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The Rape of the Lock: A darker mirror

Andrew Macdonald-Brown shows how Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock progresses from satirising the foolishness of wealthy young women to exposing the violence that results from unequal power relations, whether between men and women, rich and poor or imperial powers and colonised nations.

‘A few young Ladies’

In his dedicatory letter to Arabella Fermor, prefacing the 1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope claims that his poem ‘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’.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

The first version of the poem was dashed off in a fortnight and published in 1712. It was then expanded and republished, with this prefatory letter, in 1714.

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Most of Pope’s mockery in the poem is indeed directed at women, or, more specifically, at ‘Belles’: privileged young women of Augustan high society. Through Belinda, the poem’s beautiful heroine-victim, Pope relentlessly satirises an array of stereotypical ‘Female Errors’, most obviously triviality and vanity. Whether his text presents these as uniquely ‘female’, or even makes the Belles particularly culpable for them, is another matter.

‘Belinda resembles you in nothing but in Beauty’

Later in his preface, Pope plays on the vanity of his dedicatee, Miss Arabella Fermor, admitting that he must have ‘some regard for this piece, since I dedicate it to You’, and assuring her that ‘the character of Belinda resembles you in nothing but in Beauty’.

Pope’s tiptoeing is understandable, for Arabella was the victim of the real-life ‘rape’ which had inspired the poem’s first, two-canto version (1712): at a party, one Lord Petre had snipped a lock of hair from her unsuspecting head. In turning Arabella’s ‘trivial’ misfortune into ‘heroi-comical’ verse, the risk of adding insult to the lady’s injury was high.

Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, written on the back of his personal letters

Alexander Pope's translation of the 'Iliad'

This letter reveals that an advance copy of The Rape of the Lock was hand-delivered to Belle Fermor, just before it went on sale in 1712. The ‘pacquet’ was left at her ‘lodgeing’ while she was ‘out of Towne’.

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Happily, Pope’s flattery, or Arabella’s own ‘good sense and good humour’, prevailed, and the splendid 1714 edition, expanded to five cantos and lavishly illustrated, was published with her blessing.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

This was the first small book of English verse to receive such stylish treatment. It proved a runaway success, selling around 3,000 copies in four days.

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‘Slight is the subject, but not so the praise’

Female triviality and vanity soon make their appearance in the poem. While Belinda sleeps in her bed at noon, Ariel, her guardian sylph, addresses her in a dream as ‘Fairest of mortals’ (Canto 1, l. 26), and urges: ‘thy own importance know’ (l. 34). Ariel’s flattery reflects the adoring gaze of Belinda’s social circle (‘ev’ry Eye was fix’d on her alone’ (Canto 2, l. 6)), and indeed of Belinda herself (at her dressing table, ‘A heav’nly image in the glass appears, / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears…’ (Canto 1, ll. 133–134)).

Pope’s elaborate description of Belinda’s dressing table ritual is part mock-religious (her maid Betty, ‘th’inferior Priestess’ (l. 135), performs ‘the sacred rites of Pride’ (l.136)) and part close parody of Achilles’s arming scene in Homer’s Iliad: ‘Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms’ (l. 147). The mock-epic feature, by inviting comparison between vain, trivial Belinda and the mighty epic hero, makes her ridiculous.

Pope's drawing of the shield of Achilles

Pope's drawing of the shield of Achilles

Pope translated The Iliad into English, completing the work in 1720. This manuscript draft contains his rough sketch of the shield of Achilles.

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‘What guards the purity of melting maids?’

But there is more to the arming scene than Homeric parody and mockery of Belinda’s vanity. For one thing, Pope’s text is itself so in thrall to her beauty that our eyes too ‘are fix’d on her alone’. The poem repeatedly celebrates and enacts beauty’s ‘awful’ power.

Pope also shows how Belinda’s vanity is the product of a society which obsessively prized, flattered and fetishised female beauty – of young women of Belinda’s class, in particular. The arming scene follows Ariel’s long speech, anatomising the glamorous world of the Augustan ‘beau monde’: evenings in ‘the Box’ (at the theatre) and Sundays round ‘the Ring’ (a carriage-drive in Hyde Park); ‘gilded Chariots’ and ‘Ombre’ (a fashionable card game); ‘courtly balls, and midnight masquerades’ (canto 1).

Jolly though that all sounds, Ariel portrays the Belle’s position as perilous: constantly on display, she must both attract and repel the attentions of competing, predatory ‘Beaux’; to encourage suitors, with blushing and eye-rolling and fluttering of her fan, but never to lose her ‘purity’. On the other hand, rejecting suitors too proudly could see her branded a ‘Prude’. And as Belinda’s friend Clarissa, warns later in the poem: ‘She who scorns a Man, must die a Maid’ (Canto 5, l. 28).

But however well a Belle behaves, her ‘Honour’ is still vulnerable in a society where ‘At ev’ry Word a Reputation dies’ (Canto 3, 16). In this context, the ‘arming’ metaphor of Belinda’s dressing table ritual seems rather apt: to win a husband and preserve her honour, a Belle had to be a kind of warrior.

