Imagine a world where a stolen hair curl sparks an epic battle, complete with sylphs, gnomes, and even a celestial coffee pot. This is not just a whimsical daydream; it is Pope’s social satire, The Rape of the Lock, a poem that takes aim at the frivolous and ostentatious world of 18th-century English society. Beneath the shimmering silks and witty wordplay lies a sharp critique, exposing the follies and foibles of the aristocracy with razor-sharp precision.
Initially intending to focus on Belinda, Pope ended up portraying her as a representative figure of 18th-century high society, offering a satirical picture of the era. Despite not being part of this elite circle, Pope knew the families that inspired the poem. The central incident revolves around the Baron’s theft of Belinda’s hair, leading to the estrangement of the two families. Pope takes a satirical stance, suggesting that the society in the poem is overly concerned with a trivial incident, exaggerating its importance. The mock-epic style, with grand language applied to an unworthy subject, reinforces this point throughout the poem.
Belinda’s character is diminished early on by Ariel, who reveals that her soul, in its deepest essence, consists of ‘Vanities,’ ‘Joy in gilded Chariots,’ and a ‘Love of Ombre.’ This portrayal suggests that Belinda’s soul comprises vanity and a love for pleasure, highlighting the shallowness of her character. Her vanity takes on a pseudo-religious form during her morning toilette, where the ironic transposition of ‘Cosmetic Pow’rs’ indicates her excessive value for makeup. The catalog of her beauty rituals mirrors the epic catalog of troops and weaponry, emphasizing the distorted values in Belinda’s society.
During the 18th Century, England flourished as an empire with expanding colonies. The objects on Belinda’s dressing table, such as ivory and tortoise shell combs, Indian gems, and Arabian perfumes, all represent the power of English rule over the world. Through Belinda’s role, Pope indirectly comments on women in 18th-century society, portraying them as lazy, manipulative, and excessively focused on fashion and beauty. The poem satirizes their dressing habits, spending significant time at the toilet, using various ornaments and makeup, and presenting themselves as goddesses in front of the mirror.
In the second Canto, Pope directs his mocking attention to the Baron, ridiculing him more severely without the hint of admiration present in his treatment of Belinda. The Baron’s worship is portrayed as ridiculous excess, with an altar made from escapist romance literature and trophies that pale in comparison to those of conquering armies. The poem also touches on the latest fashions in society, including extravagant items such as tables, china, lap dogs, diamond earrings, and rich drinks like citron water, chocolate tea, and coffee.
Canto III provides insight into society’s activities at Hampton Court, where people gather to predict the removal of foreign dictators and admire beautiful women. The poem humorously depicts Ann, who rules in three circles, holding council meetings and sometimes just tea parties. It shows how court officials and judges have very little esteem for the lives of convicts and sign their death sentences in a hurry only because it is lunchtime. The divide between the upper and lower sections of society is revealed in bitter sarcasm hidden beneath the genial humor of Pope.
The Game of Ombre
The epic battle between Belinda and the Baron reaches its peak in Cantos 3 and 5, where the glory and excitement of epic warfare are evoked, but the warriors are mere cards in a game of ombre. Sylphs also symbolize women’s social behavior, highlighting the lack of adherence to traditional moral principles in favor of a broader social system. Pope suggests that society is complicit in the actions of the women depicted in the poem.
In conclusion, “The Rape of the Lock” remains a captivating and multifaceted satire, providing insight into 18th-century society and reflecting timeless aspects of human behavior. Through Pope’s masterful use of wit, irony, and mock-heroic style, the work offers a critique that is both engaging and thought-provoking. It serves as a reminder of the perils of trivial pursuits and underscores the significance of introspection.