Heroic couplets are the ideal form to put a long, narrative poem in. We mention this in our "Form and Meter" section, too. The iambic pentameter marches us steadily forward at a pace that's not too slow (add one more foot, and it might be. Try reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Evangeline, written in iambic hexameter; it will feel much longer than it is), and not too fast (think about galloping lines like Alfred, Lord Tennyson's dactylic dimeter in "The Charge of the Light Brigade"). Heroic couplets give you stamina; and with a poem that's over 20,000 lines long like this one, you will definitely need it.
While those regular, five iambs per line might help to move us forward, the heroic couplet has one characteristic that might work against us getting through the poem in a steady fashion: its rhymes.
Think about it: if each couplet is composed of two rhyming lines, then those lines are going to feel like a complete unit in and of themselves. This quality of heroic couplets—or of any set of lines that you feel might be able to stand alone and apart from the poem on their own—is called epigrammatic (i.e., the lines would make a catchy epigram for something else). That's great, but it only gets you so far in a 20,000 line poem.
Pope counters the epigrammatic feel of the couplets by strategically using two poetic techniques at the end of his lines: end-stopping (where he uses a grammatical pause, like a colon, semi-colon, comma, a dash, or a period, at the end of a line), or enjambment (where there's no punctuation at the end of the line, so you're not supposed to pause as you're reading it).
Here's a great example of how this works, at the very end of the poem, when the speaker brags to Belinda about how much better off her hair is now that it's the subject of a poem:
Then cease, bright Nymph! To mourn thy ravish'd Hair
Which adds new Glory to the shining Sphere!
Not all the Tresses that fair Head can boast
Shall draw such envy as the Lock you lost. (V.141–144)
The end of the first line is enjambed; no punctuation after "Hair", so when you read it, you have to wrap right to the beginning of the next line without stopping. That's fine, because Pope wants you to build some momentum before you hit the emphatic end-stopping of the next line, "the shining Sphere."
Feel the contrast in effect? Within the strict overall rhythm, Pope is varying the ends of his lines, making his reader speed up or slow down in subtle ways that "break" the form of the couplet without really breaking it.
The Rape of the Lock—did that title pull you up short before you began the poem? "Rape" is, after all, a serious word for a very serious crime: sexually violating a person, against their will, often using force or coercion. As we've read through the poem, though, we don't see something like that happening. Belinda is not literally raped, in that sense, by the Baron. (This would be a very different poem if she had been.) So what gives?
The poem's title might seem confusing until you do a little digging into the etymology of the word "rape" (etymology is the history of a word's meaning). As our world changes through history, the meanings of our words often change with it, and what a word might have meant in, for example, The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century is not necessarily what it means in The Waste Land in the 20th.
Words are a lot like snowballs in that respect: as they roll through history, they gather layers and layers of meanings. In the 18th century, in Pope's day, "rape" also meant to carry away or take something from someone by force (in medieval times, "rape" as a noun also referred to the root of a turnip. We kid you not).
"Rape" did have a sexual connotation, but in no way as strongly as it does now. By using it in the title as the verb to describe what happens to Belinda's hair, Pope is playing on both layers of meaning: seizing something by force and personal violation.
Maybe the title takes us back to the territory of that third "Question" we ask you: of material goods (things, stuff ) and how they have come to define our sense of who we are. Do you think that Pope might also be making an association between Belinda's sense of self (of which her sexuality would be a huge part) and a thing—i.e., a lock of hair?
The Rape of the Lock is firmly set in the dressing-rooms and drawing rooms of early 18th-century London and Hampton Court, one of the residences of the Kings and Queens of Great Britain. Everything in the poem—the clothes, hairstyles, card games, modes of transportation, ways of speaking—is calculated to be the hippest, def-est, most fly and up-to-the-moment for the years 1713–1714.
Except, of course, all of those allusions to classical epics (remember, that's what makes the poem a satire; the juxtaposition of the present day with the heroic past).