Marriage A-la-Mode: The Settlement, by William Hogarth

Marriage A-la-Mode The Settlement by Hogarth

In this painting (c. 1743), Hogarth satirises the upper-class practice of contractual marriage, which treats women as commodities in men’s business transactions.

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‘Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw’

Equally apt, given their commodification in the marriage market, is the parallel Pope repeatedly draws between women and precious ornaments. Aware that ‘some dire Disaster’ (Canto 2, l. 103) has been foretold for Belinda, Ariel wonders ‘Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s Law, / Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw. / Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade…’ (ll. 105–107). As so often in The Rape of the Lock, the joke delights (in this case through the jarringly bathetic juxtapositions), but carries a complex satirical sting.

The juxtaposing of serious and trivial disasters suggests a society which has lost its sense of perspective. But how exactly? ‘break Diana’s Law’ is a self-consciously pompous euphemism for ‘lose her virginity’. Is Pope mocking his society’s obsessive prizing of (female) virginity? Is he suggesting that such repression of natural desires made ‘frail China Jars’ of women?

‘The various off’rings of the world appear’

In juxtaposing virginity and honour with china jars and brocade, Pope may also be commenting on the rampant materialism of his age. Luxury items crowd the text’s glittering social world: the ladies’ silk dresses, fans and jewellery; the gentlemen’s canes, snuff boxes and crystal rings. Carriages are ‘gilded’, and the Baron’s ‘French Romances’, which he burns on Love’s altar, are ‘neatly gilt’. The serving of coffee at Hampton Court is described in fetishistic detail: ‘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’ (Canto 3, ll. 107–110).

Such conspicuous consumption was enjoying a spectacular boom in 18th-century Britain. Encouraged by the government’s mercantile imperialist policy, the East India Company and other traders poured exotic cargo into London, where it was eagerly bought up by the nation’s wealthy elite. In his reverent description of the coffee paraphernalia, Pope may simply be expressing the general delight in beautiful (and delicious) exotica.

The World Described by Herman Moll, 1708‒20

The World Described by Herman Moll

In his map of the ‘East Indies’, Herman Moll shows how South-East Asia was exploited for its commodities.

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Elsewhere, he may be implying that his age’s consumerism had got out of hand. Itemising the ‘unnumber’d treasures’  of Belinda’s dressing table, including Indian gems, Arabian perfumes and tortoiseshell and ivory combs, Pope disingenuously calls them ‘the various off’rings of the world’, as if they had been freely given by Britain’s trading territories in tribute to Belinda’s beauty! More pointedly, two lines later the treasures are ‘glittering spoil’ (Canto 1), hinting, perhaps, that the distinction between imperialist trade and rapacious plunder could be a fine one.

The keyword of the poem’s title and main event – ‘Rape’ – is similarly loaded. While its general meaning in the 18th century was ‘forceful seizure of another’s property’, it could denote a violent sexual assault – as in Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (which Pope’s title surely evokes). For Pope to call the Baron’s hair-snipping a ‘rape’ may seem comically excessive, but for Belinda it is a humiliating violation. While we are bound to laugh at Belinda’s hysterical over-reaction (‘[Her] Screams of Horror rend th’affrighted Skies’ (Canto 1)), Pope has ensured that we understand exactly why it matters so much to her.

Lurking beneath Pope’s dazzling satire on ‘Female Errors’, then, is a darker mirror, whose subject is not ladies’ ‘little unguarded follies’, but power and how unequal power relations – whether between nations, classes or genders – lead, inevitably, to violation.

The Cave of Spleen

That darker mirror comes to the surface in the Cave of Spleen.

Here the gnome Umbriel seeks remedy for Belinda’s loss from the subterranean Queen of Spleen. the word spleen, in Pope’s time, was a catch-all term for many mysterious ailments, including anxiety, depression and hysteria. Fainting, headaches, nausea – all could be attributed to the ‘vapours’ supposedly sent up to the brain by spleen. It could afflict either sex, but was predominantly associated with women. The Cave of Spleen episode has its mock-epic function (Pope is parodying the epic trope of the hero’s visit to the Underworld), but what he describes is a hell of female neuroses: women fainting and languishing, suffering all manner of ‘Maladies’ and strange turns.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

In Du Guernier’s etching of ‘the gloomy Cave of Spleen’, the Queen is attended by handmaidens and observed by ‘living Teapots’ and ‘Maids turn’d Bottles’.

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Through the gloom appear various grotesques. The Queen’s handmaids are Ill-Nature and Affectation, one ‘like an ancient Maid, / Her wrinkled Form in Black and White array’d’ (Canto 4, ll. 27–28), the other ‘with a sickly Mien, / Show[ing] in her Cheek the Roses of Eighteen’ (l. 31–32). In a grim parody of the Coquette’s helpless persona, Affectation sinks ‘with becoming Woe, / Wrapt in a Gown, for Sickness and for Show’ (l. 35–36). But who is really sick here? The self-dramatising invalid? Or the society which regards women’s ageing as horrific, and their distress as ‘becoming’?

