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Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock

Need an overview of Pope's mock-epic poem in five cantos about a scandal in the fashionable set of early eighteenth-century England?

Tonya Howe

on 5 May 2010

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Transcript of Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope
Roman Catholic
in an era suspicious of "popery"
Laws from the Elizabethan era and renewed in 1671 made public office a condition of professing a reformed faith, which restricted Catholics especially.
This meant that an open Catholic could not hold public office. Teaching was considered public office, and Catholic schools were illegal.
Pope was taught to read by his Aunt and went to school illegally; a great reader, he was largely self-taught.
Because of the Test Act, Catholics could not live within 10 miles of London.
Portrait of Alexander Pope (c.1727) by Michael Dahl
National Portrait Gallery, London
Physical Deformity
His body was both a source of inspiration and disappointment.
Like his religion, his body marked him as an outsider, and he was sensitive to the dislocations of each.
As a young boy, he contracted Pott's disease, which left him hunchbacked, stunted, and chronically ill.
Formally painted by many great artists of the 18th century, Pope never allowed his deformity to be shown.
Most paintings emphasize his intelligent face and the writing he was famous for, placing him in a meditative posture.
Painting by Jonathan Richardson (c.1737)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Engraving by George Vertue, after Jervas (c.1714)
National Portrait Gallery, London
Marble Bust of Pope by John Michael Rysbrack (1730)
National Portrait Gallery, London
choices reflect
a deliberately shaped
identity as a man of genius.
Public Image
This impromptu sketch of Pope is the only extant image showing his entire body, hunch included. By William Hoare (c.1739-1743)
Pope was very savvy about crafting his public image, both visually and in print.
Pope was a man of letters
in an age of commerce,
modeling himself after the Augustan poets in modern, commercially-driven ways
THE RAPE OF THE LOCK (1712, 1714)
THE DUNCIAD (1728, 1729, 1743)
Scriblerus Club
Informal club of poets and writers whose purpose was to satirize ingnorance, particularly in the realms of art and learning.
Pope came in for his share of vitriolic public satire, as well; this is the 18th century, when the public marketplace of print was perhaps at its most vibrant.
In this satire (1729) on Pope after the publication of The Dunciad, the poet is harshly caricatured by his opponents. Pope is caricatured as a monkey, his body given animalistic features and a prominent hunchback. Sitting on a collection of the poet's works, the monkey-Pope wears a hat that alludes to his Roman Catholicism.
Pope, always seeking to position himself as the greatest living poet, made many enemies by satirizing them harshly in his verse.
This speaks to the public role of poetry in the 18th century.
The Rape of the Lock
Mock-Epic Poem
in five Cantos (1714)
Heroic Couplets
Pope tells a trivial story in grand language and through epic conventions.
This breach of poetic decorum produces satire and irony.
Pope was a virtuoso in the heroic couplet form, the most popular form of verse in the 18th century.
Heroic couplets use form to emphasize balance and parallelism.
They often create the sense of a systematic, logical whole shaped out of chaos, contradiction, and antithesis.
Canto 1
This mock-epic poem tells the story of a fashionable young woman, the toast of all who know her, and her "rape" at the hands of a man in love with her, the Baron. Without her permission, the Baron snips off a lock of Belinda's hair while she is engaged in conversation and card play. Belinda becomes enraged, and a battle between the fashionable people erupts. Belinda's lock is lost in the process, ascending to the heavens as a star.
After the mock-epic invocation, the poem opens with Belinda still asleep. Ariel, her guardian sylph, discusses the nature of the sylphs, gnomes, salamanders, ann nymphs. In a dream, he warns her of some impending disaster. Belinda, dreaming of handsome men, awakes to her lapdog and love letters, and she forgets the warning. Canto 1 closes with a description of her elaborate rituals of the toilette.
Belinda travels by boat, down the Thames, to Hampton Court Palace. The narrator gives more descripton of Belinda's locks, which tempt the Baron. We learn that, much like Belinda's toilette, the Baron has risen eary to perform love rituals and prayers to ensure the success of his plan to steal the locks. As the boat continues down the river, Ariel assembles the army of sylphs to protect Belinda's hair and various accessories.
Canto 3 opens with a description of Hampton Court Palace, and the social activities that occur there--chiefly, a game of cards. The narrator describes the card game as a tense battle, in keeping with the mock-heroic nature of the poem. Belinda, at last, prevails, and the socialites enjoy some coffee. Clarissa, a young woman at the party, takes out some scissors, which the Baron uses to snip off a piece of Belinda's hair. Belinda is furious, and the narrator discourses on fate.
