Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"

Rhythm, Meter & Action in Pope's The Rape of the Lock

 Liana R. Prieto (February 1998) 

Pope uses paces and rhythm to emphasize the climax of the poem. Caesuras and variations in the pattern serve to quicken or slow down the action and elicit an emotional reaction from the reader. The Rape of the Lock is a strongly structured poem with five foot iambic base feet, medial caesuras, and couplets with end-rhyme. Substitute feet, which contain variations in the iambic meter, and varying caesuras indicate the importance of some events over others. These variations are especially noticeable in lines 139 to 160 as the poem climaxes as the Baron clips Belinda's lock of hair. The changing pace causes the reader to feel that the cutting of Belinda's lock is actually of some importance, as opposed to the insignificant event that it truly is.

In the verse paragraph beginning on line 139, caesuras and variations in the five foot iambic pattern serve to slow the pace. The medial caesuras in line 139 to 1443 divide the lines in two, thereby making the reader maintain the slow pace of the rest of the poem. The spondaic variation also has the effect of decreasing the anxious pace. (ll. 144.2, 144.3) Pope uses alliteration in this line to slow down the hectic pace of the poem: "An earthly lover lurking". (l. 144) The pace shifts dramatically at the last two lines of the verse paragraph as the action begins. The increasing number of caesuras have an greater impact. "Amazed, // confused, // he found his power expired, / Resigned to fate, // and with a sigh // retired". (ll.145-146) In these two lines, the slow shock experienced by Ariel is transferred to the reader as both recognize that nothing can be done to protect the lock. Pope's use of language is similar to that of an excited person recounting a story to a group of friends. This is reflected in the use of shorter, choppier sentences and the quicker flow of words. In this passage Pope lets the reader know that something is about to happen.

In the second verse paragraph, the pace and rhythm continue this sense of anticipation that leads to the climax in line 153. Pope uses spondaic variation to emphasize important words such as "wrethed sylph, Fate urged, and fair head". (ll. 510.2, 151.1, 154.2) These sets of continuous stressed syllables give more weight to the phrases so the reader will take notice of them and slacken the pace. Caesuras serve to reinforce a point in the same way, as in: "From the fair head, // for ever, // and for ever!". (l. 154) The medial and terminal caesuras in this line emphasize the permanence of the cut. In this verse Pope builds up to the rape of the lock and then, after allowing for a slow realization of what has happened, moves on to the shock and horror felt by Belinda.

At the start of the third verse paragraph there is a total lack of caesuras making for a faster reading that matches the quickening pace of Belinda's fierce reaction.

Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes,

And screams of horror rend th' affrighted skies.

Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast

(ll. 155-157)

The lack of pauses during Belinda's reaction push the reader to feel, and not just read, her passionate response. The return of medial caesuras in lines 158 and 160 return to the previously established pattern, thereby slowing and calming the reader.

Pope matches the rhythm to the action of the poem causing the reader to feel as if they are also experiencing the events. Had I been witness to the episode related in the poem, I would have scoffed and not given the pompous characters and trivial events a second thought. Pope, though, has accomplished the dubious task of writing a beautiful poem about frivolity. The events detailed in the poem are in of themselves meaningless, however, his technique is so effective that even I, as a reader who recognizes the capriciousness of the action, feel the ludicrous event is worthy of immortilization in an epic poem.

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