The Rape of the Lock
Alexander Pope, the dominant poetic figure among the Augustans, reflects the social tone of the urban literary world of his day. Bon of Catholic parents, he was denied a formal education both in schools and the universities. Therefore he was a completely self taught genius. He chose special poetic themes. They are either satirical, or didactic, or even literary criticism. He was not a great philosophical systematizer. But he succeeded in his satiric and didactic intentions by his mastery of form.
“The Rape of the Lock” belongs to that species of composition called ‘mock-epics’. This is Pope’s masterpiece, and one of the greatest poems of the neo-classical age. The essential action of “The Rape of the Lock” revolves around Lord Petre’s cutting off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair(Belinda of the poem). The five Cantos, in brief, deal with Belinda at her toilet, a game of Ombre, the snipping of the lock while Belinda sips her coffee, the wrath of Belinda, her demand that the lock be restored, and the final wafting of the lock as a new star to adorn the skies. The peculiar force of Pope’s mock-heroic treatment lies in the discrepancy between a truly epic grandeur of treatment and the comic triviality of the things presented. The more trivial an episode, the more dignified its style of treatment. An example is the description of Belinda’s toilet.
The exaltation of Belinda into something more than mortal is to be seen when she is at her toilet. The episode is described in such a way, that parodies a religious ritual. There is drama in the opening line of the passage, with the sudden unveiling of Belinda’s dressing table. The ‘unveil’d’ hints that the toilet has an altar like quality. The Cosmetic pots are set out like sacred vessels. The perfumes and ointment are laid in “mystic order”. Belinda, ‘rob’d in white like a priestess, “adores” those wonderful powers that enhance a woman’s loveliness. As if in response to her adoration a ‘heavenly Image’ appears and the rites begin. It is her own reflection which becomes the goddess. The ritual formality appropriate to a religious ceremony is seen in the activities of the maid and in the movements of Belinda herself:
“ From each she nicely culls with curious toil
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.”
The repetition of “to that” suggests incantation.
These lines with their incantatory tone and their heavy and dignified movement embrace all the world in their cosmic sweep.The couplet also suggests that all the nations have been plundered so that Belinda might appear even more lovely. Like a true epic hero, who arms himself only with the best the world has to offer, Belinda dons the “offerings of the world”. Even nature cooperates, the ivory of the elephant and the shell of a tortoise are magically transformed into combs for Belinda.
This passage is very complex in its effects.There is a comic element in the very elevation of such an ordinary event. Putting on makeup is described on a par with religious ceremony. The comic element is also present in the ridiculously round about descriptions of the dressing-table items. At the same time, it makes clear the importance attached by society ladies to the appearance they put forth and suggests the falsity of their values. There is a brilliant subtlety in the simple line, “ puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, Billet-doux”.
It makes us laugh at the ridiculous conglomeration of objects. It also suggests that in Belinda’s scale of values the items are of about equal importance. The alliteration on ‘p’ and ‘b’ is significant in creating this effect.
Finally Belinda herself is referred to as a goddess arming for battle.
“ Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms”
Here she is transformed into the young lady of fashion ready to make her conquests. The Sylphs, the mock-epic counterpart of real epic gods and goddesses, help arm Belinda. Just as an epic hero has the aid of supernatural beings, so the Sylphs led by Ariel, put the final touches on Belinda’s beautification, but ,”Betty’s praised for labours not her own”. Belinda’s rites are of pride, and pride, especially as developed in this poem, is excessive selfadmiration. It is opposed to love because love is primarily a feeling for someone else. Belinda is in some sense, a goddess, the personification of beauty. She is not merely denigrated and belittled by the satire because she has battles to face.
EASY SUMMARY OF THE WHOLE POEM
The poem begins with a letter to Mrs Arabella Fermor and followed by an invocation of the muse. Belinda is still asleep and is sent a ‘dream’ by Ariel ‘her guardian Sylph’. In her dream, a handsome youth tells her that she is protected by ‘unnumber’d Spirits’ who would also guard her chastity. Of these Spirits, the airy Sylphs, devoted to any woman that ‘rejects mankind’, serve and flatter the graceful but frivolous lady Belinda. Ariel warns Belinda that ‘some dread event’ is going to befall her that day. When Belinda awakes, she forgets all about the dream after receiving “bille-doux” (loveletters). She then goes through an elaborate ritual of dressing in her dressing room in which her own image in the mirror resembles a ‘heavenly image’ or a ‘goddess’. Unseen, the Sylphs get ready as she prepares for the day’s activities. Belinda sets out by boat on the river Thames for Hampton Court Palace. She is accompanied by some showy ladies called “Nymphs” and gentlemen. One of the young gentlemen, the Baron, who admires Belinda’s lock of hair, is determined to steal them for himself.
