In the dedication Pope explains that "machinery" is a term invented by the critics to signify the part which deities, angels, or demons play in a poem. He goes on to say that the machinery in his poem is based on the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits. According to this doctrine the four elements are inhabited by sylphs, nymphs, gnomes, and salamanders. The sylphs, whose habitation is in the air, are supposed to be the best-conditioned creatures imaginable.
Pope tells us in the poem that beautiful women return, after their death, to the elements from which they were derived. Termagants, or violent tempered women become salamanders or spirits of the fire. Women of gentle and pleasing disposition pass into nymphs or water-spirits. Prudish women become gnomes or earth-spirits. Light-hearted coquettes are changed into sylphs or spirits of the air. Pope attributes to the mischievous influence of the gnomes many unguarded follies of the female sex which he holds up to ridicule.
The first and perhaps the foremost occupation of the sylphs is the protection of fair and chaste ladies who reject the male sex. It is they who guard and save the chastity of maidens who are on the point of yielding to their lovers. They save these maidens from falling victims to the allurements of "treacherous friends" and dashing young men whose music softens their minds and dancing inflames their passions. The gnomes or earth-spirits fill the minds of proud maidens with foolish ideas which make them indulge in vain dreams of being married to lords and peers. These gnomes teach young coquettes to ogle and pretend blushing at the sight of fashionable young men who cause their hearts to flutter. It is the sylphs, however, who safely guide the maidens through all dangers. It is most amusing to note how these sylphs do this. Whenever a maiden is about to yield to the seduction of a particular young man, another who is more attractive and tempting appears on the scene and the fashionable maiden at once transfers her favour to the new comer. This may be called levity or fickleness in women but it is all contrived by the sylphs. Some of the sylphs are in charge of national affairs and their chief guards the British throne.
In most of the famous epics (the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aenied, and Paradise Lost) "machinery" consists in supernatural beings like gods and angels who play a vital role in the action of the poems thus showing that the human world is not independent or even adequate and that supernatural powers have an important bearing on this world. Pope thought that his mockepic would be incomplete without a parody of this established practice of epic poets in introducing machinery. The machinery of his poem comprises the sylphs led by Ariel (named after Shakespeare's immortal creation in The Tempest). In lines of great poetic beauty Pope describes wittily the occupations and tasks of the sylphs in general.
Ariel tells us in the poem that to him and his followers has been assigned the humble but pleasant duty of serving fashionable young ladies. The functions of these sylphs are described humorously and include saving the powder from being blown off from the cheeks of ladies, preventing scents from evaporating, preparing cosmetics, teaching the ladies to blush and to put on enchanting airs, suggesting new ideas about dress.
The sylphs show a delightful down-scaling of the epic machines. They are "light" by any heroic standards. They feel scared when a crisis approaches. Yet they are in every detail Belinda's intimates and counsellors. They explain the various complicated conventions and anxieties that make up Belinda's day.
The Rape of the Lock may be described as a satirical comedy of manners. The sylphs in this poem are both a mirror and mock-apotheosis of customs and conventions of the society of the time. Belinda is told in a dream that sylphs guide and protect her through the dangers of life. Ariel's account of the predicament of the "tender mind" in a circle of rakes reduces his use of noble words such as "innocent", "honour", and "purity" to the level of a muddle and a sham. He is there, he tells her, to protect her purity according to sylphic theology. Defended by sylphs, the "melting maids" are safe, for what we call "honour" is really no more than Providence. Reassuring Belinda in this way, Ariel is in effect undermining her moral position, taking away with one hand the credit he gives with the other. He explains how a woman's defence is achieved. A maid would fall to Florio if Damon were not at hand to divert her attention, and if, an old folly were not expelled by a new. A maid "shifts the moving toy-shop of her heart" with her varying vanities. It is the sylphs that make her do that.
What we called "levity" in women, says Ariel, is the effect of the same divine guidance as determined their "honour". The concealed implication, that the two qualities are roughly on a par, is very cruel. But Ariel merrily goes on to warn Belinda in epic style of the danger that threatens her. He concludes with a plea for caution, and the words of caution come from the lips that have just encouraged flirtatiousness.
