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The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem, the style of which was suggested to Pope by Boileau's Lutrin. Pope followed his model in entitling his work 'An heroicomical poem,' the epithet employed by Boileau in the 1709 edition of his Lutrin. It was founded upon an incident which had caused great commotion in the circle of Catholic families in which Pope, though not himself a member of it, had friends. Lord Petre, in a moment of youthful frolic, had cut off a lock of hair from Miss Arabella Fermor's head, a liberty which was keenly resented, and had caused a violent quarrel between the families. Mr. Caryll, a Sussex squire, nephew to the Mr. John Caryll who had been Secretary to Mary, James Il's Queen, suggested to Pope to write a poem, which by treating the incident playfully, might induce the offended family to take a more lenient view of what they regarded as an outrage. This was the motive of the first draft of the poem, as it was printed in Tonson's Miscellany, 1712, in two cantos, and no more than 330 lines. This first sketch was written off in a fortnight, but its author, pleased with the success of his work, elaborated it afterwards, and enlarged it especially by the introduction of what he calls the machinery,' or the agency of supernatural beings of the fairy species, whom he calls 'sylphs.' It is universally admitted that the later additions, and this invention especially, are great improvements, thus forming an exception to the rule that a poet should never recast, or supplement, a piece which he has turned out well in the first instance.
The heroine of the poem, Belinda, is Miss Fermor; the Baron is Lord Petre; Thalestris is Mrs. Morley ; Sir Plume is Mrs. Morley's brother, Sir George Brown of Keddington. Pope obtained permission to dedicate the poem to Miss Fermor; but notwithstanding that he takes care to tell her that ‘Belinda resembles her in nothing but in beauty,' the lady was more offended than flattered by the representation given of her. Sir George Brown was indignant at being made to talk nothing but nonsense. In bringing about its professed aim, the reconciliation of the two families, the poem was entirely unsuccessful.
But with the public it was otherwise. On its first publication Addison pronounced it a delicious little thing ; ‘merum sal.' Criticism the most hostile to Pope, of which there has been abundance in the modern reaction against his influence, has agreed to spare the Rape. Macaulay pronounces it his best poem. De Quincey, who never spares Pope when he is weak, goes beyond
Macaulay, and declares it “the most exquisite monument of playful fancy that universal literature offers. The Rape of the Lock, writes Hazlitt, “is the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is made of gauze and silver spangles.
The most glittering appearance is given to everything ; to paste, pomatum, billets-doux, and patches. Airs, languid airs breathe around ; the atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilet is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity, and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no splendour of poetic diction to set off the meanest things. ... It is the triumph of insignificance, the apotheosis of foppery and folly. It is the perfection of the mock-heroic.' And Professor Conington thinks 'there can be little to say about a poem so exquisite in its peculiar style of art as to make the task of searching for faults almost hopeless, that of commending beauties simply impertinent.'
Such warmth of encomium as this is at least testimony to the admiration which the skill of the poet can still excite in the reader. But it is criticism which touches the workmanship rather than the work. Pope's execution is so clever as always to charm us even when his subject is most devoid of interest. The secret of the peculiar fascination of The Rape of the Lock lies, I believe, not merely in the art and management, but in the fact that here, for the first time, Pope is writing of that which he knew, of the kife he saw and the people he lived with. For Windsor Forest, though he lived in it, he had no eyes; but a drawing-room, a fop, and a belle, these were the objects which had struck his young fancy when he emerged from the linendraper's villa, and he had studied them. About these things he can be real and truthful ; when he writes of Abelard and Heloise he is making believe, he is an actor trying to think himself into his part. Only in his Satires and Epistles and in the characters of his Moral Essays will he again succeed in hitting upon congenial matter on which to lay out his extraordinary power of versification.
