AD's English Literature : Augustan “Mock-epic”: Form and Style Burlesquing the Serious Epic

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Augustan “Mock-epic”: Form and Style Burlesquing the Serious Epic

Mock-epic – a work which employs manner, the high and serious tone and the supernatural machinery of epic to treat a trivial subject and theme in such a way as to make both subject and theme ridiculous – almost a case of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel. It is a type of epic derived from the serious epic, which satirizes contemporary ideas or conditions in a form and style burlesquing the serious epic.  By extension the epic mode is also mocked but this is a secondary consideration. Noted mock epics include The Rape of the Lock (1712) by the English poet Alexander Pope.

The acknowledged masterpiece in this genre is Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1712, 1714), which he himself describes as a heroic-comical poem. His subject is the estrangement between two families resulting from Lord Petre’s snipping off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair. With faultless skill Pope minifies the epic in proportion to the triviality of his theme:
  What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things
I sing – This Verse to Caryll, Musel is due;
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchasafe to view:
   Slight is the subject; but not so the Praise,
 If She inspire, and He approve my Lays.
  Say what strange Motive, Goddessl cou’d compel
   A well-bred Lord t’assault a gentle Belle?

Pope had precedents in the Homeric Batrachomyomachia, or The Battle of the Frogs and the mice (translated by Thomas Parnell as a contemporary satire in 1717); Alessandro Tassoni’s Ln Secchia Rapita (The Rape of the Bucket) 1622 Boileau’s Le Lutrin (1674-83); Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (1682); and Samual Garth’s The Dispensary (1699).
        The mock-epic tone of Dryden’s opening lines differs from Pope’s:
                       All human things are subject to decay,
                       And, when Fate summous, Monarchs must obey:
                       This Fleckno found, who, like Augusts, young
                       Was call’d Empire, and had govern’d long;
                        In prose and Verse, was own’d, without dispute
                        Through all the Realms of non-sense, absolute.
Mac Flecknoe gave Pope the basic idea for The Dunciad (1728-43); also a mock-epic but more powerful, in a denunciatory manner; and more elaborate than The Rape of the Lock.

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