December 07, 2023

#08-364: The Rape of the Lock

Arabella Fermor in a 19th-century print (Wikipedia)

Note: One way to trivialize a potentially serious event is the logical technique called reductio ad absurdum--taking an idea all the way to a ridiculous conclusion. See how the poet Alexander Pope applied this to a social squabble.

Get Ready: How big a deal would it be if someone snipped off a bit of your hair without your permission?

One of my favorite college courses covered "The Augustan Age," the first half of the 18th century, when great poetry dominated English literature (though it also produced such prose writers as Jonathan Swift [Gulliver's Travels--see Lesson #08-134] and Daniel Defoe [Robinson Crusoe--see Lesson #08-112]). Among the poets we read, the greatest was Alexander Pope (not to be confused with the many popes named Alexander).

It is called "The Augustan Age," by the way, because the poets were emulating the forms and intentions of Roman poetry in the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE to 14 CE), which featured such writers as Virgil, Ovid, and Horace.

Rape is, of course, no laughing matter. But one point of parody is served when a writer takes a seemingly trivial matter and blows it up out of all proportion, like turning a minor insult into a major incident. This shows the silliness of the reaction.

So Pope wrote a poem called The Rape of the Lock, in which an overly-amorous suitor doesn't actually attack a woman, but instead cuts off a lock of her hair. ("Rape" here is not sexual; it means "to carry away against one's will.")

The poem was based on a true story: the aristocrat Robert Petre cut off a piece of hair  (a "lock") from the head of his beloved, Arabella Fermor, without her permission (lovers cherished such keepsakes). This silly act caused a rift between the two families. Pope introduced gods and other supernatural beings into the story, in imitation of Roman writings, intending to make people laugh and bring reconciliation between the two great houses. (It didn't work; she married someone else.)

Pope was a genius at a form called the "heroic couplet," two rhyming lines written in iambic pentameter (the "rhythm" of speech that Shakespeare usually used, containing five beats per line). As with any good poetry, the language is quite condensed; here's one famous couplet from the poem:

"Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul."

Unpacked, this means that a woman may do her best to try to look attractive ("roll her eyes"), but that only affects what a man sees with his eyes. It is her good character ("merit") that appeals to a man's soul.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. aristocrat
  2. condensed
  3. emulating
  4. keepsakes
  5. overly-amorous
  6. prose
  7. reconciliation
  8. rift
  9. trivial
  10. unpacked
  1. souvenirs; mementos
  2. member of the upper class
  3. imitating
  4. too much in love
  5. taken apart
  6. non-poetic writing
  7. act of bringing back together
  8. unimportant
  9. pushed tightly together
  10. break; split

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for December 7, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. b; 2. i; 3. c; 4. a; 5. d; 6. f; 7. g; 8. j; 9. h; 10. e