The first part of the eighteenth century was regarded as the Augustan Age due to poets such as Pope and Swift. Augustan poetry incorporates references to Greek and Roman writers: Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. Pope in The Rape of the Lock refers to supernatural beings such as the sylph inhabitants of the air and nymphs of the water, along with gnomes who are demons of the earth and delight in mischief. He is also characterised by his satire, making fun of human flaws.

The poem was first published in 1712, with the full five cantos finally published in 1717. The story centres around the cutting of a lock of Belnda’s hair without her permission by the baron. The word rape in the title does not refer to a sexual assault but comes from the Latin verb rapere, to seize. Therefore, it was an assault on her vanity, not on her chastity. Eighteenth-century readers would have been influenced by the literature being published at the time; this included religious writings, conduct books, sentimental plays, and periodicals. These defined some women as coquettes, ladies of fashion from the aristocracy and the upper gentry who adopted aristocratic airs. This was viewed negatively as a corrupt aristocratic practice by the new middle class. The other type of women were the housewives, who produced things of value to the family and society. Steele, who published The Spectator, suggested a benefit for women of this new morality was increased education, including math, the law, history, Latin, music, and literary criticism. This allowed them to be useful to themselves and to the public. These two women, the coquette (Belinda) and the more acceptable housewife (Clarissa), form the centre of Pope’s story.

Initially, Pope starts with a series of questions that set the scene for the action to follow. Why would a lord assault a lady? Why would a woman reject a Lord if she did not think she could obtain a better match? There is a suggestion that she is a social climber from the upper gentry rather than the aristocracy and that the title of baron is undervalued. Hence the suggestion that she was looking for a better match. The next question speaks of a bold action in which little men engage and results in rage. Thus, Pope is not only making fun of the women in his poem but also seeking to denigrate the men through their diminutive status.

We are introduced to Belinda as she wakes from a dream, which makes her cheeks glow or blush, implying a lack of innocence. She is referred to as worldly and a coquette, a lover of fashion who inhabits sumptuous rooms. The sylphs are there to help her prepare for a fashionable occasion. Pope refers to combs, puffs, powders, and patches alongside her Bible, putting religion on the same level as fashionable pleasure. Belinda is characterised by her actions rather than a description of her character. She is objectified as a beauty standing out in a crowd, and when the baron notices her, he decides he must have a lock on her hair. Thus, he becomes associated with singlemindedness.

The third canto is set in Hampton Court Palace, the centre of Queen Anne’s court. By 1712, the Act of Settlement was ready to establish the Hanoverian succession upon the death of the Queen. By 1714, she was very ill, and although there was considerable sympathy for the Catholic James II, restoring the heir (hair) was not a viable option. It has been suggested that the struggle between Belinda and the Baron dramatises the conflict between Anne and her desire for peace and the war with the Whig Party. Belinda challenges the two men to a game of cards. Pope turns the game into a battle, with the cards taking on warrior forms and the players being the generals directing the game. After Belinda's victory, they drink coffee, and the baron plots how to obtain a lock of her hair. Clarissa gives the baron a pair of scissors; this shows her compliance with the patriarchy and her separation from and disdain for the fashionable world. The baron has several attempts before he successfully obtains the lock. When he succeeds, he displays his prize as Belinda screams.

Umbriel comes from the Cave of Spleen to reinforce Belinda’s indignation. The goddess gives him gifts of sighs, sobs, and the war of tongues to plague Belinda with. Black bile was one of the four humours believed to influence the body. It was thought to be produced in the spleen and cause melancholy or depression. Belinda is in the company of Thelestris, Queen of the Amazons, who is pointing out how much care she took in her appearance and how her reputation is ruined, and it will bring shame to being her friend. When Belinda asks Sir Plume to retrieve the lock, he tells the baron he must be civil, and it has gone past a joke. Thelestris and Sir Plume represent the petit bourgeois, who are anxious to maintain fashionable status and public honour. The choice of the middle-class reader is between bourgeois sensibility and the regressive airs associated with the aristocracy.

In Canto five they all confront Clarissa, who gives a pious speech about how the trivial loss of hair would not cure smallpox or old age. She hopes they can cultivate good character rather than appearance, elevating merit over other charms. Here, women are permitted to speak when they do not draw unseemly attention to themselves. Such advice is met with rage and anger. The Baron and Belind fight, and she pulls out a bodkin, threatening to stab him. She demands the return of the hair, but it is nowhere to be found. The suggestion is that it has ascended to heaven, where it resides in the constellations.

Belinda’s fate occurs because she parades her beauty and power for her own sake rather than patriarchal benefit. If a woman submits herself to the scrutiny of the fashionable elite, then she will be judged by them. At the end of the poem, the lock hangs in heaven on permanent display, the worst possible end for a nice girl.