Drawing on the epic convention of the descent into the underworld, Canto 4 describes Umbriel's journey to the Cave of Spleen. Umbriel is a gnome who delights in mischief; he descends into the Cave to retrieve sighs and tears, which will cause the gathering above to erupt in chaos. The narrator describes the Cave as a feminine space populated by bizarre, irrational objects and presided over by the personification of Spleen and her handmaidens. Umbriel returns to the surface, where Belinda continues to bewail her fate; attempts to retrieve the lock are unsuccessful, and Umbriel unleashes the vial of tears. Belinda begins to cry extravagantly.
Opening with a humorous "she said," referring to Belinda's speech in Canto 4, the last book describes the battle between the gentlemen and ladies resulting from the Baron's rape of Belinda's lock. Though she provided the scissors, Clarissa urges Belinda to give up her anger and her vanities and cultivate good humor and moral sense--because beauty fades. However, no one listens to her dull moralizing, and a fight for the lock ensues. The fight is not only described in mock-epic terms as a battle, but the weapons are the weapons of love and flirtation. Belinda draws a bodkin to fight the Baron, contrasting with his use of the scissors. In the confusion, the lock is lost; the narrator suggests that the lock has become a star, where it--and the poem itself--will become a beacon to all time, and an inspiration to future poets.
Canto 2
Canto 3
Canto 4
Canto 5
Pope's poem has been a subject for illustration since its publication. You've just seen two sets of illustrations, one from early 18th century editions, illustrated with engravings by Claude Du Bosc after illustrations by Louis Du Guernier. The second set is from an illustrated version of the poem by the famous late 19th artist Aubrey Beardsley.
Pope made quite a bit of money with his translations, and he used it to build his home at Twickenham.
He also built a "grotto" at Twickenham after 1720, and a subterranean tunnel to connect two parts of his estate. There he would read, write, and meditate away from the bustle of the world.
"I have put the last hand to my works…happily finishing the subterraneous Way and Grotto: I then found a spring of the clearest water, which falls in a perpetual Rill, that echoes thru’ the Cavern day and night. …When you shut the Doors of this Grotto, it becomes on the instant, from a luminous Room, a Camera Obscura, on the walls of which all the objects of the River, Hills, Woods, and Boats, are forming a moving Picture…And when you have a mind to light it up, it affords you a very different Scene: it is finished with Shells interspersed with Pieces of Looking-glass in angular Forms…at which when a Lamp…is hung in the Middle, a thousand pointed Rays glitter and are reflected over the place."
--Pope, letter to Edward Blount (1725)
Remains of Pope's Grotto (flickr, 2009)
He even composed "Verses on the Grotto at Twickenham" in English, Latin, and Greek!
"Alas! to Grottos and to Groves we run,
To Ease and Silence, ev'ry Muse's Son..."
'The Second Epistle of the Second Book of Horace Imitated by Mr. Pope.' 1736.
"A View of Alexander Pope's Villa, Twickenham, on the Banks of the Thames" (c.1759)
Painting by Samuel Scott
Paintinig attributed to Charles Jervas (c.1713-1715)
National Portrait Gallery, London
"Charles Jervas's portrait, in which the poet strikes his favourite meditative pose, was painted just as Pope had begun his translation of Homer's Iliad. The unusual composition may refer to the conflict between fame, represented by the bust of Homer in the top-left corner, and private friendship, symbolised by the figure of the woman who may be a portrait of Pope's close friend Martha Blount" (NPG).
Pope had a fraught relationship with women; his physical appearance made sexual relationships difficult, yet he was great friends with many.
According to Catherine Ingrassia, Pope "condemns women for practices and preoccupations that embody the male construction of gender and the sanctioned activities for women" (Pope, Gender, and the Commerce of Culture 53).
His satire of women is mixed, convoluted.
Women are associated with the inconstancies of the new market economy; many feared the "feminization of culture" such a market economy produced (Ingrassia 12).
Yet, Pope "was complicit in the very culture he criticized" (Ingrassia 11).
Pope was himself concerned with appearing "manly" in life and in poetry (Atkins), but his body marked him as not-manly, feminine.
His verse itself was considered too beautiful and refined to be fully "masculine."
Further, the elegance of his verse--especially THE RAPE OF THE LOCK--made him a favorite with women readers, who were also consumers in the marketplace of goods, including print.
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