Nor is the reflection of social life and manners which the Rape offers confined to superficial forms only The most intimate sentiments of the time find their representation here. As an instance we may point to the mean estimation of women. Contempt veiled under the show of deference, a mockery of chivalry, its form without its spirit,-this is the attitude assumed towards women by the poet in this piece. “The world of fashion is displayed
in its most gorgeous and attractive hues, and everywhere the emptiness is visible beneath the outward splendour. The beauty of Belinda, the details of her toilet, her troops of admirers, are all set forth with unrivalled grace and fascination, and all bear the impress of vanity and vexation. Nothing can exceed the art with which the satire is blended with the pomp, mocking without disturbing the unsubstantial gewgaw. The double vein is kept up with sustained skill in the picture of the outward charms and the inward frivolity of women.
• With varying vanities from every part
They shift the moving toyshop of their heart'; this is the tone throughout. Their hearts are toyshops. They reverse the relative importance of things; the little with them is great, and the great little.' (Elwin.) This feeling towards women is not the poet's idiosyncrasy; here he is but the representative of his age. The degradation of woman in England does not date from the Restoration. It was complete before the Commonwealth, and is aptly symbolised in the behaviour of James I, who compelled all ladies to kneel on being presented to him. But the combination of the forms of chivalrous devotion with the reality of cynical contempt, was the peculiar tone of manners which came in with the court of Charles II, and gradually spread downwards through the lower social strata. The poem in our literature whic gives the most finished representation of this sentiment is The Rape of the Lock.
It was to the translation of Homer, undertaken as a commercial speculation, that Pope owed, more than to anything else he produced, the great reputation he attained in his lifetime. The verdict of later times has reversed the decision of an age little versed in Greek, and whose artificial manners were alien from the primeval simplicity and savagery of Homer. Pope translated from the Latin version, from the French of Dacier, from the English of Chapman. But it was less his ignorance of Greek, than his theory of poetical expression, which led him astray. His solicitude is entirely spent upon the words he is using, and not upon the thing he is describing. He introduced ornaments which are not only foreign, but false and out of keeping. He reproduced neither the naiveté nor the dignity of the original. Pope's moonlight scene provoked Wordsworth's remark that “the eye of the poet had never been steadily fixed upon its object,' and that 'it
shows to what a low state knowledge of the most obvious and important phenomena had sunk.' Yet no selection from Pope would be complete which did not offer a specimen of the Homer. We give the moonlight scene from the 8th Book, partly for the sake of comparison with Chapman's rendering of the same lines, (see above, vol. i. p. 519), and also because it is a striking example of both the faults and excellences of the translation. We have in these few lines more than average infidelity to the original ; we have unhomeric embroidery, such as 'refulgent lamp of night'; but we have at the same time twenty-four lines (eleven in the Greek) of finished versification, the rapid, facile, and melodious flow of which, concentrating all the felicities of Pope's higher style, has never been surpassed in English poetry.
The translation of Homer occupied Pope during the ten best years of his life. The Odyssey was finished in 1725, and Pope turned to very different work, the composition of The Dunciad. The Dunciad is a personal satire, or lampoon, directed against the small authors of the day, who are bespattered with much mud and little wit, without any pretence of disguise, and under their own
The Dunciad has been the parent of a numerous progeny, The Scribleriad, The Baviad, The Pursuits of Literature, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, all of which have had much vogue in their day, and lost their savour when the generation they libelled has passed away. It must not be concealed that critics of reputation have spoken with approbation of this amalgam of dirt, ribaldry and petty spite. De Quincey has allowed himself to say that The Dunciad is Pope's 'greatest work.' Thackeray, who had no toleration for similar offences when Swift was the offender, thought that the conclusion of The Dunciad shows the author to be the equal of all poets of all times’; and Conington considers the poem as 'unquestionably a very great satire.' It certainly shows Pope's peculiar skill as an artist in its perfection. He has now (1727) attained a complete mastery over the couplet, and can compel it to do the work he requires of it. To the literary historian the value of The Dunciad is great, as a chapter of contemporary life, a record of small celebrities, otherwise lost to fame. But of its absolute merit as a poem, a just taste must agree with Taine (Litt. Angl. t. 4), that 'seldom has so much talent been expended to produce so much ennui.' The motive of the satire is not the desire of the moral reformer to improve mankind, but the rancour and malevolence of literary jealousy. And against whom is this