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Commentary on Pope's Rape of the Lock

In addition to reading journals, we also had commentaries focusing on one poem.

Added by colin #442 on 2004-06-15. Last modified 2008-03-05 08:05. Originally created 2004-06-15. F0 License: Attribution
Location: World, United States, California, San Diego, College Heights
Topics: personal
: engl549

The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, 1712
Colin Leath 1250 words.

The Rape of the Lock is an exuberant expression of finding the epic in the everyday. As such, it meets Joseph Cambell's criterion that art should exhibit "transparency to transcendence." It also places him in the prophet of nature[1] and perpetual preist[2] categories of Wordsworth and Carlyle respectively. And it is poetry in J.S. Mill's sense[3]. Possibly Pope would proclaim the poem a simple orgy of wit, however. It is, as well, the expression of a well-connected neural net, in that each thing the mind might fix on, however small, can be followed to and for adventure. Hold on, we are about to begin a journey through the epic emotions in a story of a day or few, while taking note of Pope's use of his medium. I'll stick to highlights, maybe. 

1826 First note the inscription by Martial below the title and sub-title. It impresses on us that the sort of troubles encountered by our heroine are more timeless than we might have thought... a suspicion later confirmed (cf. 3.122). 
By line 20, we have entered the fantasy realm, which helps Pope pull off the epic part of mock epic. It is conceivable that an epic might have only a few anthropomorphic characters. It may be easier, though, to have access to a cast of thousands. This "light militia of the lower sky" (line 42) allows for there to be much more involved in what might have appeared to be insignificant events to a typically unobservant human without Pope having to go Zen on us. To get his audience and his heroine in the appropriately aware state, Belinda's guardian sylph, Ariel (male-gendered), whispers an 88-line monologue in Belinda's still-sleeping ear. The imagery of Ariel's speech transports the listener. I find a scene suggestive of my vague memory of Shakespeare's Midsummer's Night Dream. Through Ariel, Pope presents a complete cosmology. And why is it so effective?

The iambic pentameter heroic couplets synthesize the language of the nurse and the priest, reflecting the matter of the monologue.

"The light militia of the lower sky" is a phrase difficult to forget, I don't know why. It characterizes the sprites and their activities for the entire drama. Perhaps this was one of the first lines to enter the author's mind, around which he built the rest, and it will be one of the last lines to leave the minds of his audience. Tenable or not, Pope has communicated a vision of existence. Expressions of visions of the social realm vividness, of the scientific, rightness need, in order for the visions to be reflected in others.

By turns, we have the exercising of the Sylph concept. They are characterized as being essences of human character: bad-tempered, soft yielding, prude, or coquette. They are given duties: coquette essences -> protecting the fair and chaste (whosoever rejects mankind); prude essences -> work with the unprude. And in line 110, as the editor notes, the language characterizes the striving of the spirit forces.

I could be looking closely at meter and substitutions, and whether a line is a fast or slow one to read... For the moment, though, I'm valuing this opportunity to work with the imagery, as I'm seeing, within a poem of this scale, that there is a larger significant structure.

2200 (after an interruption of ~1hr)

In particular, we have a framing of somewhat commonplace things as sacred... Belinda is woken up, and the vision vanished upon reading a billet-doux, which in this poem have special powers. Her toilletting is a religious act. This seems like a common enough metaphor, but I wonder who was the first to take it to this extreme. Is there something like it in Petrarch? In the Bible? In the Greek or Roman epics? I am reminded of the altar metaphor I looked at in Paradise Lost. One way of getting the audience to see things as sacred is to frame them / associate them with things the audience is likely already to feel sacred. Compare the approach here with Jonathan Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room, where the opposite is done.

I find the lines 140-144 striking:

The fair each moment rises in her charms,
Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace,
And calls forth all the wonders of her face;
Sees by degrees a purer blush arise,
And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.

(now on to canto II)

In particular with foresight to lines 10-18 of canto II, which express so well that reflexive, perfectly responsive animated mask (earlier called to life with incantations), which finds its highest expression among women of at least some beauty, which at once engages and preserves a distance--an awe and a frustration to encounter in person, and in one's self. The contrast between the halves of those lines is a huge part of their power.

