The Rape of the Lock

Question 4. ”The Rape of the Lock’ is a very empty trifle without any
solidity or sensible meaning’ (John Dennis, a contemporary critic of the
eighteenth century). Was he right?
A ‘trifle’ is defined as being ‘something of little
importance or value’ ( Thus, ‘a very
empty trifle’ would appear to be near devoid of
importance or value. Criticism as bold as this must be
put into context, since modern critics hold the general
consensus that Alexander Pope’s poetry has a rightful
place in the canon of English literature. Pat Rogers
enthuses; “Alexander Pope is a literary artist of the
first rank, whose poems have stood their share of tests
of time…” continuing Rogers states:
“Indeed, there has scarcely been a literary fad
since the 1920s which has not some how bent to
accommodate Pope.” (An introduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat,
Methuen and Co.1975, page 1)
So, with such acclaim in the retrospective critical
climate of the twentieth century, why did John Dennis (a
contemporary of Pope’s) deign that ‘The Rape of the Lock’
was without importance, ‘solidity’ and ‘sensible
meaning’? Ostensibly, it is true that any criticism will
be entirely subjective but the disparity between the
criticism cast by Dennis and that of Rogers is alarming.

John Dennis was a prolific critic during the eighteenth
century who circulated his work amongst the circles that
Pope himself moved in. At the time of Dennis’s criticism
of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ he was feuding with Pope, a war
of words. This can be validated by the fact that Pope
used his stint as a pamphleteer to mock Dennis; this
directly preceded his writing of ‘The Rape of the Lock’.

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“Pope had turned to a new mode of expression, the
satirical pamphlet. His first shot, The Critical Specimen
(1711), was only partially successful…But Pope homed
right on to the target with the Narrative of Dr Robert
Norris (1713), in which Dennis is shown as a raving
lunatic attended by the quack ‘mad-doctor’ Norris” (An
introduction to Pope, Rogers, Pat, Methuen and Co.1975,
page 132)
Additionally, some critics would suggest Pope
consolidated his onslaught by hinting at Dennis’s vacant
stupidity through his portrayal of ‘Sir Plume’ in ‘The
Rape of the Lock’.

“It is worth noting that he makes the most of the
faces of his victims. The lines on Dennis in the Essay on
Criticism fix on his facial expression…And there are
the ‘earnest eyes, and round thinking face’ of Sir Plume.

Pope’s own face was of course the only unimpeachable item
in his appearance.” (On the Poetry of Pope, Tillotson,
Geoffrey, Oxford University Press 1950, page 38)
Dennis’s commentary is obviously tainted then, by his own
personal opinions and grudges he bears with Pope.

However, the quality found throughout ‘The Rape of the
Lock’ is evidence enough from which to counter Dennis’s

As a ‘mock epic’ or a ‘heroi-comical’ piece Pope had
to observe some epic characteristics in order to give the
text solidity. There are three typical epic
characteristics which Pope employed to great effect.

Firstly epic poems use divine machinery to give the poem
another layer and also add essential gravity to the
narrative, since there is much at stake if God is
involved. ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is littered with this
machinery; most prominently the presence of the sylphs
throughout. Sylphs being supernatural creatures that
inhabit the air from which they are made from. Their use
may be emblematic of God’s intentions or conversely,
fate. Secondly, epic poetry must contain a battle. ‘The
Rape of the Lock’ observes this in a very comical sense
which, in turn, suits the ‘mock epic’ genre. There are
two battles, the first of which is played out through a
game of cards in Canto 3. Pope illustrates this
ridiculous battle to great comic effect in his use of
periphrasis when both identifying and describing the
cards being played. Instead of simply saying the Queen of
Spades, Pope identifies the card as being, “The imperial
consort of the crown of Spades.” (‘The Rape of the Lock’,
Canto 3, line 68) Or, when describing the King of Clubs,
“…of all the monarchs only grasps the globe?” (Canto 3,
line 74) On traditional card illustrations it is the King
of Clubs who carries the ‘globe’. This elaborate
depiction could be seen as an ’empty trifle,’ however it
serves a purpose comically. The use of periphrasis should
normally dignify the subject whereas this example
highlights the ridiculous situation of a figurative
battle and the equally ridiculous aftermath from which
Belinda looses a lock of hair. The nature of the card
game is indicative of the disproportionate nature of the
poem where there is much incongruity between the subject
and the style. Slight is the subject and, on the other
hand, grand is the style. The disproportionate,
hyperbolic style ironically allows us the ‘sensible
meaning’ as well. Through this disproportionate portrayal
Pope may have hoped that the real life incident could be
looked upon from a proportionate perspective, since no
one was actually raped and all battles where figurative.

The third and final epic motif in ‘The Rape of the Lock’
is the inclusion of an underworld. Pope uses ‘the cave of
spleen’ which is seen as being “emblematic of the ill
nature of female hypochondriacs.” (The Norton Anthology
of English Literature, seventh edition, volume 1, page
To further counter Dennis’s claim that ‘The Rape of
the Lock’ is an ’empty trifle’ would be to highlight the
way in which Pope fills the text with important and
delightful uses of figurative language. Pope employs
bathos to illustrate life at the court in Hampton Court.

Interestingly, it was this; the most upper of social
echelons, that Pope (a catholic) was excluded from.

“A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;
At every word a reputation dies.

Snuff, or the fan, supply each pause of chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.”
(‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 3, lines 15-18)
At the time, the bathetic effect of this mundane
description of every day life at the court must have been
very powerful satirically. It gives the impression of
much gossip and a banal loss of conversation which give
purpose to the ritualistic accoutrements like the ‘Snuff,
or the fan…’ ‘The Rape of the Lock’ is also peppered
with many uses of zeugma. Pope uses this technique to
constantly unite the important with the unimportant, this
reinforces the notion that the incident, from which the
tale is taken, should be looked upon in proportion.

“Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants and of nymphs at home;”
(‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 3, lines 5-6)
Here Pope yolks together the fall of a ‘tyrant’ and that
of a ‘nymph’. This use of zeugma sparks parallels with
the main feature of metaphysical wit where the poet
places two heterogeneous elements together for comic
effect. However, it is Pope’s exploitation of double
meanings within certain lines which has the most powerful

“Or stain her honor, or her new brocade,
Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade,”
(‘The Rape of the Lock’, Canto 2, line 107)
This slight at the materialistic preoccupation of a court
apparently lacking morals is executed in a subtle yet
powerful fashion. A stain on ‘her honor’ is surely more
important than a stain on ‘her new brocade’ (?), but this
is compounded here by the dilemma of whether to pray or
partake in a ‘masquerade’.

It would seem fair to say then, that Dennis’s
comments were the ones without any ‘solidity’ or
‘sensible meaning’. So impressive is the artistry
displayed throughout ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and the
importance this mock epic had within Pope’s social
circle, it may be that jealousy was the catalyst behind
Dennis’s comments. In the same letter that John Dennis
brands ‘The Rape of the Lock’ ‘an empty trifle’ he also
claims that ‘there is not so much as one Jest in the
Book’. Could it have been that the real ‘Jest’ was at
Dennis’s expense?