Analysis of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock

As have other of works by Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock (1712) has inspired many full-length books of critical consideration, so important was its effect upon Pope, his readership, the genre of poetry, and Pope’s legacy. The new historicist critical approach demands that works be placed within their author’s political, social, and biographical contexts in order not only to offer readers a better understanding of their words and allusions, but also to suggest what might have motivated a writer to produce a specific work. With Pope’s The Rape of the Lock the motivation remains clear, explained by Pope himself.

The mock-epic developed in reaction to a real social event that estranged two previously cordial families and a friend’s request that Pope take a part in defusing the anger that led to that estrangement. While attending a party, a certain young Lord Petre had as a joke clipped a ringlet from the head of Arabella Fermor. Miss Fermor saw no humor in the act, and her negative reaction caused a break in relations between the Petres and the Fermors. As prominent families in a small Catholic community, of which Pope himself was a part, they threatened to disrupt relationships beyond their own through their quarrel. Lord Petre’s teacher contacted Pope and asked that he write a poem in jest about the event. As Pope wrote to a friend, the tutor John Caryll hoped Pope’s work might for the two families “laugh them together again.”


Fortunately, The Rape of the Lock had the desired effect upon its publication in original version as part of Miscellanies in 1712. Feeling his work was incomplete, Pope continued revision and published a version expanded to five cantos in 1714 to which he added the sylphs and gnomes that exaggerated the classical effect, as well as engravings. A further 1717 revision included a “moral” spoken by the character Clarissa, and it became one of the most popular published in England’s history.

As for its form Pope specifically selected the mockepic and heroic couplets in order, as Wall explains, to “emphasize paradox, inversion, and ironic slippage between appearance and reality, and a tension between containment and escape.” Pope incorporates absurdity through the figurative language of comparison and contrast specifically to emphasize the “friction” between his humorous version and the true heroic epic. His not-so-subtle message to readers, especially those involved in the incident that inspired the poem, is to take themselves less seriously. Pope successfully transmitted this message because his readers were familiar with the patterns and conventions of heroic epic through their knowledge of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid by Vigil, and Paradise Lost by John Milton. Appearing in a mock version, such patterns and conventions highlight the poem’s thematic absurdity.

In summary The Rape of the Lock opens as its heroine, Belinda, awakens from a most pleasantly sensuous dream. In the late morning she is attended at her boudoir by her pet dog and the sylphs who arm her against temptation, bolstering her mental and physical chastity. They recall the magical attendants of classical figures as they prepared to enter the battlefield. Belinda’s battle will be fought on the social scene, as she attends a party at a royal palace where she will be called upon to defend her honor carefully. Belinda wins a game of cards and brags a bit too much, and the baron she has beaten decides to take revenge. Another member of the party, Clarissa, “arms” him with a pair of scissors as his “weapon,” and he engages in symbolic “rape” by snipping off Belinda’s curl as she leans down to drink her coffee. Her lead sylph, Ariel, deserts her in impotency, having discovered she may be falling in love. Belinda’s reaction is swift disgust and outrage, and she descends into a psychological Hades, mirroring the descent to gain wisdom prevalent in the classical heroic quest. She inhabits for a time the Cave of Spleen, while other young people “fight” over the event. The lock of hair rises as a star visible only to “quick, poetic eyes.”

A rich and rewarding presentation, “the form and imagery” of the poem act, as scholar Cynthia Wall writes, as to “reveal and re-enact the sexual, social, political, and poetic energies, and the efforts to control and contain them, in early-eighteenth-century England.” Pope successfully manages to reflect in his mock epic a miniature of his own world in which war threatened trade, making conquest all-important; authority remained in question, as royal power fell to the Hanoverians; two political parties sought to define themselves further in relation to the throne and one another; Catholicism remained at odds with Anglicanism; and a feeling of separation and displacement haunted England.

Identified on the title page as “An Heroic-Comical Poem” in the 1714 five-canto edition, “The Rape of the Lock” opened with a letter from Pope to Arabella Fermor, to whom he dedicated the poem. His motivation for writing the poem becomes immediately evident, as he writes that “it was intended only to divert a few young Ladies, who have good Sense and Good Humour enough, to laugh not only at their Sex’s little unguarded Follies, but at their own.” Although meant to be a private venture, as Pope notes the poem had “been offer’d to a Bookseller.” The reader gains some insight into Fermor’s character as Pope adds, “You had the good Nature for my Sake to consent to the Publication of one more correct.” He then discusses the introduction in this latest version of the “machinery” that includes the mythological characters of the sylphs and demons. Pope concludes with conventional flattery, writing that if his poem “has as many Graces as there are in Your Person, or in Your Mind,” he still could not have hoped “it should pass thro’ the World half so Uncensured as You have done.”