Politically, 1713–1714 (the years the poem was written, revised, and published) were holding-pattern years in Great Britain. The Queen that we meet in Canto III, Anne (who sometimes takes counsel with her advisors, and sometimes takes tea, remember?), was nearing the end of her reign, her life, and the end of her family, as she hadn't had any living children to inherit the throne after her.
Anne's closest relative was her brother, James—but James was in France in exile, because he was a Catholic, and the British refused to have a member of the Catholic faith on their throne. In fact, the entire previous century—the 1600s—had been a time of terrible turmoil and civil war in England, during which Anne's grandfather had been beheaded and all kinds of social, religious, and political transformations had happened. (If you want to read more about Anne's fascinating family, the Stuarts, you can read about them here at the Official Website of the British Monarchy.)
By the 1710s, the British were used to having a Protestant monarch on the throne, and they wanted to keep it that way. So with Anne nearing her end, they were looking around for another of her relatives (NOT a Catholic) to put on the throne (they wound up inviting her cousin, George of Hanover, to come and rule—he is the current Queen's sixth great-grandfather, believe it or not).
Why is this important to the poet Pope and the frilly Belinda and the frivolous Baron? Because all of them were Catholics in Britain at a time when Catholics were under suspicion. People were scared that Anne's brother, James, might raise up an army of sympathizers and come take over, and that all of the Catholics in the country would support that.
It wasn't easy for Pope's or Arabella Fermor's or Lord Petre's family to stay out of political trouble—all the more reason that they needed to stick together and not feud among themselves. So now you see what was really at stake when Pope's friend, John Caryll, asked him to write a poem to "laugh them all together" after Lord Petre snipped off Belle Fermor's hair.
The early 18th century in Britain was also a time of expanding empire. Anne's generals were very successful in the many wars they fought with France and Spain and the Netherlands, and the nation won a ton of colonies and trading rights to colonies in the Americas and on the coast of Africa.
They already had those thirteen colonies in North America, and they had half of Canada. They'd begun a few outposts in India, and were trading with China, too. You can hear echoes of this imperial expansion in the teas, coffees, perfumes, and decorative items that surround Belinda's daily life.
This was also a time when empirical science and the profession of medicine were beginning to gather steam, after the invention of the microscope in the previous century. All of that crazy stuff in Canto IV about the Cave of Spleen? Some of it was Pope making fun of cutting-edge medical research in his day.
As well he might. Another important thing to know about Alexander Pope was the state of his physical health. The poor guy had tuberculosis of the spine when he was six years old, and it stunted his growth and curved his back into a hunch that got worse as he got older. He never grew much taller than four and a half feet (seriously) and he was in massive pain throughout his life. Legend has it the man drank thirty cups of coffee per day. Talk about self-medication. And remember there was no aspirin in the 18th century, kids.
It would be so tempting to say that Pope is the poem's speaker, and just be done with it. Especially after that lovely letter he writes in the very beginning, dedicating the poem to Arabella Fermor (the historical Belinda), in his own voice. But—sorry—he didn't make it that easy on us. On purpose.
The satire of the mock-epic depends in part on a definite difference between the poet and the speaker, and on the reader noticing that difference from the get-go. Our speaker definitely appears to be as infatuated with Belinda and her glittering group of frivolous friends as they are with themselves, using all of this fancy language and classical allusions to describe them, without seeming to realize how ridiculous it all is.
That, Pope seems to be saying, is our job as readers, and in the end isn't that a more effective lesson? Don't you learn better by doing something, rather than having someone else tell it to you?
But hold on a minute. The above description of the relationship between the poet and the speaker of The Rape of the Lock only works up till the very end, when the poem turns to praise poetry itself, and this poem in particular.
What do you think Pope is up to here at the ending, when his naïve, hero-worshiping speaker turns that naïve hero-worship inward to the poem and the poet? Ahh, tricky sneaky Pope. Maybe he's also poking fun at the grandiosity of poets like himself, who think that what they write will make them immortal. Maybe he's turning his own satiric weapons onto his own writing.
