The Rape of the Lock
by Ian Mackean
In 'The Rape of the Lock' Alexander Pope (1688-1744) employs a mock-epic style to satirise the 'beau-monde' (fashionable world, society of the elite) of eighteenth century England. The richness of the poem, however, reveals more than a straightforward satirical attack. Alongside the criticism we can detect Pope's fascination with, and perhaps admiration for, Belinda and the society in which she moves. Pope himself was not part of the 'beau-monde'. He knew the families on which the poem is based but his own parents, though probably comfortably off, were not so rich or of the class one would have to be in to move in Belinda's circle. He associated with learned men and poets, and there can have been little common ground between the company he kept at Will's Coffee House and those who frequented Hampton Court.
The incident at the centre of the poem is the Baron's theft of a lock of hair and the ensuing estrangement of two families. The opening lines of the poem introduce the reader to the satirical stance he is taking towards the society portrayed in the poem.
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things, [I.1-2]
Pope suggests that they are taking a trivial incident too seriously, displaying an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Throughout the poem Pope continues to make this point through his use of the mock-epic style, which itself takes a trivial incident too seriously, and uses disproportionately grand language to describe an unworthy subject.
Belinda is belittled early in the poem by the revelation of Ariel [l.27-114], who tells her that part of her will survive after her death.
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, o'erloks the Cards.
Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.
For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
To their first Elements their Souls retire: [l.51-9]
We might expect this part, the deepest and most essential part of her being, the 'first Elements', to be her soul, but in Belinda's case it is her 'Vanities', her 'Joy in gilded Chariots' and her 'Love of Ombre', suggesting that her soul consists of nothing more that vanity and a love of pleasure.
Belinda's vanity is seem to take the form of religious devotion in the passage describing her morning toilette.
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
First, rob'd in White, the Nymph intent adores
With Head uncover'd, the Cosmetic Pow'rs.
A heav'nly Image in the Glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears; [l.121-6]
The ironic transposition of 'cosmic powers' in 'Cosmetic Pow'rs' indicates the excessive value she attributes to her make-up, and bowing to her own image shows her devotion to her religion of narcissism. The passage is a mock version of the arming of the epic hero, her weaponry of cosmetics being ridiculed by the implicit comparison with the swords and shields of the epic hero. The passage includes a mock catalogue.
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux. [l.137-8]
This catalogue, echoing the catalogue of troops and weaponry found in epics, is one of the many indications of the jumbled values to be found in Belinda's society. The Bible is seen as a trinket for the adornment of her dressing table, along with the puffs and powders. The main force of this passage is satire, but alongside the satire Pope reveals a hint of fascination with the charm and delicacy of Belinda and her cosmetic devotion.
And decks the Goddess with the glitt'ring Spoil,
This Casket India's glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box. [l.131-4]
The rich imaginative vision in a passage such as this shows more than a desire to deprecate; it suggests that he too is at least partly fascinated by glitter. Pope appreciates the cosmetics in terms of the wider context of their origins and purpose, which Belinda could not do, and his tone reveals an attitude of amused, detached, fascination rather than straightforward disapproval.
In the second Canto Pope turns his mocking attention to the Baron. Pope's ridicule of the Baron is more severe, and the hint of admiration detected in his treatment of Belinda is absent. In The Aeneid when Aeneas builds an altar Virgil is reminding us of his piety; his humility before divine powers. The Baron's worship is presented in terms of ridiculous excess. His altar is made from the profane escapist literature of romance, and his trophies, 'three Garters, half a Pair of Gloves' [ll.39] are ridiculous in comparison with the booty collected by conquering armies.
There is a parallel between the passages describing Belinda's toilette and the Baron's worship, each revealing the idealised image he/she holds of him/her self - Belinda as a goddess and the Baron as a hero - and it is through the absurdity of these ideals taken to extremes that Pope deflates them. Pope mocks the Baron not only as a poor parody of an epic hero but also for adopting an affected stance as a traditional courtly lover.
And breathes three am'rous Sighs to raise the Fire,
Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent Eyes
Soon to obtain, and long possess the Prize: [ll.41-4]
Pope is showing us a profane world in which a man worships the woman, and the woman worships herself.
The ridicule achieved by the comparison between the struggle between Belinda and the Baron and an epic battle reaches its peak in the battles of Cantos 3 and 5. In Canto 3 the glory and excitement of epic warfare is evoked, but the warriors are mere cards in a game of ombre. In Canto 5 the belle and the Baron tussle with the weapons of a snuff box and a bodkin, and Pope evokes scenes of farce and slapstick.