Pope opens in mock-heroic tone, his speaker calling upon the Muses to guide his pen. In this case rather than mentioning one of the nine traditional muses, he notes “Caryll,” meaning John Caryll, as his inspiration. He sets the scene as “a tim’rous Ray” of sun “op’d those Eyes that must eclipse the Day,” beginning his characterization of Belinda. She is still in her bed, her “Guardian Sylph” lingering over her head, as is the memory of a dream that features “A Youth . . . / (That ev’n in Slumber caus’d her Cheek to glow).” In the first canto Pope must make clear that Belinda remains a sexually mature, yet virginal young woman, who dreams of love and sex but knows those subjects need to remain in the realm of fantasy for now. As part of the classical tradition Pope had to make clear the purpose of the sylphs, writing,

Know farther yet; Whoever fair and chaste
Rejects Mankind, is by some Sylph embrac’d:
For Spirits, freed from mortal Laws, with ease
Assume what Sexes and what Shapes they please. (67–70)

Only with assistance can Belinda be heroic, retaining her purity “In Courtly Balls, and Midnight Masquerades” (72).

Discussion follows of different types of Nymphs, some possessed of a “vacant Brain” who give in to the spectacle of “Peers and Dukes, and all their sweeping Train” (83–84). Clearly Belinda will not be one of those. The sylphs, who include one specifi cally identifi ed as Betty, attend Belinda at her toilette, which Pope imbues with mock importance. Taking gentle advantage of the acknowledged vanity of young women, he creates a catalog of everything involved in the preparation, from “Files of Pins” to “Puffs, Powders, Patches, bibles, Billet-doux” (138–39). An increase in Belinda’s charm and a calling forth of “all the Wonders of her Face are the results.”

Canto 2 opens with a description of Belinda’s effect on others, making clear that behind her beauty, charm, and inoffensive manner is a quick mind. The description of her hair foreshadows impending disaster, as one sylph has dutifully tended “two Locks” (20) so that “With shining Ringlets” that “smooth” Belinda’s “Ivry Neck,” love “in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains, / And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains” (22– 24). Pope continues using hyperbole to capture the heroic tone designed to convince readers of the humor in such social situations. Exaggeration abounds in blown-out description and a skillful address by Ariel to “Sylphs and Sylphids . . . / Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves, and Daemons” regarding their duties on the battlefield that the social gathering represents (73–74). The call to arms results in a swarming of mystical beings, all intent on preserving Belinda’s honor:

Some, Orb in Orb, around the Nymph extend,
Some thrid the mazy ringlets of her Hair,
Some hang upon the Pendants of her Ear;
With beating Hearts the dire Event they wait,
Anxious, and trembling for the Birth of Fate. (138–143).

Pope sets the scene for the third canto, in which Belinda will enter the battle that determines her fate. He describes the playing cards as if they are powerful fi gures gathered for her support, including “four Kings in Majesty rever’d,” four fair queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,” “four Knaves in Garbs succinct,” and “Paricolour’d Troops, a shining Train,” all of which “Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain” (37–44). The next lines establish Belinda’s foe in the ensuing battle as a Baron, to whom “Fate inclines the Field,” following two triumphs by Belinda. The cards become soldiers who struggle for victory: “Th’ Imperial consort of the Crown of Spades. / The Club’s black Tyrant first her Victim dy’d” (68–69), while later “The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace” (75). When Belinda wins the hand, the speaker cries:

Oh thoughtless Mortals! ever blind to Fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate! Sudden these
Honours shall be snatch’d away,
And curs’d for ever this Victorious Day. (101–104)

Clarissa aids the Baron in wreaking vengeance by supplying him with scissors. Pope describes them and Clarissa’s act: “A two-eg’d Weapon from her shining Case; / So Ladies in Romance assist their Knight” (129– 130). The Sprights gather by the thousands in a vain attempt to protect Belinda’s curl, managing to twitch her diamond earrings and cause her to turn her head three times. However, Ariel suddenly “watch’d th’ Ideas rising in her Mind” and saw, “in spite of all her Art, / An Earthly Lover lurking at her Heart.” Defeated, he and the other magical elements abandon the field as “The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever / From the fair head, for ever and for ever” (154–155). Belinda screams as the Baron exults over his prize, having executed “The conqu’ring force of unresisted Steel” (177–178).

