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The Rape of the Lock

Alexander Pope

Canto 4

Canto 3

Canto 5

Summary

Belinda’s “anxious cares” and “secret passions” after the loss of her lock are equal to the emotions of all who have ever known “rage, resentment and despair.” After the disappointed Sylphs withdraw, an earthy gnome called Umbriel flies down to the “Cave of Spleen.” (The spleen, an organ that removes disease-causing agents from the bloodstream, was traditionally associated with the passions, particularly malaise; “spleen” is a synonym for “ill-temper.”) In his descent he passes through Belinda’s bedroom, where she lies prostrate with discomfiture and the headache. She is attended by “two handmaidens,” Ill-Nature and Affectation. Umbriel passes safely through this melancholy chamber, holding a sprig of “spleenwort” before him as a charm. He addresses the “Goddess of Spleen,” and returns with a bag of “sighs, sobs, and passions” and a vial of sorrow, grief, and tears. He unleashes the first bag on Belinda, fueling her ire and despair.

There to commiserate with Belinda is her friend Thalestris. (In Greek mythology, Thalestris is the name of one of the Amazons, a race of warrior women who excluded men from their society.) Thalestris delivers a speech calculated to further foment Belinda’s indignation and urge her to avenge herself. She then goes to Sir Plume, “her beau,” to ask him to demand that the Baron return the hair. Sir Plume makes a weak and slang-filled speech, to which the Baron disdainfully refuses to acquiesce. At this, Umbriel releases the contents of the remaining vial, throwing Belinda into a fit of sorrow and self-pity. With “beauteous grief” she bemoans her fate, regrets not having heeded the dream-warning, and laments the lonely, pitiful state of her sole remaining curl.

Commentary

The canto opens with a list of examples of “rage, resentment, and despair,” comparing on an equal footing the pathos of kings imprisoned in battle, of women who become old maids, of evil-doers who die without being saved, and of a woman whose dress is disheveled. By placing such disparate sorts of aggravation in parallel, Pope accentuates the absolute necessity of assigning them to some rank of moral import. The effect is to chastise a social world that fails to make these distinctions.

Umbriel’s journey to the Cave of Spleen mimics the journeys to the underworld made by both Odysseus and Aeneas. Pope uses psychological allegory (for the spleen was the seat of malaise or melancholy), as a way of exploring the sources and nature of Belinda’s feelings. The presence of Ill-nature and Affectation as handmaidens serves to indicate that her grief is less than pure (“affected” or put-on), and that her display of temper has hidden motives. We learn that her sorrow is decorative in much the same way the curl was; it gives her the occasion, for example, to wear a new nightdress.

The speech of Thalestris invokes a courtly ethic. She encourages Belinda to think about the Baron’s misdeed as an affront to her honor, and draws on ideals of chivalry in demanding that Sir Plume challenge the Baron in defense of Belinda’s honor. He makes a muddle of the task, showing how far from courtly behavior this generation of gentlemen has fallen. Sir Plume’s speech is riddled with foppish slang and has none of the logical, moral, or oratorical power that a knight should properly wield.

This attention to questions of honor returns us to the sexual allegory of the poem. The real danger, Thalestris suggests, is that “the ravisher” might display the lock and make it a source of public humiliation to Belinda and, by association, to her friends. Thus the real question is a superficial one—public reputation—rather than the moral imperative to chastity. Belinda’s own words at the close of the canto corroborate this suggestion; she exclaims, “Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!” (The “hairs less in sight” suggest her pubic hair). Pope is pointing out the degree to which she values outward appearance (whether beauty or reputation) above all else; she would rather suffer a breach to her integrity than a breach to her appearance.

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