Pope and Martial: The Myth of Pelops And Belinda’s ‘Iv’ry Neck’

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Very little attention has been paid to Alexander Pope’s debt to the work of Martial. This article assembles evidence to demonstrate three things. First, that there was continuing interest in the Epigrammata, displayed by friends such as Swift, Prior, and Gay among others. Second, that Pope showed first-hand knowledge of the poet on more occasions than we had suspected, many of them congregated in the earlier phase of his life. Third, that there are many more places on his oeuvre where close parallels with Martial can be detected, both among his own exercises in the genre of epigram and within his poems generally. On a single occasion a larger intertextual connection can be suggested. This is set up by the motto to The Rape of the Lock, which quotes the first distich of a lesser-known epigram by Martial (12.84). The second and concluding couplet of this item invokes the story of Pelops, whose mutilated body was resurrected by the Fates, and made whole by them with the aid of an ivory shoulder to replace the one devoured by Demeter. A parallel is thus established with the ‘iv’ry Neck’ of Belinda. It was the Fates who had hidden from the heroine the ‘dire Disaster’ and permitted the ‘fatal Sheers’ to do their work. Belinda’s plea for the lock to be restored aligns her with Pelops, spared by the gods to found the great house of Atreus that played so a large a role in Greek literature and mythology.

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The Review of English Studies, v. 69, issue 69, p. 76-93