In the fourth canto Belinda dissolves into depression and ends up in the Cave of Spleen. Pope has more fun in describing a Region that knows “No cheerful Breeze,” where Belinda “sighs for ever on her pensive Bed, / Pain at her side, and Megrim at her Head” (23–24), where the term Megrim indicates a migraine headache, believed to be a product of the spleen. One fantastical being, a gnome called Umbriel, approaches a goddess, petitioning her for a solution to Belinda’s problem. He notes that she can “rule the Sex to Fifty from Fifteen” and “give th’ Hysteric or Poetic Fit,” inspiring some to become doctors and others playwrights (59–62). Pope turns to satiric regarding the muses, who inspire mortals to various achievements.

This goddess will furnish the gnome with “Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues” (83), which he pours over Belinda’s head, as if anointing her. Pope introduces the fop character of Sir Plume, based on the real-life Sir George Brown, whom Belinda bids wage war on her part. His attempts fail, and she suffers the hysterical effects of Umbriel’s vial from which sorrows flow. She curses her day of infamy and wonders aloud why she ever attended the party. Instead she should have “kept my Charms conceal’d from mortal Eye, / Like Roses that in Desarts bloom and die” (157–158). Pope adopts the common carpe diem imagery of cavalier poets, who argued with virgins they should not hide their roselike beauty, as it would simply die unappreciated. She wails in comic form over the loss of one of her two sable “Beauties,” its “Sister-Lock” left to sit alone on her neck, perhaps to tempt another rape. The canto concludes with her cry to the perpetrator of the crime, “Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!” Pope makes clear the dubious nature of the slight in revealing Belinda’s concern as sheer vanity in the loss of her prominent and well-groomed curls, rather than a lock of less visible hair.

Canto 5 consists of a 150-line statement by Clarissa, partner to the crime, in which she acts as a chorus to summarize the action and expound on the cruel fate that resulted from human passion. Discussion ensues over the fate of the lock itself, and she reveals that some believe it took its place in heaven, where “Partridge soon shall view” it as a portent of “the fall of Rome” when he “looks thro’ Galileo’s eyes.” Pope references a known prognosticator named John Partridge. Partridge annually predicted the pope’s downfall, as well as the fall of the king of France, by reading the heavens through his telescope; he was a publicly acknowledged foolish figure. The poet himself steps into the poem at its conclusion, bidding Belinda no longer to mourn her “ravish’d Hair / Which adds new Glory to the shining Sphere!” (141–142).

By selecting such a low subject as the clipping of a curl to elevate through epic poetry, Pope makes the point that humans often take themselves too seriously. He also made clear the power of poetry to teach, as well as delight. His work translating Homer’s Iliad, a six-year project begun in 1713, would inform the mock version of the heroic story that would eventually gain him financial independence. The Rape of the Lock remains a crucial part of Pope’s early career, its perfectly controlled execution and jubilant tone reflecting the cautiously happy security he would not long enjoy. It continues to inspire much critical examination. When feminist criticism gained importance in the 20th century, this new critical approach considered the poem’s misogyny in its depiction of women.


Pope’s first ‘heroi-comical poem’ coupled together heroic language and contemporary life, producing a medium appropriate for a poet who was engaging in a massive epic translation but whose temperament was satiric. Originally designed as a palliative in a family quarrel, it was itself expanded from the miniature squib of 1712 into a five-canto version complete with a race of mythological beings to act in parody of the epic ‘machinery’ of divine action, contrasts of perspective, the conflation of big and little, high and low, animate and inanimate, offer Pope a fertile field both for imaginative play and for explorations of the strangeness of mental and emotional life. The poem poses explicit questions, but its answers are more diffuse.

Say what strange Motive, Goddess! cou’d compel
A well-bred Lord t’assault a gentle Belle
Oh say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor’d,
Cou’d make a gentle Belle reject a Lord
In Tasks so bold, can Little Men engage,
And in soft Bosoms dwells such mighty Rage (I: 7–12)

In his opening invocation, Pope has already identified ‘am’rous Causes’ as the stimulant to the Baron’s ‘dire Offence’ (RL, I: 1); but the poem goes on to suggest more complicated manoeuvrings between ‘mighty Contests’ and ‘trivial Things’ (RL, I: 2).