Which, in the end, makes him look honest and self-critical, and that makes us want to think he actually is a really amazing poet. It's a twisted way of paying yourself a compliment. But more effective than actually praising yourself to the skies. We dare you to try this in your application essays.
As flowing as its formal structure is, The Rape of the Lock is full of archaic language (the 18th century was a while ago, yo) and references to Classical literature that most 21st-century students probably have little or no experience with (Shmoop readers excepted, of course).
That said, getting through this poem will help you learn not only a whole heck of a lot about 18th century culture, about writing narrative poetry in a strict form, about the ways society can warp the people within it, and about the complex ways that satire can work. It will also, if you track down those references, help you learn more about Classical literature than you knew before. A win-win-win situation, if you ask us.
Make no mistake about it, you can pretty much always tell if a poem was written by Alexander Pope. If it's in perfectly-crafted heroic couplets, if it's witty and satirical, and if it has a ton of classical references in it, you're reading an Alexander special. Remember, Pope was the poster boy for early 18th century neoclassicism.
The Rape of the Lock is probably one of the most user-friendly and kind of all of Pope's poetry: later in life, when the political tide turned against him and the party he supported, he mainly wrote super-scathing satires against people in power and against what he saw as the depraved, immoral conduct of his age (yes, Pope became quite the curmudgeon later in life).
If you really want an advanced-level Pope experience, take a look at his last long satiric poem, The Dunciad of 1743. It depicts a total cultural and political apocalypse of bad taste, bad books, and worse government. Can you imagine what the man would have thought of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty?
Heroic couplets—sets of two lines of rhyming iambic pentameter each of which forms a distinct rhetorical as well as metrical unit—were hands-down the most popular poetic form in the later 17th and early 18th century in Britain.
The origins of heroic couplets are murky—they go back to at least Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century—but they first got their name in the 17th, where they were the main poetic form used for heroic drama. By the 1700s, almost every poet used them for almost every poem. But of all of those poets, Alexander Pope was the master of the heroic couplet. Lucky you: reading The Rape of the Lock is about as good a lesson as you could possibly get in the best way to write, and use, heroic couplets. (You can find a briefer lesson in our guide to part of Pope's later poem, An Essay on Criticism, called "Sound and Sense").
First, let's break them down into their component parts. Each line of heroic couplet is made up of five poetic feet, called iambs (that's Greek), which are units of two syllables: one unstressed, followed by one stressed.
Because there are five feet in each line, the lines are called pentameter (from "penta," or five—Greek again). Do the math: this means each line of each couplet will have ten syllables total. Take a look at the first couplet of The Rape of the Lock for an example:
What dire Offense from am'rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things, (I.1–2)
Can you see how iambic pentameter is a good choice for long, narrative poems like this one? The rhythm of unstressed/stressed marches you forward at a steady pace: not too fast, not too slow. Ever run a marathon? Well, if you did, you'd know that a steady unchanging pace is what gets you to the end. Iambic pentameter lines are the marathon pace of poetry.
The rhymes, too, help us get where we're going: they set each couplet off as unit (as above, with "springs/Things"), and when that unit ends, we're already looking forward to the next rhyme, carried there by the steady march of the iambic pentameter.
The fact that these are couplets makes them especially good for comparisons and contrasts—the juxtaposition we know Pope is so keen on throughout the poem.
Each line of the couplet can contain one thing—a person, a metaphor, an allusion— that contrasts with whatever is coming in the second line, as in Canto II when Ariel worries about what will happen to Belinda at the party:
Whether the Nymph shall break Diana's Law,
Or some frail China Jar receive a Flaw, (II. 105–106)
As we detailed in our "Summary" section, "Diana's Law" is the law of chastity, and Pope is here juxtaposing that very serious rule for young women, with the very next line's relatively trivial crack in a piece of decorative pottery.
