The Rape of the Lock: A Mirror of 18th Century Social Life

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      The age in which Pope flourished is called Augustan or Classical Age as well as the Age of Pope, because he became its chief poet and man of letters. It was in many ways a unique age. What poetry had attained in the age of Elizabeth I and of Milton, prose achieved in this period. It is, thus, the greatest Age of Prose. Poetry itself had become prosaic in its greatest manifestation, namely the work of Pope. It was, no longer, inspired by that high emotional and imaginative fervor and creative spirit as in the preceding ages. It was dominated by the prevailing spirit of satire and moral preaching. And that was due to the demands of the times.

      Under Queen Anne, the profligacy of men never decreased. Fashions held great sway over them. The petty vanities of women were indulged in more and more. It was one of Addison's purposes to check this perilous wave of female vanity. In some letters of the Spectator are given the accounts of the fashion-world, of how the high head-dresses have disappeared, but the coverings for the lower portion of the body have increased. And Addison, wittily, remarks that this shows lack of proportion in architecture since the base grows in proportionately bigger than the top.

      Dress was not the only vanity. There were other absorbing things - rouge, puff, powder and ornaments. Women devoted much time to their toilet. The average life of a society woman was to dress, to visit clubs and coffee-houses where young gallants punctually assembled to please and to flirt. The leisured aristocrats and the profligate young men read French romances, made love and fought duels. Women had more power over them, although they cared more for their lap-dogs.

      "No writer", says Leslie Stephen, "reflects so clearly and completely the spirit of his own day as Pope does." and it is in The Rape of the Lock that he reflects the life of the fashionable society of his time completely.

      "The artificial tone of the age, the frivolous aspect of feminity is nowhere more exquisitely pictured than in this poem. It is the epic of triflings; a page torn from the petty, pleasure-seeking life of fashionable beauty."

      Frivolous Ladies - Their Habits, Manners and Attitude Towards Life. Belinda represents the typical fashionable, ladies of the time. What is her life, and how does she spend her day? There is not the slightest glimpse of seriousness or sincerity, goodness or grandeur of human life in any of her words and actions. Belinda is a beautiful lady; she has a host of admirers; she is a flirt and a coquette.

Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends.
Oft she rejects, but never she offends.

      But despite all their flirtations and the disdain they showed for their lovers, these ladies of the court did secretly pine for love as Ariel, the guardian sylph, discovered about Belinda:

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.
(L. 431-434)

      Though these beautiful ladies apparently seemed to reject their suitors, they secretly harbored ambition to get married to lord and dukes, or men holding some high titles. These women were always guided by considerations of material prosperity, through matrimonial relationships. They were always searching for more and more prosperous matches. For this reason, they scoffed at matrimonial alliances which were below their expectations.

These swell their Prospects....,
Your Grace salutes their Ears. (L. 81-86)

      And dreaming of their rich prospects, women like Belinda sleep late and are used to rising late from their beds, and Pope describes it beautifully equating the beast with the beauty.

Now Lap dogs give themselves the rowzing Shake,
And sleepless Lovers, just at Twelve, awake:
(L. 15-16)

      But then:

Belinda still her downy Pillow prest,
Her Guardian Sylph prolong'd the balmy Rest.
(L. 19-20)

      And also Belinda goes to sleep again and when she finally does awake she is engaged immediately with her toilette which takes up a large part of her time.

      The toilette, in fact, is the great business of her life, and the right adjustment of her hair, the decoration of her face, the chief employment of her time. The beauty of Belinda, and the elaborate details of her toilette are all set forth with matchless grace, but behind all this fascinating description, there is a pervading sense of vanity and emptiness. Pope's satirical gift is shown at its best when he shows the outward charms and the inward frivolity of fashionable ladies. "Their hearts are toy-shops. They reverse the relative importance of things; the title with them is great and the great little."

      Places and Names of London of the Day. In Canto III of The Rape of the Lock, Pope gives a detailed description of the scene where Belinda's beautiful lock of hair is to be raped. There is Hampton Court, the palace of the English Queen beautifully situated on the banks of the river Thames, where

Here Britain's Statesmen oft, the Fall foredoom
Or Foreign Tyrants and, of Nymphs at home;
(L. 295-296)

      Here the lords and ladies of the time often resorted to taste the pleasure of the court and to talk society scandals. And

Here Thou, Great Anna! whom three Realms obey,
Dost sometimes Counsel take and sometimes Tea,

      The poet in a very subtle manner satirizes the activities of the palace. The Queen's consultations with her ministers and her taking tea with the luminaries of her regime are equated. The serious and the frivolous have been mentioned in one breath, as if taking counsel is as routine and frivolous matter as taking tea. The intrigues of the court are also laid bare. The Queen's palace, Hampton Court, which is beautifully laid out with "long canals" and "Woods" turns out to be a mere place for gossip and intrigue where the nobles and ladies.

