The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope has a five-canto structure. Each canto has its definite, well thought-out place in the whole structure of the poem. They flow out forward from each other, maintaining at the same time their individual, specific significance. But the total significance of the poem depends on the specific order in which they are structured by the poet.
Canto First begins with an invocation of the Muse of Poetry in a typical classical
manner. Invocation of some superhuman power for inspiration is one of the well-known classical conventions . Having admitted that “Slight in the subject”, the poet moves on to a description of sunrise. The purpose of this description is not to portray the glory of Nature, but to comment, by way of implication, upon the decadence of the London High Society, whose members keep on sleeping till noon. In this case, the heroine of the poem, Belinda, is still asleep. The rays of the sun do not attract her attention, but make her impatient and irritable. She rings the bell three times, knows with her slipper and presses her repeater watch. There is no response. The staff of high society families follow the examples of their masters and mistresses.
At this juncture Pope introduces his supernatural machinery – another classical convention – in the form of Ariel, the guardian angel of Belinda. Ariel appears in Belinda’s dream as a handsome youth2 and tries to prolong Belinda’s “balmy rest” by taking her into an entirely different world populated by “bright inhabitants of air”. The emphasis on the airiness” of these creatures is further enhanced by the reference to “airy elves”. Belinda is informed by Ariel that she is looked after by “unnumbered spirits”, as light as the air – “the light militia of the lower sky.” These spirits have their origin in female bodies. After death they leave female bodies (vehicles”) and move into the air. But their female vanities do not end with death; they continue in the world of spirits in sylphs. (Note the feminist aspect: Belinda, the heroine, has any army consisting of female souls, led by her guardian angel, Ariel).
Ariel goes on to describe in detail the categories of spirits. The souls of “termagants” return to the element of fire, because of their fiery temper. They are given the name of salamanders. The souls of mild-tempered women belong to the element of water. They turn into nymphs. The souls of prude ladies take the form of gnomes which are tied down to earth. And the souls of conquettes turn into sylphs and inhabit the lower sky” – they belong to the element of air. These spirits possess the power of changing their shape and sex as they wish. The sylphs guard the honour of beautiful young maidens.
Gnomes are wicked, mischievous begins which take young innocent girl on to the wrong path. They raise the expectations and enhance the pride of these young beautiful girls. The
result is that the girls are so overblown with pride and self-indulgence that they refuse offers when they are made to them by eligible young men. Their empty brains are filled with gay ideas in the company of peers and dukes, knights and the king. These damsels are doomed to seduction at an early age. Their pure female souls are tainted” under the wicked influence of gnomes, which do not spare even infants. They teach girls the art of coquetry which leads to their moral and social downfall. Gnomes are not good guardian angels for beautiful young girls.
Sylphs make better guardians than gnomes. Women owe their vanity, coquetry and chastity to sylphs. The sylphs guide their wards in the right direction. They also teach their wards the art of flirtation. A woman’s heart is turned into a toyshop. In these toyshops their admirers contend like warriors. People may call this “levity” in women, but they are blind to the truth. It is sylphs that are responsible for the fickleness of the female mind.
Ariel announces to Belinda that he is one of the sylphs that guard her honour. He is her “watchful sprite”. Of late he has read her horoscope and found some dreadful event that is going to befall Belinda before sunset. Only Heaven knows the true nature of the foredoomed dreadful event. Ariel does not know what exactly will happen, how and where. He can only warn Belinda to be “most beware of man.”4
At this moment Belinda’s lap-dog, Shock, wakes up, leaps and wakes his mistress with his tongue. It is reported that at this very moment her eyes fall upon a love-letter. The flattering, flowery words of the letter drive away everything from her head. She sits down at her dressing table to prepare herself for the grand occasion. Pope describes in detail all “cosmetic powers” that preside over Belinda’s toilet. She prepares herself with great care, like Achilles preparing himself for battle in the Iliad. Here, the mock-epic element reaches its first climatic point. There is reversal of the central character. It is a heroine, not a hero that forms the centre of the epic. But the cosmetic preparations are no less meticulous than the martial preparations of a warrior. The description of a woman putting on make-up in terms of martial idiom effectively evokes the mock-heroic atmosphere. The table is cluttered up with all possible cosmetic items, brought from all the corners of the world – “the various off rings of the world”. Belinda’s maid, Betty begins to “deck” her mistress with these irresistible offerings – India’s “glowing gems”, scents from all Arabia”. Piles of pins, puffs, powders, patches, bible and billet-doux form the weaponry of Belinda. She “puts on all its (here beauty’s) arms”, watches her reflection in the mirror with great care, examining the power of each smile and each flush. Each moment of preparation increases her charm (power). Now she is ready to go out into the world. She is surrounded by invisible sylphs. And for Belinda’s grand toilet, Betty, a mortal, is praised whereas the praise is due to the sylphs.