Simultaneously, though, as the formal relation of these two lines tells us, he's also saying that Belinda's reputation is just as fragile as a china jar. The side-by-side placement of the lines underscores the side-by-side comparison/contrast of what the lines are about.
The juxtaposing power of heroic couplets doesn't stop at the level of the line, though. Given there are five metrical feet in each line—an uneven number—a crafty poet can insert pauses, or caesurae, within each line at strategic places.
A pause makes you slow down and consider what you've just read for a moment, and sets you up for the next part of the line. Pope does this here at the beginning of Canto III, when he describes Hampton Court and introduces us to the Queen:
Here Thou, Great Anna! Whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea. (III.7–8)
See the comma and the exclamation point in the first line of this couplet? Those are pauses, or caesurae, that set the Queen's name ("Great Anna") off from the other words in the line. Very respectful indeed.
Now look at the dash in the second line. It's another caesura, this time a long pause between the first three iambs of the line, and the last two. Those first three iambs are about some serious stuff: the "Counsel" the Queen takes with her ministers and advisors as she governs the realm. But what about the last two? Those are about the relatively trivial matter of taking tea.
We point out the relatively silly juxtaposition between these two things in our "Summary" of the poem. Here, do you see how well the form itself works with such juxtapositions? No wonder Pope found this form perfectly suited to what he was up to in The Rape of the Lock.
Shocked to find so many ancient Greeks and Romans scattered through this eighteenth-century poem, thick as raisins in an oatmeal-raisin cookie? (You could think of them as chocolate chips instead, if that makes you happier.)
Remember, as a mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock has to refer to as many moments in as many epic poems as Pope can pack in to each Canto. Comparison and juxtaposition of the classical heroism of characters like Achilles, Aeneas, and Odysseus, and gods like Zeus and Minerva, to the 18th-century frivolity of the Sylphs and Gnomes, or characters like Belinda, the Baron, Thalestris, Clarissa, and Sir Plume, is absolutely crucial to the humor and the satire of this poem.
Is Pope saying that his own society has fallen far, far below the standards of classical heroism and nobility that the ancient epic tradition depicts? Is he saying that the ancient epic tradition is completely unsuited to the ways people behave and believe during his own time? Could he be saying both?
There are way too many classical, epic references in the entire poem to go through them all here, but we'll hit the highlights for you now, and you can go back and pick out the rest on your own (the way your little sister might pick all the chocolate chips out of that cookie you were saving for tomorrow).
The speaker begins the poem by invoking the "Gods" and "Muses" who've inspired him to write, just like Homer and Virgil do at the beginnings of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid.
Like in Monty Python's Flying Circus, we know we're in for something completely different when Pope's Gods and Muses turn out to be his buddy, John Caryll, and the empty-headed Belinda herself. From the very beginning we are yanked between epic grandeur and the triviality of Pope's present day, and Pope does not let up throughout the poem.
Belinda's primping and prepping for the party, her makeup and hairstyling, are likened by the speaker to the arming of an epic hero for battle: "Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms." Belinda's no Achilles.
But wait a minute. Readers of Book 13 of Ovid's Metamorphosis will know that Achilles's mother tried to hide him from getting drafted to fight, by dressing him as a girl and sitting him among her handmaidens. Hmm. Maybe this humor cuts both ways? And who would you back in an MMA bout: Belinda or the classical hero?
The Baron, plotting his ways of getting at Belinda's hair, makes a sacrifice, a burnt offering of all the trivial love-tokens he's ever received (letters, gloves, flowers, etc.), to some unnamed "Powers" to grant his wish.
Classical, epic heroes would often do this, too, only they'd use bulls, sheep, or sometimes even the children of fellow kings (shudder) to convince the gods to help their cause. The Baron's sacrifice draws on all of these horrific, savage references, but for a completely trivial purpose, and in a frivolous way.
Here, Belinda's petticoat is called a "sev'nfold Fence" guarding her, below the waist, from potential violators; this metaphor is a direct reference to the famous Shield of Ajax as it was described in Book VII of The Iliad, made with seven folds of bull's hide and brass.
