The Rape of the Lock (text) had its origins in an actual, if trivial, incident in polite society: in 1711, the twenty-one year old Robert, Lord Petre, had, at Binfield, had surreptitiously cut a lock of hair from the head of the beautiful Arabella Fermor, whom he had been courting. Arabella took offense, and a schism developed between her family and Petre's. John Caryll, a friend of both familes and an old friend of Pope's, suggested that he work up a humorous poem about the episode which would demonstrate to both sides that the whole affair had been blown out of proportion and thus effect a reconciliation between them. Pope produced his poem, and it seemed to have achieved its purpose, though Petre never married Arabella. It became obvious over the course of time, however (especially after a revised and enlarged version of the poem, which existed at first only in manuscript copies, was published in 1714) that the poem, which Pope maintained "was intended only to divert a few young Ladies," was in fact something rather more substantial, and the Fermors again took offense — this time at Pope himself, who had to placate them with a letter, usually printed before the text, which explains that Arabella and Belinda, the heroine of the poem, are not identical.
The Rape of the Lock is the finest mock-heroic or mock-epic poem in English: written on the model of Boileau's Le Lutrin, it is an exquisitely witty and balanced burlesque displaying the literary virtuosity, the perfection of poetic "judgement," and the exquisite sense of artistic propriety, which was so sought after by Ne-classical artists. Repeatedly invoking classical epic devices to establish an ironic contrast between its structure and its content, it functions at once as a satire on the trivialities of fashionable life, as a commentary on the distorted moral values of polite society, and as an implicit indictment of human pride, and a revelation of the essentially trivial nature of many of the aspects of human existence which we tend to hold very dear. The world of the beaux and belles of The Rape of the Lock is a an artificial one, a trivial realm of calm and decorum sustained by the strict observance of rigorous rules, a micrososm in which very real and very powerful human emotions and passions have been ignored or sublimated. The narcissistic inhabitants of this world assume that they are something more than human, but Pope shows us vulnerable, how fragile, their pretended perfection and their isolation from reality makes them. The Rape of the Lock, with all of its implicit and explicit sexual and emotional implications, shatters the calm, the order, the balance, and the decorum of their artificial world. They are undone by what Pope identifies — here, as in An Essay on Man and "An Essay on Criticism" — as their most important weakness: Pride.
A final note: it is obvious that the poem was written for a limited and very specialized audience: in Pope's day, literary art was the province of the upper classes; the domain of a culture which was pervasively literary. Contemporary readers of The Rape of the Lock would, in consequence, recognize and delight in the enormous number of literary allusions which the poem contains. The readers of a poem so concerned with imitation ought, obviously, to be familiar with what is being imitated, and in Pope's day, if not in our own, this was largely the case. What else, though, does this pervasive emphasis on imitation, on distortion, on satire, on parody, and on irony tell us about the cultural milieu or context within which Pope created the poem, and about his relationship with the society he is reproducing in microcosm? In his postscript to his translation of the Odyssey, Pope noted that "Tis using a vast force to lift a feather": in The Rape of the Lock, however, the feather is heavier than one might suspect.
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000