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The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope

Study Questions

Canto 5

Quiz

1. Discuss two mock-heroic elements of the poem.

One epic element of the poem is the involvement of capricious divinities in the lives of mortals. All of the following classic conventions appear in Pope’s poem as well: the ambiguous dream-warning that goes unheeded; prayers that are answered only in part, or with different outcomes than anticipated; a heavenly being’s renunciation of a human after pledging to protect her; mischievous plotting by deities to exacerbate situations on earth. All of the manifestations of these in Pope’s poem evoke the world of Greek and Roman gods who displayed malice as often as benevolence, and a susceptibility to flattery and favoritism. A second mock-heroic element is the description of games and trivial altercations in terms of warfare. First the card game, then the cutting of the lock, and finally the scuffle at the end, are all described with the high drama attending serious battles. Pope’s displays his creative genius in the dexterity with which he makes every element of the scene correspond to some recognizable epic convention. He turns everyday objects—a petticoat, a curl, a pair of scissors, and a hairpin—into armor and weapons, and the allegory reflects on their real social significance in new and interesting ways.

2. What are some of the images that recur through the poem, and what significance do they have?

One of Pope’s primary images is the sun. By comparing Belinda’s radiance to solar radiance, he makes fun of her vanity and her pretensions. The sun marks the passing of time in the poem and emphasizes the dramatic unity of the story, which takes place all within a single day. Further, it forms part of the celestial framework of heavenly actions with which Pope surrounds the parallel earthly action, and the early allusions to the sun balance the ending in which the lock of hair ascends into the heavens as a constellation. Another image that recurs in the poem is that of china. Delicate dishes that are beautiful, fragile, and purely luxurious form a fitting physical counterpart to a world that is, in Pope’s depiction, almost entirely ornamental. The danger of broken china also stands for the fragility of female chastity, or of a person’s reputation. Pope also draws heavily on images of silver and gold (sometimes in solid form, sometimes as a gilded surface to another element), as appropriate to a poem that asks us to consider the real value underlying glittery and mesmerizing surfaces.

3. What function does the poem’s supernatural machinery serve?

4. Is Pope being ironic when he treats Belinda’s beauty as something almost divine?

5. To what degree can the poem be read as a sexual allegory?

6. What are the distinctive formal features of Pope’s poetry?

7. How is the heroic couplet suited to Pope’s subject matter, or to satire more generally?

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