The machines are present at every crucial situation in the play. The sylphs are present in the course of Belinc'-'s journey by boat to Hampton Court. They have been warned by Ariel to remain alert and vigilant, fifty of them having been deputed to take charge of Belinda's petticoat. They are in attendance on Belinda when she plays ombre. They hover around her when she sips coffee. And they withdraw only when Ariel sees "an earthly lover lurking at her heart". A gnome, called Umbriel, goes to the Cave of Spleen and returns with a bag full of sighs, sobs, screams, and outbursts of anger, and a phial filled with fainting fits, gentle sorrows, soft griefs, etc.—all of which are released over Belinda. And the sylphs are present to witness the flight of Belinda's lock of hair to the sky. In short, the machinery of the poem is constantly kept in the reader's view, to the very last.
Thus Pope has provided the myth of the sylphs in order to symbolise the polite conventions which govern the conduct of maidens. We miss the whole point if we regard the sylphs as merely supernatural machinery. In general, we may say that Popei's use of this myth represents his attempt to do justice to
the intricacies of the feminine mind. His treatment of the sylphs allows him to develop his whole attitude toward Belinda and the special world which she graces.
The sylphs, a critic tells us, were added to the poem not simply as shining trinkets and three-penny bits to a Christmas pudding, but to develop and flavour the whole. They improve the literary mockery, and they also improve the human mockery. The machinery of sylphs is the principal symbol of the triviality of Belinda's world. "The light militia of the lower sky" are a travesty of both Homeric deities and Miltonic guardian angels. Like these originals they have an ambiguous status: they exist within and without the characters. The sylphs who protect Belinda are also her acceptance of the rules of social convention, which presume that a coquette's life is a pure game.
The machinery of sylphs in this poem is vastly superior to the allegorical personages of Boileau and Garth in their respective mock-epics, Le Lutrin and The Dispensary. The machinery is superior not only on account of its novelty, but the oblique satire which results from it. The business and petty concerns of a fine lady receive an air of importance from the notion of their being looked after by celestial agents. The mock-epic effect is heightened thereby. The myth of the sylphs is of the utmost importance to Pope: it allows him to show his awareness of the absurdities of a point of view which, nevertheless, is charming, delightful, and filled with a real poetry. The myth also allows him to suggest that the charm, in part at least, springs from the very absurdity. The two elements can hardly be separated in Belinda; in her guardian, Ariel, they cannot be separated at all.
The use of this machinery serves various other purposes in the poem. The machinery imparts qualities of splendour and wonder to the actors and the actions in the story. Like Homer's gods, Pope's sylphs move easily in and out of the lower world; they surprise without offending our sense of the probable; and they give to ordinary human impulses a sensuous or concrete form. 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.
These "light militia of the lower sky", says a critic, increase dramatic suspense, and therefore story depth, since they foreknow and warn of the central disaster. They help to universalize semi-humorously the whole action as they are the binding symbolism of the little drama. They reflect the implied belief that humanity and its sensible world do not exhaust the total of a comprehensive statement. They are also spirits of the dead, acting as guardian angels to the living.
The sylphan machinery is exquisite, but ft must also be recognized as demonic. In tempting Belinda to transcend the flesh-and-blood world by life long chastity, Ariel offers her a Satanic substitute for Christianity.
If may be pointed out that Addison had advised Pope against adding the machinery of the sylphs to the poem but that Pope ignored the advice; Needless to say, Pope succeeded eminently in his design of .introducing this element of the "marvellous". Pope has recovered something. Of Homer's vision of a human drama played in relation to a divine order.
John Dennis, however, did not take kindly to the .machinery of this poem. According to him, Pope's machines, contradict the doctrine of the Christian religion, and contradict all sound morality; there is no allegorical nor any sensible meaning in them; and for these reasons they provide no instruction and make no impression at all upon the mind of a sensible reader. Instead of making the action wonderful and delightful, they render it extravagant, absurd, and incredible. Dennis's opinion is, however, not sound or convincing. '