St. Paul, MN. A dozen years into my teaching career, some creep paid the hostess of a local steakhouse to cut off the pony tail of one of her waitresses. It “pretty much raped me of my identity,” she lamented. “It’s weird,” a policeman told the paper. “Just imagine if this happened to other people, too.”
Well, it has happened to others, most famously to Lady Arabella Fermor, immortalized as “Belinda” in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock. First published in two parts (1712), the poem recounts the real-life snipping of her lock by one Lord Petre. This party prank caused a row among the families involved, and a mutual friend asked Pope to intervene.
In its final form (1717), the poem is close to perfection. But I was wrong to think our local “rape of the lock” would help students see Pope’s brilliance. It took more. It took #MeToo for students to see the seriousness beneath Pope’s satire.
“The sound must seem an echo to the sense,” Pope had written in An Essay on Criticism, and everything coheres in this mock-heroic poem. From the rhyming couplets that yoke the trivial with the weighty, to its parodic battles between the sexes, it has the flawlessness of a Mozart sonata. And like a sonata, its interest arises from intertwining comic and dark themes.
Pope’s intervention in the family quarrel didn’t have the desired effect, however. Once published, the poem drew public notice to the individuals—and now the families were angry with Pope. He wrote a dedicatory letter that distanced Arabella’s actual character from that of the poem’s heroine, expanded it to five “cantos,” and added allusions to Homer, Virgil, and Milton. Meanwhile, Pope was publishing his translation of The Iliad, the work that would make his fame and fortune.
The poem’s 800 lines are fairly evenly divided among the five cantos. After a mock-epic invocation, he introduces the airy Sylphs and Gnomes who influence the action. Belinda then arms for the upcoming sexual conflict in terms that recall Homer’s description of arming of Achilles:
And now unveil’d, the toilet stands display’d,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.
First, rob’d in white, the nymph intent adores
With head uncover’d, the cosmetic pow’rs…
…Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms. (1.121-24, 139-40)
Ambivalent words like “cosmetic” and “awful” unlock the terrifying powers of Belinda’s beauty. My students are willing to talk about the intellectual and athletic powers of women today, but most will acknowledge female sexual power only indirectly, in jest. That, of course, is precisely Pope’s tactic: we accept his linkage between the alarming and the alluring because he makes us smile—at least for a moment.
Pope then describes the Baron’s intention to secure the lock, but it’s unclear if the Baron actually wants Belinda’s hair or her love (2.23-30). And what does Belinda herself want from the party? She “[b]urns to encounter two adventrous knights” at a card game, where she will conquer both and “decide their Doom” (3.26-27). She’s a confident player in every sense. Belinda ultimately triumphs, but is that what she really wanted?
I doubt, frankly, that either Belinda or the Baron know what they want. When we describe a romantic or sexual encounter gone bad, do we remember clear motives, clear signals, clear thinking? In other words, aren’t Pope’s characters like most of us when it comes to sex? And if altering drugs are involved, as they often are, things tend to go badly. Enter the eighteenth-century drug of choice, coffee, and cue Pope’s masterful, mock-epic diction to tempt the sight, sound, and taste:
For lo! The Board with Cups and Spoons is crown’d,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round…
…From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
While China’s Earth receives the smoking Tide. (3.105-06, 109-110)
Coffee simultaneously sends “new stratagems” to the Baron’s brain and compromises Belinda. As she bends her head to inhale “the fragrant steams” her hair is exposed and her sexual thoughts revealed. Up steps the Baron. He clips the lock, Belinda shrieks, and at the end of an angry lament, she exclaims:
Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these! (4.175-76)
Reading these lines aloud is enough to convey Belinda’s unconscious sexual meaning to the sleepiest student. Critics since Pope’s day have criticized him for portraying Belinda as caring more for the appearance of chastity than for true integrity. But they’re missing the point. When you feel violated, angry, and depressed, can you always say what you mean? Neither can Belinda.
In his final revision, Pope added a moral. There, Clarissa urges Belinda to view the event in a larger ethical framework. She needs to remember the social purpose of sexual attraction—a successful marriage. Clarissa puts it this way:
Oh! If to dance all night, and dress all day,
Charm’d the small-pox, or chas’d old age away;
Who would not scorn what huswife’s cares produce,
Or who would learn one earthly thing of use? (5.15-22)
Alas, the Gnomes inspire Belinda to fight in earnest, and the scene devolves into a girls vs. boys brawl over possession of the lock.
Before #MeToo, my students lopsidedly denied that the poem portrays a woman who has suffered a serious offense. No more. The questions I’ve raised here—not to mention the word “rape” in the title—all have serious consequences. And yet, many students can also see the shortcomings of today’s sexual politics—its overconfidence in pronouncing on motives that often confuse the very characters who harbor them; its willingness to end disputes in self-righteous anger rather than seek reconciliation; and its humorlessness in an arena where laughter at poems like this can provide a bridge between the parties.
Feminists criticize Clarissa’s speech for denying Belinda’s ability to choose for herself. But Clarissa doesn’t tell her to accept the Baron. She doesn’t deny the Baron’s wrongdoing. Moreover, she acknowledges female sexual power. At the same time, though, she warns Belinda against valuing her power so highly that the baron’s particular offence excludes marriage altogether:
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curl’d or uncurl’d, since locks will turn to grey,
Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;
What then remains, but well our pow’r to use,
And keep good humor still whate’er we lose? (5.25-30)
The baron’s boorishness has upset the social balance in the small world of upper-class English Catholic society. Belinda can restore it with “good humor” if she chooses. Even Pope’s heroic couplets beckon toward resolution, as one line steadies another to produce equilibrium. It’s this balance—absent from so much of today’s art and politics—that unites form and substance in The Rape of the Lock and makes it a great work of art.
The Rape of the Lock is a comedy with a sad ending. If it has a hero, I think it’s the reader who can absorb its balance of seriousness and triviality, and emerge with his or her sense of humor intact. Our very unheroic lives require it.