The Gnomes direct, to ev'ry Atome just,
The pungent Grains of titillating Dust.
Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye o'erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.
Now meet thy Fate incens'd Belinda cry'd,
And drew a deadly Bodkin from her Side. [V.82-8]
In this dramatic scene we see supposedly civilised and sophisticated people behaving like squabbling children, and the violent emotions which can lurk under the dignified surface of the 'beau-monde' are revealed. One of the effects of the whole poem is to show that the glitter and refinement of this world can be a veneer to cover the basest human motives.
Pope also shows us, in a mock version of the heroic underworld, the human casualties of the 'beau-monde'.
Shows in her Cheek the Roses of Eighteen,
Practis'd to Lisp, and hang the Head aside,
Faints into Airs, and languishes with Pride; [lV.31-4]
This is harsh criticism, but since we see these people in a context of suffering the response Pope demands seems to include as much pity as laughter. Although condemning the 'beau-monde' for its triviality and lack of proper moral values, Pope is sensitive to the plight of the human beings caught up in its 'rat-race'.
Behind the ridicule which Pope achieves through his satire, we detect a depth of understanding in his attitude towards Belinda's predicament. Belinda's honour is very important for her future, even if in a broader context her idea of 'honour' is seen to mean little more than 'reputation'. Belinda has to steer a difficult path on which she has to attract prospective husbands yet not get a reputation as a coquette. The words of Thalestris represent a very real danger if she should veer too far on one direction.
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded Toast,
And all your Honour in a Whisper lost! [lV.107-10]
The words of Clarissa show the danger of the other extreme:
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid; [V.27-8]
This understanding and sympathy renders the poem more likely to be accepted by Mrs Arabella Fermor, to whom it is addressed, and more likely to achieve its intended aim of reconciling the Fermor and Petre families.
Behind the comparisons between the epic world and the 'beau-monde' Pope also looks at the contrast between the ideals and the reality of the 'beau-monde' itself. The opening lines of the second paragraph introduce this theme:
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? [l.7-10]
The 'motives' and 'causes' are as basic as human motives and causes anywhere. Sexual passion, for example, would hardly be openly admitted in polite society, yet it always lurks just below the surface. One example of this is in the title of the poem, for the act of cutting off a lock of hair can be seen, even if only as a joke, as sublimated rape. Sexuality is also implicit in this couplet:
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore. [ll.7-8]
Here we have an obvious double meaning which not only exposes the trivialising of a Christian symbol but also reveals the underlying purpose of Belinda's meticulous attention to her appearance. The Sylphs, the guardian spirits of 'beau-monde' belles, are well aware of the possible outcome of sophisticated pleasantries with lords:
We trust th'important Charge, the Petticoat:
Oft have we known that sev'nfold Fence to fail,
Tho' stiff with Hoops, and arm'd with Ribs of Whale. [ll.117-20]
If we look for an explicit moral message in the poem we must look to Clarissa's speech [V.7-34], which Pope included specifically for that purpose. This is the most sober passage in the poem and it embodies Pope's message to the 'beau-monde', and in particular to the Fermor and Petre families. It is a plea for maturity and good sense, for virtue and care of the soul; all the things which the satire has shown to be lacking. By asking them to see their lives in a wider context he hopes to persuade them to adopt a more rational sense of proportion. By laughing at the mock-epic style they will have to admit that they are laughing at themselves, and Pope hopes this will inculcate a spirit of good humour and reconciliation.
Although not himself of the 'beau-monde' Pope was part of the same era. The finesse and delicacy of 'beau-monde' manners is matched by Pope's style, and the good humour, wit, and charm which characterises Pope's manner must represent an expression of the same ideals pursued by the Baron and other courtly men of the age. An affinity between them is revealed by Pope's empathy, fine judgements, and carefully aimed criticisms, and Pope must have been at least a little fascinated by the 'beau-monde' to apply his talents to this poem which, in an ironic way, celebrates Belinda and her world and, as Pope himself suggests in the final couplet of the poem, has preserved them for posterity.
And mid'st the Stars inscribe Belinda's Name! [V.149-50]
Butt, John (Ed). The Poems of Alexander Pope. A one-volume edition of the Twickenham text with selected annotations. London. Methuen & Co Ltd. 1963. First published in University Paperbacks 1965, Reprinted with corrections 1968. Reprinted 1977
Cunningham. The Rape of the Lock. Oxford University Press. 1971
Gordon. A Preface to Pope. Longman. 1976
© Ian Mackean, March 2005