A Satire of the English Nobility in Alexander Pope’s Poem the Rape of the Lock
Unlike Milton, in Paradise Lost, Alexander Pope was not trying to make any moral pronouncements or display any larger than life message in his mock epic, The Rape of the Lock. Pope was merely satirizing the English nobility of his time and chose to use the style of the epic to further prove just how ridiculous his subject matter was. By using elevated language, holy metaphors, and other techniques native to epics, Pope was able to silently mock the silliness of his subjects’ behavior by portraying them as far more important than he felt they really were; he made them seem worthy of an epic.
The incident on which the epic is based took place between two real life lovers. As the story goes, a lock of hair belonging to Arabella Fermor was clipped and stolen by her lover, the son of close family friends. The reason he did this is unknown, but although he seemingly meant no harm, this act infuriated the Fermor’s family and sent the two families into a feud. John Caryll, seeing how preposterous this all was, asked Pope to write a poem that could lighten the mood of these families and show them how impractical they were behaving.
To emphasize the epic-like style of writing, Pope starts off the poem by calling for the inspiration of a muse, an occurrence common in past epics, and uses grand metaphors to describe minor happenings right from the start. Describing a card game between Belinda and two of the men, Pope writes,
Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever’d,
With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;
And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,
Th’ expressive Emblem of their softer Pow’r;
Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,
Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;
And Particolour’d Troops, a shining Train,
Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.
This display of grandeur to something is simple as a card game was Pope’s main technique throughout the poem. By using exaggerations of this type, Pope is able to prove how trifling the aristocracy can be. Similarly, he compares the interaction of the two sexes to combat when he says “thrice the foe drew near,” describing the Baron’s attempt at Belinda’s hair.
Further proving this point, throughout Rape of the Lock, Pope uses rhymes that would otherwise seem opposite. For example, when he writes, “Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey, Dost sometimes Counsel take–and sometimes Tea,” he asserts that, to these people, matters of government are just as important as matters of social pleasure, such as tea. In this way, by using his sense of humor, Pope is able to make a hysterical situation seem somewhat more amusing to those observing as well as those involved in it. When Pope writes,
Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!”
he is obviously criticizing Belinda’s obsession with her outward facade proving that the actual act of “violating” her by cutting her hair wasn’t what truly upset her. Rather, it was the effect it will have on her reputation now that she will no longer be perfect in appearance. By using strong verbs such as “ravish”, “betray”, and “rape”, Pope further perpetuates the sexuality of the poem, portraying Belinda as a sexual conquest for the Baron. After the turmoil dies down, she demands the lock of hair back, and a battle similar to the Trojan War ensues, evoking past Romans gods and alluding to the Aneid. This poem closes much like other epics: giving compliments to the hero, in this case Arabella, the one whom Belinda was based on, and giving credit to the author for immortalizing her and her “adventure.”
In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, a noble family’s dilemma is trivialized through the use of a mock epic. In his epic, Pope’s content is decisively petty, his style is incredibly light-hearted, and his plot extremely thin, all of which contribute to the inconsequential nature of the people he is poking fun at. By Bringing to light the absurdity of the matter, Pope manages both to reconcile the two families and to prove his incredible knack for comedy and wit.
An Image of Victorian Women in Alexander Pope’s and Anne Ingram’s Epistles
Debating Victorian Women: Epistle to a Lady and Epistle to Mr. Pope
Between the works, Epistle to a Lady II and Epistle to Mr. Pope, the bone of contention is the character of women. Pope accuses women of amorous passion, fickle and temperamental dispositions, vanity, irrationality and ambition for power. This school of thought corresponds to the prevalent spirit of the seventeenth century Age of the Enlightenment whose emphases are Reason and Humanism. Ingram, in her Epistle to Mr. Pope, opposes Pope’s view and argues that dominant patriarchy, lack of proper education for females are to blame for their faults. Further, she posits that the male and female sex have the same natures and therefore share the same faults. Thus, both epistles clash and carry divergent views on the female character.
In the Epistle to a Lady, Pope incarnates amorous passion in several female historical and legendary heroines characterizing women. Each female has a voice in the stanza in which she expresses her liking and bent. To express female sexuality, Pope alludes to Calypso, goddess known in myth for her enthralling charm and passion. Philomede refers to Aphrodite or Venus, goddess of fertility, erotic passion and beauty. Female erotica is also personified in Pastora, who refers to the pastoral genre of literature and art whose main focus is idealized love between shepherds and shepherdesses in an Eden where one’s energies are directed to making sonnets, odes, lamentations of love to the beloved. Sappho is a great Greek female poet whose writings and works reflect a mind occupied with passion, and eroticism. Helen of Troy, originally from Sparta, also represents the goddess of fertility in certain cults and is notorious for her unsurpassing beauty and passion. Thus, Pope establishes the ruling impulses of passion in women.
