The Rape of the Lock begins with a passage outlining the subject of the poem and invoking the aid of the muse. Then the sun (“Sol”) appears to initiate the leisurely morning routines of a wealthy household. Lapdogs shake themselves awake, bells begin to ring, and although it is already noon, Belinda still sleeps. She has been dreaming, and we learn that the dream has been sent by “her guardian Sylph,” Ariel. The dream is of a handsome youth who tells her that she is protected by “unnumber’d Spirits”—an army of supernatural beings who once lived on earth as human women. The youth explains that they are the invisible guardians of women’s chastity, although the credit is usually mistakenly given to “Honour” rather than to their divine stewardship. Of these Spirits, one particular group—the Sylphs, who dwell in the air—serve as Belinda’s personal guardians; they are devoted, lover-like, to any woman that “rejects mankind,” and they understand and reward the vanities of an elegant and frivolous lady like Belinda. Ariel, the chief of all Belinda’s puckish protectors, warns her in this dream that “some dread event” is going to befall her that day, though he can tell her nothing more specific than that she should “beware of Man!” Then Belinda awakes, to the licking tongue of her lapdog, Shock. Upon the delivery of a billet-doux, or love-letter, she forgets all about the dream. She then proceeds to her dressing table and goes through an elaborate ritual of dressing, in which her own image in the mirror is described as a “heavenly image,” a “goddess.” The Sylphs, unseen, assist their charge as she prepares herself for the day’s activities.
The opening of the poem establishes its mock-heroic style. Pope introduces the conventional epic subjects of love and war and includes an invocation to the muse and a dedication to the man (the historical John Caryll) who commissioned the poem. Yet the tone already indicates that the high seriousness of these traditional topics has suffered a diminishment. The second line confirms in explicit terms what the first line already suggests: the “am’rous causes” the poem describes are not comparable to the grand love of Greek heroes but rather represent a trivialized version of that emotion. The “contests” Pope alludes to will prove to be “mighty” only in an ironic sense. They are card-games and flirtatious tussles, not the great battles of epic tradition. Belinda is not, like Helen of Troy, “the face that launched a thousand ships” (see the SparkNote on
With Belinda’s dream, Pope introduces the “machinery” of the poem—the supernatural powers that influence the action from behind the scenes. Here, the sprites that watch over Belinda are meant to mimic the gods of the Greek and Roman traditions, who are sometimes benevolent and sometimes malicious, but always intimately involved in earthly events. The scheme also makes use of other ancient hierarchies and systems of order. Ariel explains that women’s spirits, when they die, return “to their first Elements.” Each female personality type (these types correspond to the four humours) is converted into a particular kind of sprite. These gnomes, sylphs, salamanders, and nymphs, in turn, are associated with the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. The airy sylphs are those who in their lifetimes were “light Coquettes”; they have a particular concern for Belinda because she is of this type, and this will be the aspect of feminine nature with which the poem is most concerned.
Indeed, Pope already begins to sketch this character of the “coquette” in this initial canto. He draws the portrait indirectly, through characteristics of the Sylphs rather than of Belinda herself. Their priorities reveal that the central concerns of womanhood, at least for women of Belinda’s class, are social ones. Woman’s “joy in gilded Chariots” indicates an obsession with pomp and superficial splendor, while “love of Ombre,” a fashionable card game, suggests frivolity. The erotic charge of this social world in turn prompts another central concern: the protection of chastity. These are women who value above all the prospect marrying to advantage, and they have learned at an early age how to promote themselves and manipulate their suitors without compromising themselves.
The Sylphs become an allegory for the mannered conventions that govern female social behavior. Principles like honor and chastity have become no more than another part of conventional interaction. 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. And while Pope’s technique of employing supernatural machinery allows him to critique this situation, it also helps to keep the satire light and to exonerate individual women from too severe a judgment. If Belinda has all the typical female foibles, Pope wants us to recognize that it is partly because she has been educated and trained to act in this way. The society as a whole is as much to blame as she is. Nor are men exempt from this judgment. The competition among the young lords for the attention of beautiful ladies is depicted as a battle of vanity, as “wigs with wigs, with sword-knots sword-knots strive.” Pope’s phrases here expose an absurd attention to exhibitions of pride and ostentation. He emphasizes the inanity of discriminating so closely between things and people that are essentially the same in all important (and even most unimportant) respects.
Pope’s portrayal of Belinda at her dressing table introduces mock-heroic motifs that will run through the poem. The scene of her toilette is rendered first as a religious sacrament, in which Belinda herself is the priestess and her image in the looking glass is the Goddess she serves. This parody of the religious rites before a battle gives way, then, to another kind of mock-epic scene, that of the ritualized arming of the hero. Combs, pins, and cosmetics take the place of weapons as “awful Beauty puts on all its arms.”