Literary raid: How a British Neoclassicist took the fruits of his predecessors and turned them into desserts.
Four score and seven years ago. Scrap that. Well over three hundred years ago, when the restoration period in England held its fifteen minutes (or 129 years)of fame like New Wave in the 1980’s or Drive in movies in the 1950’s, a man named Alexander Pope created a big stink. By stink, I mean masterpiece, though it’s hard to say whether Pope’s sources of inspiration would be pinching their noses or applauding his efforts. When Pope was still around and kicking, he and those in his circle were staunch supporters of the neoclassical movement that swept through the nation like a plague. Except this sort of plague took readers, not lives. As a neoclassical poet, Alexander Pope used both playfulness and bawdiness to challenge the previous period’s puritanical control. Aside from pushing the envelope, Neoclassicists like Pope were avid fans of Greek and Roman art forms. Consequently, most neoclassicist’s wanted to emulate the sheer beauty contained in Greek/Roman tales, but at the same time, strived to be original about it. Which is why “neo”, or “new”, is slapped in front of the title.
To paint a brief biography, Alexander Pope was born in London on May 21st, 1688. Around 1700, his family relocated to Binfield in Windsor forest. He wasn’t educated in the traditional sense, yet he was a regular bookworm in his day. A retired statesman who lived nearby, who went by the name of Sir William Trumbull, helped inspire the soon to be poet. Dramatist and poet William Wycherley and poet critic William Walsh gave the motivation Pope needed to get to where he ended up. Unfortunately, Pope got a tubercular infection in his later youth, and never grew any taller than four feet six inches. Despite his short stature, his words of wisdom are held in high regard.
Alexander Pope scribbled upon parchment with his ink and quill for quite a while. Come 1712, he had produced his first incarnation of a mock-epic. By 1714, he tied up the loose ends, and beefed up his story to ultimately produce what rendition we read today. While Catholics pay homage to the father, son, and Holy Ghost, Neoclassicist’s share a scared belief of sorts. In their poems, they are dedicated to retaining classical form. This means they borrow concepts from epics, elegies, and odes. Neoclassicists are adamant about focusing on nature. Not necessarily the birds and bees per se, but universal truths. Ways of thinking and ideas that can hold steady decade to decade. Lastly, Neoclassicists had a penchant for wit. While this may be associated with humor, their definition of wit fell in par with clever wordplay and intellect. They encouraged the reader to think despite the overlying silliness.
Reading the five cantos, I noticed an abundance of themes utilized by neoclassicists. Even though Pope’s spoof of an epic may seem daft, his effort isn’t a battle fought in vain. In fact, Pope organizes his story in a thoughtfully composed way. He scoffs the formula of the ancient storytellers, but in good fun. All the larger than life accounts of heroes in dire situations are trivialized in content, but remain amplified in tone. One soldier’s distinguished valor is another woman’s departed lock. Pope does a stellar job at juxtaposing asinine with astounding, and all the while, manages to create a compelling story from the unorthodox ingredients he uses to make the lines sing.
Within the first three lines, Pope is already on a roll. He says “What dire offence from am’rous causes springs, what mighty contests rise from trivial things. I sing- this verse to Caryll, muse!” (Pope, lines 1-3). While the opening lines gear more towards classical form, it is an example of wit as well. Before men like homer or Virgil would begin their epics, they gave their regards to the gods or muses above that would propel the potency of their passages. In this instance, Pope pays his dues to a friend of his. An ordinary human being, no greater or worse than anyone else. He contrasts grave consequence with sexual undertones and high stakes with arbitrary intent.
As Belinda awakens from her slumber, Pope continues to execute well on his investment in wit. The text reads “Sol thro’ the white curtains shot a tim’rous ray, and op’d those eyes that must eclipse the day” (Pope, lines 13-14). The sun is personified as a mild mannered entity that acts self-conscious when compared to Belinda. Considering the sun hones the power to burn skin and impair vision, its glory is pushed to the back burner when put next to Belinda’s radiance.
As Belinda is entangled in the confines of her dream, she is visited by Ariel, big poobah of the sylphs. Their purpose is to protect the honor of women woven in prestige. Though Ariel’s intent to serve is respectable, the sylphs do more to butter up a superficial quality than unlock the potential of a woman. “Know farther yet, whoever fair and chaste rejects mankind, is by some sylph embrac’d: For spirits, freed from mortal laws, with ease assume what sexes and what shapes they please. What guards the purity of melting maids, in courtly balls, and midnight masquerades” (Pope, lines 67-72). The common day woman is, in this instance, subjected to be nothing more than a product of pleasure. Though society has shaped up since, some of the ripples still branch out in the pond.