Awful beauty again puts on all of its arms—including its petticoats. Very silly. Unless of course you've ever worn Spanx, which sometimes feel like seven layers of bull's hide and brass …
Ariel admonishes the Sylph army to not let their guard down over Belinda, and threatens them with dire punishments if they do. Here, he uses a simile to tell them that anyone who doesn't do his job will be "as Ixion fix'd" to a wheel of torture—in the Sylphs' case, a coffee-grinder.
Ixion, an ancient Greek king, deceptively killed his father-in-law, and for that he was sentence to be broken on a wheel in Hades for eternity. Again, mock-epic juxtaposition. Although getting stuck in a coffee-grinder does sound pretty painful.
Pope hits all of the highlights of epic-battle convention: lines 37-44 introduce the King face-cards as if they were the commanders of armies like the Greeks and Trojans; lines 46-64 recount the exploits of the ace of spades and the two of spades ("Spadillio" and "Manillio") as if they were Hector and Achilles, and the remaining lines recount taken tricks as if the cards were soldiers killed and wounded in battle.
How far has polite society fallen from the noble, glorious warfare of old? Or—to take the opposite side, as this juxtaposition encourages us to do also—maybe the fact that card games can replace bloody, gory battles is an indicator of how far civilization has progressed?
Here's is another extended metaphor likening Umbriel's journey to the gloomy, feminine Cave of Spleen, to Aeneas's quest to the underworld of Hades in Book 6 of The Aeneid.
Whereas Aeneas is on the noble purpose of visiting the ghost of his dead father, however, Umbriel is on the hunt for tears, sobs, sighs, and hysterics, to inflict on Belinda and her friends. Where the Hades that Aeneas visits is full of the regal and tragic ghosts of recent epic history (all of his friends who were killed in the Trojan War, the ghost of poor Queen Dido, etc.), the Cave of Spleen is full of the hypochondriac issues and crazy visions of women under the influence of their spleens. Pope's classically-educated friends would have found this an absolute hoot. We're just telling you that it was supposed to be really, really funny. These days, not so much.
Clarissa's reasonable speech here is an almost line-for-line parody of the speech that Sarpedon, a Trojan noble, makes to his son Glaucus, urging him to win glory by leading the attack on the invading Greeks, from Book 12 of Homer's Iliad.
Pope's readers would have known that, when Sarpedon finished talking, all of the soldiers around him erupted into loud cheers. We know that Clarissa's audience of pouty society belles and beaux received her speech with sullen silence and indifference. Kids these days.
Readers of the Iliad and the Odyssey know that often the Greek gods would get directly involved in the battles between their mortal protégés, donning armor and plunging into the fray (they never seem to make a difference to the outcome, though. If we were a football coach, we might leave them as decorative team members on the bench).
These lines use a long simile to liken the cat-fight, or flirt-fight (if that isn't a word, we hereby invent it now, because it's perfect for what Pope describes here), between Belinda, the Baron, and their friends.
Back to the double-edged-ness of the epic simile, though: who looks sillier, the society folk who are pelting each other with snuff and hairpins, or the Greek gods whimpering on the battlefield when they actually get hit?
In the Aeneid, Book 12, during the battle between Aeneas and Turnus, the god Jove weighs each of the heroes' fates in a set of golden scales (Aeneas wins). Here, Pope has Jove weigh "the Men's Wits" against "the Lady's Hair." Strangely enough, the men's wits are lighter than Belinda's lock (doesn't say much for their wits, does it?).
Just like his use of Classical imagery to show how very trivial his society was, Pope uses a lot of religious imagery to demonstrate pretty much the same thing: people like Belinda, the Baron, and their friends have seriously skewed priorities, taking their appearance, their clothes, their romantic conquests, and their social victories more seriously than their souls.
Belinda at her dressing-table—surrounded by her jewelry, makeup, and hairstyling tools, assisted by her maid—is in this extended metaphor likened to a priestess conducting a religious rite, or a nun saying her prayers.