Belinda is a little ‘Belle’, or fashionable beauty, celebrated in conventional language (‘those Eyes that must eclipse the Day’, RL, I: 14), but dozing her way through the morning, absolutely without responsibility or occupation. Her attempts at action are curious: we may take ‘Thrice rung the Bell the Slipper knock’d the Ground,/And the press’d Watch return’d a silver Sound’ (RL, I: 17–18) to indicate that she rings for her maid, knocks on the floor for attention, then checks the time, but her agency is nowhere specified and the objects appear to perform the actions themselves. Belinda is, in any case, put back to sleep again by her ‘Guardian Sylph’, Ariel, who puts into her head (in a parody of epic and biblical dreams) an attractive male figure to warn her of some impending disaster (I: 27–114). The long speech grafts onto Belinda’s childhood imaginings (‘Of airy Elves by Moonlight Shadows seen’, RL, I: 31) a new mythology, which also serves to provide the reader with the necessary background: what Belinda takes to be her own autonomous activity in life is actually a contrivance of her miniature attendants, the ‘light Militia of the lower Sky’ (RL, I: 42). Female vanities, Ariel explains, continue after death, and the four main types of female characters return to elemental identities: Prudes become Gnomes, Termagants turn into Salamanders, ‘Soft yielding Minds’ become Nymphs, and Coquettes (‘Whoever fair and chaste/ Rejects Mankind’, RL, I: 67–8) become Sylphs. Ariel has identified Belinda as a woman of this last kind, and seeks to protect her chastity against temptation: though ‘Honour is the Word with Men below’ (RL, I: 78), all that really prevents the coquette from ‘warm Desires’ (RL, I: 75) is the guardian Sylph. Mental life is envisaged as a near-arbitrary play of forces; the Sylphs contrive to balance out desires so that no one male seems more attractive than another:

With varying Vanities, from ev’ry Part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart;
Where Wigs with Wigs, with Sword-knots Sword-knots strive,
Beaus banish Beaus, and Coaches Coaches drive. (RL, I: 99–102)

Men become a succession of metonymic objects, a series of external stimulants which substitute for desire in a heart which is itself no more than a catalogue of toys.

Exterior protection is forthcoming in the description of the ‘Toilet’ or dressing-table. A flamboyant parody both of epic scenes in which heroes are armed for battle, and descriptions of ritual sacrifice, the passage (I: 121–48) suggests how for Belinda, the entire world is turned into an available commodity, and how she turns herself (with the invisible aid of the Sylphs) into an object of desire.

A heav’nly image in the glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;
Th’ inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,
Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride.
Unnumber’d treasures ope at once, and here
The various off’rings of the world appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glitt’ring spoil.
This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
The tortoise here and elephant unite,
Transform’d to combs, the speckled and the white.
Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux. (RL, I:125–38)

As ‘awful Beauty puts on all its Arms’ Belinda is close to blasphemy – through her self-devotion (with its reminiscences of Milton’s Eve) and her casual arrangement of bibles among similarly plural objects of merely cosmetic or amatory importance (I: 138). But more significantly, Belinda can be accused of making herself up to look like the ‘Image in the Glass’, a material object for visual consumption. The epic powers of the ‘cosmos’ are reduced to ‘Cosmetic Powr’s’ (I: 124), or make-up; the world is distilled into miniatures on Belinda’s dressing table: ‘all Arabia breathes’ from Belinda’s perfume-box, the whole of India is apparently represented by what is in her jewellery box. Tortoise and elephant (mythological actors in a Hindu myth of creation) comically ‘unite’ into ivory and shell combs in what might appear an extreme perversion of the proportions of nature into the distortions of art.

Canto II launches the ‘made-up’ Belinda on the world in a similarly ambivalent guise. The desirable but untouchable female works to an unwritten code of coquettish behaviour (II: 9–18). But her transformation into object continues: ‘On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore,/ Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore’ (RL, II: 7–8), suggesting that her commitment to religion is ornamental and attracts primarily sexual attention, itself displaced onto the ritual object rather than the human flesh. The ‘painted Vessel’ (RL, II: 47) might refer to the boat she is sailing in, or simply to her. Pope gives us the locks of hair as small but commanding engines of sexual power:

This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourish’d two locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal curls, and well conspir’d to deck
With shining ringlets the smooth iv’ry neck.
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains. (RL, II: 19–26)

After the lock is lost, Belinda’s companion Thalestris asks a rhetorical question which indicates something of Belinda’s labour in creating this metallic metonymy of herself:

Was it for this you took such constant Care
The Bodkin, Comb, and Essence to prepare;
For this your Locks in Paper-Durance bound,
For this with tort’ring Irons wreath’d around
For this with Fillets strain’d your tender Head,
And bravely bore the double Loads of Lead (RL, IV: 97–102)

‘Rape’ comes from the Latin verb to ‘seize’ and does not etymologically imply sexual possession; but in terms of sexual politics, the Baron clearly conceives that if Belinda has turned her sexuality into an object, she can be possessed in the metonymic form of part for whole: ‘Th’ Adventurous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,/He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d’ (RL, II: 29–30). For the Baron, like everyone in the poem, is a creature of objects, and his parody sacrifice (II: 35–46), complementing Belinda’s ritual of self-worship, consigns ‘the Trophies of his former Loves’ (women’s garters and gloves) to the flames in order to appeal for possession of the supreme ‘Prize’ (a prize is something which is ‘taken rather than given’, often in war, etymologically not very far removed from rape, and akin to the ‘Spoil’ with which Belinda is equipped in RL, I: 132).

