Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem “The Rape of the Lock” was published in 1712 with only two Cantos. Pope extended the poem multiple times and published it with five Cantos (the version we read today) in 1717. This poem is regarded as one of the greatest mock-epic poems written in English literature. The Rape of the Lock is based on a real life event where Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor, and the characters of the Baron and Belinda are based on them respectively. Pope uses social satire in the poem to represent the aristocratic classes of the English society in the 18th century.
Belinda is shown as a beautiful, virgin lady belonging to the higher society. In the beginning of the poem, she is in deep sleep, when Ariel, her guardian spirit sends her a warning through her dream. The role of such spirits are to save the beautiful belles from being robbed off their chastity by treacherous males. Accordingly, Ariel, the leader of the sylphs (spirit of air) sends her a warning that something bad is going to occur in her life very soon. He tells her to be aware of the men around her as something uncanny is going to occur. Belinda wakes up at the noon, just like other aristocratic ladies of her society. She gets dressed up and applies different cosmetics with the help of her maid Betty. This scene of beautifying herself is very elaborately described in the poem, where Pope says that she covers her face with powder, puff etc and style her hair with combs made of elephant tooth.
After this, she travels to the Hampton Court in a boat crossing the Thames river on its way. The rich elites have organized a gathering in Hampton Court where they have organized several amusements and activities. The Baron has been eyeing on Belinda’s beautiful locks, and plans to steal them by any means. He has even prayed to the God of Love for the success of his plan. Ariel, has been guarding Belinda throughout the journey, trying to detect the source of disaster that is going to occur to her. He employs a large band of sylphs to guard her as anything might occur to her. She might lose her virginity, or stain her new dress, lose a piece of jewel or suffer the loss of her lapdog. Since, Ariel is clueless about the mishap, he sends his army of sylphs at different locations to save the belle from misfortune. Belinda gradually enjoys the different amusements in the event without any kind of doubt in her mind.
Belinda takes part in the game of ‘Ombre’, a card game along with two other men. Pope mockingly describes this card game as a battle, where the cards are the soldiers fighting against the opponents. Belinda begins the game with the luck and the spirits on her favour. However, soon the Baron takes over the game and dominates his position. But, Belinda wins over the game at the final part with the help of her guardian spirits, thus defeating the Baron.
After the game, everyone is served with coffee, whose smell and aura reminds the Baron of his actual plan. Clarissa brings a pair of scissors, and the Baron picks them up as the weapon for his attack against Belinda. The sylphs try to warn Belinda through different means. Ariel, at this moment accesses Belinda’s heart and senses that she has feelings for an ‘earthly lover’. This disheartens him and he thinks that she is not pure and noble as he had hoped. Thus, Ariel gives up his attempts to save Belinda from the mishap and allows her fate to take upon her. The Baron then successfully cuts off Belinda’s lock of hair, which is termed as ‘rape’ in the title.
Belinda breaks down in melancholy at this adversity. At the same time, Umbriel, a gnome (spirit of earth) goes into the Cave of Spleen to collect different unpleasant things, like a sack of sadness, flask of tears, the East wind that causes migraines and many more. He then unloads all these emotions over Belinda’s head which makes her feel all these harsh emotions at once. She breaks down in the arms of her friend Thalestris whining about the incident. Even after several requests, The Baron refuses to return back the lock of hair to Belinda until his nostrils breathe air.
Clarrissa, who provided the scissors to the Baron comes into the scene and encourages Belinda to stop whining about such irrelevant matters. She makes a speech where she says that women waste their precious time in transient matters like beauty, whereas they could spend their time to yield worthy results by being moral. However, Belinda does not pay attention to Clarrissa’s words and rushes to the Baron. She throws snuff (tobacco) into the Baron’s nostrils, to satisfy his previous comment that the lock can only be retrieved if his nostrils stopped breathing. Belinda then draws a sharp bodkin and threatens to kill the Baron. The Baron replies that he has no fear of death, but only worries of the fact that he will be separated from her, and hence begs her for his life. She again asks for her lock back, but mysteriously the lock has disappeared from the Baron’s possession.
Pope offers the readers an explanation behind this miraculous event. The lock of Belinda’s hair has ascended to the heaven, just like Berenice‘s lock (Queen of Egypt who sacrificed her lock of hair for her husband’s safety). Belinda’s lock shall never be retrieved back and it will be visible to the common people of London, like the astronomers. This lock would never turn gray, but display an eternal shine to represent Belinda’s evergreen beauty to the next generations. With this the poem comes to an end, and Belinda loses her lock forever; suggesting that physical beauty is transient, but morality is everlasting.
This was very helpful