The term satire commonly refers to a specific genre or simply a style or tone in literature, that is an attack or critique of political, moral, economical systems; uses humour, irony to ridicule society. The two formal types of satire are Juvenalian and Horatian. While Juvenalian satire is bitter, sharp, hostile; often lacks humour and is vicious; says one thing but implies another, Horatian satire exposes follies but is at the same time fond of society and the people it satirizes.
Horace developed this type and the mock-epic The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope belongs to the same form of satire.
The occasion of this poem was a dispute between two Anglo-Catholic families. Lord Petre cut off a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor. She and her family became angry. Pope, an Anglo-Catholic himself, wrote the poem to try to make peace between the families. The poem was a popular success, but Arabella was not too happy at being mocked.
Alexander Pope lampoons the English upper class and their infatuation with ephemeral beauty, stately ritual, and indignant rage at honour lost. His work The Rape of the Lock served a dual purpose: to diffuse a real-life situation and jest at the nobility’s way of making their microcosm of society into the very centre of importance. His quick wit and acid sarcasm allowed him to tear down the lords’ and ladies’ pompous natures with his poetic works.
In fact, the satire in this mock epic is aimed at several issues, feminine frivolity being one of them.
It continues the strain of mockery and is a prolonged “slam on women”; women were considered trivial, not important subjects for epic literature, (I, 1-2). Belinda, the heroine, is symbolic of every fashionable young lady of her time. She obsesses over her vestments and cosmetics (I, 125-136). Pope demonstrates the overdone importance of her obsessive morning ritual by graciously lavishing on Belinda a troop of sylphs and nymphs whose sole purpose in their ethereal state is to watch over the toilet rituals of this lovely virgin maid (I, 145-149). Her looks are her religion (I, 122-147) and her armour is her make-up. For Belinda, it is equal to break Diana’s law or China jar; staining her honour or her new brocade; forgetting her prayers or missing a masquerade and losing her heart or necklace at a ball (II,253-258), it relates to her “vacant brain” (I,83) which is unable to distinguish between what is important from what is not.
The concept of friendship among women is also satirized when Belinda’s friend Thalestris, says that it will be a disgrace to be known as her friend because she has lost her honour(IV, 575-580), later she incites the heroine to vengeance by conjuring up a fearful vision of social ruin (IV,107-112). Clarissa, who provided scissors for cutting the lock (V, 417-420), delivers a mighty speech (V, 663-678) emphasising the need for humour and good sense that contradicts with her previous act and this is a satire on hypocritical nature of women. In the last canto, when Belinda loses her lock of hair, she behaves in a manner as if she has lost her honour and she only regains her position after a mad fight for the lock when it is discovered that it has flown into the night sky and transformed itself into a glowing star. Thus does Pope ridicule high society’s antics and florid ideals when beauty is mentioned. In the words of Emrys Jones:
“The Rape of the Lock is full of the small objects and appurtenances of the feminine world which arouse Pope’s aesthetic interests such things as “white curtains”, combs, puffs, fans, and so on. This world of the feminine sensibility is one, which offers a challenge to the larger world of the masculine reason. The man of good sense might laugh at it, but he could not destroy it; and to some extent he had to recognise an alternative system of values.”
Another issue that is satirized by Pope in The Rape of the Lock is the male mentality, which is portrayed through Baron, as lacking depth or personality beyond that required to achieve its ends; men objectify and devise “stratagems” (III, 410) to conquer their female obsessions they are “victor[s]” (III, 452) who self-importantly congratulate themselves as meriting “wreaths of triumph” (III, 451) when they have seized what they desire. Baron claims that the “glorious prize” (which is a mere lock of hair in reality) is his in perpetuity, whilst many conditions that will never be fulfilled (III, 453-459) remain unfulfilled. In this satirising of the epic mould, such trivial occurrences are substituted in place of truly fantastic possibilities (mighty cities falling, for instance) for the purpose of putting the lock’s severing into a more realistic perspective.
Pope has satirized the judges and their sense of duty also who sign the sentence and leave the courts in a hurry to have their dinner in time (III, 311-312). In the words of Mammon: “Pope makes an oblique criticism of the merchant is the cause of informing us, with full mock-heroic elaboration that ‘The Merchant from th’ Exchanges returns in Peace’. The merchant has had a successful day’s transactions on the Stock Exchange. The phrase ‘in Peace’ however, suggests not only his self-satisfaction but also his immunity from the molestation and prosecution that have pursued the condemned wretches. The merchant’s dubious activities are condoned by society”. He satirizes the rituals of Hampton Courts where the whole discussion revolves around other people and where “at every word a reputation dies” (III, 306).
The sylphs has an important role to perform and they are directly related to the main subject of this poem which is “fine ladies”, and the terms in which the satire works are explained in Ariel’s long speech is the first canto whose object is to impress such young ladies as Belinda with a sense of their own importance and to confirm them in their dishevelled scale of values (I, 37-40). Pope characteristically blurs his moral terms, so that his own position as a man of good sense is represented by the ironical phrases “learned pride “and “doubting wits”, whereas the empty-headed young girls have access to “secret truths”: they are fair and innocent”; they shall have faith. Such faith abhors any tincture of good sense, for fine ladies are characterized by an absence of good sense. He clearly says and thus creates satire that it is because of the guarding sylphs that “melting maids” are able to save their honour. They are not held in check by anything corresponding to sound moral principles; they are checked only by something as insubstantial, or as unreal, as their “sylph”.
In short, The Rape of the Lock portrays the artificiality, pretence and hollowness of British Elites for whom loss of a lock of hair and honour is equal, the women, for whom loss of virginity is inferior to loss of lock of hair and the men, who sacrifice love letters at the altar of love before assaulting a women. The Rape of the Lock shows Pope’s expertise which he has shown by creating deep satire on important issues of society by presenting a trivial problem through a grand style and using mighty language following the epic-style. The Rape of the Lock is rightly considered a good example of satire on social issues and shallowness of people belonging to the elite class.