The Sylphs too regard Belinda’s sexual purity as just another object in her collection: Ariel warns them of some unknown ‘dire Disaster’ in terms which appear (in the shifting balances and antitheses of the couplet) to avoid making distinctions of moral scale:

Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law,
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,
Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade,
Forget her Pray’rs, or miss a Masquerade,
Or lose her Heart, or Necklace, at a Ball;
Or whether Heav’n has doom’d that Shock must fall. (RL, II: 105–10)

Inner and outer, costume and character, religion and entertainment, are all the same to Ariel’s Belinda: her chastity (‘Diana’s Law’) is as breakable as a ‘frail China Jar’, and Ariel sets ‘Fifty chosen Sylphs’ to guard Belinda’s hoop-petticoat, a ‘sev’nfold Fence’ (by analogy with Achilles’s ‘sev’n-fold Shield’ in the Iliad) against sexual advances, as if chastity was something you could preserve with whalebone [174–7, 181–2].

Such delusive misapprehensions of value have a social cost, as the opening of Canto III indicates. The boat arrives at Hampton Court, one of Queen Anne’s palaces and thus a site of political importance as well as social intercourse.

Here Britain’s Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom Of Foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home; Here Thou, Great Anna! whom three Realms obey, Dost sometimes Counsel take – and sometimes Tea. (RL, III: 5–8) Politics and sex, politics and tea: Pope’s mock-epic wonders if society estimates these activities at the correct points on the scale. Something very costly and problematic about social mores is glimpsed in an aside which is not the less chilling for mimicking the casualness it captures: Pope indicates the time of his epic event by reference to the kind of justice you are likely to get after a long day in a different sort of court: ‘The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,/And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine’ (RL, III: 19–22). It is only an aside, but it casts an especially ominous shadow across the ensuing card-game in which Belinda seeks to ‘decide’ the ‘Doom’ of two of her suitors.

Belinda becomes (in her own view) an epic or romance hero, her cards take on the aspect of martial forces, and her first words in the poem parody God’s creative fiat: ‘The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;/Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were’ (RL, III: 45–6). The pack of cards is transformed into a miniature version of the European war which had just come to an end:

Now move to War her Sable Matadores,
In Show like Leaders of the swarthy Moors.
Spadillio first, unconquerable Lord!
Led off two captive Trumps, and swept the Board.
As many more Manillio forc’d to yield,
And march’d a Victor from the verdant Field. (RL, III: 47–52)

They are only cards, as in Alice in Wonderland; yet as often in the poem the comic effect is not wholly controlling, and the conceit of warring armies enlivens the inanimate object in a surreal way (III: 47– 100). When Belinda wins it is as if her instinct for sexual mastery, indeed her entire personal agency, has become transferred to and embodied in a playing card:

An Ace of Hearts steps forth: The King unseen
Lurk’d in her Hand, and mourn’d his captive Queen.
He springs to Vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace. (RL, III: 95–8)

In this sexually overcharged atmosphere even the making of coffee takes on the aspect of something tremendous (the coffee-grinder has previously been likened to Ixion’s wheel in hell, II: 133–6):

For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China’s Earth receives the smoking Tyde. (RL, III: 105–110)

Nor is this comically excessive transformation of the social coffee ritual a mere digression, for when it comes to the actual ‘rape’ of the lock of hair, we learn that the Baron does not so much plan the act as get inspiration from coffee, which ‘Sent up in Vapours to the Baron’s Brain/New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain’ (RL, III: 119–20). Similarly, though the act is human, the description concentrates on those aspects which appear external to the conscious control of the Baron: the necessary scissors are a fascinating ‘two-edg’d Weapon’ from a ‘shining Case’, a ‘little Engine’, a ‘glitt’ring Forfex’ and a ‘fatal Engine’ (RL, III: 125–50). In the end, ‘Fate urg’d the Sheers’, Belinda’s hair gives way to the force of steel as did ‘th’Imperial Tow’rs of Troy’ (RL, III: 174) and the Baron scarcely seems to exert more agency than Belinda had in summoning her maid in Canto I.

