The Rape of the Lock reads best with no footnotes. The rhythm of the poem is broken when your eye is drawn elsewhere by notes, whether at the bottom of the page, or as in Web documents, hyperlinks. On the other hand, it is difficult to enjoy a text when you are frequently distracted by material you do not understand. For these reasons I have put together this page of notes and explanatory material in the hope that, having read it, you will be able to read The Rape of the Lock with the same pleasure it has given many this last nearly 300 years.
If you think there are other areas that need explanation, feel free to send me mail.
In 1710 or 1711, a minor British noble, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair. Arabella was the daughter of another family of minor nobility. The purloining of the lock caused a falling-out between the two families. A friend of both, John Caryll, invited the young Alexander Pope to write a humorous poem to try to ease the bad feelings. At this time (1711), Pope had not yet established himself as a poet (The Essay on Criticism was not yet published), but he was known to both families, and was well thought of in their rural, Catholic circle. As Tillotson notes, ``Pope alone perhaps could see in Caryll's request he oportunity not for a mere epistle but for a mock epic in miniature. By the time the poem was finished--the sylphs were added two years after the poem was published; the moralizing speech of Clarissa [in Canto V], three years after that--it had become the most perfect of the several European attempts to keep alive, by the most hopeful means, those of diminution and laughter, the moribund epic form.''
The poem was `leaked' after being presented to the families, and was
published without Pope's permission. He finished and polished the
poem and published under his own name in 1714, and in its final form in
Rape is a pretty grim subject, isn't it?
`Rape' has several meanings, and in Pope's time the most common meaning was something like "kidnapping". Thus people talked (and still do) of "the rape of Helen" when Paris took her to Asia, and "the rape of the Sabine women". It would not be accurate to say that there is no sexual or violent implication to the word as used by Pope, but it does not have the same violent meaning that it has in common usage today.
Another example of the shift in sexually-charged words in the poem
is "chaste". In the Epistle Dedicatory, Pope says that sylphs
surround humans while they are chaste. But the sylph leaves Belinda
when he sees `an earthly Lover lurking at her heart.' Clearly
chastity had higher requirements back then.
What's the big joke?
The running joke is that a trivial social tiff is treated in the
form and traditions of the epic. As Tillotson says,
The rape of Helen
became that of a lock of hair; the gods became minute sylphs; Æneas'
voyage up the Tiber became Belinda's up the Thames; the long
description of Achilles' shield became a brief one of Belinda's petticoat.
There are sacrifices, prayers, laments, harangues, feasts, and so on. But
in addition to this mockery of the main ``ingredients,'' there is mockery
of the epic style--its invocations, exclamations, and use of similes--and
some of the speeches follow the framework of actual speeches in Homer and
Virgil, thus adding parody to imitation.
There is irony in this. Although few readers in the 1990s will
have any idea what it is Pope was parodying, the things that he added
implicitly -- the understanding of human passion, the appreciation
of beauty, his wonderful power over words -- stand out the more for that.
It is probably easier now to understand how good this poem is, than it
was in the decade it was written.
What is that card game in Canto III?
Belinda (Arbella) and the Baron (Petre) play at Ombre in one of the
best-known scenes of the poem. The game was played all over Europe in the
18th century, and it is still played in Spain.
Ombre is a game of 3 players, each
of whom is dealt 9 cards. (There are only 40 cards: the standard
deck minus the eights, nines, and tens.)
The declarer names trumps and must try
to take 5 of the 9 tricks. The three cards of highest value are
called "Matadores". In this particular hand, they are the ace of
spades ("Spadillio"), the deuce of spades ("Manillio"), and the
ace of clubs ("Basto"). Another card named in this scene is "Pam",
the jack of clubs, which in the game of Loo is the highest card.
Who or what is Shock?
Shock is a lap dog, of an Icelandic breed known as shough.
Did this Pope guy hate women?
Not particularly. It is tempting to assume that Pope revealed in this poem
more than he intended about his attitude towards women. This temptation
should be resisted. There is strong satire here, but no more than Pope
directed against men elsewhere, and no more than was fashionable at
the time. In fact, if you look beyond the satire you may see a genuine
sympathy in Pope for Belinda.
How good is this Web edition textually?
It could be much better. It is taken from the Student's Cambridge Edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1903) and is alledged to include all the changes made by Pope himself. Unfortunately it was hand-transcribed, and error almost undoubtedly crept in. If you find a textual error, please send me mail pointing out the problem.
Forward to Canto I