The Rape of the Lock portrays the fashionable world of the early eighteenth century London, and its title page describes it as a heroic-comical poem. Pope remarks that “the use of pompous language for low actions is the perfection of the mock-epic.” The mock-heroic is singularly effective in exposing the follies of the fashionable society without betrayal of rancour.
Lord Petre had, in an amorous prank, cut off a lock of hair of a society beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, to her great indignation. Out of this trivial incident, Pope makes an epic with Invocation, supernatural machinery, battles, and other epic paraphernalia. The Invocation is the conventional epic address to the Muse
Say, what strange motive, Goddess! Could compel
A well-bred lord to assault a gentle belle.
What was merely a social frivolity has acquired the lofty note of a classical epic. The slight digress being that whereas the world of epic poems was predominantly masculine, the world of the mock-epic The Rape of the Lock is feminine. The setting is the fashionable London society of the Augustan Age. The heroine, who is a type rather than a representation of Miss Fermor herself, is Belinda.
Her day starting at around noon, gives the poem its basic structure – her dream before waking, her toilet, her cruise up the Thames to Hampton Court, her card game, the outrageous clipping of her lock of hair, her hysterics, and the final battle to recover the lock.
Belinda is repeatedly compared to the sun. This suggests her brilliance and beauty as the central and focal point of her little world. It also suggests general munificence on her part, because, like the sun, her eyes “shine on all alike”. It means either that she is shallow and flirtatious, or that she distributes her largess impartially like a great prince.
The exaltation of Belinda into something more than mortal is also seen when she is at her toilet, which appears to parody a religious ritual. The dressing table is a kind of altar on which the cosmetic pots are set out like sacred vessels. At first, Belinda the nymph is like a priestess, robed in white worshipping the “cosmetic powers” as she bends to her various items of make-up. Then it is her own “heavenly image” in the mirror which becomes the goddess, the object of her idolatrous worship. Finally, Belinda herself is unabashedly referred to as a “goddess”, arming for battle.
There is a comic element in the elevation of the make-up process into a religious ceremony, and the ridiculous conglomeration of the objects on the dressing table
“Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux”.
In Belinda’s scale of values the items (including Bibles) are of about equal importance. Clearly there is a social criticism here, but there is also a sense of fascination and, indeed, admiration for Belinda.
Belinda is, in some sense, a goddess, the personification of Beauty. And, in keeping with this view, her ravished lock attains immortality by being transformed into a shining star in the heavens. Yet, at a number of places she is less than a goddess, inasmuch as she is subject to human limitations. Thus, she fails to foresee and to foretell the ravishment of her lock, and also fails to recover her lock even after her victory in the battle. Moreover, she is subject to old age and death like mortals, though she is promised poetic immortality by Pope. Belinda’s status, as to whether she has been portrayed as a goddess or not, is ambiguous, and the question admits of no categorical answer.
By Bhaskar Banerjee
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