The Rape of the Lock
The Baron remains impassive against all the ladies’ tears and reproaches. Clarissa delivers a speech in which she questions why a society that so adores beauty in women does not also place a value on “good sense” and “good humour.” Women are frequently called angels, she argues, but without reference to the moral qualities of these creatures. Especially since beauty is necessarily so short-lived, we must have something more substantial and permanent to fall back on. This sensible, moralizing speech falls on deaf ears, however, and Belinda, Thalestris and the rest ignore her and proceed to launch an all-out attack on the offending Baron. A chaotic tussle ensues, with the gnome Umbriel presiding in a posture of self- congratulation. The gentlemen are slain or revived according to the smiles and frowns of the fair ladies. Belinda and the Baron meet in combat and she emerges victorious by peppering him with snuff and drawing her bodkin. Having achieved a position of advantage, she again demands that he return the lock. But the ringlet has been lost in the chaos, and cannot be found. The poet avers that the lock has risen to the heavenly spheres to become a star; stargazers may admire it now for all eternity. In this way, the poet reasons, it will attract more envy than it ever could on earth.
Readers have often interpreted Clarissa’s speech as the voice of the poet expressing the moral of the story. Certainly, her oration’s thesis aligns with Pope’s professed task of putting the dispute between the two families into a more reasonable perspective. But Pope’s position achieves more complexity than Clarissa’s speech, since he has used the occasion of the poem as a vehicle to critically address a number of broader societal issues as well. And Clarissa’s righteous stance loses authority in light of the fact that it was she who originally gave the Baron the scissors. Clarissa’s failure to inspire a reconciliation proves that the quarrel is itself a kind of flirtatious game that all parties are enjoying. The description of the “battle” has a markedly erotic quality, as ladies and lords wallow in their mock-agonies. Sir Plume “draw[s] Clarissa down” in a sexual way, and Belinda “flies” on her foe with flashing eyes and an erotic ardor. When Pope informs us that the Baron fights on unafraid because he “sought no more than on his foe to die,” the expression means that his goal all along was sexual consummation.
This final battle is the culmination of the long sequence of mock-heroic military actions. Pope invokes by name the Roman gods who were most active in warfare, and he alludes as well to the Aeneid , comparing the stoic Baron to Aeneas (“the Trojan”), who had to leave his love to become the founder of Rome. Belinda’s tossing of the snuff makes a perfect turning point, ideally suited to the scale of this trivial battle. The snuff causes the Baron to sneeze, a comic and decidedly unheroic thing for a hero to do. The bodkin, too, serves nicely: here a bodkin is a decorative hairpin, not the weapon of ancient days (or even of Hamlet’s time). Still, Pope gives the pin an elaborate history in accordance with the conventions of true epic.
The mock-heroic conclusion of the poem is designed to compliment the lady it alludes to (Arabella Fermor), while also giving the poet himself due credit for being the instrument of her immortality. This ending effectively indulges the heroine’s vanity, even though the poem has functioned throughout as a critique of that vanity. And no real moral development has taken place: Belinda is asked to come to terms with her loss through a kind of bribe or distraction that reinforces her basically frivolous outlook. But even in its most mocking moments, this poem is a gentle one, in which Pope shows a basic sympathy with the social world in spite of its folly and foibles. The searing critiques of his later satires would be much more stringent and less forgiving.
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