In various Talk th' instructive hours they pass,
Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last


And one describes a charming Indian screen;
A third interprets Motions, Looks, and Eyes;
At ev'ry Word a Reputation dies.
(L, 304—306)

      And it was in this palace that Belinda and her companions played cards and enjoyed coffee. And it was here that her lock of hair was cut off. There is also a mention of the Lake of Rosamonda, a notorious place for love-trystsz and of Partridge, a fake astrologer of the day. We are also told about Hyde Park and of its famous drive where fashionable people rode in their coaches and sedan chairs.

      Hollowness of The Gentlemen of The Day. The gentlemen of the smart set are as frivolous as the ladies. Lord Petre and his fellows are the representatives of the fashionable society of the time. They are all idle, empty-minded folk, and seem to have nothing else to do but making love or flirting with ladies. The "battle" between the ladies and gentlemen shows emptiness and futility of their lives. They visit clubs and coffee-houses, and there they indulge in empty scandalous talks. In The Rape of the Lock, the ladies and gentlemen alike, meet in the Hampton Court where

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.
(L. 300-308)

      After indulging in this kind of 'instructive' talk for some time, the lords and ladies play cards, and the poet describes the game in detail, because card-games seemed to occupy an important place in the daily activities of fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the period. Belinda and Lord Petre engage in the game, and when Belinda wins, she is filled with the joy of victory:

The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky,
The Wall, the Woods and long Canals reply.
(L. 389-390)

      Sir Plume is another fashionable gentlemen, excelling all others in his vanity and utter emptiness:

(Sir Plume, of Amber Snuff-Box justly vain,
And the nice Conduct of the clouded Cane.)
(L. 591-592)

      When he is requested by his lady-love Thalestris to persuade Lord Petre to surrender the "precious hairs" of Belinda, he utters words which are unsurpassed in their emptiness:

With earnest Eyes, and round unthinking Face,
He first the Snuff-box open'd, and then the Case,
And thus broke out-My Lord, why, what the Devil?
Z—ds; damn the lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
'Plague on 't ! 'tis past a Jest-nay, prithee, Pox !
Give her the Hair' - he spoke and rapp'd his Box.
(L. 593-598)

      Nothing shows more clearly the futility and unthinking folly of the smart set than this little speech of Lord Plume.

      Pope's Criticism and Moral Tone. The Rape of the Lock bears fully the witticism of its age. In his conception of the theme and selection of the title, Pope displays his unsurpassable wit. The theme of the poem is the rape of the lock of a fashionable belle by one of her haughty admirers. This is quite a trivial affair but Pope makes an amusing epic out of it. The whole course of the poem from the dream of Belinda to the mysterious disappearance of her lock is ingeniously contrived, and speaks only of Pope's wonderful sense of wit. The very title of the Pope's epic is comically associated with a mere lock of hair, and echoes wittily the epical episodes of Homer and Shakespeare.

      Levity was the prominent feature of the women and men of this age. Their manners and behavior were artificial and affected. They practiced lisping, hanging their heads aside, going into fainting fits and languishing with pride. They would sink on their rich quilts and pretend sickness so that young gallants should come to inquire after their health and see the costly gowns which they were wearing,

On the rich Quilt sinks with becoming Woe,
Wrapt in a Gown, for Sickness and for Show.
The Fair-ones feel such Maladies as these,
When each new Night-Dress gives a new Disease.
(L. 503-506)

      The sole occupation of these ladies was their toilette, love-letters, couched in the conventional language of such letters mentioning "wound" "charms" and "ardors and last, though not least, their pet-dogs, parrots and the like. They set much store by these pets. Among the ill-omens that Belinda recalled after she had lost a lock of her hair was the indifference of her two domestic pets:

Nay, Poll sate mute, and Shock was most Unkind!
(L. 632)

      So much so that Shock, her lap-dog,

Leapt up, and wak'd his Mistress with his Tongue,
(L. 116)

      While Belinda was dreaming in her sleep. The face which even a lover pines to touch is easily available to a mere dog.

      Pope's social banter is a marvel of wit and art. His sharp invectives are artistically enwrapped in fancy and fantasy to prevent them from degenerating into personal libel. The social banter of The Rape of the Lock, couched in a mock-heroic style, is hardly surpassed by any other work. "To have given in a single work the maximum expression to the social and moral characteristics, manners and literary taste of an epoch, is a feat that few have been able to perform."

