Pope's Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose Study Guide

The Rape of the Lock

The Rape of the Lock (1714) had its origins in an actual incident that occurred in 1711. Robert, Lord Petre surreptitiously cut a lock of hair from Arabella Fermor, who he had been courting at the time. The Fermors took offense, and a schism developed between the two families. John Caryll, a friend of both families and of Pope’s who had been present, suggested that Pope write a humorous poem about the event which would demonstrate to both families that the affair had been blown out of proportion, thereby effecting a reconciliation between them. Pope accordingly composed The Rape of the Lock.

Obviously aware of the celebrated mock epics of Boileau (Le lutrin, 1674) and Dryden (MacFlecknoe, 1676), Pope adopted the mock-heroic genre for his poem. Throughout the poem, Pope adopts classical epic devices to develop an ironic contrast between its structure and its content. The poem’s subject matter extends beyond an attempt to pacify two families, which became particularly obvious after a revised and enlarged version of the poem was published in 1714. It simultaneously satirizes the trivialities of fashionable society, provides a commentary on the contemporary distortion of moral values, and indicts human pride. The fashionable world that Pope depicts in The Rape of the Lock is at once artificial and trivial, governed by strict rules of decorum and the sublimation of human emotion. The severing of Belinda’s hair acts as a catalyst that shatters the order of this artificial world. Once the rules of decorum are broken, an emotional floodgate opens, and the characters’ reactions to this disruption are correspondingly hyperbolic. Pope thus reveals the fragility and vulnerability of these larger-than-life characters.

Once comfortable with the epic and mock-heroic genres, Pope channeled his writing into two separate projects: translations of classical epics (most famously, The Iliad) and various satires, several of which borrowed the mock-heroic structure he explored in The Rape of the Lock.

An Essay on Man

An Essay on Man (1732-4) is a philosophical piece written in Pope’s characteristic heroic couplets. It was published in installments between 1732 and 1734. Pope’s authorship was initially kept secret, and the poem was celebrated by readers as the work of a new and unsatirical poet. Pope later revealed himself to be the author. He intended the poem to be the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics. This system was to be put forth in poetic form, and this text would comprise the first book of this larger work. Pope did not, however, live to complete this project, but the extant poem provides a glimpse at Pope’s philosophical beliefs.

It consists of four epistles, addressed to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was a friend of Pope’s, and Pope's arguments in the “Essay” derive in part from Bolingbroke’s fragmentary philosophical writings.

The poem was a controversial work at the time of its publication. Though it received its share of praise, critics faulted the poem’s emphasis on poetry rather than a coherent philosophy. Indeed, An Essay on Man was generally read as a poetic work in spite of its themes.