Belinda’s initial reaction is heroic, but mocked: her ‘Screams of Horror’ (RL, III: 156) are undercut by the indication that such reactions are forthcoming in serous and trivial instances alike, ‘When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last’ (RL, III: 155–60). And yet Canto IV turns this perspective around again by suggesting that Belinda’s reactions are also driven by forces beyond her conscious control. Umbriel, a Gnome (or ex-Prude), and ‘a dusky melancholy Spright’, representing the dark side of the poem, (RL, IV: 13) visits the ‘Cave of Spleen’ to garner more force for Belinda’s hysteria. The canto is a sort of parody of underworld journeys in which heroes encounter the dead (Aeneid, book VI). But this underworld appears internal, for Pope is visiting the shady psychology of bodily-inspired melancholy. The ‘Spleen’ is an abdominal organ, thought in Pope’s time to give rise to a range of conditions: migraine, depression, hysteria. Pope envisions a physical scene of bizarre psychological aberrations, again fusing the animate with the inanimate:

Unnumber’d Throngs on ev’ry side are seen
Of Bodies chang’d to various Forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout:
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pye talks;
Men prove with Child, as pow’rful Fancy works,
And Maids turn’d Bottels, call aloud for Corks. (RL, IV: 47–54)

Though ‘Men prove with Child’, the ‘pow’rful Fancy’ which transforms people into objects of surreal sexual suggestion is still in some ways a female domain: Umbriel addresses himself to the ‘wayward Queen’ who rules ‘the Sex’ (women) ‘to Fifty from Fifteen’ (in other words, from puberty to menopause). This turns Belinda’s response to the loss of the lock into something which is driven by irrational bodily impulse, with undisclosed sexual significance. Umbriel gets ‘Spleen’ to gather up ‘the Force of Female Lungs’,/Sighs, Sobs, and Passions, and the War of Tongues’ in ‘a wondrous Bag’ (mimicking Odysseus’s bag of winds in The Odyssey, but also suggesting the womb); he also receives a ‘Vial’ filled with ‘fainting Fears,/Soft Sorrows, melting Griefs, and flowing Tears’ (RL, IV: 81–6). Emotion becomes something like a chemical experiment, and Umbriel returns to tear the ‘swelling Bag’, allowing ‘all the Furies’ to issue ‘at the Vent’ (RL, IV: 89–94), and breaks ‘the Vial whence the Sorrows flow’ (RL, IV: 142). The result is a ‘raging’ tirade from Thalestris, Belinda’s Amazonian companion, against the triumphant male sex (IV: 93–122), and a weeping lament from Belinda (IV: 141–76). Emotions of this extent, the poem appears to suggest, cannot be authentic but must be artificially stimulated or produced by some element which would be better controlled.

It is in this spirit which Clarissa speaks at the opening of Canto V, a speech added by Pope in 1717, in order, as a (much later) note puts it, ‘to open more clearly the MORAL of the Poem, in a parody of the speech of Sarpedon to Glaucus in Homer’ (RL, V: 7–34; TE II: 199). Clarissa urges Belinda to value lasting ‘good Sense’ above the superficial and transient claims of Beauty and the social power it wields. This has been taken as the authorial view, imputed to a ‘sensible’ female character. Feminist critics especially have seen the poem as not merely poking fun at Belinda’s overreaction but as a wider attempt to socialise and domesticate a powerful young woman into mature self-possession, and acceptance of the state of marriage. The whole mock-epic framework can be taken as a comic inflation of an emotional situation which was already inflated (principally by the woman in the case) beyond its true value, though no critic would deny that such a satiric gesture has wider corrective and interrogative implications as well: if the behaviour of smart young people is so ridiculous when it takes itself so seriously, what (if it is not a codmythology of Sylphs and Gnomes) can possibly be responsible for it The opening questions of the poem (I: 7–12) remain throughout. But the treatment of Belinda herself might easily suggest the necessary imposition of moral control; Ariel is forced to abandon her during the Baron’s assault because, as he searches the ‘close Recesses of the Virgin’s thought’ and watches ‘th’Ideas rising in her Mind’, he sees ‘in spite of all her Art,/An Earthly Lover lurking at her Heart’ (RL, III: 138–145). Pope seems to think it stranger that she should ‘reject a Lord’ than that the Lord should assault her (RL, I: 7– 10), even though the Baron seems to want nothing from her but her hair (he has not proposed marriage or indeed made any explicit sexual advance). Ariel seems to sense Belinda’s hidden sexuality; to gain her attention, the figure in the dream poses as an attractive young man ‘That ev’n in Slumber caus’d her Cheek to glow’ (RL, I: 24); Belinda is woken by her lapdog’s tongue (I: 116), suggesting that she is receptive to sexual advances (the lapdog is a kind of substitute husband, as III: 158 indicates); and the vision vanishes because Belinda is more interested in the oversexed love-letter she finds on waking (I: 117–20). Even as the Baron advances she looks back three times, without defending herself (III: 138). She ‘Burns to encounter two adventrous Knights’ (RL, III: 26), declaring Spades (originally swords) to be trumps at the game of ‘Ombre’ (after Spanish hombre, Man), suggesting a kind of unconscious attempt to usurp phallic sexual power. Some of Pope’s allusions in the poem remind us that the shearing of hair was in classical times a pre-marital ritual (Wasserman 1966). In other words, the Baron might simply have reminded her of her own sexual needs and the right way to initiate intercourse: perhaps Belinda herself is contrived to be one of the ‘Maids turn’d Bottels’, who ‘call aloud for Corks’ (RL, IV: 54).