Pope levels another accusation against women classifying them as “chameleons” (2601), unstable, and capricious creatures. Pope makes reference to Cynthia, the goddess of fertility and the moon. The moon is a known planetary body, believed to control seasonal changes and the humours. Another character that refers to the temperamental nature of women is Papillia. Papillio is a genus of colourful butterflies and so Pope labels women as flighty creatures whose main employment is to look attractive, fluttering from place to place, in other words, social butterflies. The butterfly is a sexual creature since it aids in flower pollination so female sexuality and flightiness unite. Fannia is a genus of housefly but used as a female’s name. In the context of Epistle to a Lady, Fannia symbolizes the flightiness and instability of women whose place is in the house. So women are inconstant, frivolous creatures.
Pope illustrates women’s natural preoccupation with beauty by depicting paragons of physical beauty and female splendour. Callista derives from Callisto who is a legendary huntress, recognized for her prepossessing beauty. The name Callisto in Greek actually means
most beautiful. Narcissica evokes in the reader’s mind, the Greek myth about Narcissus who occupies himself looking at his reflection in a river and falls in love with himself. Self-absorbed pride and vanity are destructive. Beauty becomes a downfall. Pope argues against this general superficiality in women. Pope feminizes Narcissus to represent women as narcissistic. However, Ingram argues that feminine beauty is the only device and employment of women to gain control and distract themselves, since they are deprived of education and denied exposure in the public sphere.
In Epistle to Mr. Pope, Ingram contests Pope’s assumption of women’s inherent lack of reason and their “impotence of mind” (2600). Women’s lack of learning is due to the customary manner of their upbringing or the lack thereof. Philosophy and reason are male dominated fields while dance, aesthetics and music are considered standard female employment. These distractions do not cultivate the mind, neither do they endow the woman with virtue and reason and so she remains unschooled, her mind is in a state of abandon. As a consequence, women are made “strangers to reason and reflection” (2606). Neglect of the mind’s cultivation is the root cause of female unbridled passion, and general lack of understanding. Furthermore, Ingram adds that there are as many empty-headed, trifling, and irrational men as there are women. “Nugators… and nugatrixes” are nouns of male and female triflers whose names derive from the Latin word nugatorius which means frivolous, trifling and ineffective.
According to Pope, the female gender is “a whole sex of queens” (2603) where “every lady would be queen for life” (2603). Pope charges women with lusting after power and refers to them as queens or goddesses, embodiments of beauty and power using in his Epistle to a Lady II female characters who are mostly goddesses and queens. However, Ingram counters that “power alike both males and females love” (2605) and supports in naming the typical male occupations of soldier, hunter, and king as pursuits of glory, fame and self interest. Both sexes crave control and love of sway. Ambition only manifests itself in different forms because of man’s wide, public sphere and woman’s private sphere. In whatever gendered occupation, therein lies ambition.
Ingram asserts that “women if taught would be as bold and as wise” (2605). She turns Pope’s attention to the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome where illustrious taught women are of steady character, virtuous, learnt and hold high values. Women such as Cleolia ( Clelia), a young Roman maiden held captive, swims the river Tiber to liberty and liberates her compatriots. She is a model of courage, exemplifying lofty ideals in her life. Lucretia is another Roman heroine and noblewoman, a paragon of virtue and moral excellence. Her rape and suicide catalyze decolonization and Roman Republicanism. Cornelia stands as another example of female steadiness and virtue. She is full of wifely duty and maternal dedication to her two sons, the Gracchus brothers, who were instrumental in defending and extending the rights of lower-class and landless Roman citizens. Portia, the daughter of Cato, renowned Roman statesman, general, and historian, she reaps the rewards of education. Taught in the school of philosophy and reason, she emerges a consummate in philosophy, full of understanding and courage. As a visible token of her trustworthiness and fidelity to her husband, Brutus, she stabs herself in the thigh, endures the pain and pledges her faith to him. In her, reason and feminine honour unite. Here Ingram counterattacks Pope’s accusation on female incompetence and immorality presenting exceptional figures of women who are sturdy in character, with immaculate virtue who develop qualities by solid formative education.
Ingram is an egalitarian feminist who believes that men and women carry essential similarities for “in either sex, the appetite’s the same” (2605) . They share the very same passions, predispositions and potential. Ingram rivals Pope in the use of the iambic pentameter and rhyming couplet and maintains that same form throughout her poem. Both Epistles are written in decasyllabic verse with rhyming couplets aa, bb. This poetic scheme is also used by Shakespeare and evokes the pastoral genre which both Pope and Ingram satirize. Ingram reinforces the sameness of man and woman by replicating Pope’s poetic form with as much expertise and flair and he.
All in all, both argument between Pope and Ingram clash. On one hand, Pope argues that women are “softer males” with ungovernable attitudes, perverse tendencies and inferior wit, whereas Ingram debates the high worth of women in society. She shows that women deserve equal place, equal respect and equal opportunities in society. In English society, these portraits of women are not simply opinions but realities, for women have had to face negative labeling, bias, and exclusion but also women have been embraced and can be embraced as true heroines recognized for their contributions.
