The Rape of the Lock

Question 4. ‘‘The Rape of the Lock’ is a very empty trifle without any solidity or sensible meaning’ (John Dennis, a contemporary critic of the eighteenth century). Was he right?

A ‘trifle’ is defined as being ‘something of little importance or value’ ( Thus, ‘a very empty trifle’ would appear to be near devoid of importance or value. Criticism as bold as this must be put into context, since modern critics hold the general consensus that Alexander Pope’s poetry has a rightful place in the canon of English literature. Pat Rogers enthuses; “Alexander Pope is a literary artist of the first rank, whose poems have stood their share of tests of time…” continuing Rogers states:

“Indeed, there has scarcely been a literary fad since the 1920s which has not some how bent to accommodate Pope.” (An introduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat, Methuen and Co.1975, page 1)

So, with such acclaim in the retrospective critical climate of the twentieth century, why did John Dennis (a contemporary of Pope’s) deign that ‘The Rape of the Lock’ was without importance, ‘solidity’ and ‘sensible meaning’? Ostensibly, it is true that any criticism will be entirely subjective but the disparity between the criticism cast by Dennis and that of Rogers is alarming. John Dennis was a prolific critic during the eighteenth century who circulated his work amongst the circles that Pope himself moved in. At the time of Dennis’s criticism of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ he was feuding with Pope, a war of words. This can be validated by the fact that Pope used his stint as a pamphleteer to mock Dennis; this directly preceded his writing of ‘The Rape of the Lock’.

“Pope had turned to a new mode of expression, the satirical pamphlet. His first shot, The Critical Specimen (1711), was only partially successful…But Pope homed right on to the target with the Narrative of Dr Robert Norris (1713), in which Dennis is shown as a raving lunatic attended by the quack ‘mad-doctor’ Norris” (An introduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat, Methuen and Co.1975, page 132)

Additionally, some critics would suggest Pope consolidated his onslaught by hinting at Dennis’s vacant stupidity through his portrayal of ‘Sir Plume’ in ‘The Rape of the Lock’.

“It is worth noting that he makes the most of the faces of his victims. The lines on Dennis in the Essay on Criticism fix on his facial expression…And there are the ‘earnest eyes, and round thinking face’ of Sir Plume. Pope’s own face was of course the only unimpeachable item in his appearance.” (On the Poetry of Pope, Tillotson, Geoffrey, Oxford University Press 1950, page 38)

Dennis’s commentary is obviously tainted then, by his own personal opinions and grudges he bears with Pope. However, the quality found throughout ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is evidence enough from which to counter Dennis’s judgment.

As a ‘mock epic’ or a ‘heroi-comical’ piece Pope had to observe some epic characteristics in order to give the text solidity. There are three typical epic characteristics which Pope employed to great effect. Firstly epic poems use divine machinery to give the poem another layer and also add essential gravity to the narrative, since there is much at stake if God is involved. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is littered with this machinery; most prominently the presence of the sylphs throughout. Sylphs being supernatural creatures that inhabit the air from which they are made from. Their use may be emblematic of God’s intentions or conversely, fate. Secondly, epic poetry must contain a battle. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ observes this in a very comical sense which, in turn, suits the ‘mock epic’ genre. There are two battles, the first of which is played out through a game of cards in Canto 3. Pope illustrates this ridiculous battle to great comic effect in his use of periphrasis when both identifying and describing the cards being played. Instead of simply saying the Queen of Spades, Pope identifies the card as being, “The imperial consort of the crown of Spades.” (‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 3, line 68) Or, when describing the King of Clubs, “…of all the monarchs only grasps the globe?” (Canto 3, line 74) On traditional card illustrations it is the King of Clubs who carries the