This was going to be a post on why I adore Alexander Pope.
Because I do—I really do. He hails from my favorite literary era—17th and early 18th century, if you’re just joining us now—and he’s a huge reason why I find it as terrific as it is.
He’s a brilliant, witty, sensual, scathing man, who only suffered fools gladly because of the inspiration.
It wouldn’t be a lie to say that I’ve got a serious braincrush on him.
But while I was trying to figure out how much of his work I could wedge into one post before I lost all you patient people and would be forced to post LOLcat Wednesdays in a desperate attempt to lure everyone back—which is what Thursdays are for around here—two brief sentences evolved into a ranty exploration of why some poems just aren’t worth the effort, even if you think they should be, and why that’s perfectly all right, dang it.
Because this didn’t fit the original intent of the post, I tried sticking it all in a footnote—as I do—but though I’ve occasionally had a notes section that was longer than the actual post, even I could figure out that if a single note is longer than a post, I’ve got things upside-down.
So my scheduled Popefest is going to wait a week. Today, I’m tackling “Rape of the Lock.”
Bear with me.
Alexander Pope published the first two cantos of what would become one of his most famous poems—if by famous, we mean destined to be inflicted on generations of confused English Lit students—anonymously in 1712. By 1717, there were five of these things in total and several letters of introduction to different versions, for which Pope was accepting credit.
It’s an epic, heroic poem in high-narrative style, concerning the fraught aftermath of a man snipping off a single curl of hair from the woman he admires without her permission.
I’m not joking—it’s based on an actual event that caused a major rift between two prominent families. Pope supposedly began writing this epic in order to point out that even though it might have been a tad rude to slice a bit out of someone else’s coiffure, it was, after all, only hair. And, then, being Alexander Pope, he went on to poke at a society that is so skewed in its values that it allows stuff like this to be blown out of proportion.
There are articles and theses, tracts and treatises dedicated to this poem and how absolutely, classically marvelous it is.
I don’t like it much.
I’m sure this is partially because when I first encountered it, in Eng Lit 101, no one told me it was supposed to be a burlesque satire. Or maybe they did but I was looking out the window or digesting lunch. I know I skipped over the intro pages to this poem in Norton’s Anthology, since I remember spending the first three cantos waiting for the key to the lock to show up, because this is exactly the kind of blatant sexual metaphor you quickly learn to expect from poetry of this time, especially when the word rape is in the title.
Imagine my expression when I realized what all the fuss was about. But I still assumed Pope was serious, which is not the way to approach this poem and expect it to make any sense whatsoever.
I did go back and re-read it several years later, after realizing my mistake,** because, as a self-professed, poem-carrying Alexander Pope Groupie, I thought I should. And though it was better now that I knew that the writer was rolling his eyes when he wrote it, it still didn’t do it for me.
So I tried again a week ago. I mean, I enjoy the Canterbury Tales and I respect The Divine Comedy, so I couldn’t figure out why this one tongue-in-cheek poem by a writer I’m half in love with was giving me such a hard time. I mean, I know I keep telling everyone that poetry is subjective and not every poem is for everyone and what dunks your doughnut might crumble my cruller, and so forth, and that’s perfectly fine . . . but I just couldn’t let this one go.
Why couldn’t I find the funny that all these experts said was there?
And then this past Sunday, in the frozen veggie aisle of the grocery store, I overheard someone saying that the reason she didn’t like the Scary Movie parodies because she hadn’t seen most of the original source materials.
Parody and satire depend on people understanding all the references and in-jokes—and I’m almost exactly three-hundred years too late to be reading “Rape of the Lock” for light, popular entertainment. Odds are, the stuff that had Pope’s audience rolling in the aisles isn’t going to work that well on me.
I’m not really going to get why the chastity sylphs are hilarious instead of annoying or why petticoat lint is an homage to the Illiad—or whether the names of the characters are sly digs at real people or references to ancient Greco-Roman mythology without Cliffnotes and a map. And at this point, I just don’t have the energy or inclination to unpack each and every line and understand it according to the societal rules of its time.
This particular poem just isn’t worth my time.
And that’s okay.
It was worth a post, though—and if someone would like to do a guest spot on why “Rape of the Lock” is the greatest poem of all time and I’m a lazy, ignorant philistine, I’ll gladly accept the offer. I’m not promising that I’ll change my mind, but I’ll listen.
Meanwhile, next week I’ll do my best to convince you that Alexander Pope’s poems, with one possible exception, are worth your time . . . Though of course, you’re under no obligation to agree.
And that’s okay, too.
*During a conversation in which I didn’t come off looking particularly bright at an age when I wasn’t sure embarrassment should be survivable.