Attack on Vanity in Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Pope’s the Rape of the Lock
The primary theme in both Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is the tendency that high society of the time has to overemphasize matters that are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, in particular breaches of proper decorum brought on by vanity. Pope employs a mock-epic style to satirize the upper echelons of society (the “beau-monde”) in eighteenth century England, but his account perhaps holds more depth than a simple satirical attack on the vanity of the elite classes. For all his criticism, it is apparent he has some admiration for Belinda and the society that surrounded her. Pope himself did not belong inside the “beau-monde”, and was therefore able to make clear judgment on a self-obsessed society that he was observing from a distance. In the School for Scandal, Sheridan presents vanity as some form of cover, as “a polished surface to conceal a discordant inside”, in the words of critic John Picker. Sheridan’s comedy appears to the audience as being complete only in a superficial sense, and like the hypocritical figure of Joseph Surface, the play satisfies an audience on the outside, but the vanity beneath confirms the misleading nature of appearances.
In The Rape, the incident at the centre of the poem is a feud of epic proportions that explodes after the Baron’s theft of a lock of Belinda’s hair, the real incident the poem was based on taking place between a Lord Petre and a Miss Arabella Fermor. This small act of greed and created an estrangement of two families that continued for many years, portraying the extent to which their sense of their own importance was exaggerated. In keeping with this, Pope continually uses disproportionately grandiose language to assist with preparing the reader for his satirical stance, and this is present from the very first lines of the poem: “What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs/ What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things.” In comparison, Sheridan makes it clear throughout School for Scandal that gossip and vanity only work well in the form of corroding personalities, for example the effect Mrs Candour’s actions have on Charles Surface, leading him straight to “absolute ruin”. Mrs Candour’s ability to transform these human flaws into the defining feature of a person enable the ‘reduction’ of a character to take place. This is shown in “His extravagance…the town talks of nothing else.” Vanity in particular appears to adopt such a prominent role in the level of social acceptance of characters, especially when one’s own vanity is displaced onto someone else. For example Mrs Candour’s statements that Mrs Vermilion is a poorly made-up face, Mrs Pursy a “fat dowager”, and of Mrs Evergreen as an aging case of extreme vanity. This clearly shows that Mrs Candour’s tendency towards vanity and being “critical in beauty” leads to nothing more than a lack of individuality, essentially an overall disintegration of eighteenth century society.
Pope places Belinda’s integrity under doubt early on in The Rape, most noticeably at the point of the revelation of Ariel. Belinda is informed that a small part of her will live on after death: “Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive/ And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.” Although Belinda’s “succeeding vanities” are discussed considerably in this section, it is possible to assume that the surviving part would be the deepest part of her personality, and the “first Elements” of her soul. However, the surviving “vanities” described imply that Belinda is made up of not much more than a selfish love of pleasure. However, this self-obsession does not necessarily lead Belinda to demise, but rather to some form of religion and intense devotion. This is shown in the linguistically rich description of her toilette: “Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid… rob’d in White, the Nymph intent adores/ With Head uncover’d, the Cosmetic Pow’rs”. This morning routine is a parody of the arming of the epic hero, and the irony present in the reversal from the immediately obvious “cosmic powers” to “Cosmetic powers” portrays the full extent of her “devotion to her religion of narcissism”, in the words of critic Ellen Pollack. Similarly, this reversal is present in the form of comic farce in School for Scandal, specifically in the well-known “screen scene”. An example of this is when Joseph Surface attempts to seduce Lady Teazle by using convoluted logic that will add to her own vanity, and therefore attract her: “Your character…is like a person in a plethora – absolutely dying from too much health.” Sheridan’s use of this device is somewhat similar to the serpant praising Eve’s intelligence using twisted logic, in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The main difference between Sheridan and Pope’s style of attack on vanity is one is displayed through carefully crafted wit, and the other through a means that is not quite as good-humoured. The Rape is written as a Horatian satire, given this name after a Roman satirist whose opinion was that “every play should either instruct or delight”. Pope’s decision to write entirely in heroic couplets satirises the vanity of a society he could never be a part of, where trivialities are overemphasized and grand creatures are turned into trivialities, as shown in “The tortoise here and elephant unite/ Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white.”, an example of bathos. This is solidified in the mock epic catalogue (“Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux’.) where Pope places the auspicious Bible amongst unimportant items in order to create a commentary on the complete lack of morality in his society. However, these lines remain light-hearted and without intention for malice. In contrast, Sheridan does use a form of malice in School for Scandal to degrade a society where gossip and vanity is described as a “multi-headed Hydra”, vital for survival and never-ending. The characters in The Rape and School for Scandal are integrally linked by their vanity, and their “motives to depreciate each other”.