Study Guide

The Rape of the Lock Canto III

By Alexander Pope

Canto III

Lines 1-18

Close by those Meads for ever crown'd with Flow'rs,
Where Thames with Pride surveys his rising Tow'rs,
There stands a Structure of Majestick Frame,
Which from the neighb'ring Hampton takes its Name.
Here Britain's Statesmen oft the Fall foredoom
Of Foreign Tyrants, and of Nymphs at home;
Here Thou, great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea.
Hither the Heroes and the Nymphs resort,
To taste awhile the Pleasures of a Court;
In various Talk th' instructive hours they past,
Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:
One speaks the Glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian Screen.
A third interprets Motions, Looks, and Eyes;
At ev'ry Word a Reputation dies.
Snuff, or the Fan, supply each Pause of Chat,
With singing, laughing, ogling, and all that.

  • Belinda's boat has finally made it the few miles up the River Thames to Hampton Court, one of the Queen's palaces, and to the party that waits for her there.
  • The scene is pretty brutal when it comes to gossip; this bunch of social cutthroats does not play around. Pope gives us a quick glimpse of their small talk and mean comments, interspersed with waving fans and snuff-taking.
  • You have probably noticed the juxtapositions Pope uses in this section, but just in case, we'll point them out to you.
  • Once again (yep—there's a theme here) the poem places the high and mighty right next to the trivial and frivolous, starting in lines 5-6, where "Britain's Statesmen" (that would be the ministers and politicians in the British government of Pope's time) make important decisions, like "foredooming" the fall of "Foreign Tyrants" (kind of like our government's decision to fight against Saddam Hussein back in the early 1990s).
  • But look in the very next phrase of that line: what else do those politicians talk about? The fall of "Nymphs at home"—i.e. the reputations of girls like Belinda. What a bunch of gossips those politicians are.
  • But notice, too, how the parallelism of that line works: "Nymphs" (attractive young women) are placed right next to "Foreign Tyrants." Kind of associates the tyrants with flirtatious girls (very silly), but also associates those girls with the tyrants. Have you ever seen a pretty girl bossing around her boyfriends or friends? Yeah, we thought so.
  • Another juxtaposition comes up quickly, in lines 7 and 8, where we meet—bows and curtsies, please—the Queen of England herself. Not Elizabeth II, the current queen, but Ann, who reigned from 1702-1714. (You can learn more about her in the "Setting" section.)
  • Pope is a little more respectful to his monarch than he was to his politicians: "Here Thou, Great Anna! Whom three Realms obey,/ Dost sometimes Counsel take—and sometimes Tea." Notice his very high poetic language, using "Thou" instead of "You," and "Dost" instead of "Do."
  • The contrast comes in that second line, where we see the Queen in her palace sometimes conferring with her advisors about grand affairs of state… and sometimes just sitting and sipping a cup of tea (in Pope's day, "tea" was pronounced "tay," so the rhyme in the couplets is very strong here as well).
  • Have you ever read Us magazine's "Stars—They're Just Like Us" pages? All about Brad and Angelina going to the grocery store or Beyoncé walking her dog? Queen Anne—just like us.
  • The last ten lines of this second foreground the silliness of the social network of nobles and gentry who hang around the Queen's court partying, flirting, eating, and generally making intrigue. This is Belinda's crowd, and—as you're about to see—they're a pretty mean clique.