The Baron may have been listening to lines 25 - 28: the woman traps men with hair, as the birds and fish are trapped; i.e., this adds yet more depth to the unfolding drama. (cf. 3.164)

I was not thinking of Belinda's hair as black (but blond) until line 4.169, however. I prefer black.

Lines 29-34 I note as powerfully effective. (a pre-veni vidi vici)

Then, we get to the Baron's altar (lines 37-46), whose rites call for an holocaust of billet-doux!

59-68 has awesome imagery. (faerie raiment, full-on)

In the remainder of canto II, Ariel is arraying his forces. While it is all awesome, (and when I read it the first time, got me thinking where did those fashions come from? (cf. line 99-100)) I find the punishments for sylphid negligence most mind-stretching.

Of note in canto III, I found the characterization of the picture cards- (I can begin to see the drawings on the deck of cards). My favorite parts are:

lines 106- 110:

For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crowned,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round;
On shining altars of Japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze:
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China's earth receives the smoking tide.

The act of serving coffee is presented in oceanic imagery. And while I often feel mechanical when reading Pope, not so here. "The berries crackle, and the mill turns round" Is the line with the most sound-effectiveness for me. Line 110 has the most memorable imagery. The effectiveness of the whole section is helped by the sandwiching of two faster, shorter lines between four expansive, rolling ones. The enjambment breaks the oft-regular march of Pope's lines. It is almost as if there are three short lines:
On shining altars of Japan
They raise the silver lamp;
The fiery spirits blaze:
I don't have a clear reason for it, but the expansiveness of the two subsequent lines matching "liquors glide"... almost gives me chills. There is a clear sense of a smoking tide gliding in.

Throughout this poem there are rituals that have huge effects, and here is a ritual that gives the impression of having an earth/continent-forming effect! 

Following this, I marveled at Pope's adept avoidance of the word scissors. And as we see, this conquest with steel--a simple scissor snip--echoes in historical vastness. 

Canto IV

Two incongruities:

(1) That Umbriel needed to go to the Cave of Spleen to make Belinda more melancholy than she already was (and even mentions (line 4.65) "a nymph there is that all thy power disdains"). Well... I see, Umbriel's trip & return coincides with the Sylphs' retreat.

(2) The lack of clarity in the time sequence of the rest of the poem. Things jump around and are left out (how she left the Baron; how she returns to fight with him (or does she in fact?); how much time passes between encounters).

The emotional magnitude of the rape that occurred is brought home in lines 3-9. (line 4 is not entirely clear to me). I find myself imagining each of the situations mentioned and gauging the quality and intensity of emotion involved.

I find memorable lines 147 to 160. "Like roses that in deserts bloom and die." It's not just about hair. This echoes Blake's Song. And is a variant of th' eternal question of do we retreat to peace, or advance to likely painful engagement, or...?

The ending is good. I have to wonder how many never-read poems have a similar theme. It seems a bit cheap, yet true... Belinda's name is inscribed amidst the stars[4].


[1] "Prophets of Nature, we to [Man] will speak a lasting inspiration, sanctified by reason, blest by faith: what we have loved others will love, and we will teach them how, instruct them how the mind of Man becomes a thousand times more beautiful than the earth on which he dwells ... in beauty exalted, as it is itself of quality and fabric more divine." [from the last 10 lines of Wordsworth's The Prelude]

[2] "Men of Letters are a perpetual Priesthood, from age to age, teaching all Men that God is still present in their life.... In the true Literary Man, there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness." [from the fifth lecture of Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes and Hero Worship as quoted on p. 1062 NAELv2 (2000)]

[3] "But poetry, which is the delineation of the deeper and more secret workings of human emotion, is interesting only to those to whom it recalls what they have felt, or whose imagination it stirs up to conceive what they could feel, or what they might have been able to feel, had their outward circumstances been different." [from What is Poetry? p. 1141 NAELv2]

[4] Child Harold's Pilgrimage, Byron (1816), Canto 3, stanza 88

Ye stars! which are the poetry of heaven!
If in your bright leaves we would read the fate
Of men and empires, --'tis to be forgiven,
That in our aspirations to be great,
Our destinies o'erleap their mortal state,
And claim a kindred with you; for ye are
A beauty and a mystery, and create
In us such love and reverence from afar,
That fortune, fame, power, life, have named themselves a star.

Colin Leath <>    

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