There is plenty of literature on the history and essence of The Rape of the Lock
already on E2
, so this contains no narrative. It is a critical analysis of the extraordinary range of thought and feeling that Alexander Pope
Pope maintains a fluctuating dichotomy between satire of Belinda (in her vanity, heedlessness, blinkered narcissism and aggressive sexuality) and something of a tenderness towards the troubles of womanhood. When Belinda opens those eyes that ‘must eclipse the day’ in Canto 1, Pope is using a standard romantic cliché that suggests a light raillery. Her heart is dubbed a ‘moving Toyshop’, a striking epithet which, in comparing her centre of affection to a place where trinkets are bought, implies instability and frivolity. However, when she begins her preparations for the card game, the tone becomes ambiguous, establishing a tremulous balance between satire and adoration. Her vanity at the toilet is described in the language of religious ceremony. It is ‘trembling’ at an ‘altar’ that Betty, the ‘inferior priestess’, begins the ‘sacred rites of pride’. Her beauty is awesome, and the possibility of Pope’s love for her is intimated by the phrase ‘the wonders of her face’. It seems that the poet has swung from mockery to something reverential and solemn.
The second canto sees Belinda in full glory, immersed in sunlight and floating down the Thames on a solar barge, alluding to Cleopatra’s journey down the river Cydnus to meet Mark Anthony in Shakespeare’s dramatisation. There is a brief reversion to Pope’s early pastoral style, and Belinda is again compared favourably to the sun, dubbed the ‘rival of his beams’. Such is the power of her beauty that ‘Jews…and Infidels’ might forget their faith to kiss her ‘sparkling Cross’. However, the delicate balance between admiration and ridicule is maintained by joking that her mind is as ‘unfix’d’ as ‘her eyes’ and the revelation that she extends smiles to ‘all’ but ‘Favours to none’. The lines ‘Look on her face and you’ll forget ‘em all’ and ‘Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay’ suggest a semi-divine power, or at least an incredible charisma, which, despite ‘feminine errors’, is difficult to resist. Pope sometimes appears in awe or even in love with Belinda; his better judgement can be dazzled. This serves to illustrate the diverse range of thought and feeling that colours the poem. The recurrent word ‘trembling’ heightens the sense that the poem’s meanings are doing just that – hovering, quavering and shifting. As a midget blighted by illness and unable to enjoy romantic liaisons with women, Pope developed an extraordinary sensitivity to the complexities of womanhood. A formative experience was his encounter with the Blount sisters in Windsor forest; these girls constituted an epitome of feminine charm which the poet, though physically ungainly, would intimate with the utmost delicacy in his writing.
The plethora of epic allusions in the poem is a dimension that creates a curious tension between seemingly trivial subject matter and the glorified tone with which it is delivered. The dubbing of the card table as a ‘velvet plain’, echoing the battlefields of the Trojan war, makes it explicit that this is a battle of the sexes. It is rather disturbing when Belinda, at the height of her confidence, is compared to God the creator in line forty-six: the line ‘Let Spades be trumps! she said, and trumps they were’ is a deliberate echo of god saying ‘Let there be light!’ in Genesis 1.3. This temporarily Biblical feel provokes the reader to imagine her as Eve, and realise that she will fall dramatically. After being in her element, ‘burn(ing)’ with passion in the card game and stunning everyone with her looks, she will discover feminine ailments in the Cave of Spleen, just as Eve was condemned to the agony of childbirth.
The epic language that colours the description of the card game, with the choice of words like ‘Majesty’, ‘mighty’, ‘embroider’d’ , and allusions to Sarpedon, Hannibal and the Underworld, seems to mock the navel-gazing of Belinda’s beau-monde. She gleans tremendous thrills from an inconsequential activity, ‘trembl(ing)’ with the dangerous excitement of being in a precarious position. When she ‘exulting’ yelps with pleasure at her luck, in a moment of victory, hubris and pride, we sense the inevitability of her fall. She is branded a ‘thoughtless mortal’, and the repeated spondee ‘too soon’ emphasise her folly. When the Baron robs her of a lock of hair with ‘a fatal engine’ (a tiny pair of scissors), she is absolutely furious, emitting ‘living lightning’ from her eyes and ‘screams of horror’. The words ‘for ever and ever!’ at the end of line one hundred and fifty-four have a decidedly feminine rhyme, which almost enunciates Belinda’s wailing. The juxtaposition that equates husbands with lap-dogs undercuts the mock-epic tone and makes it ambiguous whether Belinda is over-reacting in the manner of a spoilt child or if one is supposed to feel sympathetic. The aggressive, phallic repetition of ‘Steel’ in the canto’s closing lines continues this dichotomy: is it mockery of Belinda, or an invitation for a pitying of the metaphorical violation of her maidenhood?
Clarissa’s speech at the end of Canto V is modelled on Sarpedon’s call to arms. Although there is a heroi-comical contrast between courage in the face of death and good-humour in the face of decay, some of the grandeur of the original is caught in the tone of these lines. This speech was not added until the third version of the poem’s publication in 1717, and Pope said that the purpose of this revision was ‘to open more clearly the moral of the poem. It contains aphorisms which are far from trivial. Emphasising that ‘frail beauty must decay’, Clarissa advises her audience to ‘keep good humour still whate’er we lose’. The assertion that ‘Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul’ (a direct echo of the ninth line of Sarpedon’s address to Glaucus-‘Unless great acts superior Merit prove’) casts light on the superficiality of Belinda’s elaborate narcissism. It is crucial to the rich ambiguity of the poem, however that Pope never pretends he is immune to Belinda’s charms. This establishes a complex morality that is anything but trivial.
The Cave of Spleen is an incredible concentration of all that is bitter or sour in Man’s temperament. Within stands ‘Ill-nature’, the polar opposite of ‘good humour’, like ‘an ancient maid’. The range of negative emotions, particularly feminine, contrasts with the joyous, sunlit pastoral of the opening of Canto II. It is the nadir of the poem, with strong connections to the ‘Underworld’ of the Odyssey’s eleventh book. Ariel is replaced by Umbriel, a ‘dusky, melancholy sprite’ who, in a parody of Aeneas’ golden bough, carries a ‘branch of healing spleenwort’. Belinda experiences the horrible flip-side of her feminine charms: pre-menstrual tension, ‘Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head’. A bag full of ‘Sighs, sobs’ and ‘passions’ will be undone over Belinda’s head, adding to the turmoil of her thoughts. This dramatic contrast with her former pride illustrates the vast range of feeling in the poem. The spectrum of emotion Belinda undergoes, and Pope’ oscillating, ambiguous attitude to her, make for a poem that ‘trembles’ indefinably. The cutting of a lock of hair may seem trivial, but the vast, rich sea of sentiment it reveals and the lessons born of that are profound.