      Miscellaneous Feature of The Age. (i) The Rape of the Lock is an epitome of the eighteenth-century social life. 'In The Rape of the Lock' Pope has caught and fixed for ever the atmosphere of the age... No great English poet is at once so great and so empty, so artistic and yet so void of the ideal on which all high art rests." As Dixon asserts: "Pope is the protagonist of a whole age, of an attitude of mind and manner of writing." Hence, this poem is very arresting because of the presentation of social life of the age. The artificial style of the poem is in conformity with the artificial life and ways of thought of the time. This age is empty, hollow and devoid of all ideals. So the poem is as meretricious as the age was. It reflects and mirrors the true picture of the contemporary society.

      (ii)The poem mirrors the various tastes of the people. Coffee was popular among gallant lords, ladies, and politicians and writers. The politicians, statesmen and writers used to gather in coffee houses to discuss the affairs of the day. They were addicted to coffee:

Coffee, (which makes the Politician wise,
And see throu' all things with half-shut Eyes)
(L. 407-408)

      Belinda and other fashionable ladies took several cups of the inspiring coffee and liquor.

      And that was her undoing. For coffee which makes the politician wise,

Sent up in Vapours to the Baron's Brain
New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.
(L. 409-410)

      And despite the best effort, the poor sylph who was in charge of Belinda's lock could not resist the Baron from committing such as heinous crime.

      (iii) The poem reflects the confusion of values. As Elwin points out: "The relative importance of things, the little with them is great, and the great little. They attach as much importance to a China jar as to their honor, as much to religion as to dances and masquerades, as much to their lap-dogs as to husbands."

      Conclusion. This was the kind of life led by fashionable people of the upper classes in the Age of Pope, and Pope has described it in gorgeous colors on the one hand and with scathing satire on the other. While he shows the grace and fascination of Belinda's toilet, he indicates the vanity and futility of it all. There is nothing deep or serious in the lives and activities of the fashionable people, all is vanity and emptiness, and this Pope has revealed with brilliance and artistically. No English poem is at once so brilliant and so empty as The Rape of the Lock. It reflects the artificial age with all its outward splendor and inward emptiness. It is the mirror of a particular aspect of life in the age of Pope. "It was", says Lowell, "a mirror in a drawing room, but it gave back a faithful image of society, powered and roughed, to be sure, and intent on trifles, yet still human in its own way as the heroes of Homer in theirs." In The Rape of the Lock, Pope has caught and fixed forever the atmosphere of his age.


      John Butt. In this poem The Rape of the Lock, we find Pope's first considered view of the world about him, a view which is largely sympathetic. His criticism reminds us of the exactly contemporary Spectators and it is still in the mood of The Spectator that he moralizes his song.

      Murray Krieger. It is by this late date not at all original to claim that Pope's The Rape of the Lock is double-edged throughout, that in it he celebrates the artificial world of eighteenth-century social convention even as he satirizes it.

      Leslie Stephen. No writer reflects so clearly and completely the spirit of his own day.

      Dixon. Pope is the protagonist of a whole age, of an attitude of mind and manner of writing.

      Lowell. To have given in a single work the maximum expression to the social and moral characteristics, the manners and literary taste, of an epoch, is a feat that few have been able to perform.


"The Rape of the Lock": A Mirror to the Eighteenth Century Aristocratic Social Life
"The Rape of the Lock": A Representative Poem of the Age of Pope
Show how The Rape of the Lock celebrates glitter and elegance of the eighteenth-century society.
Examine The Rape of the Lock as an example of the close relationship between literature and society in the eighteenth century.
"Pope’s first and most important claim to greatness is the fact that he is pre-eminently the poet of his age." Consider this statement with reference to The Rape of the Lock.
In The Rape of the Lock Pope has represented both the achievements and the limitations of the eighteenth century English society. Examine this statement with illustrations from the poem.
Consider The Rape of the Lock as the poem depicting the fashionable town life of the eighteenth century England.
Does The Rape of the Lock give us a picture of the eighteenth century society? Illustrate your answer.
"The Rape of the Lock is a picture of fashionable contemporary life." Discuss.
What picture of the eighteenth century society does Pope give in The Rape of the Lock?
What have you learned from The Rape of the Lock about the habits of fashionable young men of the eighteenth century?
In Pope's verse the social life of the time is reflected as in a mirror." Examine this with special reference to The Rape of the Lock.
"In The Rape of the Lock Pope establishes, and maintains with wonderful steadiness, a world in which all the values are transposed.' Illustrate this from the study of The Rape of the Lock.

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