom and civilization may be at hand.

So it's funny ha-hum. And yes, it's a sharp satire on the vanity and pretentious lifestyle of the upper classes of the day.

But to get through the long poem with your humour intact, you have to understand so many references to ancient literature and mythology. It's tiring work with little pay-off for the reader of any period in my opinion.

But, now you know what I think, listen to what a present-day admirer says of it. Angus Ross writes in an introduction to Pope's Selected Poetry:

This masterpiece of mock-heroic technique starts as a joke arising from an actual incident, but contains some very powerful, even tragic, poetry. It shows several themes and attitudes characteristic of Pope's later work: his attack on his society for not realizing its potentialities; his half-unwilling admiration for English opulence; his moral concern with leading the good life; and, in Belinda, his awareness of the predicament of women, creatures of nearly irresistible passion living in a man's world of reason and reputation.

Read the poem and tell me which of us you agree with.

— Eric

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The Rape of the Lock
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Alexander Pope

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Poetry
Sonnets

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Sonnets
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The Rape of the Lock
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