Lines 19-100

Mean while declining from the Noon of Day,
The Sun obliquely shoots his burning Ray;
The hungry Judges soon the Sentence sign,
And Wretches hang that Jury-men may Dine;
The Merchant from th'exchange returns in Peace,
And the long Labours of the Toilette cease ----
Belinda now, whom Thirst of Fame invites,
Burns to encounter two adventrous Knights,
At Ombre singly to decide their Doom;
And swells her Breast with Conquests yet to come.
Strait the three Bands prepare in Arms to join,
Each Band the number of the Sacred Nine.
Soon as she spreads her Hand, th' Aerial Guard
Descend, and sit on each important Card,
First Ariel perch'd upon a Matadore,
Then each, according to the Rank they bore;
For Sylphs, yet mindful of their ancient Race,
Are, as when Women, wondrous fond of place.
Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever'd,
With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;
And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow'r,
Th' expressive Emblem of their softer Pow'r;
Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,
Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;
And Particolour'd Troops, a shining Train,
Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.
The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;
Let Spades be Trumps, she said, and Trumps they were.
Now move to War her Sable Matadores,
In Show like Leaders of the swarthy Moors.
Spadillio first, unconquerable Lord!
Led off two captive Trumps, and swept the Board.
As many more Manillio forc'd to yield,
And march'd a Victor from the verdant Field.
Him Basto follow'd, but his Fate more hard
Gain'd but one Trump and one Plebeian Card.
With his broad Sabre next, a Chief in Years,
The hoary Majesty of Spades appears;
Puts forth one manly Leg, to sight reveal'd;
The rest his many-colour'd Robe conceal'd.
The Rebel-Knave, who dares his Prince engage,
Proves the just Victim of his Royal Rage.
Ev'n mighty Pam that Kings and Queens o'erthrow,
And mow'd down Armies in the Fights of Lu,
Sad Chance of War! now, destitute of Aid,
Falls undistinguish'd by the Victor Spade.
Thus far both Armies to Belinda yield;
Now to the Baron Fate inclines the Field.
His warlike Amazon her Host invades,
Th' Imperial Consort of the Crown of Spades.
The Club's black Tyrant first her Victim dy'd,
Spite of his haughty Mien, and barb'rous Pride:
What boots the Regal Circle on his Head,
His Giant Limbs in State unwieldy spread?
That long behind he trails his pompous Robe,
And of all Monarchs only grasps the Globe?
The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;
Th' embroider'd King who shows but half his Face,
And his refulgent Queen, with Pow'rs combin'd,
Of broken Troops an easie Conquest find.
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild Disorder seen,
With Throngs promiscuous strow the level Green.
Thus when dispers'd a routed Army runs,
Of Asia's Troops, and Africk's Sable Sons,
With like Confusion different Nations fly,
In various habits and of various Dye,
The pierc'd Battalions dis-united fall,
In Heaps on Heaps; one Fate o'erwhelms them all.
The Knave of Diamonds now tries his wily Arts,
And wins (oh shameful Chance!) the Queen of Hearts.
At this, the Blood the Virgin's Cheek forsook,
A livid Paleness spreads o'er all her Look;
She sees, and trembles at th' approaching Ill,
Just in the Jaws of Ruin, and Codille.
And now, (as oft in some distemper'd State)
On one nice Trick depends the gen'ral Fate.
An Ace of Hearts steps forth: The King unseen
Lurk'd in her Hand, and mourn'd his captive Queen.
He springs to Vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace.
The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky,
The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply.

  • It's about to be twelve noon, the time when (as Pope reminds us) both working folk (like judges and juries and merchants) and the idle rich (who mainly work at their "Toilette" or dressing table (24) take a break for lunch.
  • Belinda, working the party like a pro, challenges the Baron and another young man to "Ombre," which was a very popular card game of Pope's day, where players win by taking tricks (much like the game of Hearts that we play today).
  • The deck is dealt, and as Belinda surveys her hand, a set of worried Sylphs hops onto each of her cards to keep an eye on the action. The rest of this section describes the card game itself, as first Belinda is winning all of the hands (45-65), and then the Baron comes out on top (67-92). The game turns in Belinda's favor with the final trick (94-100), and she wins.
  • Check out how Pope gets in just a teeny bit of social satire in the first four lines of this section, as he describes judges and juries rushing through trials and court decisions so that they can make it to lunch on time? "Wretches hang"—yep, death sentences get decided quickly—"that Jury-men may dine" (22). Doesn't say much for the justice system right before noon, does it?
  • The rest of this section of Canto III might seem confusing at first until you keep the whole mock epic theme in mind. All true epics feature at least one amazing battle scene (Homer's Iliad has a ton of them) where heavily-armored heroes hack away at one another, and speak poetically while they're drowning in bloody gore.
  • Pope very cleverly makes the society card game into his own "battle," to keep The Rape of the Lock as mock-epic as he can. How competitive do family card games get at your house? You can look at this whole section (37–100) as one massive extended metaphor, where Belinda and the Baron are generals, and the cards are their armies, battling one another.
  • In lines 37-44, Pope describes the card deck in splendid poetic language, using personification to make the face cards seem like living Kings, Queens, and Jacks commanding an army of the numbered cards.
  • The "Velvet Plain" in line 44 is the surface of the card-table, which at a rich society party would have been covered in green velvet. As the card game progresses, Pope gives each of the important cards in the deck heroic names: Belinda's Spades are "sable Matadores" that get likened to "Moors" (in Pope's day, Islamic people from Northern Africa); "Spadillio" (49) is the Ace of Spades and "Manillio" (51) is the two of Spades; "Basto" (53) the Ace of Clubs, and so on. Can you follow the game as it continues?