Canto first ends on a note of suspense. The central character is introduced in great detail. Through the central character, Belinda, Pope seems to be satrising the decadent high society in which women have only one role-model, that of fashion conditioned female out to impress the opposite sex. But the description has such martial terms that it looks like a preparation for a battle of sexes. Vanity is the driving forces of Belinda, reducing her incapable of any genuine emotion.
The second canto begins with Belinda’s journey by a boat to a social occasion. The journey is a parody of the journey of Aeaneas up the Tiber in Aenied. Belinda’s eyes are compared with the sun. Her eyes shine on all alike. Surrounded by other beautiful dames, Belinda stands out as an extraordinarily beautiful lady. She is the centre of attention. She is the sun and the others are just planets. The solar system analogy highlights the brilliance of Belinda’s beauty.
Pope finally comes to the description of Belinda’s famous locks of hair, which are the source of contention in the poem. The locks have devastating power – they are the destruction of mankind”. They hang gracefully in equal curls and decorate her ivory white neck like “shining ringlets.” The locks are snares that attract men’s hearts and keep them as slaves in their beautiful “labyrinths”.
Belinda’s devastatingly beautiful locks have been the ambitions of all young men of London society, particularly the Baron (Lord Petre). The Baron has long been planning to possess the locks as love tokens. Like an epic hero, he invokes divine assistance. In a parody of epic invocation to the gods, he sacrifices tokens of his former love-affairs to the god, Love. He also sacrifices twelve French romances and love letters. With his sighs he fires the pyre of his sacrificial objects, falls prostrate and preys to Love to grant him Belinda’s locks. But Love grants him only half his prayer – one lock.
Meanwhile Belinda sails on her majestic boat, serenely beautiful. She feels secure and smiles on all and “and all the world was gay”. Excepting Ariel, who is worried about the impending doom. He gives detailed instructions to the sylphs to guard her closely. The “denizens of air” take up their appointed positions like soldiers guarding their general. Ariel reminds his soldiers of black omens”7and orders them to be extra careful and attentive. If they fail in their assigned talks, they will have to face “sharp vengeance” which Ariel describes in vivid details. Although Belinda sails on confidently, her army is tense with fear and suspense, waiting with beating hearts for the dire event.” The second canto also ends on a note of suspense.
The third canto introduces Hampton Palace, the centre of the contemporary high society of London. The Palace is visited by all fashionable men and women of London and is a hot centre of gossip. They indulge in small talks about balls and visits. Here reputations fall like cards.
The sun has started moving westward. It is the time when people return from work. But Belinda’s crowd is engaged in petty games of cards. Belinda plays at ombre–a particular type of card–game to defeat two adventurous knights. The game is described in heroic terms and style as a parody of battle scenes in epic poems. The slightness of the subject is enhanced further. The implication is obvious– the energy, passion and purpose which are devoted to serious and glorious tasks are reduced to a game of cards in Belinda’s world.
After defeating “both armies”–the two adventurous knights–Belinda now turns to the Baron and gets involved with him at ombre. Pope gives a detailed description of various kinds of cards to further enhance the moc-heroic aspect of the poem:
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wilder disorder seen,
With thronge promiscuous strew the level green.