Instead of God or some gods, however, she worships "a heav'nly Image in the Glass" (I.125): her own image. The dressing-table is an "Altar" (I.127), and Belinda getting ready for the party is observing "the sacred Rites of Pride" (I. 128). Talk about narcissism. It's probably the ultimate slap in the face to true belief and faith: worshiping your own self instead of a higher power.
What's up with the "sparkling Cross" Belinda wears around her neck is one "which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore" (II.8)? Our speaker appears to be telling us that even the cross, that most meaningful symbol of the Christian faith, becomes trivialized out of its deeper meanings and reduced to just a pretty necklace.
As with so much of Pope's imagery, though, the meaning is double: do you suspect he might also be saying that Belinda is so beautiful, religious faiths can set aside their differences in her presence? Maybe that's not such a bad thing after all.
The Baron's "altar" here to love, built out of French romances, garters, gloves, and love-letters, counts as Classical imagery for its reference to the burnt offerings of classical epic heroes to their gods, but it also belongs here with the other religious imagery in the poem.
The Baron's altar is the twin of Belinda's own "altar" of a dressing-table in Canto I: like her, he makes a mockery of true faith by worshiping himself, but through his romantic conquests rather than his appearance (even though, we suspect, the Baron is probably quite fond of how he looks as well).
Another altar scene here. But this time, the altar is a fancy lacquered table, and the service/sacrifice being performed is the grinding of coffee beans and the brewing of coffee and tea. Will these people ever sort themselves out? (But then again, there've been times that we have felt like singing Hallelujah over a Starbucks caramel macchiato.)
This personification of "Ill-nature" as the handmaiden of the Queen of Spleen has her looking a lot like a sour nun, doesn't it? Wearing black and white, and full of hypocritical prayers on the outside (while on the inside, we're told in line IV.30, her "Bosom" is filled with "Lampoons"). Another instance of how Pope felt that people in his day misused religion: by using it as a vent for their bad tempers, and for a cover-up for their hypocrisy.
One of the stereotypical effects of too much spleen on certain kinds of women, was that it would cause them to get overly religious, devoting too much time to praying and fasting, and even causing them to see false visions. More warping, for Pope, of true belief and faith into something self-serving and trivial.
You might have guessed we'd need to go here, based on the poem's title and its depiction of male-female relations. There's no overt lust or passion here in Belinda's and the Baron's social world (that would cause them to lose their reputations), but there's a ton of repressed sexual energy, if you know where to look.
Pope builds on that by strategically dropping double entendres (that's a fun, fancy, French phrase for words or images that can be taken in two ways: one straight, and the other sexy) like truth bombs throughout the poem. Just under the surface of their polite, tightly laced, powdered, pampered world, these aristocratic young men and women are seething with natural energy and attraction to one another, and that energy shines through in the words our poet uses to describe the goings on.
Trouble is, they cannot vent that energy in any other way than by twisted actions like stealing a lock of hair, or poking each other with hairpins, or engaging in cruel gossip.
Belinda's dream here at the opening of the poem is one that causes her "Cheek to Glow"(I.24)—hubba hubba—but is it because the young man she sees in her dream is physically attractive, or is it because he's all dressed up in the most bling-encrusted suit you can imagine? Would Belinda even be able to tell the difference if she tried?
The Baron's plot to get his hands on Belinda's, er, locks of hair seems pretty involved to have such a trivial end goal. Look at this language: "By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray" (II.32)—does it sound to you like he might be after something more than a piece of hair? Or does it sound like Pope is saying he's more obsessed with Belinda's hair than he is with Belinda herself? As with Belinda and the glittering dream boy (above), can the Baron even tell the difference?
Ariel is telling all of the assembled Sylphs on the boat about his premonitions of something absolutely terrible happening to Belinda at the party she is about to attend. But that "absolutely terrible" thing is presented as a series of juxtapositions of the sexual (Belinda might lose her honor, her chastity, her reputation) and the trivial (a jar might break, she might spill something on her dress, she might be late for a masquerade ball or lose a necklace).
