The Heroicomical Poem

The Rape treats in allegorical form a social incident involving actual acquaintances of Pope's, in which Lord Petre had cut off, and retained as a trophy, a lock of hair from the head of the society belle Arabella Fermor. Pope had been asked to write the work by an intermediary, John Caryll, with a view to how a comic poem about the incident might humor the contending parties into a reconciliation. The poem's success or failure in this regard remains unknown. One of the singularities of Pope's work is that of being the first one in English to adopt on its title-page the label of an "heroi-comical" poem, one which derives from Boileau's Le Lutrin. The expression was quickly pounced upon by critics, John Dennis predictably berating Pope for his affectation in adopting the term. Many critics nowadays isolate "heroi-comical" poems as a distinct category within mock-heroic, including in it poems that selfconsciously adopt the label alongside others that do not (Broich 1990; Terry 2005). What characterizes the group is that the poems contained in it all address subjects that can be seen as affronting the standard of epic by being provocatively low or trivial. Nahum Tate's heroi-comical poem about tea, "Panacea" (1701), is typical in this regard in opening with a bout of ritualistic self-prostration over the "Slenderness of the Subject"; the same stratagem is also adopted by Pope, the subject of whose Rape is deemed apologetically to be "Slight," and by James Arbuckle, who in his poem "Snuff' (1719) solicits his reader not to think his "humble" topic "Too low a Trifle for the Poet's Strain."

The trivial artifacts or substances addressed in heroi-comical poems are invariably ones that stand in iconic relation to the eighteenth-century consumer revolution, a revolution whose effect was to create a proliferation of luxury goods, especially those contributing to personal adornment (Terry 2005). As well as Arbuckle's poem on snuff (then a fashion accessory associated largely with women), John Gay can be found praising in mock-heroic terms The Fan (1717) and Francis Hauksbee "The Patch" (1723), and John Breval and Joseph Thurston consider various possibilities for female grooming in "The Art of Dress" and "The Toilette." Although The Rape of the Lock might not overtly seem to be of a party with these works, Pope's poem, especially in its description in Canto I of Belinda's make-up table, cluttered with imported cosmetics and jewelry, the "Unnumber'd Treasures . . . of the World," was in fact seized on by contemporaries as centrally concerned with the new luxury culture. A poem that was clearly influenced by Pope's Rape, and also evinces a fascination for the accessories of female adornment, is John Gay's The Fan, which contains a description of Venus's grotto where busy Cupids slave to manufacture the various "glitt'ring Implements of Pride":

Here an unfinish'd Di'mond Crosslet lay,

To which soft Lovers Adoration pay;

There was the polish'd Crystal Bottle seen,

That with quick Scents revives the modish Spleen:

Here the yet rude unjointed Snuff-box lyes,

Which serves the railly'd Fop for smart Replies;

There Piles of Paper rose in gilded Reams,

The future Records of the Lover's Flames;

Here Clouded Canes 'midst heaps of Toys are found,

And inlaid Tweezer-Cases strow the Ground.

There stands the Toilette, Nursery of Charms,

Compleatly furnish'd with bright Beauty's Arms; The Patch, the Powder-Box, Pulville, Perfumes, Pins, Paint, a flattr'ing Glass, and Black-lead Combs.

The story told by Gay's poem concerns Strephon, who has been smitten by Corinna's charms but finds his tenderness for her unreciprocated. In desperation he applies to Venus, asking her to supply him with a "bright Toy" that "can charm her Sight." Venus takes pity on his plight and instructs her team of "busie Cupids" to fashion a decorated fan. Their employment in this task necessitates the convening of a counsel of the gods to ponder the exact nature of the decoration, an assignment eventually undertaken by Minerva. At length the design is finished and the toy delivered to Strephon and presented by him to Corinna, who promptly capitulates to its attractions. The poem accordingly amounts to a sort of consumerist myth, in which a hard female heart is softened by the shimmer of a fashionable artefact (Nokes 1995).

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