The Rape of the Lock as a Mock-heroic Poem
When Pope called the poem “an heroicomical poem”, he intended to mean it a mock-epic. He could assume that his eighteenth century readers, educated in the classical and knowledgeable about epic, would recognise that it was a mockery. Besides, the mock-epic, which Boileau had established as a distinctive p[oetic genre with his poem Le Lutrin, was well-suited to the eighteenth century. Unlike the burlesque, which lampoons the epic, it plays off a high sense of the heroic against the diminished scale of contemporary life. In this confrontation, Pope might be expected to have a clear allegiance to the classical epc poets. His veneration of the classical antiquity is on record in the Essay on Criticism, and his low opinion of the general character of contemporary life is evident in the Moral Essays and Intimations of Horace. It is worthy of remark therefore that in The Rape of the Lock Pope presents a world dominated by trivialities in terms of an epic grandeur. The fashionable society of the beaux and belles is not only allowed the defects but also the advantages of its scale. In the midst of its ironies the poem delights in the exotic preparations and instruments of Belinda’s toilet and in the exquisiteness of the sylphs. It extends rapturous complimentary to Belinda and expresses genuine sympathy for the pathetic fate of the belles it mocks.
Many of Pope’s jokes in the poem derive their significance from the epic tradition. Epic subjects were grand; for instance, the Trojan War (Iliad), the founding theme (Aeneid), the Fall of Man (Paradise Lost) were narrated at length in twelve or more books, each consisting of several hundred lines. The epic hero also traversed a wide geographical area encountering battles, romantic interludes, journeyed by land and sea and even descended into the underworld. From on high the gods watched the human drama, intervening when they chose at critical moments. Success for the hero was dependent upon the subplot of divine intrigue as well as his own courage and skill. The mock heroic imitated the most recognisable aspects of the epic, its form and elevated language. It used an inflated style to ridicule the pretensions and pomposity of minor quarrel. Pope also borrowed elaborate phrases and similes from the great epics of the western tradition. The joke lies in his applying this elevated language to “the life of the modern ladies in the idle town”, as he deprecatingly described the subject of "The Rape of the Lock" in a letter to a lady friend.
Pope consciously imitates the epic opening in his first twelve lines, which may be called the invocation in the approved epic manner. He too will ‘sing’ his subject whose importance he indicates by inverted syntax and elevated language: “dire offence”, “mighty contest”, “tasks so bold”. He addresses the muse in order to invoke inspiration. His tone does gather declamatory epic ring as he commands the goddess: “Say what strange motive…?” At some points we begin to sense that Pope is not mocking the epic form so much as laughing at his subject. Once we realise that we are reading a mock-epic, it casts a different light on the apparent solemnity and dignity of Pope’s propositions and invocation. The first hint of the mock-epic comes from the third line of the poem when Pope credits a human being, Caryll, rather than the muse with inspiring his poem. The lines from five to six have the effect of an anticlimax:“Slight is the subject, but not so the praise If she inspire and approve my lays.”
As for the supernatural machinery, which neoclassical criticism considers indispensable for an epic, Pope reveals remarkable inventiveness. The sylphs of "The Rape of the Lock" are Pope’s mocking recreation of the gods who watch over the heroes of epics and guide their fortune. It is nicely fitting that Pope’s supernatural beings, who are supposed to imitate Homer’s deities and Milton’s angels, are tiny, frail and powerless. Although they are an amalgam of epic machinery, Rosicrucian lore, an English tale…, they are essentially Pope’s inventions. As for epic battles, the game of ombre at the centre of the poem is presented in terms of a mighty epic contest, catching repeated echoes of Trojan War and the war in the heavens. As for the epic underworld, there is an effective counterpart in the Cave of Speen in "The Rape of the Lock", which is contrasted with the Golden glittering beauty of Belinda’s delightful environment.
Pope was also mindful of the fact that a mock-epic should have a moral just as an epic does. Clarissa’s speech in "The Rape of the Lock"opens out the moral of the poem about the fashionable society. The speech can be taken as an attempt to redefine for contemporary women a concept of honour, which apply to male epic heroes. In the world of belles, honour becomes courage to face decay with humour and duty, to use the power of beauty well.