‘The Rape of the Lock’: A World of Triviality Measured Against the Epic Scale

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

In 1712, Pope published his famous verse The Rape of the Lock, making use of the mock-epic style typical of the Augustan Age. Pope burlesqued the classical epic form by bringing the formulas characteristic of the epic such as the invocation of a deity, a formal statement of theme, the division of the work into cantos, grandiose speeches, battles, supernatural machinery and mythopoeia to bear upon a trivial event – an idle lord, the Baron, cutting off a small lock of hair from the head of an idle young beauty, Belinda. According to Pope, “mighty contests rise from trivial things.” His intent is to satirise society’s tendency to inflate and escalate banal events to epic proportions. Along with this, he also satirises women’s vanity and obsessions with beauty. As he himself claimed in 1733, “Fools rush into my head, and so I write” (Satire II.i, l.4). Critical of the artificiality of polite society, he sided with John Dryden and preferred to ridicule men and women with the “fineness of a stroke that separates the Head from the Body, and leaves it standing in its place” rather than the “slovenly Butchering of a Man.”

In The Rape of the Lock, it is the female realm or the world of Belinda, the female protagonist which is satirized and ridiculed. The toilet scene in the poem shows Belinda dressing up and beautifying herself like a Goddess. Strewn across her dressing table lie the “various Off’rings of the World”:

“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.”             [Canto I, 133-38]

Belinda’s decking herself with cosmetics on the fateful day of the “rape” is contrasted with Achilles adorning himself with his armour before the epic Battle of Troy. She is both the Goddess of Beauty and the priestess of the idol she sees before her in the mirror. As critic Ellen Pollack explains in her essay The Rape of the Lock: A Reification of the Myth of Passive Womanhood (1985), she is a “Goddess whose ‘awful beauty’ assumes a grace beyond the reach of art (I, 139). In her ‘mighty Rage’ toward ‘Little Men’ she is compared to Juno herself, the very Queen of Heaven who drove Aeneas through so many toils and perils (I, 11-12).” Pope here attempts to satirise women’s narcissistic preoccupations. He believes that such vanity often results in women committing the sinful acts of self-worship and idolatry. Moreover, their cosmetic beauty is created and unnatural, and in their trivial feminine fixations, they abandon what their religion teaches them. Belinda’s Bible cast aside in a confused heap among her cosmetics is proof of her diminishing religious faith. The Bible and its religious teachings hold no importance to Belinda since she is her own Goddess. Critic Alex Eric Hernandez, in his essay Commodity and Religion in Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” (2008), notes that like the powders used to beautify her, the Bible may become simply another accessory for positioning her socially. Belinda also holds a self-knowledge that her “Cosmetic Pow’rs” are her strength, a belief emerging from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata (411 BC). It is ultimately a woman’s beauty and sexuality which gives them power over their male counterparts.

Belinda’s character is constructed upon an acquaintance of Pope – the lady Arabella Fermor whose strife with Lord Petre, after he stole a lock of her hair, inspired the poem. It is unknown whether or not Arabella understood the true satiric intent of the poem. However, a critical insight into the Augustan Age would have us believe that Arabella would have had no option other than to pose as flattered or pleased by the verse so as not to have her dignity and reputation tarnished in society. Arabella would have liked Pope’s audience to believe that The Rape of the Lock was an ode rather than a mockery. In the prose dedication written for the 1714 edition of the poem, Pope solemnly pretends that the Belinda of the poem “resembles You in nothing but Beauty” and ends up making a fool of Arabella, who is unable to see through his pose of innocence. It seems as though Pope derives a secret amusement at Arabella’s gullibility.