Thus when dispersed a routed army runs,
Of Asia’s troops, and Africa’s sable sons,
With like confusion different nations fly,
Of various habits, and of various dye:
Thus giving the card game the global dimension, Pope only brings to light the smallness and fickleness of Belinda’s world–the contemporary London society.
The game between Belinda and the Baron goes on for quite some time. Belinda declares trumps and starts the game. First victories go to her–she wins four tricks. Only the last trick remains to be played on which depends Belinda’s victory or defeat. Her heart full of trepidation, she plays the last trick with her ace of heart. The Baron is finally vanquished. Belinda is as joyous in her victory as an epic hero;
The nymph excultingfills with shouts the sky:
The walls, the woods, and long canals reply.
The game is followed by another ritual of high society–the coffee . Pope once again describes this social ritual in grand epic style, making a mockery of it, and of those who indulge in it. Coffee inspires the Baron with another plan to turn his defeat into victory. It is a treacherous and hideous plan. His “new stratagems” find the most potent weapon in Clarissa’s scissors–“a two-edged weapon.” Like a lady in romances. Clarissa offers the weapon to her knight whp accepts it with great “reverence”. Just as Belinda bends her head over coffee, the sylphs swiftly move to the locks and give her warnings of the coming doom by blowing back the hair. Belinda looks back thrice.
But Ariel’s attention is diverted when he notices “an earthly lover” lurking in the close recesses” of her virgin heart. He is so amazed and confused that his powers fail and he resigns himself to fate:
The Baron’s persistenc pays at last:
The meeting paints the sacred hair dissever
From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!
The result is catastrophic. Belinda “screams of horror rend the affrighted skies”. The Baron triumphs and Pope ironically compares the loss of the lock to the fall of empires:
Steel could the labour of the gods destroy,
And strike to dust the imperial towers of Troy;
In the fourth canto Pope tries to give a deeper psychological explanation of the emotional state of Belinda. Deserted by Ariel and the sylphs, she is, ironically, helped by a gnome, Umbriel. Umbriel goes down into the earth – “his proper scene” – in search of the cave of Spleen. Pope, here, uses an allegorical method, describing how Umbriel imitates the descents to the underworld of epic heroes such as Odysseus and Aeneas.
The description of the cave is vivid and introduces another supernatural element – the underworld. In her cave, Spleen sits like a queen and “sighs forever on her pensive bed.” Her attendants are Pain and Megrim (migraine). A perpetual vapour flies over the palace of Spleen. She is a symbol of ill nature and affectation. Her palace is full of bodies changed to various forms by Spleen. Everything is out of shape, disp’aying the ill-nature of Spleen.
Umbriel reaches her through this “fantastic band” and addresses her like Nisus in Aenied. He begins by flattering her: She rules the female sex from fifteen to fifty; she is the source of “female wit”, hysterics, “poetic fit” which produces melancholic plays. (Here is an example of Pope’s attack on some of his contemporaries). He requests the goddess to touch Belinda with “chagrin” so that she is able to face her sad fate. His purpose is to pray to Spleen to grant Belinda new weapons in order to meet with an entirely new kind of challenge.
Spleen is impressed by Umbriel’s long, flattering speech, and grants his prayer. Umbriel is given a “wondrous bag”10 containing sighs, sobs, passions, bitter speech. He is also given a vial filled with “fainting fears, soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears.”
Rejoicing in his successful campaign, Umbriel comes back to the surface of earth to find Belinda lying in the arms of Thalestris in utter dejection. He opens the bag over Belinda’s head. The Furies (fiery emotions) rush into her mind and her body begins to burn with “more than mortal ire”. The flame of her superhuman anger is fanned by the long, exhorting speech of Thalestris: “And all your honour in a whisper lost!” The loss of the lock would become a social scandal. Thalestris seeks the intervention of Sir Plume, her beau. Sir Plume, in a typically broken speech of a high society gentleman, asks the Baron to return Belinda’s lock. The Baron declares in no uncertain terms that the intends to keep the lock till the moment of his death:
…while my nostrils draw the vital air,
This hand, which won it, shall for ever wear.
