Anniversary Essays on Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, Donald W. Nichol, ed., (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 265 pp., $64.00).
Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock appeared in two cantos in 1712, in five cantos in 1714, and with some additional material in 1717. It is “a matter of choice” when to mark its tercentenary, as Donald Nichol says. This new celebratory volume comprises ten essays, some quite brilliant, all stimulating, none of them printed previously. The contributors are English professors, many with spinoff specializations in other fields. Explication of parts of the text is carried out here through the lenses of gender study, “thing theory,” the history of art, politics, sex, and automata, and “fractal theory,” fractals being a term borrowed from mathematics. Some approaches the contributors take will be daunting for the uninitiated. The dust jacket claims the book “will be essential reading for students and teachers of The Rape of the Lock and a valuable resource for investigating eighteenth-century culture.” Professors and graduate students in English literature will certainly find much in it to provoke them. I foresee many 18th-century Lit seminars centered on sexual politics and fractals.
The poem itself follows the young naïve aristocrat and “virgin” Belinda through her awakening at midday, her elaborate preparations at the dressing table, her trip on the Thames to fashionable Hampton Court, the card game (ombre) she plays there and wins, the “rape” of one of her ringlets by the unnamed Baron, the villain of the piece, and her near-violent response to that assault. Accompanying her on this journey in the editions after 1712 is a “militia” of tiny airy creatures, mostly sylphs, who supposedly offer protection from the many perils that threaten her. The ingenuity displayed by Pope in depicting these beings is a sign of his genius. We sense him sporting delightedly and lengthily with his discoveries. The Rape of the Lock is, as Nichol says, “playful.” Pope pokes fun at the epic form, at the gods and goddesses and characters in the classical epics, and at many of the features of England’s beau monde to which Belinda and the Baron belong, but which Pope himself, as a deformed and sickly Roman Catholic, could know only from a distance. He applies the features of the great epics to a small incident that had been blown out of proportion. We laugh with him. It is all “ludicrous,” as Samuel Johnson said.
Pope’s overriding attitude towards the main character is conveyed by these couplets:
Yet graceful Ease, and sweetness void of pride,
Might hide her faults, if Belles had faults to hide:
If to her share some Female Errors fall,
Look on her Face, and you’ll forget ’em all.
This passage, mostly ignored by the contributors in this volume, may well be a key to understanding the poem, if such a key is needed. It is hard to think of Belinda as an automaton or specimen of vanity or of gross sexual commodification after reading it.
Mind you, she does make a “Female Error” relating to sex at one point. After the Baron cuts off the lock, she berates him in a speech with this ending:
Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!
It is the classic example in English poetry of a Freudian slip. It and other sexually suggestive images are much harped on in this book, especially in the pieces by Raymond Stephanson (“‘Hairs less in sight’: Pope, Biology, and Culture”) and Allison Muri (“Of Words and Things: Image, Page, Text, and The Rape of the Lock”). Muri’s learned exegesis on the six engraved illustrations to The Rape of the Lock in the 1714 edition constitutes perhaps the outstanding item in the volume. She argues that while “one can never be quite sure just how much of this poem is devoted to sex,” the engravings that accompany it “make these associations less ambiguous.” They support “a more pointed analysis of lust and manners, of cunt as commodity.” Hmmm. She decides (along with fellow “knowledgeable readers”) that “this is a poem about fucking, or at the very least, the mature desire to fuck.” One of the additional illustrations she chooses to show us is Agostino Carracci’s A Satyr and Nymph Embracing, which is a scene of copulation.
But not to focus just on Muri. There seems to be a hunt on through the book for “dangerous” sexy words and ideas. Belinda’s “Guardian Sylph” Ariel says this to her, as part of a long speech before she awakes:
Hear and believe! Thy own Importance know,
Nor bound thy narrow Views to Things below.
Ariel means that she should continue to believe in “airy Elves,” “heav’ly Flow’rs, “Golden Crowns,” and other “secret Truths” that are revealed to “Maids alone and Children” — and not bind her views to common, earthly things. I.e., “Things below.” But the consensus in this book is that the phrase “Things below” refers to genitalia. The same for the word “lap,” much dwelt on by Stephanson. Box, head, petticoat, spread, ring, thing, curl, hair — all and more are “exploding dirty bubbles.” (To quote Stephanson.)
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a lap a lap.
And sometimes, of course, it is not. There is a sexual undercurrent to the poem, and it is true that there is an element of commodification to what Belinda does — dressing up and going out to display herself, so that men might see and admire her. It was what her society had told her was the way the game of love was played. (And is it not still played that way?) She wants to be desired more than she wants, at the moment, to be won. What she does has its perils, as she learns.
Ariel in Canto I is especially worried about her petticoat:
To Fifty chosen Sylphs, of special Note,
We trust th’important Charge, the Petticoat,
Oft have we known that sev’nfold Fence to fail,
Tho’ stiff with Hoops, and arm’d with Ribs of Whale.
Form a strong Line about the Silver Bound,
And guard the wide Circumference around.
Stephanson comments: “Simultaneously adorned and protected, Belinda’s genitals … become a crass commodity in these couplets.” I fail to see what is crass about it. To find a mate, a woman must show herself; to find a mate, the man must advertise his wares too. In the process, sooner or later, the petticoat must “fail.” It is how the human race is propagated.
The entry here that stays well clear of sexual innuendo and cultural theorizing is Nichol’s meticulous biographical/bibliographical essay at the end, “From ‘Trivial Things’ to ‘trivial things’: Pope, Lintot, and The Rape of the Lock.” (Bernard Lintot was the first publisher of the poem.) Nichol’s investigations deals in part with Pope’s alteration of his text from edition to edition, a subject that could profitably be taken further. In his Introduction to the book J. Paul Hunter notes that in the 1712 version of the poem Belinda’s slip about “any Hairs but these” was assigned, not to her, but to the character Thalestris. This “transforms the way we think about the poem’s central figure,” he says. There may be more to be said of it, or another way to look at it.
The entire volume is well worth careful study. It leaves us with much to ponder. Professor Nichol is to be congratulated for putting it together.