This could not be a complete view of the poem’s effects, however. Belinda’s speech at the end of Canto IV appears to mock her as a hypocrite: ‘Oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize/Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!’ (RL, IV: 175–6). Rather the crime of actual rape (the ‘Hairs less in sight’ indicating pubic hair) than the theft of her own highly visible sexual weapon; she is going to have to tear the other lock off herself. But in another sense she has gauged the system in which she lives exactly right. It is a world of objects, rituals, gestures. Belinda’s ‘Honour’ (her reputation for sexual chastity) has been evacuated into a mere word by Ariel (I: 78), then made into a hollow victory (III: 103), and finally turned into something which can be physically removed: the Baron swears by the ‘sacred Lock’ ‘Which never more its Honours shall renew,/Clipt from the lovely Head where late it grew’ (RL, IV: 135–6) to wear the lock forever: ‘He spoke, and speaking, in proud Triumph spread/The long-contended Honours of her Head’ (RL, IV: 139–40). It is not then merely Spleen which has made Thalestris complain:

Gods! shall the Ravisher display your Hair,
While the Fops envy, and the Ladies stare! …
Methinks already I your Tears survey,
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded Toast,
And all your Honour in a Whisper lost! (RL, IV: 103–4, 107–10)

This is a world in which appearance counts for more than reality, and possession of a symbol counts for more than the possession of what is symbolised.

Clarissa’s speech, like Sarpedon’s, is a reminder of transience and mortality; but in the Iliad it is also an incitement to battle. Pope places the speech at the start of Canto V, as a possible response, though astute readers will remember that Clarissa is the one who gave the Baron the scissors in the first place. But Belinda takes nothing of the advice except the concealed reminder of the incitement to warfare, which is what then takes place: Pope does not in the end put the lid on her anger and subjugate it to an easily available moral norm. Not only does Belinda resist, but she fights with a certain success through the rest of the Canto: Jove’s scales (the most fully epic borrowing of the poem, from the Iliad, the Aeneid, and Paradise Lost) reckon the Lock more weighty than the combined ‘Wits’ of the Men. This does not mean that the battle is not comic, but it does suggest that Belinda is not necessarily wrong to reject Clarissa’s advice.

The gender war (V: 35–102) is mock-epic in full cry: Homeric passions and mythological conflicts (‘Jove’s Thunder roars, Heav’n trembles all around;/Blue Neptune storms, the bellowing Deeps resound’, RL, V: 49– 50) are superimposed on the aggressive rattle of female costume (‘All side in Parties, and begin th’Attack;/Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack’, RL, V: 39–40). However, while the battle is taken seriously by the women as a struggle for power, it appears to be persistently regarded by the men as an especially titillating form of sexual game in which the ‘killing’ is all done by the conventions of lyric poetry:

When bold Sir Plume had drawn Clarissa down,
Chloe stept in, and kill’d him with a Frown;
She smil’d to see the doughty Hero slain,
But at her Smile, the Beau reviv’d again. (RL, V: 67–70)

Belinda’s vengeful assault on the Baron has a sexual connotation (‘die’) for him which it doesn’t have for her:

See fierce Belinda on the Baron flies,
With more than usual Lightning in her Eyes;
Nor fear’d the Chief th’unequal Fight to try,
Who sought no more than on his Foe to die. (RL, V: 75–8)

She subdues him with a mere pinch of snuff, comically, but then produces a ‘deadly Bodkin from her Side’ in a final appropriation, or reappropriation, of quasi-phallic power: the bodkin, we learn, has a history (RL, V: 87–96): ‘Her great great Grandsire’ wore it ‘about his Neck/In three Seal-Rings’, but these male insignia have subsequently been melted down through matrilinear successions of power into such an object as Belinda uses in her hair (IV.98). The threatened Baron, nonetheless, construes the assault sexually: ‘ah let me still survive,/ And burn in Cupid’s Flames, – but burn alive’ (RL, V: 101–2).