On board the boat, everyone is carefree except Ariel who remembers that something bad is imminent to happen. Ariel summons a troop of Sylphs and reminds them that one of their duties, other than regulating celestial bodies and the weather and guarding the British monarch, is also ‘to tend the Fair’, to keep watch over ladies’ powders, perfumes, curls, and clothing, and to ‘assist their blushes, and inspire their airs.’ Subsequently, Ariel briefs each of them about their job—Brillante is to guard her earrings, Momentilla her watch, and Crispissa her locks. Ariel himself will protect Shock, the lapdog while a band of fifty Sylphs will guard the all-important petticoat. Ariel pronounces that any sylph who neglects the assigned duty will be severely punished. So prepared all wait for the boat to reach Hampton Court Palace.
When the boat arrives, the gathering embarks on a pleasant round of chatting and gossip. Belinda sits down with two men for a game of cards. This has been described most strikingly by Pope in terms of a “heroic battle”. The next ritual amusement is the serving of coffee. The vapours of the steaming coffee remind the Baron of his determination to cut Belinda’s lock. Clarissa, as the lady arming a knight in a medieval Romance, draws out her scissors for his use. The Baron makes three attempts to cut her hair but in vein. The Sylphs endeavours to intervene first blowing the hair towards another side and tweaking her diamond earring to make her turn around. Ariel, finally gains access to her brain where he is surprised to find ‘an earthly lover lurking at her heart.’ Finally, the lock of hair is cut; the Baron
exults in triumph while Belinda screams furiously.
After this the disappointed Sylphs withdraws and an earthy mischievous gnome called Umbriel flies down to the ‘Cave of Spleen’— spleen being an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream was traditionally associated with the passions like malaise and ill temper. He unleashes the first bag on Belinda, fuelling her ire and despair. Belinda’s friend Thalestris further foments Belinda’s indignation and urges her to avenge herself. She then goes to Sir Plume, “her beau”, to ask him to demand that the Baron return the hair. However, the Baron disdainfully refuses to acquiesce. With “beauteous grief”, Belinda regrets not having heeded the dream warning and laments for her sole remaining curl. Clarissa, who had aided the Baron in his crime, now urges Belinda to give up her anger in favour of good humour, good sense and moral qualities, which will outlast her vanities. However, Clarissa’s moralising is nullified by Belinda. She instead initiates a brawl between the ladies and the gentlemen through which she attempts to recover her lost curl of hair. However, the lock is lost in the confusion of this mock battle, and the poet consoles the bereft Belinda with the suggestion that it has been taken up into the heavens and is immortalised as a constellation.
In the poem Belinda’s “sacred hair” finds its place in the heavens serving as a consecration. So appealing is the description and significance of the ‘lock of hair’ that it turns into a central image throughout the poem. The opening canto of the poem certainly points at to the theme of vanity in the description of a beauty-conscious Belinda, preoccupied in her dressing room with the best of cosmetics and finery.
Belinda who conducts herself and her way of life in accordance to the ways of the rich and leisurely aristocratic class to which she belongs to is much given to vanities. The Bible warns against any form of ‘vanity’ but in the poem, the presence of Belinda’s “Bibles” along with her cosmetics and fancy things itself reflects her casual attitude to Biblical wisdom. Instead of embodying the Christian virtues of austerity and humility, Belinda is seen (like the women of her time) to indulge in her womanly wiles or what is phrased here as the “rites of Pride” and vanities.
The aristocratic class of her time had the wealth and leisure to indulge in the fashions of their day with much pomp and show, involving in practices of courting, socialising, etc. But true to the old adage-”pride goes before a fall”, Belinda who is proud of herself pays the price of her beauty. That beauty is only skin-deep and does not last forever renders it vain for any young women like Belinda to be so proud and conscious of is hinted in the ‘dressing room’ extract.
“The Rape of the Lock” is a poem which is written in the mock-heroic or the mock-epic form. The mock-heroic/epic form draws from the traditional epic narratives (like the Illiad, Aenied, Odyssey etc.) in its grand and elevated style but it also serves the purpose of satirising and mocking (often with humour) at the triviality of representing the insignificant with grandeur. The learner is to note that there are certain similarities and differences in style and presentation of the mock-heroic/epic form and the formal epic form.These may be listed as follows:
a. The style and language employed in both the forms is grand and elevated. The use of the Heroic couplet in order to write in an elevated style and also to differentiate from ordinary language.
b. The presence of the supernatural elements is present in both the forms. In “The Rape of the Lock” you will come across airy spirits like the slyphs, nymphs and gnomes. Also, the visit to the Underworld is a common occurrence in both the forms. Such supernatural elements of the epic poem were termed as ‘machinery’.
c. The gods and goddesses are involved in the action of the poem. In the five cantos of the poem, you will find the presence of Phoebus, Venus, Thalestris, Olympus, Hermes, Latona, Pallas and Mars.
a. The traditional epic begins with an invocation to the nine Muses for showering divine inspiration on the poet who is to undertake the task of writing an epic. But in the case of “The Rape of the Lock” it is the opposite where the invocation is dedicated to his inspiring friend John Caryll.
b. The quest motif, war and the spirit of adventure whether on land or in the high seas forms an integral part of the traditional epic form presented on a grand scale. Here in the poem, the purpose behind presenting (on such a grand scale) Belinda’s boat-trip journey on the Thames, the battlebof cards (‘Ombre’) with the “advent’rous” Knights and the fierce quarrel over ‘a lock of hair’ between her and the Baron is to only satirise its triviality.
c. The action in a traditional epic is taken forward by the epic- hero but in the poem, the poet in mocking the idea of an ideal epic-hero presents Belinda as the mock-hero. Like a hero armed for war Belinda is dressed in her best, indulging herself in the vanities of beauty to triumph over many hearts. Also she takes part in the battle of cards and retaliates against the Knight for her stolen lock as if she were the hero waging war or indulging in battle.
d. An epic poem is in general very lengthy consisting of various episodes or sagas whereas the poem “The Rape of The Lock” is short and structured.
