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POPE—THE "RAPE OF THE LOCK"
 AS you have already guessed by the number of prose writers you
have been reading about, this age, the age of the last Stuarts
and the first Georges, was not a poetic one. It was an age of
art and posturing. It was an age of fierce and passionate party
strife—strife between Whig and Tory which almost amounted to
civil war, but instead of using swords and guns the men who took
part in the strife used pen and ink. They played the game
without any rules of fair play. No weapon was too vile or mean
to be used if by it the enemy might be injured.
You have often been told that it is rude to make personal
remarks, but the age of Anne was the age of personal remarks, and
they were not considered rude. The more cruel and pointed they
were, the more clever they were thought to be. To be stupid or
ugly are not sins. They ought not to be causes of scorn and
laughter, but in the age of Anne they were accepted as such. And
if the enemy was worsted in the fight he took his revenge by
holding up to ridicule the person of his victor. To raise the
unkind laughter of the world against an enemy was the great thing
to be aimed at. Added to this, too, the age was one of common
sense. All this does not make for poetry, yet in this age there
was one poet, who, although he does not rank among our greatest
poets, was still great, and perhaps had he lived in a less
artificial age he might have been greater still.
 This poet was Alexander Pope, the son of a well-to-do Catholic
linen-draper. He was born in London in 1688, but soon afterwards
his father retired from business, and went to live in a little
village not far from Windsor.
Alexander was an only son. He had one step-sister, but she was a
good many years older than he, and he seems never to have had any
child companions or real childhood. He must always have been
delicate, yet as a child his face was "round, plump, pretty, and
of a fresh complexion."
He is said, too, to have been very
sweet tempered, but his father and mother spoilt him not a
little, and when he grew up he lost that sweetness of temper.
Yet, unlike many spoilt children, Pope never forgot the reverence
due to father and mother. He repaid their love with love as
warm, and in their old age he tended and cared for them fondly.
As Pope was a delicate boy he got little regular schooling. He
learned to write by copying the printed letters in books, and was
first taught to read by an aunt, and later by a priest, but still
at home. After a time he was at school for a few years, but he
went from one school to another, never staying long at any, and
so never learning much. He says indeed that he unlearned at two
of his schools all that he had learned at another. By the time
he was twelve he was once more at home reading what he liked and
learning what he liked, and he read and studied so greedily that
he made himself ill.
Pope loved the stories of the Greek and Roman heroes, but he did
not care for the hard work needed to learn to read them in the
original with ease, and contented himself with translations. He
was so fond of these stories that while still a little boy he
made a play from the Iliad which was acted by the boys of one of
 Very early Pope began to write poetry. He read a great deal, and
two of his favorite poets were Spenser and Dryden. His great
idea was to become a poet also, and in this his father encouraged
him. Although no poet himself he would set his little son to
make verses upon different subjects. "He was pretty difficult in
being pleased," says Pope's mother, "and used often to send him
back to new turn them; 'These are not good rhymes,' he would
There is a story told that Pope admired Dryden's poetry so much
that he persuaded a friend to take him one day to London, to the
coffee-house where Dryden used to hold his little court. There
he saw the great man, who spoke to him and gave him a shilling
for some verses he wrote. But the story is a very doubtful one,
as Dryden died when Pope was twelve years old, and for some time
before that he had been too ill to go to coffee-houses. But that
Pope's admiration for Dryden was very sincere and very great we
know, for he chose him as his model. Like Dryden, Pope wrote in
the heroic couplet, and in his hands it became much more neat and
polished than ever it did in the hands of the older poet.
Pope saw Dryden only once, even if the story is true; but with
another old poet, a dramatist, he struck up a great friendship.
This poet was named Wycherley, but by the time that Pope came to
know him Wycherley had grown old and feeble, all his best work
was done, and people were perhaps beginning to forget him. So he
was pleased with the admiration of the boy poet fifty years
younger than himself, and glad to accept his help. At first this
flattered Pope's vanity, but after a little he quarreled with his
old friend and left him. This was the first of Pope's literary
quarrels, of which he had many.
Already, as a boy, Pope was becoming known. He had published a
few short poems, and others were handed
 about in manuscript among
his friends. "That young fellow will either be a madman or make
a very great poet,"
said one man after meeting him when he was
about fourteen. All the praise and attention which Pope received
pleased him much. But he took it only as his due, and his great
ambition was to make people believe that he had been a
wonderfully clever child, and that he had begun to write when he
was very young. He says of himself with something of
pompousness, "I lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came."
Pope's keenest desire was to be a poet, and few poets have rushed
so quickly into fame. He received few of the buffets which young
authors have as a rule to bear. Instead, many a kindly helping
hand was stretched out to him by the great men of the day, for
there was much in this young genius to draw out the pity of
others. He was fragile and sickly. As a full grown man he stood
only four feet six inches high. His body was bent and deformed,
and so frail that he had to be strapped in canvas to give him
some support. His fine face was lined by pain, for he suffered
from racking headaches, and indeed his life was one long disease.
Yet in spite of constant pain this little crooked boy, with his
"little, tender, crazy carcass," as Wycherley called it, wrote
the most astonishing poetry in a style which in his own day was
considered the finest that could be written.
It is not surprising then that his poems were greeted with kindly
wonder, mixed it may be with a little envy. Unhappily Pope saw
only the envy and overlooked the kindliness. Perhaps it was that
his crooked little body had warped the great mind it held, but
certain it is, as Pope grew to manhood his thirst for praise and
glory increased, and with it his distrust and envy of others.
And many of the ways he took to add to his own fame,
 and take
away from that of others, were mean and tortuous to the last
degree. Deceit and crooked ways seemed necessary to him. It has
been said that he hardly drank tea without a stratagem, and that
he played the politician about cabbages and turnips.
He begged his own letters back from the friends to whom they were
written. He altered them, changed the dates, and published them.
Then he raised a great outcry pretending that they had been
stolen from him and published without his knowledge. Such ways
led to quarrels and strife while he was alive, and since his
death they have puzzled every one who has tried to write about
him. All his life through he was hardly ever without a literary
quarrel of some sort, some of his poems indeed being called forth
merely by these quarrels.
But though many of Pope's poems led to quarrels, and some were
written with the desire to provoke them, one of his most famous
poems was, on the other hand, written to bring peace between two
angry families. This poem is called the Rape of the Lock—rape
meaning theft, and the lock not the lock of a door, but a lock of
A gay young lord had stolen a lock of a beautiful young lady's
hair, and she was so angry about it that there was a coolness
between the two families. A friend then came to Pope to ask him
if he could not do something to appease the angry lady. So Pope
took up his pen and wrote a mock-heroic poem making friendly fun
of the whole matter. But although Pope's intention was kindly
his success was not complete. The families did not entirely see
the joke, and Pope writes to a friend, "The celebrated lady
herself is offended, and, what is stranger, not at herself, but
But the poem remains one of the most delightful of
 airy trifles
in our language. And that it should be so airy is a triumph of
Pope's genius, for it is written in the heroic couplet, one of
the most mechanical forms of English verse.
Addison called it "a delicious little thing" and the very salt of
Another and later writer says of it—"It is the most exquisite
specimen of filigree work ever invented. It is made of gauze and
silver spangles. . . . Airs, languid airs, breathe around, the
atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilet is described
with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity,
and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of
heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion of ornament, no
splendour of poetic diction to set off the meanest things. . . .
It is the perfection of the mock-heroic."
Pope begins the poem by describing Belinda, the heroine, awaking
from sleep. He tells how her guardian sylph brings a morning
dream to warn her of coming danger. In the dream she is told
that all around her unnumbered fairy spirits fly guarding her
"Of these am I, who thy protection claim,
A watchful sprite, and Ariel is my name.
Late, as I ranged the crystal wilds of air,
In the clear mirror of thy ruling star
I saw, alas! some dread event impend,
Ere to the main this morning sun descend.
But heaven reveals not what, or how, or where:
Warned by the sylph, oh pious maid, beware!
This to disclose is all thy guardian can:
Beware of all, but most beware of Man!"
Then Shock, Belinda's dog,
"Who thought she slept too long,
Leaped up, and waked his mistress with his tongue."
 So Belinda rises and is dressed. While her maid seems to do the
"The busy sylphs surround their darling care,
These set the head, and those divide the hair,
Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown'
And Betty's praised for labours not her own."
Next Belinda set out upon the Thames to go by boat to Hampton
Court, and as she sat in her gayly decorated boat she looked so
beautiful that every eye was turned to gaze upon her—
"On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore."
She was so beautiful and graceful that it seemed as if she could
have no faults, or—
"If to her share some female errors fall,
Look in her face, and you'll forget them all.
This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourished two locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspired to deck,
With shining ringlets, the smoothe iv'ry neck.
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.
With hairy springes we the birds betray,
Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey,
Fair tresses man's imperial race insnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair."
The "Adventurous Baron" next appears upon the scene. He, greatly
admiring Belinda's shining locks, longs to possess one, and makes
up his mind that he will. And, as the painted vessel glided down
the Thames, Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay, only Ariel
alone was sad and disturbed, for he felt some evil, he knew not
what, was hanging over his mistress. So he gathered all his
company and bade them watch more warily than
 before over their
charge. Some must guard the watch, some the fan, "And thou
Crispissa, tend her fav'rite lock," he says. And woe betide that
sprite who shall be careless or neglectful!
"Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,
His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,
Shall feel sharp vengeance soon o'ertake his sins,
Be stopped in vials, or transfixed with pins,
Or plunged in lakes of bitter washes lie,
Or wedged, whole ages in a bodkin's eye."
So the watchful sprites flew off to their places—
"Some, orb in orb, around the nymph extend;
Some thrid the mazy ringlets of her hair,
Some hang upon the pendants of her ear."
The day went on, Belinda sat down to play cards. After the game
coffee was brought, and "while frequent cups prolong the rich
repast," Belinda unthinkingly gave the Baron a pair of scissors.
Then indeed the hour of fate struck. The Baron standing behind
Belinda found the temptation too great. He opened the scissors
and drew near—
"Swift to the lock a thousand sprites repair,
A thousand wings by turns blow back the hair;
And thrice they twitched the diamond in her ear;
Thrice she looked back, and thrice the foe drew near."
But at last "the fatal engine" closed upon the lock. Even to the
last, one wretched sylph struggling to save the lock clung to it.
It was in vain, "Fate urged the shears, and cut the sylph in
twain." Then, while Belinda cried aloud in anger, the Baron
shouted in triumph and rejoiced over his spoil.
The poem goes on to tell how Umbriel, a dusky melancholy sprite,
in order to make the quarrel worse, flew off
 to the witch Spleen,
and returned with a bag full of "sighs, sobs, and passions, and
the war of tongues," "soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing
tears," and emptied it over Belinda's head. She—
"Then raging to Sir Plume repairs,
And bids her beau demand the precious hairs.
Sir Plume, of amber snuff-box justly vain,
And the nice conduct of a clouded case,
With earnest eyes, and round unthinking face,
He first the snuff-box opened, then the case."
Sir Plume, not famous for brains, put on a very bold, determined
air, and fiercely attacked the Baron—"My Lord," he cried, "why,
what! you must return the lock! You must be civil. Plague on
't! 'tis past a jest—nay prithee, give her the hair." And as he
spoke he tapped his snuff-box daintily.
But in spite of this valiant champion of fair ladies in distress,
the Baron would not return the lock. So a deadly battle followed
in which the ladies fought against the gentlemen, and in which
the sprites also took part. The weapons were only frowns and
"A beau and witling perished in the throng,
One died in metaphor, and one in song.
A mournful glance Sir Fopling upwards cast,
'Those eyes were made so killing,' was his last."
Belinda, however, at length disarmed the Baron with a pinch of
snuff, and threatened his life with a hair pin. And so the
battle ends. But alas!—
"The lock, obtained with guilt and kept with pain,
In ev'ry place is sought, but sought in vain."
During the fight it has been caught up to the skies—
"A sudden star, it shot through liquid air,
And drew behind a radiant trail of hair."
Thus, says the poet, Belinda has no longer need to mourn her lost
lock, for it will be famous to the end of time as a bright star
among the stars—
"Then cease, bright nymph! to mourn thy ravished hair,
Which adds new glory to the starry sphere!
Not all the tresses that fair head can boast,
Shall draw such envy as the lock you lost.
For after all the murders of your eye,
When, after millions slain, yourself shall die;
When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,
This lock the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And midst the stars inscribe Belinda's name."
When Pope first published this poem there was nothing about
fairies in it. Afterwards he thought of the fairies, but Addison
advised him not to alter the poem, as it was so delightful as it
was. Pope, however, did not take the advice, but added the fairy
part, thereby greatly improving the poem. This caused a quarrel
with Addison, for Pope thought he had given him bad advice
through jealousy. A little later this quarrel was made much
worse. Pope translated and published a version of the Iliad, and
at the same time a friend of Addison did so too. This made Pope
bitterly angry, for he believed that the translation was
Addison's own and that he had published it to injure the sale of
his. From this you see how easily Pope's anger and jealousy were
aroused, and will not wonder that his life was a long record of
Pope need not have been jealous of Addison's friend, for his own
translation of Homer was a great success, and people soon forgot
the other. He translated not only the Iliad, but with the help
of two lesser poets the Odyssey also. Both poems were done in
the fashionable heroic couplet, and Pope made so much money by
them that he was able to live in comfort ever after. And it is
 remember that Pope was the first poet who was able
to live in comfort entirely on what he made by his writing.
Pope now took a house at Twickenham, and there he spent many
happy hours planning and laying out his garden, and building a
grotto with shells and stones and bits of looking-glass. The
house has long ago been pulled down and the garden altered, but
the grotto still remains, a sight for the curious.
It has been said that to write in the heroic couplet "is an art
as mechanical as that of mending a kettle or shoeing a horse, and
may be learned by any human being who has sense enough to learn
And although this is not all true, it is so far true
that it is almost impossible to tell which books of the Odyssey
were written by Pope, and which by the men who helped him. But,
taken as a whole, the Odyssey is not so good as the Iliad.
Scholars tell us that in neither the one nor the other is the
feeling of the original poetry kept. Pope did not know enough
Greek to enter into the spirit of it, and he worked mostly from
translation. Even had he been able to enter into the true spirit
he would have found it hard to keep that spirit in his
translation, using as he did the artificial heroic couplet. For
Homer's poetry is not artificial, but simple and natural like our
own early poetry. "A pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not
call it Homer," said a friend
when he read it, and his judgment
is still for the most part the judgment of to-day.
It was after he had finished the Odyssey that Pope wrote his most
famous satire, called the Dunciad. In this he insulted and held
up to ridicule all stupid or dull authors, all dunces, and all
those whom he considered his enemies. It is very clever, but a
poem full of malice and hatred does not make very pleasant
reading. For most of us, too, the interest it had has vanished,
 of the people at whom Pope levied his malice are
forgotten, or only remembered because he made them famous by
adding their names to his roll of dunces. But in Pope's own day
the Dunciad called forth cries of anger and revenge from the
victims, and involved the author in still more quarrels.
Pope wrote many more poems, the chief being the Essay on
Criticism and the Essay on Man. But his translations of Homer
and the Rape of the Lock are those you will like best in the
meantime. As a whole Pope is perhaps not much read now, yet many
of his lines have become household words, and when you come to
read him you will be surprised to find how many familiar
quotations are taken from his poems. Perhaps no one of our poets
except Shakespeare is more quoted. And yet he seldom says
anything which touches the heart. When we enjoy his poetry we
enjoy it with the brain. It gives us pleasure rather as the
glitter of a diamond than as the perfume of a rose.
In spite of his crooked, sickly little body Pope lived to be
fifty-six, and one evening in May 1744 he died peacefully in his
home at Twickenham, and was buried in the church there, near the
monument which he had put up to the memory of his father and
There is so much disagreeable and mean in Pope that we are apt to
lose sight of what was good in him altogether. We have to remind
ourselves that he was a good and affectionate son, and that he
was loving to the friends with whom he did not quarrel. Yet
these can hardly be counted as great merits. Perhaps his
greatest merit is that he kept his independence in an age when
writers fawned upon patrons or accepted bribes from Whig or Tory.
Pope held on his own way, looking for favors neither from one
side nor from the other. And when we think of his frail little
body, this sturdy
 independence of mind is all the more wonderful.
From Pope we date the beginning of the time when a writer could
live honorable by his pen, and had not need to flatter a patron,
or sell his genius to politics or party. But Pope stood alone in
this independence, and he never had to fight for it. A happy
chance, we might say, made him free. For while his brother
writers all around him were still held in the chains of
patronage, Pope having more money than some did not need to bow
to it, and having less greed than others did not choose to bow to
it, in order to add to his wealth. And in the following chapter
we come to another man who in the next generation fought for
freedom, won it, and thereby helped to free others. This man was
the famous Dr. Samuel Johnson.
BOOKS TO READ
Pope's Iliad, edited by A. J. Church.
Pope's Odyssey, edited by A. J. Church.
NOTE. —As an introduction to Pope's Homer the following books may
Stories from the Iliad, by Jeanie Lang.
Stories from the Odyssey, by Jeannie Lang.
The Children's Iliad, by A. J. Church.
The Children's Odyssey, by A. J. Church.