"The Rape of the Lock" is the finest example of a mock-epic in English. The poem's 794 lines are divided into five cantos or sections. The word "canto" is derived from the Latin cantus or song; it originally signified a section of a narrative poem sung by a minstrel. "The Rape of the Lock" is written in heroic couplets, lines of iambic pentameter, rhyming aa, bb, cc, and so forth. The description "heroic" was first used in the seventeenth century because of the frequent use of such couplets in epic poems. This couplet style was first used in English by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. Pope was the greatest master of the metrical and rhetorical possibilities of the heroic couplet; he turned this concise, restrictive form into a dynamic world of ideas and characters. Pope achieved diversity of style within the couplet by changing the position of the caesura or line break. He expertly balanced the two lines, often using a slight pause at the end of the first line and a heavy stop at the end of the second line. Moreover, he frequently balanced a statement of a thesis and antithesis somewhere within each line, as in these lines from his Essay on Criticism:
Pope's "Essay on Criticism" is a didactic poem in heroic couplets, begun, perhaps, as early as 1705, and published, anonymously, in 1711. The poetic essay was a relatively new genre, and the "Essay" itself was Pope's most ambitious work to that time. It was in part an attempt on Pope's part to identify and refine his own positions as poet and critic, and his response to an ongoing critical debate which centered on the question of whether poetry should be "natural" or written according to predetermined "artificial" rules inherited from the classical past.
The acknowledged master of the heroic couplet and one of the primary tastemakers of the Augustan age, Alexander Pope was a central figure in the Neoclassical movement of the early 18th century. He was known for having perfected the rhymed couplet form of his idol, , and turned it to satiric and philosophical purposes. His mock epic The Rape of the Lock (1714) derides elite society, while An Essay on Criticism (1711) and An Essay on Man (1733-34) articulate many of the central tenets of 18th-century aesthetic and moral philosophy. Pope was noted for his involvement in public feuds with the writers and publishers of low-end Grub Street, which led him to write The Dunciad (1728), a scathing account of England’s cultural decline, and, at the end of his life, a series of related verse essays and Horatian satires that articulated and protested this decline. Pope is also remembered as the first full-time professional English writer, having supported himself largely on subscription fees for his popular translations of Homer and his edition of the works of . Although a major cultural figure of the 18th century, Pope fell out of favor in the Romantic era as the Neoclassical appetite for form was replaced by a vogue for sincerity and authenticity. Interest in his poetry was revived in the early 20th century. He is recognized as a great formal master, an eloquent expositor of the spirit of his age, and a representative of the culture and politics of the Enlightenment.
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The Heroic Couplet | What is Literature?
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