“The Rape of the Lock” is a poem by Alexander Pope. It is a mock-heroic narrative poem that satirizes an event in which a lord cuts off a lock of a lady’s hair. If you’re curious about the poem, you can read it here. It’s actually pretty good. I read it in practice for breaking down and analyzing rhetorical pieces for the AP English Language & Composition exam. What follows is my first breakdown, so pardon any errors and such. I hope to get better at it. I don’t know if you guys actually read the nonfiction that I post on my blog, but if you do, enjoy. 🙂
The main point of the poem is to satirize an event in which a lord cut off a lady’s (Belinda) lock of hair. It comically enhances its effect by calling upon the gods and goddesses in the form of an army of sylphs who play different roles in the guardianship and affecting of Belinda. To exaggerate the travesty, Pope initially describes the key importance of beauty, then later talks about how the cutting of the lock of hair mars said beauty. The title also adds to the feeling of comic hyperbole. Using the strong word rape inside the title with something as innocuous as lock creates a sharp oxymoronic contrast. Overall, the mild, airy style of the poem with its contradistinguishing dramatic language, both makes light of the incident and places humorous weight on it.
The genre of the piece is a narrative poem. It uses flowery, lighthearted voice, and has a tone of Horatian ridicule. The mood feels very aether-like throughout, and even in its dramatization of events stays inside its happy bubble of lampooning. Pope uses a syntax that is at once deep and shallow. The way he wrote the poem allows a reader to either scan through it and come out with a sense of what he was portraying, or dive into its depths and fully appreciate the detail and mastery with which he uses the language.
Pope mainly used satire in his piece, expounding on it with hyperbole, but, as with all good writing, he did not limit himself to one rhetorical strategy. Throughout the poem he paints a colorful image in the reader’s mind with vivd description, and makes a point of using a comical version of the supernatural as a recurrent motif. The perspective is third-person omniscient, but circles around Belinda, slipping between the real world and the world of sylphs and daemons without missing a beat. In his frequent invocations of the muses, Pope demonstrates a clear understanding of apostrophe. However, he ties up the satirical style with the final blow of irony, when the climax of the poem turns out to be the removal of Belinda’s lock of hair.
Parallelism has interspersed itself through Pope’s poem. From the first two lines to the ending verses, the construction of Pope’s lines flows smoothly and elegantly. While the lines all are of similar length to maintain the congruity of the poem, occasionally dashes, commas, and semi-colons come charging in to break them up. This creates an aesthetic, colorful variety. Dancing between lengthy, involved sentences broken up over multiple lines, and short statements which extend no further than the line break, Pope demonstrates mastery of dynamic syntax.
In his excellent syntax, Pope did not forget diction. The impeccability with which each couplet rhymes lends only to his knowledge of wording and understanding of writing. Using soft, elegant words like timorous, downy, sylph, nymph, and fair in the beginning of the poem, Pope crafts a web of gentle beauty. This feeling contrasts sharply with the hard, sharp words, screams, affrighted, skies, shrieks, and cast, used when Belinda loses her lock of hair. Throughout the poem, Pope scatters ethereal beings. Sylphs, daemons, muses, nymphs, and sprites all dance through the air and weave their mischief.
Pope’s use of literary devices is no less impressive. Alliteration is frequent and well executed. His excellent personification and figurative speech exemplifies the ability with which he writes, and his frequent allusions to the muses and gods create a style of both humor and dramatization. Simile is interspersed as well, though tastefully so, such that it does not feel forced or burdensome. Throwing in the occasional inversion, Pope keeps things colorful and interesting to read. The entire tone of the piece is one of mock tragedy, and Pope manipulates this device into a powerful piece of satire with multiple overstatements and hyperboles.
This piece of literary artwork and accomplishment takes a trite event and turns it into a magniloquence of mockery. Appreciators of high-quality literature and well-executed poetry will find humorous, lighthearted delight in this piece like no other. A true classic of satirical poetry, “The Rape of the Lock,” in its epic foolishness remains a brilliant instance of its kind. With it, Pope shows that something as ridiculous as the mere loss of a lock of hair can, in the hands of a true virtuoso with the pen, metamorphose into a poetic masterpiece.