Priorities, Ariel, priorities.
In the "Classical and Epic Imagery" section, we talk about that petticoat of Belinda's being likened to Ajax's famous shield. We are revisiting it again here. What, you might be asking, might Belinda's petticoat have to shield Belinda from? Double entendre alert. We won't spell that out for you, but we think you get Pope's drift.
We've already pointed out how the Cave of Spleen is all about stereotypical female problems: bad tempers, emotional outbursts, self-righteousness, moodiness… wait a sec. Could we call the Cave of Spleen a place where it is perpetually "that time of the month"?
They vaguely called it "spleen" back then; they vaguely call it "hormones" now. We should not be surprised that, then as now, men remain kind of mystified about the workings of women's bodies, should we?
Umbriel is bragging hard to the Queen of Spleen about all of the petty, mean things he has done to society. Here he lays claim to spreading malicious rumors about the sexual activity of people who never actually did anything wrong. Classy.
The "airy Horns" he says he plants on people's heads in IV.71 refers to cuckolding, a word that in Pope's day meant cheating. A "cuckold" was a man whose wife had slept with someone else—the mocking symbol of being a cuckold was having horns on your head. But these are imaginary. Rumors only.
As for the "rumpled Petticoats, or tumbled Beds" (IV.72), that's just more rumored evidence of immoral behavior. Is it real? Pope seems to be saying that whether or not people actually cheat on each other is a moot point; in this society, it's the rumors and gossip that carry the day.
Yes, that's Thalestris, making Belinda feel even worse about her hair loss by making double entendres about her loss of honor (18th-century code word for female chastity) and reputation.
Just as possessing the locks of hair is where the Baron misplaces all of his attraction for Belinda, so Belinda's loss of those locks is where Thalestris places her loss of reputation. The locks might even be a stand-in for Belinda's virginity; what do you think?
If you answered "maybe" to that last question above, you might reconsider your answer by the time you get to the end of Canto IV. Belinda, Belinda, Belinda. You're telling the Baron you wish he had seized "Hairs less in sight" than the locks on your neck.
So, dear reader: do you think that Belinda's visible locks (i.e., her outer appearance) are more important to her than "hairs less in sight" (maybe her true chastity or her inner virtue)? Take this double entendre for everything it's worth. You know Pope wants you to.
The battle between the beaus and the belles, recounted here, is full of energy that borders on the sexual. The combat that Pope describes is always between members of the opposite sex, and the victors seem to base their triumphs on attraction rather than physical pain (although sometimes, we think, you can love someone so much it hurts, right?).
Look at "Sir Fopling" in line V.63, who tells us that Thalestris has killed him with her beautiful eyes? Or how about Belinda and the Baron in lines 75-102, leaping on top of each other? Finally, at the end of that fight scene, the Baron confesses a strong feeling to Belinda when he tells her he's burning "in Cupid's flames" (V.102).
Don't you think this bunch might have been better off venting their feelings for one another by stepping on the dance floor, with some Daft Punk booming through their ears? What do Belinda and the Baron care more about: gettin' lucky, or getting that lock?
An important aspect of living in Belinda and the Baron's society appears to be living with—and maybe even living through—a lot of stuff. By "stuff," we mean things, goods, items: jewelry, clothes, china pots, teacups, coffee grinders, coffeepots, canes, snuffboxes, fancy serving tables, mirrors, fans, gloves… Come to think of it, the prevalence of stuff in their lives doesn't seem all that different from the importance stuff has in our lives, does it?
But as with the double-entendres we discussed above, Pope again seems to be making a comment about the displaced priorities of his world, where (again, as with us) the material things people surround themselves with come to define them. Think about the lock itself—an obsessed-over piece of stuff if ever there was one. By the end of the poem it has come to define not only Belinda's self and her personal attraction, and the Baron's self and his masculinity, but also the very power of poetry itself.
