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Reading Questions for Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"

Vocabulary: alchemical spirits, anaphora, epic, invocation of the muse, mock epic, neoclassic, satire, syllepsis, zeugma


  • Who asked Alexander Pope to write "The Rape of the Lock?"
  • What incident involving a young girl in the Fermer family served as the basis of "The Rape of the Lock"?
  • What is a mock epic?

Lecture or Handouts: none

Identify the following characters and Places:

Clarissa, Belinda, Sir Plume, Sir Dapperwit, the Baron, Thalestris, Isabella Fermer, Umbriel, Ariel, Jove

Reading Questions:

  • Canto I: What spirit does Pope call upon to help him write his poem? To whom does he dedicate the poem?
  • What two questions about "motives" does Pope want the Muse to answer?
  • Explain the humor about "sleepless lovers" in line sixteen. How does Pope undercut their supposed insomnia?
  • According to Pope, when women die, their spirits live on. What are the four possible forms these spirits will take?
  • Of the four forms listed, what sort of personality leads to each possible form? For instance, what sort of woman becomes a gnome, or a sylph, or whatnot?
  • In lines 69-79, what is the sole task of these great spiritual forces, i.e., what spiritual job is their assignment?
  • In lines 112 onward, what everyday feminine ritual is Pope connecting with the ancient Greco-Roman sacrifices?
  • Canto II: What trait does the Nymph (Arabella) possess that invites "the destruction of mankind"?
  • What does the "Adventurous Baron" long to possess?
  • What does the Baron burn as a sacrificial offering to Love?
  • Canto III: What two topics serve as the focus of conversation for "Britain's statesmen?"
  • Who is great Anna and what are the three realms she rules?
  • What does Clarissa draw forth and present to the Baron?
  • What action do a thousand sprites take (using their wings) to prevent the hair from getting cut?
  • What happens to one unfortunate Sylph as he attempts to block the shears from cutting the hair?
  • Canto IV: Megrim, Ill-Nature, and Affectation all come to visit Belinda, and Ariel leaves to be replaced by Umbriel. What does all this suggst about Belinda's mood?
  • How does Thalestris' advice affect Belinda?
  • Describe Sir Plume's "eloquence" as he attempts to argue that the Baron should return the lock of hair. How is Sir Plume characterized? Why did Pope give this character the name "Sir Plume"?
  • What is the response of "the Peer" [the Baron] to Sir Plume's request?
  • What is Belinda talking about when she wishes that the Baron had "been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!"?
  • Canto V: What is Clarissa's point about the chopped hair in Canto V? How does she serve as a foil to Thalestris?
  • How does the crowd of fops and ladies react to Clarissa's sensible advice?
  • How do Dapperwit and Sir Fopling meet their deaths?
  • What is the outcome when Jove takes his golden scales to weigh the hair versus the wits of the crowd?
  • What clever impromptu weapon does the wiley Belinda use against the Baron's "breath of life" in his nostrils?
  • Just after the crowd roars out for the Baron to "restore the lock," a mishap occurs during all the commotion. What happens when they look for the lock?
  • Several theories emerge about what happened to the hair in subsequent lines. List one or two of these theories.
  • Pope gives us an unusual catalog of items including broken vows, death-bed alms, courtier's promises, sick men's prayers, harlots' smiles, the tears of heirs, cages for gnats, and so on. What do all these have in common with each other and with the cut lock of hair?
  • Pope leaves Belinda (and hence Arabella) with what comforting thought at the end of the poem?

Passages for Identification: Be able to identify the poet, the poem, and briefly explain the significance or context of the passage.

A: What dire offence from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing--This verse to Caryll--, Muse! is due;
This, ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.

B: Know then, unnumbered Spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky;
These, tho' unseen, are ever on the wing,
Hang o'er the box, and hover round the Ring.

C: For Spirits, freed from mortal laws, with ease
Assume what sexes and what shapes they please.
What guards the purity of melting maids,
In courtly balls, and midnight masquerades,
Safe from the treacherous friend, and daring spark,
The glance by day, the whisper in the dark;
When kind occasion prompts their warm desires,
When music softens, and when dancing fires?

D. This Nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourished two Locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspired to deck
With shining ringlets her smooth ivory neck.
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains.

E. The Peer now spreads the glittering forfex wide,
T'inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Ev'n then, before the fatal engine closed,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interposed;
Fate urged the sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,
(But airy substance soon unites again)
The meeting points that sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, for ever and for ever!

F. (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 opened, 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 rapped his box.

G. See the poor remnants of these slighted hairs!
My hands shall rend what ev'n thy rapine spares:
These, in two sable Ringlets taught to break,
Once gave new beauties to the snowy neck.
The Sister-Lock now sits uncouth, alone,
And in its fellow's fate foresees its own;
Uncurled it hangs, the fatal sheers demands;
And tempts once more thy sacrilegious hands.
Oh hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!"

H. Some thought it mounted to the Lunar Sphere,
Since all things lost on Earth, are treasured there.
There Heroes' wits are kept in ponderous vases,
And beaux's in snuff-boxes and tweezer-cases.
There broken vows, and death-bed alms are found,
And lovers' hearts with ends of ribbon bound;
The courtier's promises, and sick man's prayers,
The smiles of harlots, and the tears of heirs,
Cages for gnats, and chains to yoke a flea;
Dried butterflies, and tomes of casuistry.


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