Legendary Pioneer in Literature: Alexander Pope

English essayist, critic, and satirist Alexander Pope was recognized as one of the world’s greatest poets during the Enlightenment period. One particular literary piece that Pope became well known for was his creative satire, The Rape of the Lock.

The traditional epic was an extravagant tale, revolving around the ideal and mighty hero and his quest, always extending beyond the ordinary confinements of society.

In the text Pope tells the story of a young girl, Belinda, who is attempting to catch a man.

Ultimately, Belinda recognizes her beauty, and thinks that all a man wants to do is admire her from a distance. Every hair, every lash, and every piece of clothing has to be perfectly placed and displayed so that she can entice and flatter the man of her choice.

Belinda cannot dream of ever getting a man without those qualities.

Her vanity and extensive ego eventually put her so far up onto a pedestal that to fall would completely destroy her.

She wanders around, trying to catch the eye of every man, and possibly every woman so that she can show her superiority above others in the hopes of an evening of flirting and eyelash batting. But her attempts are in vain.

A lone gentleman, a baron, sets his eyes on Belinda. He notices her excessive flaunting and primping of her looks, and decides to do something about it. In order to catch her eye, or perhaps just to annoy her, he decides to cut a lock of her hair.

In this piece Pope uses the very structure of the formal and majestic epic in his literary text to underscore the ridiculousness of his own society and their trivial practices and beliefs.

Furthermore, the author uses this piece to satirize the reality of the social and gender differences occurring in his environment at the time.

In following the epic form, inventing his own divine machinery, using a learned and stiff diction Pope effectively treats his trivial subject matter, which is the ‘rape’ of Belinda’s most beautiful curl, in the most striking fashion.

Pope further belittles the ideals and notions of his society by introducing a voice of reason, in the character of Clarissa, towards the end of the poem who outwardly and blatantly ridicules the traditions of her contemporaries.

In a perfect connection of the trifling subject matter and the impressive epic form, Pope’s truthful points are effectively relayed to his audience.

The first demonstration of the trivial in regards to the mighty is the actual title of Pope’s epic, The Rape of the Lock. Furthermore, the writer allows the heavy word rape to describe the minor action of Belinda’s dramatized hair cut, which further satirizes this text.

Another means by which Pope is able to satirize the trivial is through his invention of absurd divine machinery, which he plants effectively into his poem.

Unlike the powerful, classical individuals who played active roles in the lives of the mortal epic character, Pope’s Rosicrucian nymphs are nothing more than humorous vanity-obsessed guardians.

In the text Clarissa’s role is perhaps the most revealing of Pope’s satirical devices; instead of relying solely on the greatness of the epic tale to tell an essentially ridiculous tale, Pope introduces a voice of reason to help electrify his central idea.

The wind behind the Baron’s hideous action, shortly after Clarissa hands the scissors to the Baron, she delivers an eye-opening sermon to Belinda and the others.

Through Clarissa, Pope advocates that beauty and vanity are not everlasting, and thus should not be “praised and honored most” (Pope).

Clarissa is essentially the ‘moral of the story’, she drives home Pope’s notion that beauty is the God that the 18th century idolizes, and not rightly so; as such society has become petty and has regressed a great deal. In the piece the author writes, “Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll; Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul”(Pope).

Pope further addresses the subject of beauty through satire in a variety of ways.

The Rape of the Lock conveys Pope’s thoughts regarding the effect of beauty upon women as individuals, various males, religion and society at large. It is obvious that Pope deems the effects of beauty on the women entity body, mind, and soul as ridiculous.

Moreover, Pope shows that beauty is the root of female vanity.

Pope clearly considers female vanity to be insignificant, he uses satirical techniques throughout the piece to reveal this viewpoint.

For instance, when he says “her joy in gilded chariots, when alive, And love of ombre, after death survive,” he mocks the fact that the women are so concerned with the card game; he mocks the intense preparation that the women undertake.

He mocks female vanity by comparing the ‘arming of the soldier’ to a toilet dressing scene.

The most obvious satirical device used to mock female vanity is viewed in the form of a speech, which is delivered by Ariel, the head of the Sylphs and Gnomes.

Ultimately, these characters represent Meddling Gods and Goddesses that exist in many epics.

The speech however isn’t an inspirational speech to better the protection a true battle hero might receive, but rather a woman who prepares to look her best.

The speech draws a clear comparison, as well as an absurd and truthful connection, between significant battle incidents and simple trivial womanly aspects.

In the text the author writes, “Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law, Or some frail china jar receive a flaw; Or stain her honor, or her new brocade, Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade” (Pope).

Additionally, he used a very basic method to reveal the absurdity of female vanity-he compared smaller less significant objects to larger more prominent objects.

Ultimately, Pope demonstrated a sense of creativity through his works as a poet during the 1700’s.

Through his works he showed that writing can be fun and yet maintain true importance and meaning.

He also found a way to connect the standards of his society to his literary efforts which has made him a legendary pioneer in the world of literature.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape Of The Lock: Canto 4.”  The Norton Anthology: English Literature.

Ed. Steohen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2006.  

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