Alexander Pope and The Rape of the Lock – Conciliation or Judgment?
AbstractThe focus of this article is The Rape of the Lock, written by Alexander Pope (1688–1744). The poem was first published in 1712 but was further revised and expanded by Pope, prior to its publication in the first edition of Pope’s collected works in 1717. The opening lines of the poem What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,What mighty contests rise from trivial things (Canto I.1–2) point to its ostensible purpose as an instrument of reconciliation; its epic treatment of a matter so trivial as the stealing of a lock of hair being designed to “laugh together” the once friendly but now hostile families of the offender and the offended. Although the conciliatory intent of the poem remains a popular assumption, scholars have strongly disputed this view, arguing instead that the anecdotal reporting of a family feud provided Pope with a most welcome and timely poetic opportunity. Pope was a Roman Catholic and because of the recusancy laws that existed throughout his lifetime all the conventional means by which he could hope to influence society were closed to him. However, this article argues that it was through the establishment of his reputation as a poet that Pope was able to gain authority and respect far beyond the confines of the Catholic community. Further, and via an alignment with views that dispute the traditional, positivist approach to the definition of legal judgment, the article suggests a reading of The Rape of the Lock as an instrument of judgment. The epic treatment of an insignificant dispute both operates to ridicule the trivial concerns of Pope’s immediate society, and allows for a wider questioning of the social and political issues of the period.