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 (www.dictionary.com).
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 Popes 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 Popes) 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 Denniss 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.
Pope had turned to a new mode of expression, the satirical pamphlet. His first shot, The Critical Specimen (1711), was only partially successfulBut 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 Denniss 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 expressionAnd there are the earnest eyes, and round thinking face of Sir Plume.
Popes 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)Denniss 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 Denniss judgment. 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 Gods 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 2526)To further counter Denniss 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 Britains 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 Popes exploitation of double meanings within certain lines which has the most powerful effect. 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 Denniss 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 Popes social circle, it may be that jealousy was the catalyst behind Denniss 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 Denniss expense?