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A lock of hair
from The Rape o f the Lock (1714)
by Alexander Pope

The occasion of the poem The Rape o f the Lock was a quarrel between two
aristocratic English families. The cause of this quarrel was an unimportant
incident: Lord Petre, a young member of one of the families, had cut off a
single lock of hair from the head of a young lady of the other family, Miss
Arabella Fermor. He did this just for a joke, and to show that he quite
liked her, but she took it as a serious insult. Pope was friendly with both
the families involved in the quarrel, and because it was causing a iot of bad
feeling, he agreed to write a poem about it. By doing this he hoped to bring
the families together again.
He chose two literary devices to help him in writing the poem. He
decided that a simple, direct re-telling in verse of the incident itself,
however well done, would not make a strong impression on his readers.
Instead he retold the incident as if it were epic in scale and importance, as if
it had a Iot in common with the rape of Helen of Troy and the consequent
long, bitter war between the Trojans and the Greeks in ancient history.
> (Line 174 in extract A below refers to this war.) Homer, when he wrote
about the Trojan War in the^Iliad,' established an epic style in poetry and
used it to nrrate epic incidents. Pope adopts a style which has many
features similar to Homers, but, unlike-Homer, he uses it on a trivial inci
dent, an incident which is not epic at all. The poem is mock epic; this is
his first device.
The second device is the machinery which Homer used in the Iliad.
This machinery, as it was brought into the story, caused gods, goddesses,
and other transcendental powers to intervene regularly and frequently in
the action of ordinary human beings. Instead of gods etc., Pope, in The
Rape o f the Lock, brings in airy spirits among the families involved in the
quarrel. (In fact he took the idea of these airy spirits from the mystical
beliefs of the society of the Rosicrucians, who thought that the various
elements which made up the universe were ruled by spirits in the air.) These
spirits serve his purposes well. They are not as weighty and powerful as the
gods and goddesses of the ancient writers, and are therefore more appro-
priate to Popes poem; they are in keeping with the lightness of everything
the quarrel has sprung from.
In the passage which follows, Pope tells the story of the key event, the
cutting of the lock. The incident is visualized as taking place at Hampton
Court, a splendid royal palace on the River Thames above London, a place
where aristocratic families met one another within the circle of the royal
court. The victim is named Belinda, and the man playing the trick on her
is named *the Peer or the Barn*. There is an older woman in the same
circle of friends; she is called Clarissa, and seems to be on the Peers side
in the quarrel.

Extract A
125 . . . when to mischief morais bend their will,
How soon they find fit Instruments of II!
* Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting grace
A two-edged weapon from her shning case.
So ladies in iRomance assist their knight,
130 Present the spear, and arm him for the fight.
> ' He takes the gift with reverence, and extends
The little engine on his fingers' ends.
This just behind Belinda's neck he spread,
As o'er the fraFgrnt Stearns1 she bends her head. >
135 Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair2,
A thousand wings, by turns, blow back the hair;
/ And thric they twtched the diamond in her ear;
Thrice she looked back, and thrice the foe drew near.
Just in that instant, anxious%riel3 sought
1 140 The cise recesses of the virgin's thought.
As, on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lrking at her heart.
145 Amazed4, confused, he found his power expired,
Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.
The Peer now spreads the glittering forfex5 wide
" T' inclose the lock, now joins it to divide.
Ev'n then, before the fatal engine closed,
150 A wretched s^lph6 too fondly interposed.
Fate urged the shars, and cut the sylph in twain7,
(But airy substance soon unites again)
The meeting points the sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, for ever and for ever!
155 Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend the affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast
When husbands, or when lap-dogs, breathe their last.
Or when rich China vessels fall'n from high
160 In glittering dust and painted fragments liel
'Let wraths of triumph now my temples twine',
The victor cried, 'the glorious prize s mine!
While fish in streams, or birds delight in air,
Or in a coach-and-six the British fair8,
165 As long as A talantis9 shall be read
Or the small pillow grace a lady's bed,
While visits shall be paid on solemn days,
When numerous wax-lights in bright order blaze,
While nymphs take treats, or assignations10 give,
170 So long my honour, ame and praise shall Uve!',

What Time would spare, from Steel receives its date,

And monuments, like men, submit to fate!
Steel could thejabour of the Gods destroy,
And strike to'dust the imperial towefs of Troy;
175 Steel could the works of mortal pride confound,
And hew triumphal arches to the ground.
What wonder then, fair nymph, thy hairs should feel
The conquering forc of unresisted Steel?
(Canto III, Unes 1 2 5 -1 7 8 )

Notes: fragrant steams: boiling tea and coffee

2sprites repair: spirits go
3Ariel: the chief spirt
4Amazed: Bewildered
5forfex: pair of scissors
6sylph: spirt
7twain: two
8fair: circus ring
9Atalantis: a scandalous novel of Pope's time *
10assignations: appointments to meet a lover

Comprehension of Extract A
1. What is the two-edged weapon mentioned in line 128?
2. By what ames s this weapon referred to elsewhere in the passage?
3. What are the reasons for the poet finding a likeness between this weapon and a
spear? *
4. What do you think Belinda is doing when the Peer steals up behind her?1 .
5. After having read the introduction to this extract, what do you think the sprites
are (1.135)? ' '
6. What measures do these sprites take to save Belinda from losing a lock of
hair? .
7. Why do you think these measures fail in the end?
8. In line 148, joints it to divide is a paradox. What do these words mean here?
What action do they refer to? ' 1 / 1
9. Bearing in mind that young peoples hair grows again readily when it is cut,
suggest why the poet says Belinda loses her lock for ever and ever (1. 154)?
10. From line 161 onwards, the Peer considers himself to be a hero. What symbol
does he choose in order to show the world that he is a hero?

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