This is an impasse of understanding, heroic against comic, power against sex, and as usual in Pope the only way out is by poetry itself. Belinda gains the right to have the lock (her reputation, her chastity) restored, but what she actually receives is the poem itself (reputation of an arguably greater kind). The lock is not to be found; not that it has gone (as rumoured) to ‘the Lunar Sphere’ where the worthless junk which symbolises human love affairs fetches up (RL, V: 113–22). Instead:

But trust the Muse – she saw it upward rise,
Tho’ mark’d by none but quick Poetic Eyes: …
A sudden Star, it shot thro’ liquid Air,
And drew behind a radiant Trail of Hair. (RL, V: 123–4, 127–8)

Belinda’s hair becomes comet-like (‘comet’ is from the Greek for ‘hair’, because of its hair-like tail); its visibility becomes intangible, inviolable. Pope is offering his own poem as the compensatory vehicle of a stellar transformation: Belinda loses the lock but wins the poem, Pope claims, in adopting a male perspective on her redeemed ‘fame’:

For, after all the Murders of your Eye,
When, after Millions slain, your self shall die …
This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame,
And mid’st the Stars inscribe Belinda’s Name! (RL, V: 145–6, 149–50)

‘This Lock’ is of course the poem, The Rape of the Lock, which serves to replace the missing lock (with all that it signifies).

While it is certainly possible to read the mock-epic form as a moral comment on a society which has confused its own best interests, its confidence as art seems to exceed its burden as satire. In the ‘Toilet’ passage in Canto I, for example, mock-epic can certainly point to an inversion of values in that it can make the serious appear trivial and the trivial important. But in miniaturising the world onto Belinda’s dressing table Pope gives the objects a compressed life, and there is a kind of poetic thrill about presenting the world in this way: the ‘various Off ’rings of the World’ are not dissimilar to those in the contemporary Windsor-Forest, 393-396, which no-one would accuse of being mock-heroic. There is an evident imaginative as well as satiric pleasure in confining emotions within things in the ‘Lunar Sphere’: ‘There Heroes’ Wits are kept in pondrous Vases,/And Beaus’ in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases’ (RL, V: 115–16). The sylphs have a satiric part to play in making human emotions look vacuous and contrived, and thus querying our sense of perspective and moral values; but they are also the light of pure imagination, representing the pleasures of freedom: ‘Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal Sight,/Their fluid Bodies half dissolv’d in Light’ (RL, II: 161–2). Pope takes no less pleasure in making this insubstantiality visible than he does in the more strictly mock-heroic picture of possible punishments for neglectful sylphs stuck forever in cosmetics (II: 123–36), or for that matter in the weird but psychologically impressive pathologies of the Cave of Spleen and the malign gnomes in Canto IV, which resound far beyond their ostensible satiric function. While the miniature ‘machinery’ of the sylphs and gnomes brings an ethical scheme into sharp focus (we are forced to scrutinize because Belinda is viewed through a microscope, but we need to keep things in proportion), the focus also makes the ordinary world something strange and exciting. And attention to the play of light on objects is finally a self-conscious reflection on the poetic act itself.

Broich, Ulrich. Mock-Heroic Poetry, 1680–1750. Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1971.
Creehan, Stanley. “ ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and the Economy of ‘Trivial Things.’ ” Eighteenth-Century Studies 31, no. 1 (fall 1997): 45–68.
Crider, Richard. “Pope’s ‘The Rape of the Lock.’ ” The Explicator 49, no. 2 (winter 1991): 80–82.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. “Belinda’s Coiffure in The Rape of the Lock.” English Language Notes 42, no. 1 (September 2004): 40–42.
Jones, John A. Pope’s Couplet Art. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1969.
Kroll, Richard. “Pope and Drugs: The Pharmacology of ‘The Rape of the Lock.’ ” English Literary History 67, no. 1 (spring 2000): 99–141.
Rumbold, Valerie. Women’s Place in Pope’s World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Singh, Brijrah. “Pope’s Belinda: A Feminist Rereading.” College Language Association Journal 34, no. 4 (June 1991): 467–485.
Spacks, Patricia Ann Meyer. An Argument of Images: The Poetry of Alexander Pope. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Varney, Andrew. “Clarissa’s Moral in ‘The Rape of the Lock.’ ” Essays in Criticism 43, no. 1 (January 1993): 17–32.
Wall, Cynthia. Alexander Pope: The Rape of the Lock. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
Weinbrot, Howard. “Fine Ladies, Saints in Heaven, and Pope’s Rape of the Lock: Genealogy, Catholicism, and the Irenic Muse.” In Augustan Subjects: Essays in Honor of Martin C. Battestin, edited by Albert J. Rivero. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1997.

Source: Baines, Paul. The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope. London: New York, 2001.

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