The Scale of Values in Alexander Pope's Poem The Rape of the Lock
I found Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" a delightful, amusing poem. Throughout the poem, trivialities are compared with events and objects or consequence and the insignificant is treated with utmost importance. Its very title gives the reader an immediate clue; "rape" and all its connotations bring to mind a heinous crime of physical and spiritual violation. Perhaps this description could apply to the theft of a lock of hair, but only in a world where normal morals are perverted. This skewed scale of values is shown repeatedly throughout the poem, and supporting this alternate world are the sylphs. As the souls of former coquettes, the sylphs exist solely to preserve and perpetuate Belinda's beauty and coquetry. As I read the piece, I was delighted by the absurdity of Belinda's world and the effort expended by the sylphs in maintaining this environment of inconsequence.
Delightful in and of itself is the explanation of the sylph-forming process. Sylph Ariel says to Belinda, "Think not, when woman's transient breath is fled, / That all her vanities at once are dead: / [...] The light coquettes in sylphs aloft repair" (1.52-53, 65). Thankfully, once a woman dies, the flirt lives on. We may all be assured of the miraculous triumph of the inconsequential. Ariel continues, "Her joy in gilded chariots, when alive, / And love of ombre, after death survive" (1.55-56). Pursuing these temporal pleasures is not the only pastime of the sylph; maintaining the coquettish way of life is equally important.
Ariel refers to Belinda as "Fairest of mortals, thou distinguished care/ Of thousand bright inhabitants of air" (1.27-28). Belinda is the center of the universe for many sylphs; she is their charge. "Know then," Ariel says to her, "unnumbered spirits round thee fly, / The light militia of the lower sky" (1.41-42). Here, the word "militia" brings to mind an imposing, well-regulated army, rather than a gossamer grouping of sprites bent on protecting beauty and virginity.
It is sylph Ariel that foresees the "dread event" of the poem's title. Ariel says to Belinda: "Warned by the Sylph, O pious maid, beware! / This to disclose is all thy guardian can: / Beware of all, but most beware of man!" (1.109, 112-14). Man, of course, is the coquette's eternal adversary. A lady must be very careful; men may be allured and teased, but as prey they can be unpredictable.
Following this warning Belinda wakes and begins the transcendental toilet, one of my favorite scenes in the poem. Pope elevates Belinda's morning preparations to the level of High Mass; a mystical, spiritual experience in which miraculous transformation takes place. In this ritual, however, "cosmetic powers" rather than cosmic powers are relied upon. (1.124). With the aid of the sylphs, Belinda begins her grooming:
And now, unveiled, the toilet stands displayed,
Each silver vase in mystic order laid.