Important Questions and Answers
Q. Who is the Baron in the poem?
Ans. This is the pseudonym for the historical Lord Petre—a young gentleman in Pope’s social circle who offended Arabella Fermor and her family by cutting off a lock of her hair. In the poem’s description of events, Arabella is known as Belinda.
Q. Who is Belinda in the poem?
Ans. The protagonist of the poem, Belinda is a wealthy and beautiful young woman who travels to Hampton Court for a day of socializing and leisure. She beautiful young lady with amazing hair locks which hang gracefully in curls. Belinda is based on the historical Arabella Fermor, a member of Pope’s circle of prominent Roman Catholics. Lord Petre (the Baron in the poem) had precipitated a rift between their two families by intentionally cutting off a lock of her hair.
Q.1. How does Belinda’s toilette function within the poem?
Ans. How does Belinda’s toilette function within the poem? It establishes the poem’s mock-heroic motifs. It protects her from any harm during the day. It does not serve a larger purpose within the poem.
Q. 2. How does the first canto of the poem begin? Briefly describe the real incident behind the poem?
Ans. An invocation to Pope’s Muse, his close friend John Caryll had inspired him to write on a real-life incident involving to warning families (Fermors and the Petres) that were at loggerheads with each other. John Caryll suggested Pope write a poem based on this trivial incident.
Q. 3. What war imagery can you find that presents Belinda as the mock-epic hero?
Ans. Her hair-pins, powders and patches, Bibles and love letters are arranged in the order of files, rows and ranks of an army. The war imagery (also mockingly) extended here to liken her to a warrior. Similarly, a simile of her dressing up is employed here.
Q. 4. What are the activities of the hovering airy spirits or the sylphs
in the first canto?
Ans. The hovering spirits above Belinda’s head are the busy sylphs or the airy spirits who lovingly engaged in adding their final touches to her appearance before she is ready to step out of her dressing room.
Q. 5. What is reflected in Belinda’s attitude to Biblical wisdom or Christian ideals?
Ans. The Bible warns against vanity but Belinda’s “Bibles” along
with cosmetics and fancy things itself further reflect her casual attitude to
Q. 6. What is the mock-epic/heroic form? Define a heroic couplet.
Ans. Mock-heroic/epic form draws traditional epic narratives in
it grand and elevated style. But it also serves the purpose of satirising and
mocking. The heroic couplet is composed in the iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme aa, bb, cc and so on.
Q. 7. What is meant by ‘machinery’ in the epic poem? Why did it turn into one of the reasons for Pope’s criticism of Addison?
Ans. ‘Machinary’ refers to the supernatural elements, something
that addition had initially suggested not to include. But the spectacular effect
that this addition had on the poem became one of the many reasons of
popes criticism of Joseph Addison.
Q. 8. Who were the poets, writers and critics who were subject to the
attacks of Pope’s criticism?
Ans. Bentley, Lewis Theobold, Colley Cibber, John Dennis, Ambrose Philips, Lord Harvey, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Joseph Addison.
Q. 9. How does Pope figure Belinda’s toilet?
Ans. He figures her toilette as the preparation of an epic hero before battle. Once the sacraments are performed, Pope depicts Belinda’s toilette as the ritual of arming the hero. Pope refigures the combs, pins, “puffs, powders, patches” that Belinda uses to prepare herself as the arms and armor of the epic hero.
Q. 10. What are Belinda’s cosmetic powers?
Ans. Belinda’s “Cosmetic Powers” is the parody of the hero worshipping his ancestors, gods and goddesses for giving him strength and courage. After that, she worships herself, and may be this is more than the epic hero’s ritual!
Q. 11. Why does the baron want Belinda’s hair?
Belinda is the center of attention, with everybody admiring the two locks of hair on her neck. The Baron is filled with the desire to take one of Belinda’s locks and to show it off. He has called upon all spirits to help him in taking the lock, in particular the Spirit of Love.
Q.12. How would you characterize Pope’s attitude towards Belinda?
Ans. “Belinda smiles and all the world was gay.” Pope has a mixed and complicated attitude towards Belinda. She satirizes her with tenderness, admires her but does not spare her to criticize. The paradoxical nature of Pope’s attitude is intimately related to the paradox of Belinda’s situation.
Q.13. How does Belinda defeat the baron?
Ans. Belinda and the Baron meet in combat and she emerges victorious by peppering him with snuff and drawing her bodkin. Having achieved a position of advantage, she again demands that he return the lock.