On March 4, 1714, Bernard Lintot published Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock in five cantos. In addition to a title page in red and black, Lintot had accommodated the expense of a frontispiece and a plate for each of the five cantos, along with headpieces, initial letters, and a tailpiece. This was highly unusual for books of verse. Clearly these elements were fundamental to the book’s design, but the majority of readers since 1714 have not encountered the object as Pope’s first readers did. Instead, the poem today is usually published as text alone, occasionally with a few reproductions of varying quality. In this edition are full-colour, high-resolution images of the second edition of Pope’s great mock epic.
The Rape of the Lock was written because of a quarrel between two prominent Roman Catholic families, the Fermors and the Petres, over a relatively trivial incident: the young Robert, Lord Petre (the Baron of the poem) had surreptitiously cut off a curl of Arabella Fermor’s hair. Arabella (the poem’s Belinda) was outraged. The incident proved so contentious that John Caryll asked Pope if he would write a poem to heal the rift between the families. Later, Pope recounted the incident to his friend Joseph Spence:
The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor’s hair, was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they had lived so long in great friendship before. A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both, desired me to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was with this view that I wrote the Rape of the Lock, which was well received, and had its effect in the two families. Nobody but Sir Charles Brown was angry, and he was so a good deal, and for a long time. He could not bear that Sir Plume should talk nothing but nonsense. Copies of it got about, and it was like to be printed, on which I published the first draught of it (without the Machinery) in a Miscellany of Tonson’s [that is, Lintot’s]. The Machinery was added afterwards, to make it look a little more considerable.Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters, of Books and Men (London, 1820), 20-21.
Pope would explain in the dedicatory letter to Arabella of the 1714 edition that, “as it was communicated with the Air of a Secret, it soon found its Way into the World. An imperfect Copy having been offer’d to a Bookseller, You had the Good-Nature for my Sake to consent to the Publication of one more correct.”
The prospect of writing such a poem at Caryll’s bequest must have intrigued Pope, for it was written quickly. He explained in a note to the poem in 1736 that “The first sketch of this Poem was written in less than a fortnight’s time, in 1711.” The poem was circulated in manuscript amongst the family members, and Arabella gave her permission to publish the poem in May 1712,Geoffrey Tillotson, ed. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 95. seemingly unaware of the poem’s play on the traditional association of virginity and uncut hair, or indeed any of the sexual entendres pervading the poem. No mention is made of gaining Lord Petre’s permission, but he had married Catherine Warmsley, a Lancashire heiress, on 1 March 1712 and in any case presumably considered the incident embarrassing not at all. Pope’s published Letters suggest that the elder man had at least attempted to intervene on his behalf. Caryll wrote to Pope on 23 May 1712:
But where hangs the Lock now? (tho’ I know that rather than draw any just reflection upon your self, of the least shadow of ill-nature, you would freely have suprest one of the best of Poems.) I hear no more of it—will it come out in Lintot’s Miscellany or not? I wrote to Lord Petre upon the subject of the Lock, some time since, but have as yet had no answer, nor indeed do I know when he'll be in London.Correspondence 1: 142.
On the 21st of March 1712 Pope sold the two cantos to Bernard Lintot, who published them anonymously as The Rape of the Locke in Miscellaneous Poems and Translations along with several other of Pope’s poems.
After the poem’s publication, the Fermors grew displeased: Pope wrote on 8 November 1712 to John Caryll junior: “Sir Plume blusters, I hear; nay, the celebrated lady herself is offended, and which is stranger, not at herself, but me.”Correspondence volume 1: 151. As William Courthope suggested, “Probably, if ‘the celebrated lady’ had been left to herself, she would have read the poem without offence, but the keen eye of scandal detected one or two passages with a double meaning, which passed the bounds of decency, and candid friends no doubt told Belinda what was being said.”William John Courthope, The Life of Alexander Pope (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1889), 195.
But Pope was not done with his masterpiece yet. By the end of 1713, he had added the machinery of the Sylphs and Gnomes and extended the poem to five cantos. He wrote to Caryll in December: “I have some thoughts of dedicating that poem to Mrs Fermor by name, as a piece of justice in return to the wrong interpretation she has suffered under the score of that piece.”George Sherburn, ed. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), 203. Pope, we are told, gave her two choices, the first designed to suggest she was a blameless victim:
Pleas’d in these lines, Belinda, you may view
How things are priz’d, which once belong’d to you:
If on some meaner head this Lock had grown,
The nymph despis’d, the Rape had been unknown.
But what concerns the valiant and the fair,
The Muse asserts as her peculiar care.
Thus Helen’s Rape and Menalaus’ wrong
Became the Subject of great Homer’s song;
And, lost in ancient times, the golden fleece
Was rais’d to fame by all the wits of Greece.
Had fate decreed, propitious to your pray’rs,
To give their utmost date to all your hairs;
This Lock, of which late ages now shall tell,
Had dropt like fruit, neglected, when it fell.
Nature to your undoing arms mankind
With strength of body, artifice of mind;
But gives your feeble sex, made up of fears,
No guard but virtue, no redress but tears.
Yet custom (seldom to your favour gain’d)
Absolves the virgin when by force constrain’d.
Thus Lucrece lives unblemish’d in her fame,
A bright example of young Tarquin’s shame.
Such praise is yours—and such shall you possess,
Your virtue equal, tho’ your loss be less.
Then smile Belinda at reproachful tongues,
Still warm our hearts, and still inspire our songs.
But would your charms to distant times extend,
Let Jervas paint them, and let Pope commend.
Who censure most, more precious hairs would lose,
To have the Rape recorded by his Muse.
Not surprisingly, Fermor rejected the comparison of her situation to the rapes of Helen or Lucrece in favour of the dedication that suggests there is absolutely no connection between the real Arabella and the fictitious Belle:
As to the following Canto’s, all the Passages of them are as Fabulous, as the Vision at the Beginning, or the Transformation at the End; (except the Loss of your Hair, which I always name with Reverence.) The Human Persons are as Fictitious as the Airy ones; and the Character of Belinda, as it is now manag’d, resembles You in nothing but in Beauty.
If this Poem had as many Graces as there are in Your Person, or in Your Mind, yet I could never hope it should pass thro’ the World half so Uncensured as You have done.
On March 4, Lintot published the poem in octavo. He also issued a deluxe edition on “a fine Royal Paper.” It was an enormous success: a second edition was issued within days, and a third appeared in July. On 12 March 1714 Pope wrote to Caryll that the first issue had “in four days time sold to the number [of] three thousand, and is already reprinted tho’ not in so fair a manner as the first impression.”Correspondence volume 1: 214. By July he reported sales of over 6000 (writing as Esdras Barnivelt, apothecary, in his own ironic attack on the poem, A Key to the Lock). New printings were issued in 1715, 1717 (where he made the final changes to the poem including the important speech by Clarissa in Canto 5), and 1723.
Please note that this edition is a work in progress, and notes are yet to be completed.
Note on the Text of this Edition
The original text, spelling, and punctuation in this work has been preserved, with some exceptions to aid in reading and searching: in particular, long ſ has been input as s and obvious typographical errors have been silently emended.
Note on the Book
This digital version is based on the second edition of the book, published in 1714. It is in the holdings of the William Ready Archives, McMaster University Library (call number B 10676).
Physical description: , 48 p., plates ; (8vo).