My last observation regarding the first canto revolves around Belinda’s sprucing up for the gathering at Hampton court. The language used has a religious quality to it, implying that the woman’s code of conduct is to look good. “A heav’nly image in the glass appears, to that she bends, to that she rears; Th’ inferior priestess, at her altar’s side, trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride” (Pope, lines 125-128). This line catches my attention largely because Belinda is buttered up to the likes of a deity. At the same time, her honor is sullied by a superficial filter. That being image. She is adored because her family are financially handsome as much as she is physically handsome. Consequently, she is put up on a pedestal, but for the wrong reasons. Belinda’s maid, Betty, is portrayed as an “inferior priestess” purely based on status. A woman’s duty to spruce up is raised to a religious standard, but at the same time, prioritization to decorate undermines a woman’s ability to be anything more than eye-candy.
Onwards and outwards to canto two with more surprises and tom foolery alike. Classical form peaks its helmeted head again when an allusion to a journey is portrayed. “The sun first rises o’er the purple main, than issuing forth, the rival of his beams lanch’d on the bosom of the silver Thames” (Pope, lines 2-4). Just like the protagonist embarks on a grandiose journey in an epic, Belinda sails down the Thames on her way to the Hampton court. Her destination will be received with company in comfort rather than company in battle.
Alexander Pope named his poem “Rape Of The Lock” for a definite reason, yet at the same time, the circumstances around the action packed calamity can be looked at from different angles. “Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains, and mighty hearts are held in slender chains. With hairy sprindges we the birds betray, slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey” (Pope, lines 23-26). Belinda’s hair can be poised as a trap to lure a lover’s glance. Though it can be perceived that Belinda is open game, the temptations of her admirers are the fiends to be hunted. Regardless, the title still fits, but the incentive seems to flutter around vulnerability in desire and vulnerability in guard on both parties involved.
Sexual innuendo’s sell like hotcakes in this poem, but one of my favorite ones occurs when Ariel breaks the glass in case of an emergency, and recruits his underlings to attend to Belinda’s immediate needs. “Whether the Nymph shall break Diana’s law, or some frail china jar receive a flaw” (Pope, lines 105-106). Diana’s law references the roman goddess of chastity and the moon. This Insinuates that Belinda’s promiscuity may strip her of her virginity. This notion is reinforced when fifty Sylph’s are recruited to monitor her dress.
Canto three, above the rest, whets my whistle because of the striking social commentary. Belinda’s boat arrives at Hampton cort, and she and her party are ready to mingle with the finest cluster of folks England has to offer. When politicians are concerned, “finest cluster of folks England has to offer” is debatable. Especially when Pope writes “Here Britain’s statesmen oft the fall foredoom of foreign tyrants, and of nymphs at home”(Pope, lines 5-6). While politicians discuss affairs related to foreign diplomacy, they will squabble and gossip about women. It goes to show that politicians are treated like law producing robots when they harbor virtues and vices much like anybody else would.
The commentary on humanity gets even juicier. Another societal jab is put in place. Especially within the dualism regarding the hungry judges. “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” (Pope, lines 19-24). The judges are both apathetically rash to make a decision so that they can attend lunch, though, at the same time, they are hungry to administer the power they hold with the titles they have. The lines also displays, on a socioeconomic level, that the poor do more and get less and that the upper crust do less and receive more.
No real epic is complete without a “300” style battle. No mock-epic is complete without a grizzly game of cards. “And particolour’d troops, a shining train, draw forth to combat on the velvet plain” (Pope, lines 43-44). Though the quote I used doesn’t embody the grandiose analysis of the actual game itself, it provides an overview of the similarity in theme when compared to an epic. Where in an epic the troops would march on the field, the cards are stacked on the table.
Canto four, say no more. Except I will be saying more. Normally, I would have provided an intermission at this point in the blog. Perhaps even a refund and an apology if it doesn’t meet expectations. However, I’m here to fight the good fight. So buckle up and grab some popcorn, because we’re still riding the restoration rollercoaster. This one might be obvious, but I was compelled to include it anyways. “E’er felt such rage, resentment, and despair, as thou, sad virgin! For thy ravish’d hair.” (Pope, lines 9-10). The lines correlate with the title of the poem. Belinda compares her hair being removed without consent to being deflowered against her will. Hence, “The Rape Of The Lock.”