Lines 101–124

Oh thoughtless Mortals! ever blind to Fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate!
Sudden these Honours shall be snatch'd away,
And curs'd for ever this Victorious Day.
For lo! the Board with Cups and Spoons is crown'd,
The Berries crackle, and the Mill turns round.
On shining Altars of Japan they raise
The silver Lamp; the fiery Spirits blaze.
From silver Spouts the grateful Liquors glide,
And China's Earth receives the smoking Tyde.
At once they gratify their Scent and Taste,
While frequent Cups prolong the rich Repast.
Strait hover round the Fair her Airy Band;
Some, as she sip'd, the fuming Liquor fann'd,
Some o'er her Lap their careful Plumes display'd,
Trembling, and conscious of the rich Brocade.
Coffee, (which makes the Politician wise,
And see thro' all things with his half shut Eyes)
Sent up in Vapours to the Baron's Brain
New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.
Ah cease rash Youth! desist e'er 'tis too late,
Fear the just Gods, and think of Scylla's Fate!
Chang'd to a Bird, and sent to flit in Air,
She dearly pays for Nisus' injur'd Hair!

  • After the card game ends with Belinda exulting in victory, the narrator of the poem gives us a brief warning (cue more ominous music) that her happiness in won't last long. She should not be rubbing it in so much that she won the game; she's due for a fall, and it's coming soon.
  • All of the party guests gather around the coffee and tea tables, and as Belinda takes a cup of coffee, her Sylphs flutter around her fanning the hot drink to cool it, and protecting her dress from any spills. Meanwhile the Baron, also sipping his cup of joe, starts to come up with an immediate plan to fulfill his desire to steal Belinda's locks of hair.
  • Hard to believe, but true, that coffee, tea, and hot chocolate were new and exciting beverages in Pope's day—the Kombucha of their time. Before the European exploration of the Americas, China, Africa, and India in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, countries like England and France only had water, wine, and beer (kind of boring for the under-21 set, you might think, but remember there was no drinking age back then either).
  • When Europeans discovered the Indians, the Chinese, the Africans, and the South Americans drinking these tasty (and caffeinated) hot beverages, you can imagine they were quick to start sending some back home. By the time Pope was in his twenties, no party was complete without a fancy coffee, tea, or chocolate service—which is what we see described here.
  • Pope uses a poetic technique called periphrasis —indirectly referring to coffee and tea by using their components, attributes, or origins ("Berries crackle" are roasting coffee beans, the "grateful liquors" are the coffee and tea, as is "China's earth" and "smoking tyde"). All of this extra wordage contributes to make the scene as grand as possible.
  • Are you a coffee or tea drinker yourself? Do you find that the caffeine makes your brain run a little faster (not a bad thing the morning before a test)? The Baron gets a little juiced here in line 119, and starts obsessing over Belinda's locks again.
  • This hair fetish of his is beginning to get weird and potentially dangerous, a fact Pope reminds us of with an allusion to Greek mythology in lines 121-124, where the narrator warns the Baron not to follow through on his plans, by referring to the story of Scylla and Nisus (which you can read in more detail in Book VIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses).
  • Scylla was a princess, and Nisus was her father. He had a lock of purple hair that made him invincible, and when she fell in love with a rival king, she snipped that lock so that her lover could defeat her father in battle. Her lover was disgusted with her behavior, and ditched her, and then the gods turned her into a seagull. The Baron had better watch out.

Lines 125-146

But when to Mischief Mortals bend their Will,
How soon they find fit Instruments of Ill!
Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting Grace
A two-edg'd Weapon from her shining Case;
So Ladies in Romance assist their Knight,
Present the Spear, and arm him for the Fight.
He takes the Gift with rev'rence, and extends
The little Engine on his Finger's Ends:
This just behind Belinda's Neck he spread,
As o'er the fragrant Steams she bends her Head:
Swift to the Lock a thousand Sprights repair,
A thousand Wings, by turns, blow back the Hair,
And thrice they twitch'd the Diamond in her Ear,
Thrice she look'd back, and thrice the Foe drew near.
Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close Recesses of the Virgin's Thought;
As on the Nosegay in her Breast reclin'd,
He watch'd th' Ideas rising in her Mind,
Sudden he view'd, in spite of all her Art,
An Earthly Lover lurking at her Heart.
Amaz'd, confus'd, he found his Pow'r expir'd,
Resign'd to Fate, and with a Sigh retir'd.

