Alexander Pope (1688-1744), one of the most quotable poet and satirist of the English Augustan period, stabs gentle fun at the 18th century aristocrats who, like Belinda, spend so much time on appearances through the poem The Rape of the Lock, Pope’s brilliant satiric masterpiece. Now let us have a glance at the society as seen in the poem.
Pope was inspired to write the poem with an incident among his acquaintances in which Robert, Lord Petre, cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, and a feud developed between two young people’s families as a result. Then Pope’s friend John Caryll motivated him to write a light poem to cool hot tempers and reconcile the two families as well as to encourage his friends to laugh at their own folly.
Actually Pope’s mock-epic is not to mock the form itself, but to mock the vanities, the idleness and the ridiculousness of 18th-century high society in which values have lost all proportion, and the trivial is handled with the gravity. The society on display in this poem is one that fails to distinguish between things that matter and things that do not.
As the poet says:
“…Stain her honour, or her new brocade;
Forget her pray’rs, or miss a masquerade;”
Pope draws the portrait of fashionable ladies of the society indirectly, through the character of Belinda. At the very beginning of the poem we become informed of the idleness, pomp and foppery of so called fashionable ladies, such as getting up late, keeping hounds.
As the poet comments:
Now Lapdogs give themselves the rowzing Shake,
And sleepless Lovers, just at Twelve, awake:
Pope’s portrayal of Belinda at her dressing table stands for the exaggeration of the women in their ornamentation. The women dedicated much of their time in toilette. They used different ornaments and absorbing things like, rouge, puff, and powder for their beautification.
As poet remarks:
“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.”
The women were mostly fond of their own beauty and felt much exited standing in front of mirror. Sometimes it seemed that they adore their own image appeared in the glass as the Goddess they serve. As poet satirically comments on Belinda looking at mirror:
“A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears,”
Then we find another usual trend of the beautiful ladies of that time. They loved to be admired but to none of admirers they showed sign of yielding; they just smiled at them in thankfulness. They often had to reject offers, but they never caused harm to anyone.
As the poet says about Belinda:
“Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
Oft she rejects, but never once offends.”
The poem has a reference to the latest fashions in clothing and decoration of that society for example lacquer tables, china collection, lap dog from Ireland, diamond earrings etc and drinks of the rich such as citron-water, chocolate, tea, coffee.
As we find in the poem:
Like Citron-Waters Matron’s Cheeks inflame,
Or change Complexions at a losing Game;
Here we find a strong analogy between Belinda and Madame Eglantine, the nun in Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. She was very coy and fashionable lady like Belinda and used costly dress with gold brooch but as a Nun she should have been very simple in her behaviour. We can compare Belinda with the new born Eve, as seen in part IV, line 46, of Paradise Lost by John Milton, while Eve admires herself as mirrored in the pool of Eden. We, in this case, can also remember The Lilliputian Queen, an unnecessarily fashionable lady with a small appearance, as seen in Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift.
The competition among the young lords for the attention of beautiful ladies is represented by activities of the Baron, bewitched by the glamorous charm of Belinda. But Belinda did not pay any concentration to him consequently he became discontented to her and wished to cut off her enthralling lock of hair.
As the poet says:
“Th’ Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d:
Resolv’d to win, he meditates the way,
By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray;”
Towards the beginning of the canto iii we get an excellent account of the society in description of Hampton court, a place where Britain’s statesmen often assembled to predict the overthrow of foreign despotic kings and of the beautify ladies of England.
“…Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom
Of foreign tyrants, and of nymphs at home;”
At Hampton court Anne, who ruled over three realms, held her council and at times simply for tea party.
As we find in the poem:
“Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take-and sometimes Tea.”
The Sylphs become an allegory for the mannered conventions that govern female social behavior. Principles like honour and chastity have become no more than another part of conventional dealings. Pope makes it clear that these women are not conducting themselves on the basis of abstract moral principles, but are governed by an elaborate social mechanism–of which the Sylphs cut a fitting caricature. The society as a whole is as much to blame as she is.
In the end, we will say that The Rape of the Lock is a mirror to the 18th century aristocratic life. In the poem the poet very successfully catches and fixes forever the atmosphere of his age and traces out the fools and follies in order to rectify them. As Lowell says: “It was a mirror in drawing room, but it gives back a faithful image of society”