Has there ever been a poet who better combined technical excellence with a lively wit than Alexander Pope. In his widely anthologized “Rape of the Lock,” Pope tells a tiny story of utter inconsequence in extreme detail, echoing time and again the various aspects of the Classical epic. He spends multiple lines describing a cast of kings, queens, and knaves. Only as the reader proceeds does the true meaning of these lines come clear: he describes a game of cards.
As much as I appreciate the poetic powers of Pope, what I notice most when I read “The Rape of the Lock” is the incredible contrast between Pope’s narrative style and that of the Bible.
One of the things long remarked upon by readers of Biblical narrative is its incredible concision. Vitally important stories race by in the span of a few verses. What John Milton spent thousands of lines describing in Paradise Lost, Genesis covers in less than a chapter. The complicated saga of Joseph, something that might have inspired J.K. Rowling to create several thousand pages across multiple novels, fills only a handful of chapters.
Matters of the greatest consequence are related in the sparest manner within the Bible’s pages. Take a look at Matthew. Remove the several lengthy discourses and little remains, yet what remains is powerful. The stories contained there have changed human history.
In Pope’s mock epic, matters of absolutely no consequence are related in the most detailed and ornate manner imaginable. I think it reasonable to suggest that “The Rape of the Lock” requires longer to read than the time supposedly passing in the poem’s story. It seems safe to claim that this story has changed absolutely nothing. Were it not for Pope’s artistry, this poem would have long ago fallen to the hair salon floor of literary history.