Critic Harriet Raghunathan, in her Introduction to the Worldview Critical Edition of the poem, suggests that Arabella would also not have understood the epigraph written in Latin which Pope prefixed to the poem: “I was loth, Belinda, to have violated your locks, but I am pleased to have granted that much to your prayers.” The epigraph clearly suggests that she herself asked for the poem to be written, thereby emphasising the self-obsession and vanity that Belinda embodies in the verse. In trivialising Belinda thus, Pope also trivialises Arabella and makes a jest of her in the social sphere, which is ultimately the true intent of satirical writing. The true gain is that of the poet as the poem becomes an exploitation of her lock and thus in one more way a “rape”.

Pope further ridicules Belinda by the mythopoeic construction of her divinity. She is described as being as beautiful as the sun, and is also the poet’s Muse who inspires his lays to the celebrated scene of the sacred rites of her toilet. In the beginning of the card game, Belinda is temporarily as powerful as ate itself, speaking in the voice of God:

“Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.”               [Canto III, 46]

She singly decides the ‘Doom’ of the other two characters. Although she wins the card game however, she loses to the Baron in a larger battle where he is able to exploit her. This may be seen as a proof of Pope wanting to warn women about being aware of their place in relation to men. Belinda winning the card game is thus another triviality, set against the social backdrop. She can only dominate or be the “ombre” in a make-believe set up of playful games, not in real life. In reality, it is the men who are the ombres and challengers.

Pope is clearly critical of the way Belinda refuses to be dominated. She enjoys the homage of the young men surrounding her on the boat going to Hampton Court. She deliberately nourishes two locks of hair that ensnare men, and also wears her Christian cross on her white breast, visible to all. Her resisting the theft of the lock is taken (by Clarissa, as by many critics) as a rejection of marriage altogether. Through these descriptions of her supposedly morally loose character, Pope trivialises the women who demand emancipation from their social roles. He wants Belinda (and all the women she represents) to be submissive wives. The Cave of Spleen described in Canto IV, a gloomy dank region full of vapours, and home to migraines, hysteria, and various delusions illustrates the body of a sexually frustrated woman or more probably, the sort of fate that would await a woman of the age if she refused to marry a lover.

“Here stood Ill-nature like an ancient Maid,
Her wrinkled Form in Black and White array’d;
With store of Pray’rs, for Mornings, Nights, and Noons,
Her Hand is fill’d; her Bosom with Lampoons.”        [Canto IV, 27-30]

Pope here posits an image of what Belinda might look like if she continues to reject men – an “ancient maid”, crabbed and sour like the figure of “Ill-nature” whose bosom is filled with “lampoons”. Pope believes that women like Belinda are completely incapable of guarding their honour, so much so that he has to conjure up sylphs that protect women’s chastity in his verse. These sylphs moreover don’t protect Belinda’s chastity by teaching her moral values, but rather by keeping her head spinning with new attractions. Here again Pope trivialises women by commenting upon their frailty of mind. This, however, is more due to the social conditioning that he has gone through as a poet of the Eighteenth Century.

Critic Cleanth Brooks in his essay The Case of Miss Arabella Fermor: A Re-Examination (1943) notes that Pope also objectifies Belinda as an object of the male gaze:

“If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.”             [Canto II, 17-18]

Here we find another reason as to why Pope is critical of Belinda adorning herself like a goddess – her beauty is a trap, an impending danger which deludes men’s judgement. It is thus her beauty and charms which affect the thinking capabilities of the Baron and force him to commit an exploitative act. Her lock is no sooner seen than desired:

“He saw, he wish’d and to the Prize aspir’d.”           [Canto II, 30]

This idea of females deluding men with their charm and ostensible “sexual availability” also finds expression in Aphra Behn’s Restoration comedy, The Rover (1677) where Wilmore attempts to rape Florinda simply by assuming that her status as an unmarried young woman makes her sexually accessible and available.

Pope voyeuristically penetrates the feminine space as he describes Belinda’s morning rituals of dressing up, committing a sort of rape himself. And although he satirises women’s vanity, he overlooks the social constructs that force women to dress up and present themselves in a certain manner. Belinda’s world hence turns out to be a world filled with  of the Ltriviality, measured against an epic scale which Pope creates for his satiric intent.

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