The Rape of the Lock as a Mock-heroic Poem by Alexander Pope

A mock-heroic poem is a poetic form based on the epic structure on a miniature scale to deal with a trivial theme. It has all the characteristics of an epic poem. The epic deals with a theme concerning the fate of mankind in an elevated style. But the purpose of a mock-heroic poem is satirical; to make the subject look ridiculous by placing it in a framework entirely inappropriate to its importance. Both Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe of John Dryden have epic features but they are written on a much smaller scale than real epic. The Rape of the Lock is the best known and most brilliant example of its kind.

With supreme tact delicate fancy, playful acts, and the gentlest satire, Pope elaborated the trivial episode which occasioned the poem into the semblance of an epic in miniature, “the most newly” perfect “heroic-comical poem” in English. It mocks at the maximum amount of the epic. It is the general mockery of the epic form, the epic manner with its invocation, its similes, and its frequent use of epic machinery. Apart from this, there is a particular mockery of a scene or a detail on a certain speech or a comment by the poet. But the scale of mockery is always varying.

The poem abounds in echoes of the Iliad,  Aeneid, and Paradise Lost. Thus, the poem constantly forces the reader to compare small things with greats. The familiar devices of the epic are observed but the incidents and characters are beautifully proportioned to the scale of mock-epic. The Rape of the Lock tells of war, but it is the drawing-room war between the sexes; it has its heroes and heroines but they are beaux and belles.

The poem opens with an invocation to the Muse of Poetry in the epic style. The poet tells the Muse that John Caryll suggested this poem and that Belinda inspired it. Pope knew that the action of the mortals is not enough because in the ancient epics the affairs of men were assisted or opposed by heavenly powers. So to introduce the supernatural elements in his poem, he took the help of the Rosicrucian philosophy. He, therefore, added four bodies of fairy creatures- Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs, and Salamanders as agents in the story. The sylphs protect the honor and chastity of the ladies who reject male sex. Belinda, the heroine is under the special protection of the sylphs. But their devotion is not enough to save the lock when the peer attacks advance to the attack.

The use of the grand style on little subjects is not only ludicrous but a sort of transgression against the rules of proportion and mechanics. Pope has describes the protecting sylphs under Ariel, a name borrowed from Shakespeare, “the light militia of the lower sky.” In that, the sylphs are the parodies of epic deities.

The Rape of the Lock contains a number of parodies of Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Spenser, and Milton. Belinda’s voyage to Hampton Court suggests the voyage of Aeneas up the Tiber in Virgil. The coffee party is a parody of the meals frequently described in Homer. Belinda’s petticoat is treated as the shield of Ajax while her lament reminds us of Queen Dido of Virgil. At the end of the poem, there is combat that recalls such fighting as may be found anywhere in the ancient epics. The cave of Spleen is a parody of an allegorical picture and the examples of such parodies are found in Spenser.

An outstanding mock-heroic element in the poem is the comparison between the arming of an epic hero and Belinda’s dressing and her use of cosmetics in order to kill. Belinda arms for a battle and she takes it quite seriously as an epic hero when he prepares himself. The epic phrase for armor, “glittering spoil,” wittily suggests that the description of a society lady resembles the arming of Achilles.

The parallels to Paradise Lost in The Rape of the Lock are numerous. We can point out three major parallels between these two poems. First, there is the dream of pride and vainglory insinuated into Belinda’s ear which recalls the dream insinuated into the even ear in Book V and VI of Paradise Lost. Second, there is the mass of Belinda’s dressing table, where she worships herself and this scene vividly recalls the newly born even admiration of herself as mirrored in the pool of Eden in Paradise Lost, Book IV. The third parallel is the most crucial. It happens just before the cutting of the lock. At this time Ariel searches out the close recesses of the Virgin’s thought. There he finds an earthly lover lurking at her heart. This echoes clearly the moment in Paradise Lost when the angelic hosts retire mute and sad to heaven after the fall of Adam and Eve.

The two battles in the poem are given an ironically inflated treatment in which there are several echoes of Troy and Carthage. The card game is an unconscious amorous skirmish. The second battle has even more of the heroic elements in it. In this battle, “fans clap,” silks rustle and tough “whalebones crack” are used. Belinda uses her formidable weapons- a pinch of stuff and a bodkin.

Let us conclude with the words of I.S. Cunningham, that it is a poem largely distinguished among mock-epics. This “most airy, the most ingenious and the most delightful work” will live long for its being a mock-heroic poem.


Founder & CEO, Hamandista Academy  

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