In The Rape of the Lock Alexander Pope (1688-1744) employs a mock-epic style to satirise the beau-monde (fashionable world, society of the elite) of eighteenth century England. The richness of the poem, however, reveals more than a straightforward satirical attack. Alongside the criticism we can detect Popes fascination with, and perhaps admiration for, Belinda and the society in which she moves. Pope himself was not part of the beau-monde. He knew the families on which the poem is based but his own parents, though probably comfortably off, were not so rich or of the class one would have to be in to move in Belinda’s circle. He associated with learned men and poets, and there can have been little common ground between the company he kept at Will’s Coffee House and those who frequented Hampton Court.
The incident at the centre of the poem is the Baron’s theft of a lock of hair and the ensuing estrangement of two families. The opening lines of the poem introduce the reader to the satirical stance he is taking towards the society portrayed in the poem.
What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things, [I.1-2]
Pope suggests that they are taking a trivial incident too seriously, displaying an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Throughout the poem Pope continues to make this point through his use of the mock-epic style, which itself takes a trivial incident too seriously, and uses disproportionately grand language to describe an unworthy subject.
Belinda is belittled early in the poem by the revelation of Ariel [l.27-114], who tells her that part of her will survive after her death.
Think not, when Womans transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho she plays no more, oerloks the Cards.
Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And Love of Ombre, after Death survive.
For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
To their first Elements their Souls retire: [l.51-9]
We might expect this part, the deepest and most essential part of her being, the ‘first Elements’, to be her soul, but in Belinda’s case it is her Vanities, her ‘Joy in gilded Chariots’ and her ‘Love of Ombre’, suggesting that her soul consists of nothing more that vanity and a love of pleasure.
Belinda’s vanity is seem to take the form of religious devotion in the passage describing her morning toilette.
And now, unveild, the Toilet stands displayd,
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
First, robd in White, the Nymph intent adores
With Head uncoverd, the Cosmetic Powrs.
A heavnly Image in the Glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears; [l.121-6]
The ironic transposition of cosmic powers in ‘Cosmetic Powrs’ indicates the excessive value she attributes to her make-up, and bowing to her own image shows her devotion to her religion of narcissism. The passage is a mock version of the arming of the epic hero, her weaponry of cosmetics being ridiculed by the implicit comparison with the swords and shields of the epic hero. The passage includes a mock catalogue.
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux. [l.137-8]
This catalogue, echoing the catalogue of troops and weaponry found in epics, is one of the many indications of the jumbled values to be found in Belinda’s society. The Bible is seen as a trinket for the adornment of her dressing table, along with the puffs and powders.
If we look for an explicit moral message in the poem we must look to Clarissa’s speech [V.7-34], which Pope included specifically for that purpose. This is the most sober passage in the poem and it embodies Pope’s message to the beau-monde, and in particular to the Fermor and Petre families. It is a plea for maturity and good sense, for virtue and care of the soul; all the things which the satire has shown to be lacking. By asking them to see their lives in a wider context he hopes to persuade them to adopt a more rational sense of proportion. By laughing at the mock-epic style they will have to admit that they are laughing at themselves, and Pope hopes this will inculcate a spirit of good humour and reconciliation.
Although not himself of the beau-monde Pope was part of the same era. The finesse and delicacy of beau-monde manners is matched by Pope’s style, and the good humour, wit, and charm which characterises Pope’s manner must represent an expression of the same ideals pursued by the Baron and other courtly men of the age. An affinity between them is revealed by Pope’s empathy, fine judgements, and carefully aimed criticisms, and Pope must have been at least a little fascinated by the beau-monde to apply his talents to this poem which, in an ironic way, celebrates Belinda and her world and, as Pope himself suggests in the final couplet of the poem, has preserved them for posterity.
This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame,
And midst the Stars inscribe Belindas Name! [V.149-50]