The frail body of young Alexander Pope is inhabited by an heroic spirit. A warping of the spine has consigned him to a life of pain and the stature of a child, yet he rides and walks daily with the support of stays, buckram and native grit. The little all of schooling he has had came only from priests and “extended a very little way,” but his own application has raised him to the high table of letters where he now sits equal to Gay, Congreve and Swift, who love him; and to Addison, who envies him. Nor do I begrudge Mr Pope and his compeers their cosiness in the Scriblerus Club, in which I have yet to be welcomed, by reason, assumably, of an Arbuthnot black-ball.
This new edition of The Rape of the Lock, an heroi-comical poem in five cantos, is Pope’s call to his fellow Catholics to pocket up their quarrels and face injustice four-square. When he was in his infancy, Pope’s family was among those forced out of London by the Ten-Mile Act and he has grown into manhood barred from schools, the universities and public office. Yet he is, like most of his faith, as patriotic as any low-church Whig, and I believe Daniel Defoe to be in the right about the Romish confessional having become “the universal scare-crow, the hobgoblin, the spectre with which nurses fright the children,” and that we have no cause to be so fearful of our own neighbours.
The Rape of the Lock is a delicate satire of manners based on a recent true-life scandal. The Petres and the Fermors, two prominent Catholic families, were lately set at odds when the young Lord Petre snipped a lock of Belle Fermor’s hair, without prior leave, or a subsequent offer of marriage. Though it seems a trifling matter, yet “mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,” especially where a young heiress’s pride is at stake, and resentment spiralled to the point at which Mr Pope was called upon by mutual friends to interpose his wit.
Fresh from his translation of The Iliad, Pope employs the grand devices of Homerian epic, giving us portentous dreams and protecting spirits, sacrifices to gods, and a sojourn in the underworld, all related in dazzling heroic couplets, in which medium Mr Pope proves himself a master. This epic treatment serves to highlight the frivolous nature of the dispute, dousing the coals of enmity with gentle laughter, and reminding the antagonists that they ought not fall out over a storm in a tea-dish.
In the re-telling, the disputed lock of hair takes its place in the milky firmament, where it can do no more harm; but this new heavenly body is finally claimed by Pope for himself, as the rising star of his own talent, and he can have it as far as I’m concerned, since modesty gets you nowhere amongst these ‘writerly’ grubs, and you can take that from me, and I didn’t want to join the Scriblerus anyway.
The Rape of the Lock is printed by Bernard Lintott, at the Cross-Keys, between the two Temple Gates in Fleet-Street, and it cost me a brief and involuntary excursion of spleen.