Then there are the ‘Bodies chang’d to various Forms by Spleen’ (l. 48), women literally objectified: ‘living Teapots … Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose Pie talks; / …and Maids turn’d Bottles, call aloud for Corks’ (l. 49–54).

Such surrealism eludes too-precise interpretation, but the sense of general mental breakdown is irresistible. In the Cave of Spleen, Pope exposes the abyss gaping beneath Belinda’s glittering social world. Here are the casualties of the Belle’s cruel burden: to keep smiling and flirting, to be beautiful, charming and chaste – and not grow old.

Does Pope sympathise – even identify – with these women? Crippled in childhood by tuberculosis of the spine, and suffering frequent migraines, he knew the Cave of Spleen only too well. (In Aubrey Beardsley’s 1896 illustration of the Cave, he included Pope at its centre.) Moreover, as a Catholic in 18th-century society – barred from owning property, living in London or holding public office – he, like women, experienced the status of a second-class citizen. But even if we knew nothing of Pope’s circumstances, it would be perverse to read the Cave of Spleen episode simply as imaginative mockery of female folly: it is patently darker and more disturbing than that.

Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, written on the back of his personal letters

Alexander Pope's translation of the 'Iliad'

Pope’s family was restricted by anti-Catholic laws which banned them from owning a house or living in London. In 1700, Pope’s father bought a property in Binfield, Berkshire, using the names of his wife’s Protestant nephews.

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‘And trust me, dear! Good Humour can prevail’

Pope made one more addition to the poem for his collected Works of 1717: the speech by Belinda’s friend Clarissa, in Canto 5. Pope parodies Sarpedon’s famous battlefield speech to Glaucus from The Iliad, justifying warriors’ privileged status in their communities (Pope had published a translation of this speech in 1709, and later incorporated it into his full translation of The Iliad – the work that made his fortune). Clarissa reminds the furious Belinda that her youthful beauty (and thus her power over men) is transient, whereas ‘Virtue’ and ‘Merit’ abide; so she had better employ ‘good Sense’ and ‘good Humour’ (echoing the 1714 preface) to manage her inevitable decline.

Alexander Pope's translation of The Iliad, written on the back of his personal letters

Alexander Pope's translation of the 'Iliad'

When Pope finished his translation of Sarpedon’s battlefield speech, he painstakingly prepared the manuscript for the printer, drawing out the typefaces he wanted him to use.

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Clarissa’s moral is impeccably rational and prudent: a perfect fit for the charming satire on ‘Female Errors’ promised in the preface. But for the darker, more complex poem actually written, it will hardly do.

Firstly, the moralist herself lacks credibility. Clarissa’s only previous contribution was to offer up her own scissors to the scheming Baron; some friend she! Moreover, the moral impedes the poem’s narrative drive towards a climactic and cathartically violent showdown between Belinda and the Baron, between Belles and Beaux. Clarissa’s advice cannot prevail – nor would readers want it to.

Accessory case given by Queen Anne to Abigail Masham, c. 1710

Accessory case given by Queen Anne to Abigail Masham, c. 1710

The climactic battle is fought with lady’s scissors and a bodkin. The Baron borrows his ‘two-edg’d weapon’ from Clarissa’s ‘shining case’ – perhaps a little like this one.

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Held by© Victoria and Albert Museum

‘Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack’

So Belinda, her rage unsalved by the balm of sweet reason, flies to arms against the rapacious Baron and the whole tribe of men. Female ‘good Sense’ and ‘good Humour’ are buried in the decorum-trashing glee of riot: ‘Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack’ (Canto 5, l. 40.). (Hear the damage done there to the gentle iambic pentameter: sound perfectly echoing sense.)

In the climactic battle of the sexes (Canto 5), the ladies win. Belinda looms over the vanquished Baron: ‘Restore the Lock! she cries; and all around / Restore the Lock! the vaulted Roofs rebound’. One could read the moment as one more mock-epic joke at women’s expense. But Pope’s purpose has consistently been more complex and generous than that. Enjoy instead Belinda in all her hard-won glory; not enfeebled by spleen or diminished by mockery or set straight by moralising, but righteous and triumphant. For all her triviality, Belinda transcends objectification. She alone in the poem has an inner-life, harbouring ‘secret passions’ (secret even from herself, perhaps). And she alone suffers and acts heroically.

The lock is not restored of course (it has been lost); instead, through the transformative power of poetry (‘trust the Muse’!), it gets turned into a star, promising eternal ‘Fame’ for itself and for Belinda. Thanks to Pope’s poem – the achievement of which goes far beyond teasing and amusing ‘a few young Ladies’ – that promise is holding up pretty well.

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock, with illustrations and epistle to Arabella Fermor

1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock

Sylphs buzz around Belinda, while her lock of hair is transformed into a shooting star. The satyr crouching in the foreground represents Pope’s satirical aims.

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  • Andrew Macdonald-Brown
  • Andrew Macdonald-Brown is the Head of English at Moreton Hall school in Shropshire. He has published close readings of various poems for the Connell Guides Text of the Week series.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.