When the Sylph’s ditch on Belinda, Umbriel, head honcho of the Gnomes takes matters into his own hands. “Swift on his sooty pinions flitts the gnome, and in a vapour reach’d the dismal dome. No cheerful breeze this sullen region knows, the dreaded east is all the wind that blows.” (Pope, lines 17-20). Umbriel visits the “cave of spleen” to rally some trouble. It is infested by trippy creatures, ghastly smells, and horrid sights. It certainly isn’t overcome by fire and brimstone, but it is an underworld in its own right. Adhering to the laws of an epic, it is custom that a trip to the underworld would be included.
Ridden with angst over the possibility that the Baron will flaunt Belinda’s lock of hair, Belinda stews in her own self-pity and negativity. Her “friend”, Thalestris, confronts her squeeze “sir Plume” to have the Baron give the hair back. It isn’t out of charitable kindness, but much rather, her request is built on the foundations of an alternate agenda. that being reputation,reputation,reputation. Considering Belinda and Thalestris are associated with one another, if Belinda gets heckled, by the transitive property, so will thalestris. Switch around the time frame and reason, and the situation and revolving circumstances stay put. Especially if the setting is a junior high or high school. Yikes.
This is it. The home stretch. My foot is lingering towards home plate as I attempt not to be tagged out while sliding into canto five. I’ll keep this one short and sweet as I fattened my blog into a super-size me meal. Hopefully, the copious serving has more nutrition than the average fast food. Alas, I digress. If Clarissa were a real human being, I would give her a pat on the back. Of all that is said and all that is recorded in this wacky chronicle of arbitrary events, Clarissa steals the show with her wise sage musings at the end. “But since, alas! Frail beauty must decay, curl’d or uncurl’d, since locks will turn to grey, since paint’d, or not paint’d, all shall fade, And she who scorns a man, must die a maid;” (Pope, lines 25-28). Clarissa, the same Clarissa that handed the Baron the scissors, delivers a speech poignant in its honesty. She understands the inevitability of dying beauty, and that even when looks slip, wit will surely remain. Perhaps she is the only character that chooses brain over figure in the entire poem. Her vocal exclamations are worthy of a standing ovation, yet, especially in the technological age, many people determine their value in terms of “likes” on social media (not to point fingers at women, this goes out to men as well).
I smell something, and it smells like the superfluous skirmishing of bumbling snobs. “So spake the dame, but no applause ensu’d; Belinda frowned, Thalestris called her prude. To arms, to arms! The fierce virago cries, and swift as lighting to the combate flies.” (Pope, lines 35-38). ). While Clarissa gives a charismatic speech, it hardly phases any of the society men or women. Driven into a frenzy by the great hair fiasco, the ladies and gentlemen beat one another with fans and canes. Sarcastic comments and crude glances are also used as ammunition in the fight. Along with the game of Ombre, this signifies a second and final mock battle scene.
My fingers are broken, but my morale is sturdy. Before I address the patient audience with my conclusion, I’d like to talk about a sock puppet retelling of “The Rape Of The Lock” for a few sentences. I discovered it via youtube, and will provide the link in the citation list. While the video is intended to appeal to a younger audience, I enjoyed the artistry and simplicity of how the user recaptured the big picture. Umbriel’s trip to the underworld isn’t included, but overall it was a fun watch that demonstrates the key elements of the story. The language and composition were twee. To reiterate, it encapsulates the major instances for a beginner to verbose British literature.
This is the end. Not quite like Jim Morrison’s “The End” off The Doors self-titled debut. If bad jokes produce bad grades, I’m on a nine Inch Nails downward spiral. Self-deprecation aside, I hope I educationally entertained throughout the course of this blog. It was a hoot. My eyes and fingers will take a moment of silence until I channel my inner Jay-Z and move “On To The Next One” (God bless most of his discography, but the third blueprint was garbage). “A Rape Of The Lock” is a quintessential mock-epic. Pope should be inducted into the neoclassical hall of fame if he isn’t already. Richard Nixon proclaimed he was not a crook post presidency, and I will do the same as I present my citations. Thank you for reading all my analysis, sophomoric spouts, and everything in between.
“Alexander Pope.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 15 Feb. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
Pope, Alexander. English. pg 25 of the rape of the lock: a heroi-comical poem. In five cantos. Digital image. Https://commons.wikimedia.org. N.p., 31 Jan. 2012. Web. 15 Feb. 2016. <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_rape_of_the_lock_pg_25.jpg>.