The mock epic is a poetic form which uses the epic structure but on a miniature scale and has a subject that is mean or trivial. The purpose of a mock-heroic or mock-epic poem is satirical. The writer makes the subject look ridiculous by placing it in a framework entirely inappropriate to its importance. Pope's description of The Rape of the Lock as a heroi-comical poem misled some readers into thinking that the comic attack was intended against heroic poetry. In fact, a mock-heroic poem is not a satire on heroic poetry. The target of the attack may be a person or persons, an institution or institutions, or the whole of society. The subject of such a poem, as has already been indicated, is trivial or unimportant but the treatment of the subject is heroic or epic, and such treatment naturally arouses laughter.
The central incident in The Rape of the Lock is the theft of a lock of hair and the quarrel which arose between two families as a result of that theft. Pope emphasised the triviality of the whole affair by describing it in the full pomp and splendour of epic verse. No poet has ever succeeded so well in "using a vast force to lift a feather". The use of the grand style on little subjects is not only ludicrous, but a sort of violation of the rules of proportion and mechanics.
All the main features of an epic surround the principal event of this poem. Trivial occurrences are handled with all the seriousness and dignity which properly belong to the epic. In other words, there is a deliberate and sustained discrepancy between the theme of the poem and the treatment of the theme. Such a discrepancy is of the essence of this particular kind of parody. The effect is further supported by the arrangement of the plot upon the regular epic plan, the employment of the "machinery" which every epic was supposed to require, and many passages in which scenes and phrases from the great epics of the world are directly imitated and burlesqued. So admirably is all this managed here that The Rape of the Lock is the most perfect thing of its kind in English literature.
The opening invocation, the description of the heroine's toilet, the journey to Hampton Court, the game of ombre magnified into a pitched battle—all lead up to the moment when the peer produces the fatal pair of scissors. But the action of mortals was not enough. Pope knew that in true epics the affairs of men were aided or thwarted by heavenly powers. He therefore added four bodies of fairy creatures—Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs, and Salamanders—as agents in the story. This is the celestial machinery of the poem. The gods of the epic are heroic beings, but Pope's deities are tiny. Pope describes the diminutive gods of the poem as "the light militia of the lower sky." The sylphs led by Ariel considerably heighten the mock-epic effect of the poem.
The poem employs a variety of ironic contrasts. The principal contrast is, of course, between the mighty and the trivial. The poem follows all the precepts laid down for the epic except the crucial one—dignity of subject. The trivial theme is treated in the grand manner. This is the most striking contrast. We have in this poem a general mockery of the epic form—the epic manner with its invocations, its similes, its frequent use of "He said". There is a mockery of the epic matter or substance with its machinery, its battles, its journeys on water and down to the under-world, its harangues. Apart from this, there is particular mockery of a scene or a detail or a certain speech or a comment by the poet. And the scale of the mockery is always varying. We find Belinda flashing lightning from her eyes, as in Cowley's epic Davideis, Saul flashes it. She screams like the Homeric heroes. But she is a mere slip of a girl, a mere fashionable lady. This is the ironic contrast. Then we find an altar at which ardent prayers are half-granted and a goddess who is worshipped. But the altar is built of French romances and the goddess is the image of the vain Belinda in the mirror of her dressing-table. This too is an ironic contrast. We find a battle drawn forth to combat, like the Greek warriors. But it is only a game of cards on a card-table. We find a supernatural being who threatens his inferiors with torture. But it is a sylph, not Jove, who utters the threats. And the tortures with which the sylphs are threatened are neither the thunderbolts of Jove nor the agonies of Hades, but cruelties devised ingeniously from the resources of the toilet-table. Thus we have an abundance of ironic contrasts.
