The Rape of the Lock, a mock heroic epic by Alexander Pope, is both a careful exploration of the contemporary social follies and a representation of the inner fabrics of the feminine mind. However, it would be wrong to say that Pope was entirely engrossed in the question of his heroine’s divine beauty. He rather shows a remarkably delightful treatment of the epic manner though rich satire rendering a roundness to his creative imagination. However, he makes Belinda the axis of his aesthetic presentation, thereby necessitating a more careful study of her stature.
Being primarily an epic, and at the same time a mockery of the form, The Rape of the Lock is characterized by a unique use of the dual device of amplification followed by immediate deflation. The words of Ariel, the guardian angel of Belinda in Canto I make the readers subconsciously form religious associations: “Virgins visited by angel pow’rs.”
What begins to operate in the reader’s mind is a trigger to produce a vision, of perhaps Virgin Mary or Joan of Arc. The poet does not bind the free flow of imagination by specifying any one virgin or angel. Consequently, the arena is widened and the reader is automatically prepared for the elevation of Belinda to divinity. It, therefore, becomes easier to accept her importance as stated by Ariel triumphantly:
“…thy own importance know”
At this point, Pope’s purpose is served, and his work gains the initial momentum it requires. However, what takes place immediately after this is the hilarious arrival of Shock, the lapdog, which puts an end to the ethereal speech of Ariel, quite anticlimactically.
This is the undercurrent of irony that pervades the whole of the poem. The theme itself is a mockery, against the frailty of social conventions—of the distorted perception of social beings; yet the presentation is truly artistic. There is no conflict between Pope, the artist and Pope, the satirist—they work in unison creating harmony of aesthetic experience in the reader’s mind. Nowhere is this harmony perceived more distinctly than in the Second part of the First Canto where Belinda is seen at her Dressing Table. Pope goes on describing her actions with ritualistic fervor:
“A heavenly image in the glass appears
To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears.”
Belinda is definitely a goddess but she puts her divinity on her dressing mirror. Such is the paradox of beauty-worship that Belinda is both, the sincere devotee and the worshiped deity herself. The poet observes the gradual enhancement of Belinda’s made-up beauty through witty satire:
“Sees by degrees a purer blush arise”
It would be, however, a great mistake to laugh too easily at the expression: “purer blush”, which actually appears as being contrary to what it pretends to mean. At least, at this point, Belinda’s concentration correlates to the actual commitment of an artist. Her process of self beautification is seen both as an ornamentation governed by pride as well as the realization of a true artistic merit. In her essay, “The case of Miss Arabella Fermor”, Cleanth Brooks rightly observes that, “…regardless of whatever we make of the ‘purer blush’, Belinda’s dressing table does glow with a radiance.”Indeed, despite being scornful of the “beauty regime”, Pope is nonetheless conscious of the actual beauty which it genuinely possesses.
However, the true artist in Pope can be detected by the various images which run throughout the poem. Had Pope been confined to the dictates of the satiric form, he could have satisfied himself by laughing away the divinity of Belinda. On the contrary, the artist in him looks at her beauty and compares her to the brightest celestial body, the glowing sun. In Canto I, the sun is placed as a rival to Belinda’s glory:
Sol through white curtains shot a timorous ray,
And oped those eyes that must eclipse the day:
The rivalry continues to Canto II where he directly calls her the “rival of his Beams”.
It is interesting to note the way Pope applies the sun metaphor to describe Belinda’s generous gaze on “all alike.” Is she a flirtatious maiden, (then pope is a satirist); or is she a generous impartial recipient of admiration (then Pope is more than a satirist). The sun comparison contains all these implications and goes beyond the level of momentary jest.
However, the height of Pope’s Imagination is seen vis-à-vis Belinda’s interaction with the sylphs. The machinery of
the sylphs is a unique representation of Pope’s wholly naturalistic interpretation of the feminine mind. As a satirist he adds the element of absurdity to them, and yet as an artist he sees them as the manifestations of Belinda’s self-consciousness.
The Sylphs are actually honor, as Ariel points out—and such a definition at once satirizes the social perception of chastity. The equivalence of lost virginity and broken china jar at once directs at the root cause of such a distorted perception—the spiritual blindness.This blindness makes the cross worn by Belinda an ornament that “Jews kiss and infidels adore.” Such is the force of Pope’s satire that it wrings the heart of the readers yet never descends from the artistic plane of poetry.
The late waking of “sleepless lovers”, the equal adoration for lapdogs and husbands, the snuffbox, the ritualistic dressing procedure, the lack of judgement, “altar of love”, the game of Ombre and the violent reaction of Belinda at the loss of her lock are not merely diverse social satire—they are artistically woven into a tapestry—in the form of a climax to lead to the miraculous disappearance of the lock only to immortalize the name of Belinda.