"Discuss the DIRECTION and EFFECT of Pope's SATIRE in The Rape of the Lock with particular reference to his use of the MOCK-EPIC. (looking at either Canto 2, 69-142 or Canto 3, 125-177)"

"The triumph of the Baron's rape is in exactly the same high language as it would be if he were Hector." In The Rape of the Lock, Pope uses the mock-epic style to satirise the seriousness with which a trivial misdemeanour (the theft of a few strands of hair) and the ways of gender polarised society can be blown beyond all sense of proportion.

Thus the male mentality, through the Baron, is portrayed as lacking depth or personality beyond that required to achieve its ends; men objectify and devise "strategems" (4,120) to conquer their female obsessions; they are "victor[s]" (4,162) who self-importantly congratulate themselves as meriting "wreaths of triumph" (4,161) when they have seized what they desire. The Baron claims that the "glorious prize" is his in perpetuity, whilst many conditions which will never be fulfilled ("while fish in streams, or birds delight in air" 4,163) remain unfulfilled. In this satirising of the epic mould such trivial occurrences are substituted in place of truly fantastic possibilities (mighty cities falling, for instance) for the purpose of putting the lock's severing into a more realistic perspective—this is made even more explicit in the following canto (4,8 "[no-one ever] felt such rage, resentment, and despair / as thou, sad virgin! for thy ravished hair"—meaning that perhaps Belinda over-reacts, in Pope's opinion, just ever-so slightly.) He also then reinforces his satire with a broadening of humour, and a stab in the direction of then-popular culture: specifically, "Atalantis" (4,165) was no great enduring writing but a cheap, scandalous work of fiction, "notorious for its thinly concealed allusions to contemporary scandals", perhaps analogous to Jeffrey Archer's novels today.

The interaction of the sexes is reduced to a mockery of warfare (conflict being a strong underpinning motif of epic literature) as evidenced by the Baron's feinting approach to Belinda (4,158 "thrice the foe drew near")—which recalls the drama of the card game earlier in the canto. There is a comparison of the resilience of Belinda's hair (in resisting the steel of the scissors) to the "imperial towers of Troy" (4,174), and also, the line "what time would spare" suggests that the hair possesses an unnatural vitality. Further related to this is Clarissa's aiding of the Baron. As in the epic mould, hers is a crime of passion: Scylla acted for love of Minos, Clarissa acts, as an older woman and one of the "ladies of romance" (rather than looks?), for jealousy of Belinda—and the epic imagery employed, being out of place, serves to make Pope's point all the more vividly. His use of satire here extends to women in society and their winning of a man at any cost, particularly to the detriment of their fellow women. When Pope says that Clarissa is the one to "present the spear" (4,130), he does not say that the Baron is armed for his fight, but that Clarissa's purpose is to "arm him for the fight" (4,130—my italics), which suggests that she has as much of a stake in bringing down Belinda as does he.

When the Baron plots, Pope's reference to Greek classic (in which stolen hair saw the thief polymorphed into an animal) is used both as a personal commentary and to disguise that commentary—to state that he disapproves of the rape (it is the muse's voice which says: "cease, rash youth!" 4,121), but not be blatant or overtly condemnatory in that disapproval. However, Pope is not as total in his respect for Mistress Arabella as he suggests in his foreword (in which he says "any mortals may enjoy the most intimate familiarities with these gentle spirits, upon a condition very easy to all true adepts, an inviolate preservation of chastity", and raises her to this level) because he then goes on, in his poem, to suggest that it is Belinda's fault that the Sylphs are unable to preserve her lock... because she harbours impure thoughts. Mock epic—whether intentional or otherwise—facilitates an underhand commentary on the real-life subject of the poem's satire.

Following on with the role of the Sylphs, one of the most important points to note about the end of the second canto is that epic machinery is made, not omnipotent, but is reduced to the level of powerlessness: the fact remains that Ariel tries to save Belinda, but is stopped by a fault of her mind. The machinery is not only ineffectual in this context: the sylph "too fondly interposed" (4,150) between the blades is cut in twain, but is insubstantial; and so is reconstituted. In truth, the sylph has no effect—and is likewise unaffected. The sense of this is that Pope is derogating epic's fundamental power—not only is he producing a mock epic, he is by proxy mocking epic itself; a reading which contrasts with earlier ones such as Porter's (who believes that "Pope is not satirizing the epics, he is finding the right parody-form for a poem on the intrinsic order of life.")

Obviously the ultimate aim of the poem is to mitigate the severity of the liberty taken in the theft of the lock (as seen in the minds of those involved in the familial dispute.) Mock epic assists Pope in achieving this without being seen to trivialise the assaulted feelings of the victim—the high language and drama of his work accords to the act of the lock's severing a grossly inflated significance, which retains enough of its epic origins not to be viewed as derisive sarcasm. As a satirist Pope is therefore presenting for the appraisal of his readership the notion that the loss of the lock does not deserve the intensity of ill-feeling which has resulted from it.


The Norton Anthology of English Literature 6th Edition, Volume 1, 1993

A Choice Of Pope's Verse, edited by Peter Porter, Faber & Faber, 1971