Dr. Johnson's Statements On The Rape of the Lock

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      Introduction. The Rape of the Lock has praised by Dr. Johnson as "the most airy, the most ingenious and the most delightful of Pope's compositions." As in many other cases, Dr. Johnson has with critical acumen pointed out the most striking qualities of the poem.

      The "airy" quality of the poem. The Rape of the Lock is marked by a lightness or light-hearted approach. Fun seems to be the purpose rather than bitter satire. This makes it totally different from works, such as The Dunciad. It is significant that Pope called it a "heroic-comical", implying that the heroic style is being used for comic purposes. The satire in the poem, against the foppery and the affectation and little vanities, especially female of the species, is mild and has shimmering quality about it.

      The subject of the poem is admittedly slight. The snipping of a lock of a society belle's hair. The insignificant is given a significant treatment. There is in The Rape of the Lock what Hazlitt called "exquisite filigree work," though that is not the totality of the poem. There is a glittering appearance given to everything-to paste, pomatum, billet-doux and patches, "Airs, languid airs, breathe around; the atmosphere is perfumed with affectation. A toilet is described with the solemnity of an altar raised to the goddess of vanity and the history of a silver bodkin is given with all the pomp of heraldry. No pains are spared, no profusion or ornament, no splendour of poetic diction to set off the meanest thing."

      The 'airy' quality of the poem is no less due to the introduction of those celestial spirits. The 'machinery' of the natural element in this mock-heroic poem which deals with the trivial concerns of 'little men' give a delicate and light quality to the poem. The sylphs, the "light militia of the lower sky" flying invisibly around Belinda are the light coquettes who sport and flutter in the fields of air. There is an airiness about the terms of description Pope employs for them - 'lucid squadrons', 'insect wings', 'clouds of gold', 'transparent form too fine for mortal sight.'

      Edith Sitwell praises the poem in practically the same terms as Dr. Johnson. She calls the poem "a miracle of summer air, airy and glittering as the net of the summer light and early dew over the strawberry bed." There is a delicate quality about the heroine herself who moves in a fairy land of jewels, silver, China, lap dogs and snuff boxes. She is off and on compared to the sun. There is more than a touch of silver in the poem. All this gives an airiness or lightness of touch to the poem. However, the airiness of treatment should not make us ignore the serious significance and the moral purpose of the poem.

      Ingenious touches in the poem. Besides the lightness of treatment. The Rape of the Lock exhibits an ingenuity, or a power of invention and wit, which makes it a unique piece of work. While mock-heroic poems were not an entirely new genre when Pope wrote his poem, there is a touch of originality in the conception of The Rape of the Lock. A trifle is elevated to the significance of epic grandeur, and the effect is inevitably one of laughter.

      Pope adapts details from earlier writers-from Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare and Milton; but he uses the items ingeniously, to fit the trivial situations and the "little men." The addition of the supernatural machinery is an ingenious touch. Of course, a mock-epic could not do without "machinery," but in the context of Pope's subject in the poem, Christian or Pagan gods and goddesses would have seemed incongruous, or blasphemous if lowered to the necessary level. Pope chooses the Rosicrucian spirits and solves his problem brilliantly. The supernatural machinery heightens the mockery.

      One source of the mockery is the total ineffectiveness of the sylphs. Their intervention, unlike the intervention of Pallas Athene in Homer or the Venus in Virgil, is futile. The sylph's warning to Belinda in a dream is ineffectual. One of the sylphs who tries valiantly to save the lock from being snipped gets cut into two (though, of course being a supernatural being, he becomes whole again). The adaptation of Shakespeare's Ariel is most ingeniously suitable in the context of the poem. Shakespeare's Ariel retries discreetly from the field of action when he sees an earthly lover lurking in Belinda's heart.

      The punishments conceived by Pope are also evidence of his inventive genius. The defaulting sylphs will wallow in hot chocolate-a hilarious parody of Milton's Satan and followers, wallowing in burning sulfur. Dante's Inferno speaks of traitors' soul imprisoned in the jaws of Lucifer; the sylphs in The Rape of the Lock will be shut up in vials or transfixed with pins.

      The Cave of Spleen is another invention of Pope's ingenious mind. It has great relevance in the scheme of things. It is significant to the 'moral' of the poem. Spleen denoted ill-humour, irritable and peevish temper qualities which were to be avoided, as Clarissa's speech points out. The allegory of the Cave of Spleen is brilliantly conceived to satirise the mixture of ill-humour and affection which marked many a society lady of the time. The gift bag of sighs and sobs and "the war of Tongues" given by the Goddess of Spleen to Umbriel is able to conquer Belinda (who is otherwise the epitome of cheerfulness) because there is one ingredient of Spleen in Belinda's character-namely, affectation.

      Inventive power characterizes all the mock-epic elements in the poem-the invocation, the 'battle' scenes, first at the card-table and then over the snipping of the lock, the journey to the underworld, and so on. The ending of the poem is also ingenious, the lock of hair being lodged among the constellations in the heavens. The use of the heroic couplet to suggest the confusion of values and to scale down the characters is remarkable.

      The delight offered by the poem has lasted over the centuries. The Dunciad and other works of Pope are not read so extensively as The Rape of the Lock. The unexpected juxtaposition of the heroic and the trivial in the poem ever remains a source of surprise and pleasure. One is struck by the felicity of Pope's style; how easily he expresses the ethos of a society which turned religion into frivolity and fopperies into solemnity:

On her white breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.

      One cannot miss the oblique attack on a society which turned a symbol of Christ's crucifixion into a mere ornament. If Jews and infidels would pay homage to it, it is because the symbol has been detached from its association with Christianity.

      Conclusion. The Rape of the Lock continues to charm the modern reader by its deft combination of the serious and the non-serious. The sylphs lend the poem tones of lightness and delicacy unique in English poetry. Its mockery is never wholly serious, and its satire never bitter. The poem is the achievement of a spirited imaginative intelligence. To marshall a host of literary allusions, from the blatantly obvious to the secretive, to carry the mimicry of the epic to the furthest lengths, to maintain a firm discrimination between the admirable and the trashy in contemporary society, unmasking hypocrisy and pretentiousness: all speaks of intelligence and ingenuity. The effect of such brilliant invention cannot but be delightful.

University Questions

Examine critically Dr. Johnson's statement that The Rape of the Lock is "the most airy, the most ingenious, and the most delightful of Pope's compositions."

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