There is no finer gem than The Rape of the Lock in all the lighter treasures of English fancy. Compared with any other mock-heroic poem in the English language, it shines in pure supremacy for elegance, completeness, point, and playfulness. It diverts us by its mimicry of greatness, and yet astonishes by the beauty of its parts, and the fairy brightness of its ornaments. It is a jewel of many facets, each shining brilliantly. The poem takes us into an enchanted, brilliant world in which, keeping the Cave of Spleen well aside, almost nothing is dull.
The most striking quality of this poem is, of course, its sparkling and scintillating wit. The poem is in effect a satire upon the fashionable world of the eighteenth century, and more especially upon feminine frivolity. The vanities of the women of the time are equisitely ridiculed. Their preoccupation with self-embellishment is satirised in the famous passage which describes Belinda's toilet. Their moral bankruptcy is exposed in the amusing lines in which we are told that, for a lady, staining her new brocade was as disastrous as staining her honour, and losing a necklace was as calamitous as losing her heart. The poet laughs at a lady's petticoat which was by no means impenetrable: "Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail." The breaking of a China-vessel or the death of a lap-dog was as great a misfortune for a woman as the death of a husband. Some very amusing satire is to be found in the lines which describe the strange shapes in the Cave of Spleen: "And maids turned bottles, call aloud for corks." Virtue was not a prime consideration. If a good reputation could be maintained, the loss of virtue was no serious matter:
Honour forbid ! at whose unrivalled shrine, Ease, pleasure, virtue, all our sex resign.
The same attitude of mind is expressed in the lines in which Belinda says:
Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these !
* Almost every aspect of the fashionable society of the time is mocked at by Pope, and the mockery sends us into peals of laughter. Much of the pleasure of this poem results from this mockery. Fun is the key-note of the poem.
But, while the poet exposes the absurdities and affectations and superficialities of the high society of his time, he also gives us many pictures of the elegance and glitter of that society. These pictures are also a source of delight to the reader. Belinda is a woman of superb beauty and charm. She is certainly an object of mockery in the poem, but she also earns our homage and adoration. She is regarded as the rival of the beams of the sun. She wears a sparkling cross which even Jews and infidels would, kiss. She has a naturally care-free temper: "Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay." She has a Cleopatra-like variety of appearance and character. Her beauty and charm are emphasised when she gets busy with her toilet. Robed in white, she sees her heavenly reflection in the mirror. Her beauty is greatly enhanced by the various decorative aids which she employs. We are fascinated by her beauty as described in this famous passage dealing with her toilet. Although the hint of satire here also is unmistakable, these lines possess great poetic charm which is a source of much pleasure to us:
Belinda's cheerful temperament adds to her attractions. She is not only cheerful herself but "maintains thousands more in equal mirth." At the end of the poem, her beautiful lock is turned into a constellation in the sky, adding "new glory to the shining sphere." We see Belinda in many different lights— as coquette, injured innocent, sweet charmer, society belle, rival of the sun, and murderer of millions. The part, or parts, which Belinda plays in the elaborate social drama of manners are certainly ridiculous and even contemptible, but they are also endearing and poignant. She outshines all her sex in divine attributes and importance. The dazzling personality of Belinda greatly contributes to the appeal of the poem.
The machinery of the poem is another source of the pleasure which this poem affords. Basically the machinery of the sylphs and gnomes is intended to heighten the mock-epic effect of the poem. But the sylphs have a beauty and charm of their own. The occupations and tasks of the sylphs are described in exquisitely witty lines, often of great poetic beauty. Some of the sylpl.s play in the "field of purest ether", and bask in the "blaze of day". Some guide the course of wandering stars like comets. Some pursue the shooting stars. Some drink the vapours nearer earth. Some dip their wings in the colours of the rainbow. Some cause tempests to rise on the seas. Some shower kindly rains on tilled fields. The sylphs illustrate the sensuous richness with which Belinda is surrounded (though they also convey the pressures and apprehensions to which she is subjected). The myth of the sylphs enables the poet to show his awareness of the absurdities of a point of view which, nevertheless, is charming, delightful, and filled with a real poetry. The sylphs are exquisitely related to traditional beliefs, both trivial and profound. They are in part quite seriously and excellently realised, with names delicately composed to suit their peculiar functions—Zephyretta, Brillante, Momentilla, Crispissa, etc. "Probably the largest single way in which Pope imparted qualities of splendour and wonder to his actors and actions was through his brilliant adaptation of epic machinery. What they really stand for—feminine honour, flirtation, courtship, the necessary rivalry of man and woman—is seen in its essence, and a human impulse seen in its essence is always beautiful."
It is because of the rare beauty and grace of the poem that Hazlitt described it as the most exquisite specimen of filigree work ever invented. The poem, he said, is made of gauze and silver spangles. Of course, it is the beautiful myth of the sylphs which chiefly lends to the poem its filigree quality. (A filigree is ornamental work of fine gold or silver or copper wire. It therefore means anything delicate, light, showy, and frail). Belinda too is a pail of a filigree world, a fairyland adorned with jewels, china, lap-dogs, and snuff-boxes. But there are other elements also which contribute to the ornamental character of the poem. There are the airy elves seen by moonlight shadows, the silver token and the circled green. There are the virgins visited by "angel powers with golden crowns and wreath of heavenly flowers."
There are the banquets and the masquerades arranged by Florio and by Damon. There is the picture of the ladies reading Atalantis or reclining in their beds, or attending parties, or making appointments with their lovers. There are the pictures of court-life described by Belinda in her lament after she has lost the lock. It is because of all these ingredients that Edith Sitwell described The Rape of the Lock as a miracle of summer air, and glittering as the net of the summer light and early dew over the strawberry bed—"a poem so airy that it might have been woven by the long fingers of the sylphs in their dark and glittering Indian gauzes fleeting like a little wind among the jewelled dark dews on the leaves of the fruit-tree."
It would, however, be wrong to regard this poem as a work of beauty and grace devoid of any substance. Its airy and fanciful character certainly predominates, but it also has a serious moral purpose which cannot be ignored. Dr. Johnson complimented Pope on having put a moral in this poem which may be regarded as a condemnation of the ill-humour, spleen, vanity, and intolerance of women, and a plea for good-humour and a sane, rational approach to things. Clarissa's speech is most vital in this connection. The glories of social position and privilege are, in Clarissa's view, achieved in vain "unless good sense preserve what beauty gains." The best course for women is to make good use of their power and "keep good humour still whatever we lose." The poem is also a condemnation of the mentality of fops and dandies. Certain moral reflections are found scattered in the poem. For instance:
O thoughtless mortals ! ever blind to fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate.
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate.
An account of the sources of pleasure in this poem would be incomplete without a reference to its style of writing. The heroic couplet as used by Pope achieves every known poetic effect, including high seriousness and low comedy, optimism and gloom, mirth and despair, and a host of other atmospheres or poetic states. Pope's stylistic devices include balance and parallelism, antithesis, juxtaposition, zeugma, etc. In many passages of description and homage, Pope makes plentiful use of romantic hyperbole. For instance he speaks of Belinda's eyes which can "eclipse the day".