Finding the bag of no use, Umbriel breaks the vial over Belinda, and instantly her strategy takes a new turn. Finding her anger ineffectual, she uses the most potent of female weapons-tears. She appears in her “beauteous grief and with a sigh makes an appeal to the Baron, recalling the course of the whole unfortunate day and requesting him to return the lock. The canto ends with her appeal, leaving the reader, once again, in suspense.
Canto Fourth paves the way for Clarissa’s speech in Canto Fifth. The purpose of Clarissa’s speech is to state more clearly the moral of the poem. In a way, she performs in the poem the same task of reconciliation which Pope was requested by his friend, Caryll, to do between the two fueding families. It is ironically dramatic that Clarissa, who supplies the scissors, should be assigned the task of putting the quarrel in the right perspective.
When the arsenal supplied by Spleen fail to have any effect on the Baron (“Fate and Jove stopped the Baron’s ears”). Clarissa steps into the fray gracefully and points out the vanity of beauty and self-worship. She also points out the powerlessness of beauty in certain situations:
How vain all these glories, all our pains,
Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains:
Beauty cannot charm the small-pox or chase old age away.
Time will have its toll on beauty:
………………….frail beauty must decay,
Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray:
Only “good sense” and “good humour” can prevail where anger and screams and tears fail. It is not beauty but merit which is lasting and more powerful:
Beauties in vain their pretty eyes roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.
Although Clariess’s speech is well-timed and well-meant, it fails to cause any applause. Belinda is angered further as Thalestris calls Clariss a “prude”, she declares war openly: “To arms, to arms!” and unleashes the furies of battle. Pope gives an epic treatment to the battle, thus adducing it into a farcical fight. Although he refers to the Olympian gods and goddesses, elegant ladies and gentlemen engage in a rough and tumble fight more like children than epic warriors. Umbriel watches the battle gleefully and claps his “glad wings”. The erotic quality of physical contact is also suggested in undertones. The Beaus “die” at the looks of beautiful eyes of the female combatants. The hyperbolic aspect of the combat is suggested by the memorable line:
One died in metaphor, and one in song.
In the beginning of the battle, the ladies are on a winning spree as a result of Thalestris surprise war-cry. But soon the effect of the surprise attack begins to loose its power because.
Now Jove suspends his golden scales in air.
Weighs the men ‘s wits against the lady’s hair.”
At last “the wits” prove too much for “the hairs”. Unable to defeat “the bold lord” (the Baron), Belinda throws snuff on the Baron’s face, causing his collapse in a fit of sneezing. Then she draws “a deadly bodkin” from her side and demands her lock of hair. The Baron, although defeated, makes his last plea:
…………………………………let me survive,
And burn in Cupid’s flame, but burn alive.
Belinda cries: “Restore the Lock!” and the vaulted roofs of the Palace are reverberated by the words. She is compared to Othello’s demand for the lost handkerchief. But the irony is that the bone of contention is lost in the bustle of battle:
The lock, obtained with guilt, and kept with pain,
In every place is sought but sought in vain:
Pope invents the accidental loss of the lock to provide a suitable mock-heroic ending which is also a compliment to Belinda. The lock is supposed to have flown to the sky to become a new constellation, immortalizing the beauty of Belinda. Ultimately the victory is Belinda’s since her name is now written amidst the stare.
The poem ends rather abruptly, making the attitude of Pope ambivalent. The poem is remarkable for the balance of its style and the description of things. It is also remarkable for Pope’s witty use of the possibilities of the mock-heroic. But it is more remarkable for the ambivalence of its moral attitudes epitomized in Belinda. It is not certain which attitude prevails. Belinda is beautiful and dazzling, but vain, and she lacks “good sense” and “good humour.” Pope seems to forgive her faults because of her extraordinary beauty. Perhaps he was supposed to have some sympathy with Belinda and her world to be able to write about it with such poise and accuracy. The sympathy is clearly reflected in the last lines of the poem, where Pope offers the prize of immortality to Belinda to soothen her grieved heart:
This lock the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And ‘midst the stars inscribed Belinda’s name.
The poem is a proof to Pope’s promise to Belinda. And the credit goes to the great art of the poet rather than to the dazzling beauty of Belinda.