The poem contains parodies of Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Spenser, and Milton as well as reminiscences of Catallus, Ovid, and the Bible. There are several instances of burlesque-treatment. There is Belinda's voyage to Hampton Court which suggests the voyage of Aeneas up the Tiber in Virgil. There is the coffee party which is a parody of the meals frequently described in Homer. There is Belinda's petticoat which is treated as the shield of Ajax, while her lament suggests Virgil's Dido. Clarissa's plea for sanity and goodwill is a parody of Sarpedon's speech to Glaucus in the Iliad. The combat at the end recalls the fighting which is found anywhere in the ancient epics. The Cave of Spleen is a parody of an allegorical picture, examples of which may be found in English poets like Spenser. The description of the coffee-equipage is reminiscent of Virgil's use of the epic style in the Georgics to describe the lives of bees.
There are three major parallels between The Rape of the Lock and the great English epic, Paradise Lost. First, there is the dream of pride and vainglory insinuated into Belinda's ear, which recalls the dream insinuated into Eve's ear in Books V and VI of Paradise Lost. Second, there is the Parody of the ceremony performed by Belinda at her dressing-table, where Belinda worships herself, and which vividly recalls the new-born Eve's admiration of herself as mirrored in the pool of Eden in Book IV of Paradise Lost. But perhaps the crucial parallel is the third, which occurs just before the cutting of the lock of hair, when Ariel searches out the close recesses of the virgin's thought. There he finds an earthly lover lurking in her heart, and 3ope tells us that Ariel retired with a sigh, resigned to fate. This situation echoes the moment in Paradise Lost when, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the angels of God retire, mute and sad, to heaven. The angels could have protected Adam and Eve against any force attempted by Satan, but against man's own free choice of evil they are as helpless as Ariel and his comrades are in the face of Belinda's free choice of an earthly lover.
An outstanding mock-heroic element in the poem is the comparison between the arming of an epic hero and Belinda's dressing herself and using cosmetics in order to kill. Pope describes a society-lady in terms that would suit the arming of a warrior like Achilles. Then there are the two battles which receive an ironically inflated treatment. In the description of these battles there are several echoes of Troy and Carthage. The first battle is the card-game between Belinda and the Baron. The second battle, which has even more of the mock-heroic element, is the battle of the sexes which is compared to the battles of gods and goddesses as described by Homer. The erotic slaughter of the fops that takes place i& one of the highlights of this mock-epic poem. The climax of the mock-heroic battle is reached when Belinda uses two formidable weapons—a pinch of snuff and a bodkin. The battle of the sexes is part of the mock-heroic design of the poem. "Like gods they fight, nor dread a mortal wound. ".The battle is compared to that of Mars against Pallas, and of Hermes against Latona. Umbriel, perched on the top of a candlestick, witnesses the fight. Minerva, in like manner, during the battle of Ulysses with the suitors of Penelope in the Odyssey perched on a beam of the roof to witness it. Jove's suspending his golden scales in the air refers to the passage in Homer where Jupiter, before the conflict between Hector and Achilles, weighs the issue in a pair of scales. The genealogy of Belinda's hair-pin is a parody of the history of Agamemnon's sceptre in the Iliad.
Again and again Pope introduces us into the epic world and brings us back to the world of trivialities. To take only one example, the transition from the "declining of the day" and "the sun obliquely shooting his burning ray" to the merchant returning from the Exchange after the day's work is a startling lapse from grand generality to trivial particulars. Such switches in and out of the epic world and the heroic style are, of course, characteristic of the mock-epic; but few mock-heroic poets are able to accomplish them with such dexterity.
In addition to the mighty-trivial contrast, we have other contrasts which may be described as follows: primitive-sophisticated; antique-contemporary; masculine-feminine; principled-opportunistic; dramatic-histrionic. It is also to be noted that the gap between the contraries varies from the broadest burlesque of heroic wrath in Sir Plume's boastful words to Clarissa's rational appeal for sense and good
humour, which partly recalls Sarpedon's ringing cry to battle in Book XI1 of the Iliad.
The Rape of the Lock is a poem ridiculing the fashionable world of Pope's day. But there are several occasions when we feel that the epic world of Homer arid Virgil has in this poem been scaled down, wittily and affectionately, to admit the coffee-table and the fashionable lady's bedchamber.