Even before she wakes up, Belinda's world is defined by her things: a lapdog, a slipper, a fancy watch, a pillow. Notice how each of these items contains and constrains her: the dog as a location for affection, the slipper as a means of communication with her servants, the watch dictating her schedule, the pillow dictating her sleep.
On Belinda's dressing table, things—her makeup, perfume, accessories, hairstyling tools, knick-knacks—substitute for places in the growing British Empire: India, Arabia, China, Africa.
They also stand in for emotions and beliefs, as in line I.138, which describes "Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux" as all jumbled together without any distinction. Faith and love (the "Bibles, Billet-doux") are no different from the "Puffs, Powders, Patches."
In these lines we meet Belinda's locks for the first time, and the poem's speaker describes them first as weapons (they exist for "the Destruction of Mankind"), as chains for enslavement, as snares and lines for hunting and fishing, and finally as traps for men.
The overall meaning the locks seem to have here is of power—Belinda's personal power over the male members of her society. Does it strike you as kind of warped that her power comes from these hairs? (Ok, it did work with Samson in the Bible. At least until he met Delilah.)
The obsession with things, which we first saw on Belinda's dressing table and through Pope's depiction of her hair, gets extended in these lines to her society as a whole.
Just like Belinda's dressing table, important concepts and ideas (like "the Glory of the British Queen" in line III.13) get mixed up with stuff (the "charming Indian Screen," line III.14). Or perhaps, Pope seems to be saying, there isn't a mix-up after all? If the British Queen weren't so glorious, there wouldn't be any Indian screens to talk about, would there?
Stuff stands in for power and empire once again, after the card game ends, and the party adjourns for coffee and tea service. The countries of "China" and "Japan" here get symbolized by the beverage they represent (tea, of course), something these privileged folk can consume and show off with.
Did anyone ever feed you that line about women caring more about stuff than men? You do realize that's a crock, right? If not, meet Sir Plume, who adores his amber snuff-box and his fancy cane so much, that he can barely communicate without waving either of them about.
Belinda's "bodkin" or fancy hairpin is more than just a hair toy. Here it represents her entire family history, from her great-grandfather, who wore it in another form as a set of seal rings and then melted it into a belt-buckle for her great-grandmother, who then melted it into a baby whistle for her grandmother, and on down to her mother, who gave her the bodkin.
Do you have an item that you cherish in your own family, something passed down from generation to generation? Do you think it's fair that Pope make fun of something like this? Or does it fit into the whole idea of stuff being way too important to Belinda and her set?
The lock comes back again, although this time it seems to have risen above (literally and figuratively) all of the trivial "stuff" that we've seen cluttering up the entire rest of the poem. That stuff is here represented by the celestial recycling bin full of "Heroes' wits" in Vases, "Beaus'" wits in snuff-boxes and tweezer-cases, etc.
The lock, however, has now become celestial, like a shooting star that only the poet's eye can see, heading up to the sky and becoming a constellation. Here at the end, it has escaped being just a thing, and become instead the subject of an immortal poem. Is the speaker telling us that, finally, the poem itself has its priorities straight?
Well, we made sexual imagery a thematic category that runs throughout the whole poem (remember the section on all of Pope's double entendres?) so yes, there's some of it in The Rape of the Lock.
With young men and women thrown together in social situations, how could there not be? But as we discuss in the "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay" section, the sex is so completely under wraps (literally: remember Belinda's seven-fold petticoat?), so smooshed beneath the conventions of polite behavior and language, that it gets warped and comes out as a questionable obsession with things like locks of hair, or snuff-boxes, or fine gloves and hairpins. You could call this an entire poem about the Baron's hair fetish, and you wouldn't be too far off.
As you might have noticed, Pope has hundreds of indirect references, imagery, and allusions borrowed from classical epics like the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid—that's what makes this piece neoclassical after all. Here, we're only pointing out some of the more direct ones. If you can hunt out more, go for it.