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Heroic or Epic poems, according to Maynard Meck, are poems like the Odyssey, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost dealing with man in his exalted aspects. Their action is weighty, their personages are dignified and their style is elevated.
The Iliad, for example, deals with the tough and prolonged battle between the Greek and the Trojan Heroes, while the Odyssey describes the adventures of Odysseus, one of the Greek kings in the war of
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs what mighty contests arise from trivial things I sing – this verse to Caryll Muse!
is due This ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.
It is through these words that we understand that the beginning is like that of most epics. Subsequent events of the poem parody the epic structure in the similar way. 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 the mortals was not enough. Pope knew that in true epics the affairs of men were aided or thwarted by the Heavenly Powers. He, therefore, added the bodies of the supernatural beings – sylphs, gnomes, nymphs and salamanders – as agents in the story. 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”. Belinda screams like the Homeric poems and dashed like the characters of the great epics, but she is a mere slip of a girl. This is the ironic contrast. We find a battle drawn to combat like the Greek warriors. But it is only a game of cards on a dressing table. We find a supernatural being who threatens his inferiors with torture. But it is a Sylph, not Jove. The poem contains parodies of Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, Spenser and
as well as reminiscences of Catallus, Ovid and the Bible. There are several instances of Burlesque-treatment. There is Belinda’s voyage to Milton Hampton Court which suggests the voyage of Aeneas up to the Tiber in Virgil. There is a coffee party which is a parody of the meals frequency described in Homer. The combat at the end recalls the fighting which is found anywhere in the ancient epics. The is a parody of an allegorical picture, examples of which may be found in poets like Spenser. Just before the cutting of the lock, when Ariel searches out the close recess of the virgin’s thoughts. There he finds an earthly lover lurking in her heart, and Pope tells us that Ariel retires with a sigh, resigned to fate. This situation echoes the moment in Paradise Lost when after the fall of Adam and Eve, the Angles of God retire mute and sad to heaven. The angles could have protected Adam and Even against Satan, but man’s own free choice of will they are as helpless as Ariel and his comrades are in the face of Belinda’s free choice of earthly lover. An outstanding mock-heroic in the poem is the comparison between 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. 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 and Virgil has in this poem been scaled down, wittily and affectionately, to admit the coffee-table and the fashionable lady’s bed-chamber. Cave of Spleen
Supernatural Machinery: In all epics, god and daemons, whether pagan or Christian, participate in the action side by side with the human agents. In an epic poem, as Le Bossu had emphasized, “the machine crowns the whole work” Pope, therefore, gives a mock dignity to the action of the Rape of the Lock by the use of machinery of sylphs and gnomes. Taken from the Rosicrucian cult, which Bayle had described as the “sect of mountebanks”, the sylphs and gnomes reduce the divine and demonic agents of an epic poem to their diminutive status. Unlike the deities of the epics, who act guardian agents of the epic heroes, Belinda’s guardian sylph, Ariel is an ineffectual/airy being who deserts her at the most critical moment. The supernatural machinery of the poem thus provides a gentle mockery of the epic deities and increases the charm of the poem as a mock-heroic.
The Epic Style: Within this framework, The Rape of the Lock contains many allusions to Homer, Virgil, Milton and Shakespeare. Ariel’s description of the metamorphosis of a prudish woman into a sylph –
Her joy in gilded chariots, when alive
And love of Ombre, after death survive –
is a direct parody of Aeneid in Dryden’s translation;
The love of horses which they had, alive,
And care of chariots, after death survive.
Though the subject-matter of the Rape of the Lock is trivial and ridiculous, the style, diction and versification are rarely so. The diction is exalted throughout, the heroic-couplets are carefully polished and chiseled and the classical device of periphrasis is frequently resorted to. The very opening line of The Rape of the Lock – What dire/my lays could very well open a serious epic. At the end of Canto II, one notices a similar elevation of style:
What time would spare, from steel receives it dates And moments like men submit to fate!
Steel cou’d the labour of the gods destroy,
And strike to dust the’ imperial tow’rs of
The rhetoric style is the same that occurs in epic poetry. The Mock-heroic effect is produced by the context which emphasizes that the invincible “steel” referred to here is the steel of the pair of scissors with which the Baron cuts off Belinda’s lock.
But when to mischief mortals bend their will,
How soon they find fit instruments of ill!
Just ‘hen, Clarissa drew with tempting grace
A two-edged weapon from her shining case.
The use of the periphrases – “two-edged weapon”, “glittering Forfex” and the fatal engine for a tiny pair of scissors.
Collateral of the Great with the Little: A mock-epic or mock-heroic in the Augustan sense of the term in itself is an example of the collation of the great with the little. In the Rape of the Lock, Pope frequently juxtaposes the heroic with the trivial to produce the mock-epic effect. The very opening couplet juxtaposes “Mighty contest” with trivial things”. Elsewhere, Pope achieves this effect by reducing the great to the level of the trivial.
Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail
jar receive a flaw, China
Or stain her honour, or hew brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,
Or lose her heart, or a necklace, at a ball;
Or whether Heaven has doom’d that
Shock must fall.
In these three couplets, chastity is equated with ‘frail
jar’ honor with new brocade, rayer with a masquerade, heart with a necklace. The effect of this collation is highly amusing and startling. The confusion of values which informs Belinda’s world could not have been presented in a way better than this juxtaposing of the great with the little. China
Conclusion: All these devices make The Rape of the Lock a highly subtle and complex mock-epic. Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe appears rather simple and straightforward when compared with Pope’s poem. In the Rape of the Lock, however, satire is mixed with genuine charm which surrounds Belinda, Is central figure. Pope does not deny the charm and glamour and the artificial world she presides over. In her barge over
Thames, she is genuinely fascinated fascinating and remains so in the rest of the poem. It is only when one notices that this brilliance and gaiety are at the expense of something much more important that they appear to be trivial and hollow. Belinda’s description in the second Canto is both a genuine admiration for her beauty and charm and a mild criticism of her pride and coquetry.
On her white breast a sparking cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
Favors to none, to all she smiles extends;
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And like the sun, they shine on all alike.
The Rape of the Lock is a nearly perfect example of its genre, the genre of the mock-epic not only because it parodies the epic conventions and devices throughout, but also because it provides a highly amusing drama of its own rights. The greatness of the poem is due to Pope’s genius as well as to the care and pains he took in a different form. The balance between the concealed irony and the assumed gravity is as nicely trimmed as the balance of power in
Europe. The little is made great and the great little. You hardly know whether to laugh or weep. It is the triumph of insignificance of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic.