Does mock-heroic poetry debase its subjects?

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2632

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714) is a mock-heroic poem, imitating the elevated language of classical epics through ‘[describing] in inflated terms a trivial subject’ (Terry, p.364) in a ceremonious manner. The poem is based upon a real incident: Lord Petre had cut a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair, enraging the Fermors as a result. This incident is mocked to such heights of grandeur that the effect is comic and readers laugh at their foolishness. This essay argues Pope’s mock-heroic as potently attacking aristocratic society by representing Belinda and Sir Plume as grand spectacles of entertainment through grandiose language that elevates their trivial and superficial eighteenth-century values. Particularly, the excessive values of female beauty and objects depreciate characters as being products of a society consumed with materialism and consumer culture. Also, morality – spiritual and female morality concerning chastity – is a pretence Belinda places upon herself which invites readers to laugh at the charade she creates. Furthermore, contemporary masculinity is amusing through Sir Plume’s grand language. He is a comedic, stock character whose absurdity through speech we ridicule. The poem itself as a grand spectacle of the reader’s entertainment is effective in exposing the ‘cultural unease’ (Terry, p.366) of an opulent society close to chaos and debasing the characters.

The poem satirises aristocratic society where the trivial subject is elevated to a point of exaggeration. Pope describes the poem as ‘Heroi-Comical’, a subtitle that immediately introduces the poem’s satirical stance, therefore inviting readers to mock the poem’s trivial subject: Belinda’s loss of hair. The elevated language is prevalent in the beginning, reducing the significance of Belinda’s incident:

‘What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,

What mighty Contents rises from trivial Things’ (Pope, Canto I, 1-2).

A ‘profound change in human relations’ (Crehan, p.47) had taken place in the eighteenth century; lifestyles and principles changed immensely, affecting people’s societal values. It was believed that the classical age of epics had passed, and human passions no longer inspire people to ‘mighty Contests’, unlike in the Iliad, where conflicts arise from affronts against a hero’s honour. Weitzman asserts that in London ‘there was a progressive disenchantment as [London] appeared to lose its innocence because of [the city’s] commitment to purely social and economic value’ (Weitzman, p.472). Thus, the contrast of epic subjects to the frivolous, trivial nature of ‘Things’ that dominate Belinda’s society, marks the period as one of loss. The characters are unable to rise to the epic standards of heroes in Homer; instead, they escalate their sense of importance through grand language. The effect becomes farcical because of the triviality of the subject: Belinda’s loss of hair. Therefore, Belinda’s incident is a ludicrous spectacle designed for mockery due to the subject’s comparison to the histories of epics.

The ridiculousness of Belinda’s incident is contrasted to the reactions of the characters. Belinda’s reaction to her loss of hair marks a certain ‘nostalgia for classical traditions’ (Weitzman, p.469). The ‘traditions’ have diminished and rather than the brave deeds of heroes, Belinda’s lock of hair, an insignificant part of her, is the central subject. Unlike Homeric epics, where events are vast and word-encompassing, The Rape of the Lock centres on an inconsequential event involving an aristocratic woman and a small number of people. This debases the characters as it discounts their importance; the characters are concerned solely with ‘subjects that can be seen as affronting the standard of epic by being provocatively low or trivial’ (Terry, p.357). Pope dismisses the anger that a woman of her status had the right to feel, especially if her chances for marriage were tainted, and places it under a ‘trivial’ event to laugh at then move on. While Pope’s description of Belinda’s experience in mock-heroic form elevates the subject through heroic couplets, the sardonic tone in the quote indicates the ridiculousness of her experience. The poem and Belinda are a spectacle for mockery, and the lock’s importance to Belinda is amusing to readers in its contrast between her exaggerated reaction and the triviality of her hair.

Pope claimed that his poem was intended for reconciliation between the Fermor’s and Lord Petre’s families, and therefore the humorous aspect of the poem is seen as deliberate. The phrases ‘am’rous Causes’ and ‘mighty Contents’ is juxtaposed ironically with the poem’s content. There is a sense of social degradation in mock-heroic where the ‘am’rous Causes’ have little resemblance to Penelope’s devotion and love for Odysseus. Instead, it is the Baron’s fixation with Belinda’s hair that constitute the poem’s amorous theme and the theft of her hair from which the ‘mighty Contests’ arise. The classical period of honourable and moral deeds from Achilles and Odysseus has diminished and society is obsessed with pride. Benedict notes that ‘Pope represents Belinda’s hair [and] also, Belinda herself, as trophies [reflecting] the importance of [‘Things’] in eighteenth-century culture (Benedict, p.131). Consequently, the mock-heroic poem depicts the degradation of social culture whereby minor events are the highlight of their lives, no matter how trivial it seems. Belinda’s incident is a laughable portrayal of initiating ‘mighty Contests’ because it is not considered to be of any significance for readers.

Excessive values on female beauty describe Belinda as a product of her fashionable eighteenth-century society. The superficiality within these values exposes the domination of ‘trivial Things’. For example, at the end of canto I, Belinda’s toilet accessories are listed in substantial detail in ironic tones:

This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.

The tortoise here and elephant unite,

Transform’d to combs, the speckled and the white.

Here files of pins extend their shining rows,

Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux (Pope. Canto I, 133-138).

The ‘specialised mock-heroic irony’ (Terry, p.364) is effective in satirising Belinda’s narcissistic preoccupations. There is a contrast between the elaborate catalogue of her beauty cosmetics and the ‘trivial Things’ being described because the objects dominate in filling the poem; they are intertwined with Belinda and she cannot exist without them. Therefore Belinda is dehumanised whereby she is defined by mere commodities. Also, the high resister of the objects is elevated as sacred rites, but the detached and humorous tone ridicules her objects as those of pride and shallowness.

Furthermore, the representation of Belinda’s accessories echoes epic descriptions of soldiers preparing for battle. In the Iliad, Homer describes in large detail the armour and weaponry of Achilles and the battlefield trappings of other heroes for the battle of Troy. The distinction between trivial beauty products and weaponry of the epics demonstrate the poem’s mockery of eighteenth-century norms. In particular, the attack on Belinda’s ‘female beauty, like any commodity or desirable piece of property, is invested with the violent and destructive values of bourgeois society’ (Crehan, p.63). Hence, the elevation of Belinda’s products signifies her materialism, and her incapability of character development; initially Belinda is a spectacle of amusement for readers by the excessiveness and trivialness of her objects.

However, it is important to recognise that in Belinda’s superficial society honour and physical appearance are considered interchangeable. While the excessive values on beauty are superficial and empty, according to Belinda’s status and position she has no choice but to uphold this societal norm from fear of public humiliation.

The concept of necessity versus luxury attacks society’s overindulgence from a global scale. Belinda’s display of numerous artificial objects is associated with the imperialism of the era. The products have been imported from ‘India’ and ‘Arabia’ where the ‘Elephant’ and ‘Tortoise’ and have been ‘Transform’d’ into everyday products. The imported objects used for Belinda’s consumption during her daily ritual are set against the exploitation of imperialism. Therefore, her ignorance proves her as a character worth mockery; she is ‘an object of admiration and freshly made as an art object’ (Benedict, p.139) – as a mere commodity, she is empty and useless. The poem elevates Belinda’s imported objects to be highly important through the awe-inspiring tone, but ultimately, they are minuscule in comparison to the effects of colonialism of the period, and the indulgence of these luxuries is absurd as a result.

Additionally, the form of the closed heroic couplet further elevates the objects. The rhythm is lyrical and has a song-like quality through the rhyming couplets, ‘unlocks’, ‘Box’ and ‘unite’, ‘white.’ The objects are listed cumulatively, evoking a sense of excess. Belinda, as a wealthy young lady, is discontented with mere necessity, she requires luxury items, not only for decorative purposes but for her public reputation as well – she desires to show off her objects. This is emphasised through the visual alliteration in the phrase ‘glowing Gems’. The glow of the ‘Gems’ and the harsh ‘G’ sound evokes the pretentiousness of the jewels; despite its radiance, the shine of the jewellery, like a façade, conceals the object’s hollowness in being used solely to raise Belinda’s status in society. Benedict notes that ‘the things in Pope’s poems threaten morality by their presentation of excess’ (Benedict, p.142). Gems are valued for their appearance and monetary value, but the use of alliteration highlights the overindulgence reflective of the ‘appetites of an opulent society’ (Benedict, p.146) where excess was the norm.

Belinda creates a charade in appearing to have spiritual morality by displaying her collection of bibles as an ornament for admiration. For example, the ‘Bibles’ are carefully placed between ‘Puffs, Powders, Patches’ and Billet-doux’. This placement shows the ‘Bibles’ as ostentatiously thrown into a pile or heaped together with Belinda’s beauty products and her love letters. The collective aspect suggests that Belinda discounts their value and content and uses them for selfish motives as the ‘Bibles’ are ‘key elements in preserving elite social status’ (Benedict, p.132). Her bible is not intended for devoutness but to elicit approbation from others who happen to glance at it; she desires for society to believe she is a pious and moral woman and hence parades the holy book with her other superficial objects. Therefore, Belinda’s charade is a spectacle where she raises herself to be firmly devoted to religious spirituality, yet the ‘Bibles’ are lowered as simply being objects that lack real value for Belinda.

Moreover, Belinda’s female morality, relating to chastity, is stressed later in the poem to critique her character. She launches into a rage upon realising that the Baron has cut off her hair, exclaiming grandiloquently:

‘Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize

Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these’ (Pope, Canto IV, 175-176)!

There is a sexual undertone to these lines because Belinda’s phrase ‘any Hairs’ can be understood as pubic hair as well. The implication is that she is willing to sever her moral chastity and virginity to preserve her outward appearance which is vital to her public reputation. The public versus private binary means that losing the lock is a source of public humiliation because it is not female virtuousness that Belinda values above all but her outward appearance, and when this has been tainted, she is less willing to forgive. Equally, Belinda’s outrage can be seen, to an extent, to be overzealous. The tone is seen as melodramatic, and the mock-heroic framework supports this spectacle in depicting Belinda as a narcissistic woman with no regard to morality, henceforth her worth is debased by her lack of dignity. She is not Penelope, representing a classical, feminine ideal, who valued her chastity and her husband Odysseus. Subsequently, the mock-heroic’s attack on Belinda debases the female gender more generally, implying that they lack female morality relating to chastity. Yet, Belinda’s hyperbolic claim establishes her outburst as a spectacle the reader looks at humorously.

Contemporary masculinity is juxtaposed from the heroic, classical ideal of manhood from the ancient epics. For instance, Sir Plume is depicted as a foolish, stock character:

(Sir Plume of amber snuff-box justly vain,

And the nice conduct of a clouded cane)

With earnest eyes, and round unthinking face,

He first the snuff-box open’d, then the case,

And thus broke out — “My Lord, why, what the devil?

Z – ds! damn the lock! ‘fore Gad, you must be civil!

Plague on’t! ‘tis past a jest — nay prithee, pox!

Give her the hair” — he spoke, and rapp’d his box (Pope, Canto IV, 124-130).

The representation of Sir Plume is a clumsy, awkward character, attempting to be epic’s honourable hero, while his actions appear far from it. His ‘snuff-box’ reveals his wealth and, similarly to Belinda’s cosmetics, it distinguishes him as devoted to the fashion trends of the eighteenth century. As such, Sir Plume, a creation of society’s values, is characterised to be obsessed with consumer culture. The behaviour that Sir Plume exhibits in his ineffectual challenge to the Baron is absurd because it is his belle who demands him to ask for Belinda’s lock, demonstrating his indifference to the situation. The effect is comic because the spectacle that Sir Plume displays illustrate the lack of honour and bravery prevalent; initially, he is a hollow character intended for entertainment and derision. This outlook of Sir Plume is reinforced through character speech, as he only demands the lock in the last line; first, he poses a series of blundering questions, indicating his clumsiness. Therefore the efficacy of his grandiose language brandishes a spectacle that satirises Sir Plume, heightened via allusions to classical heroes. He is no warrior, rather he is a comical symbol of contemporary masculinity – a vigorous debasement of the male gender.

Pope’s mock-heroic debases both the male and female gender through the use of elevated language. Through its allusions to Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Pope’s poem sets the standard form of the epic, heroic couplets, against its content, the taking away of Belinda’s hair. Therefore, the elevated language conveys Belinda and Sir Plume as spectacles of amusement for readers: Belinda in her ignorance and superficiality and Sir Plume through grandiose speech. Consequently, through a detached, ironic tone the trivial subject is attacked via Sir Plume and Belinda where ‘unique value or authenticity is lost in a world of commercial relations’ (Benedict, p.146). Belinda’s debasement derives from her excessive claims of honour while her charade in lacking morality and chastity demonstrates her as a subject of mockery and derision. Sir Plume’s absurdity is also a spectacle for entertainment. He is a foolish, awkward character who fails to rise to the epic standards of heroes – his attempt is merely laughable. Therefore, ‘to satirise a newly opulent, newly frivolous society’ (Benedict, p.132) the notion of characters as spectacles of amusement vigorously debases them, where they are not worth any great importance, we simply mock and laugh.


Benedict, Barbara, “Death and the Object: The Abuse of Things in The Rape of the Lock,” in Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, ed. By Donald W. Nichol (University of Toronto Press, 2016), pp.131-149

Crehan, Stewart, “The Rape of the Lock,” and the Economy of ‘Trivial Things’” in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 31:1 (Fall, 1997), pp. 45-68

Ferguson, Margaret, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy, eds, “The Rape of the Lock” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edn (New York: Norton, 2005), pp. 604-621

Terry, Richard, “Epic and Mock-heroic” in A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry, ed. by Christine Gerrard (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), pp.356-367

Weitzman, Arthur J., “Eighteenth-Century London: Urban Paradise or Fallen City?” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 36:3 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), pp.469-480

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