  • The scheming Baron finds an ally in Belinda's friend Clarissa, who lends him a pair of fancy scissors. Belinda, totally oblivious, has her back to the Baron as she leans forward to take another sip of coffee. He comes up close behind and goes to snip off one of her two locks of hair.
  • The Sylphs try frantically to protect the lock, by fanning it out of the way or attempting to get Belinda's attention. She does look back three times.
  • But Ariel, reading her mind, discovers that she's not as empty a flirt as she seems on the surface—she actually cares about someone (although the poem does not tell us who at this point). Because of that deep emotion, the superfluous Sylphs have no power to protect her any longer. Ariel sighs and steps back.
  • With friends like Clarissa, who needs enemies? You have to wonder about her motives in loaning the Baron her scissors. The narrator isn't very clear about her relationship to him, although we do get a simile in lines 129-130 that likens her to "Ladies in Romance"—guess we're talking King Arthur-style now—who help their knights into battle.
  • Yes, more juxtaposition. Clarissa's little scissors and a fantasy sword, which makes the Baron into a heroic knight about to go into battle with… a lock of hair? You see the irony here?
  • The powerlessness of the Sylphs to protect Belinda and her hair from impending doom brings us to one of the central mysteries of this poem: who is this "Earthly Lover" that Ariel spies in Belinda's heart?
  • We know from the very beginning of Canto I that the Sylphs' job is to guard and protect flirtatious coquettes who are nice to everyone but in love with no one (kind of like Belinda shining on everyone equally in the boat in Canto II). Here, Belinda is suddenly not in that category any more. But who is it that she loves? Is it the Baron? If it were, why wouldn't the poem tell us that?

Lines 147-178

The Peer now spreads the glitt'ring Forfex wide,
T'inclose the Lock; now joins it, to divide.
Ev'n then, before the fatal Engine clos'd,
A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd;
Fate urg'd the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain,
(But Airy Substance soon unites again)
The meeting Points that sacred Hair dissever
From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!
Then flash'd the living Lightnings from her Eyes,
And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies.
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breath their last,
Or when rich China Vessels, fal'n from high,
In glittring Dust and painted Fragments lie!
Let Wreaths of Triumph now my Temples twine,
(The Victor cry'd) the glorious Prize is mine!
While Fish in Streams, or Birds delight in Air,
Or in a Coach and Six the British Fair,
As long as Atalantis shall be read,
Or the small Pillow grace a Lady's Bed,
While Visits shall be paid on solemn Days,
When numerous Wax-lights in bright Order blaze,
While Nymphs take Treats, or Assignations give,
So long my Honour, Name, and Praise shall live!
What Time wou'd spare, from Steel receives its date,
And Monuments, like Men, submit to Fate!
Steel cou'd the Labour of the Gods destroy,
And strike to Dust th' Imperial Tow'rs of Troy.
Steel cou'd the Works of mortal Pride confound,
And hew Triumphal Arches to the Ground.
What Wonder then, fair Nymph! thy Hairs shou'd feel
The conqu'ring Force of unresisted Steel?

  • As Ariel turns away, the Baron cuts the lock from Belinda's neck, accidentally cutting a Sylph in half as well (although the Sylph isn't damaged by this). Belinda completely freaks out, but the Baron gloats and brags about his triumph. The narrator closes the Canto by telling Belinda she's been honorably defeated.
  • So it finally happened. The "rape of the lock." The Baron, described in Pope's heroic language, snips off a lock of Belinda's hair. And Belinda—in even more heroic language—responds with "Shrieks of Horror." Massive drama. And can you see how Pope's language emphasizes the silliness of it all?
  • Notice the juxtaposition of the deaths of "Husbands" and "Lap-dogs" in line 158: now, we all love our dogs, but would you say that the death of a husband is equal to the death of a dog?
  • The Baron is no better. His bragging in lines 161-170 goes way over the top. Or at least, it seems to. Notice how (again) Pope manages to make fun of both high society and heroic language here?
  • The Baron exults that his name and honor will live forever, or at least as long as " Atalantis shall be read" —and Atalantis refers to a fluffy gossip novel, a trashy bestseller of the day, hardly a classic of Brit Lit. He's just rudely clipped a lock of hair, for crying out loud.
  • Those last eight lines give Belinda some small consolation by apostrophizing the "Steel" that Clarissa's scissors were made of, reminding us of how steel weapons brought down the city of Troy (another epic allusion there).
  • If steel could do that, how could Belinda possibly have protected her lock of hair from it? The message? Don't feel too bad about it, as there wasn't much you could have done to save yourself. But will Belinda listen? Stay tuned…