Paradise Lost and Rape of the Lock
When we think of an epic poem, we rapidly turn our minds to a world of adventures and deeds of heroic or legendary figures. Amongst the greatest epic poems stands John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a traditional epic based on the biblical story of the “fall of mankind”. There also exists a form of satire of the classical epic poem that adapts the elevated heroic style to a trivial subject; this is called a mock epic. Alexander Pope wrote by these means the Rape of the Lock, a humorous depiction of a frivolous society. The title itself reveals the grandiose exaggeration of unimportant situations and the implication of importance upon otherwise obviously superficial attitudes. Even thought there is a difference in context between these epics, both of them call for reason and wisdom from us readers, and of our questioning of life profound inquiries.
The most obvious and simple things sometimes are the hardest to see and understand. There are passages from each of these epic poems which to me seem closely related, pointing in a similar direction, and if carefully analyzed would shed us some light upon the reality of suffering that comes by being subject to change, of life and death, and of the possibility of finding a fundamental direction, a “dominant” in the midst of impermanence, by possessing mind, by an internal attitude, where for example the values of good and evil exists solely in function of an end. We can also find a relation in the lives of these two poets and how their difficulties were overcome by a mighty “will to power”1, in the sense of acting according to one means and understanding. In Paradise Lost, the character of Satan is the outright protagonist and epic hero of the story. He is well aware of his situation in Hell and also of the consequences of his revolt against God. Having a keen understanding of the powers of perception and of personal reaction to one’s environment he comments to his fellowmen: Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.
Even though Satan knows of his condition after his condemnation, he will keep trying to pervert God ways. This passage suggests that Satan is defining himself as sole ruler of his actions and of his responsibility over them. He accepts the way he has chosen and cuts along it by his will. “The mind is not subject to time and place, for it has its own place”; it seems that by realizing the reality of mind, and how the mind creates our perception of our environment and of ourselves, Satan feels that he cannot be less than the son/God because he recognizes his own power. He knows he cannot escape the consequences of his actions but he can be free by reigning in His kingdom. This freedom alludes to the sovereignty of mind; he has wielded the sword of wisdom in spite of his position and of his fall from Heaven. The paradox of making a Heaven of Hell and a Hell of Heaven cuts through the duality we find in life.
When you are sole ruler of your mind there is no distinction between good and bad, one is because the other is, and by that, seeing reality unveiled, not taking sides, the mind can go beyond the exterior appearances and rest within itself, totally full of life as a whole. Satan, by proving himself, possesses an imperturbable mind that knows no fear or repentance, and from this mind he talks to his comrades about the invincibility of the spirit that keeps willing even when there is no solid ground to be found. This passage can be seen in the light of Milton’s life, whereas under the Commonwealth of England, he was thought to be dangerously radical and even heretical, but he found his way to continue living under pressures and difficulties, defying unhappiness. It could be that in this passage Milton was questioning the moral law that comes from the personal god of theism, with the sanctions of Heaven and Hell and of a faith that rested on a largely emotional, sentimental, and sub-intellectual basis, not on the possessing of mind, of complete self-transcendent knowledge.
The best example of his invincibility of spirit and his ambition is that he was blind and impoverished when he wrote his greatest works, including Paradise Lost, his utmost work. The life of Alexander Pope also encountered great difficulties. When he has young he suffered from asthma and headaches and contracted tuberculosis in his bones. From this, he got a humpback that was a constant target for his critics in literary battles. But overcoming all of this by will and strength of mind, he kept writing and got to live only by the income from his works and translations. In the Rape of the Lock we have the character of Claryssa, who attends the Hampton Court party and gives the Baron the pair of scissors that he uses to cut Belinda’s hair. Later on in the story, she delivers a moralizing lecture to Belinda. This passage is part of that speech: But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl’d or uncurl’d, since Locks will turn to grey;
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid,
What then remains but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
And trust me, dear! good Humour can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul. (V:25-34)
Here, Clarissa tries to persuade Belinda to change her attitude and be reasonable toward the incident of the Baron’s cutting Belinda’s hair lock. Even though Clarissa was the one who gave the Baron the scissors, she is bringing some important aspects of reality into the triviality and humorous style of the story. That everything changes and that life and beauty are fragile as the first three lines of the passage suggest brings us closer to a more objective view over the conflict of the story. “She who scorns a Man, must die a Maid”, because Clarissa knows that after all what Belinda wants is to be with the Baron. If she continues her on fray she’s going to end up alone. The fifth line, “what then remains but well our Pow’r to use” brings us back to the passage of Paradise Lost that was discussed earlier, for Satan also understood that he could not change who he was in a certain manner, but he could still overcome this by his state of mind, by his sole support in his own being, by his self-knowledge.
Clarissa brings an important point that alludes to keeping always humorous attitude in life, even in lost and suffering. The question is thus: ¿what can we change if it’s not only ourselves? If we lose this attitude, it will create us some problems because we will try to change other things, things outside of ourselves. But how can we do this if we ourselves are not in order. Keeping good humor would enable seeing life’s impermanence and fragility while keeping a joyous mind and fresh and open mind that can accept reality and act accordingly. Beauty and charms pass like the wind, while merit is gained by the fruits of our actions; “Charms strike the sight, but Merit wins the Soul” suggest that merit has a permanent effect even after life and that Belinda can have what she wants if she changes her attitude. It is evident that Pope uses his wit and humorous style to criticize in a friendly manner the actions of people, in this case, of polite people. In reality, the story of the Rape of the Lock is based on a true story that gave shape to the story of Pope.
It could be seen as an effort of Pope to reflect the reality and absurdity of the incident and the turmoil it created between two families. Beauty and charms pass like the wind, while merit is gained by the fruits of our actions; “Charms strike the sight, but Merit wins the Soul” suggest that merit has a permanent effect even after life and that Belinda can have what she wants if she changes her attitude. As we have seen, the epic poems: Paradise Lost and Rape of the Lock, which in appearance show many differences and motives have things in common if observed closely and with detainment. Not only that, but the lives of the authors share a common background in a way that both seemed to have had many difficulties and trials, yet through their creative imaginary and expression they shared their experience with beauty and wisdom, transforming the poison into medicine and leaving us with much to think, to learn, to practice and to appreciate in life. The only thing you can change is your way in every moment. ¿What are you paying attention to? You cannot change your past nor you can attach to some future, but you can be the sovereign of your all plentiful mind here and now.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost, and Paradise Regained. New York: New American Library, 1968. 12. (I:251-263) Print. Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 47-48. (V:25-34) Print.