Posterity has remembered Alexander Pope for his satires. Undoubtedly, while shaping his growth in the direction demanded by classicism, the feeling for which he strengthened more and more within himself. Pope developed his talent for satire and argument in verse.
It is in this province of literature that he has written his strongest works. It is not pure, poetry which benefited, but the vigor of temperament that reveals itself produced its most characteristic fruits.
In fact Pope’s satire is inspired not by any large view of human its vices and weaknesses; no such dark misanthropy as glares at and horrifies us, and flashes of which are seen in Byron, no such moral sincerity as we find in Juvenal. His satires do not blend anger and pure fun the kind of which we find in Burns. ‘Personal animosity is the feather with which Pope’s satiric arrows are fledged.’ Thus to do full justice to The Dunciad, Moral Essays and Imitation of Horace the reader must be fully familiar with the social background of the age. As, for example, in 1725 he published an edition of Shakespeare which was vehemently criticized by Lewis Theobald in his Shakespeare Restored (1726). Theobald suggested many valuable restorations and emendations and exposed Pope’s inefficiency as a critic. As retaliation, Pope made him the hero of his Dunciad, a violent satire of which three books were published anonymously in 1728. For a poet of Pope’s stature the Dunciad is a movement of misapplied power.
The Rape of the Lock which is, a mock-heroic poem is, however, Pope’s greatest satiric poem. As such the characters are to a large extent, mocking versions of epic characters. The portraits are not realistic; they are not meant to mock at the follies and foibles of the aristocratic society of Pope’s times. The objective being to expose human follies, especially the feminine, characterization is naturally from the general rather than the individual point of view.
Exaggeration is one mode through which a portrait assumes ironic or satiric light. The excessive praise bestowed on Belinda’s charms, for Instance, Belinda shedding her gaiety on all and sundry like the sun sheds its light, suggests flippancy and inconstancy in character.
Another mode of satiric portraiture adopted by Pope is through describing these very ordinary human beings in epic terms, thus achieving the desired comic effect through ironic juxtaposition. Comparison of Belinda’s toilet ritual to ‘sacred rites’ does not elevate her to the position of a goddess, but satirizes her as a human being for the excessive vanity. The Baron is constantly spoken in terms of the knight-errant of the Middle Ages. All his actions, from his aspiration to ‘the prize’, his ritual prayer at the altar of love, to his ‘heroic’ gestures after cutting the lock and finally his defeat are a mockery of higher characters. In the process, his vacuity, superficiality, foppishness and vapidity are revealed—for the prize he aspires to is a lock of hair, his altar is made of ridiculous items, he is inspired by coffee, and is defeated by a pinch of snuff. The ‘heroism’ is superbly punctured to reveal the conceited fop of the eighteenth century. For the sake of variety, Pope does not have merely mock-heroic portraitures: Sir Plume is a minor figure, but he is a directly satiric portrait of an ineffectual, ridiculously vapid fop. Pope builds up his picture with the aid of a few traits typical of the dandy of that age—the snuff box, the cane, meaningless oaths. We are directly told of his ‘earnest eyes’ and ’round unthinking face.’ There is no subtlety here, but straightforward satire.
Pope does not indulge in satirizing particular individuals in The Rape of the Lock. Through the satiric portraits, he presents a satirical picture of the age. Belinda, Thalestris, the Baron and Sir Plume are typical of that society. The characteristics they are given are those common to the ‘high’ society of eighteenth century London.
To conclude, Pope’s method of satiric portraiture varies, not only from portrait to portrait, but within the characterization of a single person itself. He uses the mode most fitting to the situation concerned. He appears to praise, but the result is quite the opposite—one is all the more clearly aware of the essential smallness and ridiculousness of the character involved. This is Pope’s mastery of ironic portraiture.