The Rape of the Lock, written by Pope in response to a feud between two friends about the theft of a lock of hair, is revolutionary in its evolution of the comic satire genre into the field of epic poetry.
Pope, an avid student of the Greek epics (he produced his own translations of some that provided much of his income during his life), takes the basic skeleton of an epic: its structure, critical content and even linguistic points; and crafts around the skeleton a poem of wit and comedy that is at its core epic, but also uses this very epic backbone to undermine its tales own importance and to satirise the content that has been moulded around the form. This creation from Pope marks the offshoot of the epic genre, transforming it into mock epic, an independent genre that bears many of the traits of its forebearer in a new light.
The transformations to the epic that Pope undertakes in the Rape of the Lock to satiric effect can be broadly split into transformations of heroic content and transformations of heroic language. The former can be clearly observed here: Pope takes a staple of epic writing, heroic weaponry, and twists its use to his satirical needs. The weapon itself is given, through the use of a similar description, equal place with great weapons like Agamemnon’s sceptre, whose lineage was used to reinforce Agamemnon’s dominance and power in the Iliad, being forged by Hephaestus and owned by the Gods from Zeus to Kronos.
Belinda’s weapons lineage is far less great. Instead of a scepter, the weapon of kings and priests in Homer’s writing, Belinda wields a bodkin, a hair needle. Even that difference itself is satirical: Agamemnon’s kingship is of great import to the Iliad so the parallel with a bodkin, which links to the hair in question much like the scepter links with kingship, makes a clear statement on the relative importance of the quarrel in the Rape of the Lock.
The lineage too satirises the pointlessness of dispute: no claim of divinity (and thus righteousness) is made on the part of Belinda’s weapon; in fact its lineage mainly consists of feminine objects with the only male mentioned in its lineage also being the only one to explicitly be mentioned dying. Perhaps Pope, often accused of being somewhat sexist, is using this contrast and development to imply that the whole issue is a woman’s trifle and nothing next to the male quarrels of Achilles and Agamemnon.
On top of this, the weapon is not the fixed centre of the lineage as in the Iliad, in which the weapon started as a divine weapon and stayed that way. Instead the object is mutable: it starts as signet rings, develops into a buckle and then becomes a bodkin. Pope changes up the epic formula of the mighty weapon into something changeable and thus insignificant, paralleling with the argument he is satirising, the implication being that it is insignificant and will easily be forgotten. The weapon also shows another perversion of the epic poem that Pope uses.
Protection, be it through armour or weaponry, tends to have a high place in the Greek epics. Heroes often wear famed suits of armour or use shields/weapons to survive insurmountable odds (for example the reflective shield in Perseus’ tale in Ovid’s Metamorphoses that slays Medusa). This element of protection, divine or otherwise, is a theme that Pope subverts consistently. From the slyph Ariel who is “half dissolv’d” even by light to the “Cosmetic powers” of her dress and make-up, nothing effectively protects Belinda.
The bodkin is no different, it fails to protect her locks from being cut in the initial case, and here, although she uses it to attack the Baron, it fails to return its charge, her hair, to her. Pope is modernising traditional epics, using these typical ‘protections’ to mock high societies fixation on appearance. All of her outward facing beauty and quaint bodkin’s cannot protect her from the advances of a single man, so what, Pope asks, is the use of all this artifice? Pope also mutates generic language elements from epic literature for his satirical intentions.
In this passage, the clearest example is in his use of the ten syllable rhyming heroic couplet. Pope takes the rhyme of the couplet and uses it to link together two separate words or ideas, often to a comical effect. Here, in the lines, “Nor feared the chief the unequal fight to try, Who sought no more than on his foe to die. “
Pope has the first line of the couplet set up the Baron’s bravery by expounding his fearlessness in fighting against Belinda in “unequal” combat (ironic in itself due to Belinda’s natural weakness compared to his “manly strength” referred to in the next couplet) before defeating the heroic xpectancy with a sexual pun; the phrase “to die” holding at the time a dual meaning referring to sexual climax, and often premature climax at that. His heroism is built up and destroyed within a couplet with the contrast of noble bravery and base desire providing a humorous and satirical twist on the typical heroism of the heroic couplet by suggesting that the drive behind the Baron’s actions is, at its deepest level, sexual, rather than noble or courtly.