Tag Archives: Codes of conduct

Consoling Miss Fermor – in Alexander Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’

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Alexander Pope wrote the first edition of Rape of the Lock in 1711, after persuasion from his friend John Caryll. Caryll, who was once guardian to Lord Petre, discovered that the Lord had cut a lock of hair from the head of Arabella Fermor, thus causing a rift between the two families. [1] Pope wrote the poem in a humorous attempt to mend the rift. In 1714 Pope expanded the original poem which became a five-canto mock epic (Gurr, p.5).
In predicting the hostility that he may have encountered from Miss Fermor over the content of the newly extended version, Pope explained to her in a letter that, ‘The ancient poets are in some respects like many modern ladies; let an action be never so trivial in itself. They always make it appear of utmost importance.’ [2] The purpose of the letter was to clarify to Miss Fermor that the newly adapted version of Rape of the lock was an exaggeration of the earlier incident. Considering this, I would suggest that Pope purposely refuted the customary disciplines of feminine behaviour in the early eighteenth century, within Rape of the lock, in order to restore Miss Fermor’s pride.

The female role was a performance taken very seriously in the early Eighteenth century. Women were encouraged to follow codes of conduct. ‘Codes of civility and courtesy were a matter of active practice, generating their own concepts, values and behaviours which could then be deployed as a set of power relations.’ [3] These behaviours included modesty, sociability and humbleness. Silence and obedience were also essential during this period, unless stimulated by a man. Chastity was a value which was not only desirable to men, but a marital attraction. [4] Rousseau suggested that, ‘One no longer dares to appear what one is.’ [5] Furthermore, women were encouraged to conduct themselves with virtue and an ability to talk knowledgably. [6] Knowledge may have been problematic for women, as education for many females was not encouraged. As a result, a female’s only profession was that of wife and mother. Women were described as a tender and weaker sex and trusted that men should be their stronger counterpart. [7]

The above illustration of female behaviour was ridiculed by Pope in Rape of the Lock, whose portrayal of Belinda, both mimicked the correct behaviour in which society deemed suitable yet, at the same time, furnished her with opposing qualities such as, strength, power, and intelligence, this often resulted in rebellious behaviour.
Pope began to represent these characteristics through his metaphoric use of the sun.

Sol thro’ white curtains shot a tim’rous ray;
And ope’d those eyes that must eclipse the day; (1.13-14)

The rhyming couplet not only exemplified the beauty of Belinda’s eyes but suggested that, she was in fact bigger, or more powerful that the sun. The metaphor continues,

Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on those alike. (2.13-14)

Along with the theme of beauty and power, Pope created a sense of irony at the end of the couplet when he wrote that Belinda’s eyes ‘shine on those alike’, these words demonstrate that it was Pope’s illusion to describe Belinda as a goddess yet he demonstrated a humbler side to the lady, who believes herself as an equal to those persons around her. Many critics fail to see the irony in Rape of the lock such as Cleanth Brooks, ‘is Belinda is a goddess, or is she merely a frivolous tease? [8] Pope created the illusion within the poem to generate such controversy. However, Brooks does go on to suggest that the sun metaphor may be interpreted in many ways, one of which suggests, that Belinda gives her generosity ‘like a great prince’. (Brooks, p.140). This ironic comment clarifies the opposing feminine qualities in which Pope demonstrated.

The poet continued to exemplify Belinda’s strength of character in canto one, when her maid Betty and the sylphs (Mystical beings) prepared their ‘goddess’ for her day ahead.

And now unveil’d, the toilette stand display’d,
Each Silver vase in mystic order laid. (1.121-148)

Although it may be argued that the presentation of the items on Belinda’s toilet were a representation of consumerism, these items would have been common in the period in which the poem was written. In the early 18th century the rapid growth of the British economy, resulted in an increase in consumerism. [9] Watkins suggested, that the elaborate beautification of Belinda only served to tempt the Baron to cut off the lock of hair,’ (Watkins, p.257). However, on closer inspection of this scene, Belinda’s transformation was in fact a mask that gave her strength in the outside world.

Now awful beauty puts on all its arms (1.139)

Pope deliberately wrote this line to be interpreted in several ways. Firstly, the word awful could be understood as creating awe; however, the actual meaning of the word signifies that Belinda saw her mask as a disguise from her real identity. The second part of the sentence, ‘put on all its arms’, suggests that Pope was arming Belinda for battle. The mere proposal of a fight, in which Belinda was willing to confront, allowed great strength and character.

Canto two set the scene for Belinda’s voyage along the Thames. Pope took the opportunity within this scene to enchant his readers with clear descriptions of Belinda’s beauty. However, his narrative of the silver cross in which she wore around her neck, served several purposes;

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore (Canto 2.7-8)

The cross, from Pope’s perspective, was a symbol of worship which, in the early 18th century was highly contentious. Pope himself was a Roman catholic and was raised during a time in which a Protestant monarchy held the throne. Catholics at this time were disadvantaged and treated at foreigners and, as a result, were forbidden from public schools and universities and could not live within the city of London. [10] Pope adorned Belinda with the silver cross to expose her rebellious nature as well as mock the political doctrines in which his religion had been compelled. (Hernandez, p.580) suggested that ‘Pope, on the contrary, looks on the ‘Goddess’ with uncharacteristic sympathy for the period.’ Hernandez was denoting that the cross was merely a commodity for Belinda. However, the cross bared such significance that the very use of it suggests power in its beholder.

Strength and rebellion were only a few of the characteristics that Pope displayed in Belinda’s role within the poem. He also portrayed her as an intelligent woman by displaying, in her possession, items of literature.

Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux (Canto 1-138)

Payne proposed that the two items (Bible and love letter) should ‘give us cause for hesitation, but the diction Pope uses in describing the objects, as well as the lady in question, makes them without a doubt subversively charming indeed.’ [11] Payne recognised that Pope was using these items to enhance the character of Belinda. Pope intended to have his audience take into consideration that Belinda could read, which as discussed at the beginning of this essay was unlikely for a female in this era.

Moreover, Belinda was also a skilful card player. Pope wrote this scene at Hampton court to introduce Belinda and the Baron.

Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites,
Burns to encounter two adventurous knights (3.26-27)

In the first line of the couplet, Pope addressed Belinda’s ambition to win. This also gave Pope the opportunity to put Belinda into direct competition with the Baron. Not only did Pope introduce a battle of sexes, but Belinda was playing against two ‘Adventurous Knights.’ She dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights. Wimsatt, who reconstructed the card game Ombre in his essay, said that ‘appearance or probability, is what has a bearing on the elements of skill and fate in this game of Ombre and hence on its dramatic and poetic interpretation. [12] Wimsatt was implying that Ombre is not a difficult game, yet for an eighteenth-century female who had little or no education, Belinda proved to be a highly competent player and she dominated the game with her skill and intelligence, overthrowing the knights.

The pinnacle of the Popes exploration of Female sexuality occurred when the Baron, cut the lock of hair from Belinda’s head. Belinda’s first reaction was to shriek in horror, which would have been an improper response for a lady in the eighteenth century. It was at this point in the poem that Pope introduced the caves of spleen. The fictional representation of the underworld, explained how Pope believed Miss Fermor to have felt when her lock of hair was stolen. According to Lillian Feder, the caves of spleen are ‘often cited as evidence of Popes interest in libidinous drives and blind compulsions.’ [13]  Although this may be an alternative perception of the poem, the main purpose of Spleen was to arm Belinda with the necessary courage to fight back against the Baron. Pope also wanted to invite his audience to accept that the incident had caused Miss Fermor a great deal of sorrow and pain. This scene allowed Pope to give Belinda a voice;

For ever curs’d be this detested day (4.147)

Her speech continued to describe how she wished that she had stayed at home, for she knew in her heart that something bad was going to happen. It was not Pope’s intention to address Belinda as a weak character during this speech, but rather a conscientious woman who made great effort to fulfil her female role. Yet the final canto in Rape of the Lock defined Belinda as the strong, powerful and rebellious character that Pope designed in order to maintain Miss Fermor’s reputation. Belinda fought back against the Baron and threw snuff in his face, at which point the Baron sneezed and lost the lock of hair. Pope ended the poem in a ceremonial style by celebrating the lock of hair and sending it to the stars. This ending, for the benefit of Miss Fermor, was to assure her that she would become as well known as the poem, therefore, the poem had served its purpose in reinstating her reputation. Throughout the poem, Pope protected the reputation of Belinda’s Chastity. Critics such as Reichard believed that the plot of the poem was ‘a contest of wiles between commanding personalities – an uninhibited philanderer and an invincible flirt,’ [14] this opinion does not demote Belinda’s character for she was merely representing an eighteenth-century woman by flirting with a gentleman. Her virtue and chastity remained intact.

The evidence of Pope’s desire to reinstate Miss Fermor’s reputation may have resided in the original title of the poem ‘Rape of the Locke’. For Pope, the word ‘Locke’ was a pun to describe the philosopher John Locke, who opposed the practice of Catholicism. This contained not only mockery but is a parody of John Locke’s theory of the state of nature. In his Two Treaties of Government 1689, Locke wrote,

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person. This no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state of nature hath provided, and left in it, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. [15]

This ironic evidence clarifies that the lock of hair was in fact the property of Belinda, yet when the Baron put his labour into the cutting of the lock; it therefore became his property, thus, justifying that Lord Petre’s actions were merely a misunderstanding which, once again reinstates the reputation of Miss Fermor.

It is evident throughout Rape of the Lock that Pope alternated the characteristics of Belinda to complement Arabella Fermor. His depiction of feminine conduct was inconsistent within the context of its period, yet he allowed the ill-fitting gender stereotype to form the foundation of his poem. Pope hoped that the reader of his time would therefor see the illusion that he created. Although the construction of the poem and the remaining characters may have produced alternative criticisms and interpretations of Pope’s intention, this essay provided an explanation of why the character of Belinda was written at such a contradictory way in comparison to eighteenth century femininity, concluding that its purpose was simply to console Miss Fermor.

***

Bibliography

Brooks, C, ‘The case of Miss Arabella Fermor’, in Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, A selection of Critical essays, ed. By John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) [8]

Dutton, R, ed., Alexander Pope A Literary Life (London: The Macmillan Press, 1990) [10]

Erickson, A.L, ‘Women and Property: In Early Modern England (Routledge: London, 1993) [4]

Feder, L, Madness in Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980) [13]

Hernandez, E, ‘Commodity and Religion in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock’, Studies in English Literature – 1500-1900, 48 (2008) [9]

Jones, R.W, ‘Gender and the Formation of Taste in the Eighteenth Century Britain (Cambridge: The Press Sydicate of the University of Cambridge, 1998) [6]

Locke, J, ‘Two Treaties of Government’, ed., P.Laslett; (Cambridge University Press,1988) , in Political Ideologies, ed., Mathew Festenstein and, Michael Kenny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) [15]

Payne, D.C ‘Pope and the War against Coquettes: or Feminism and ‘The Rape of the Lock’ Reconsidered- Yet Again, The Eighteenth Century, 32 (1991) [11]

Reichard, H. M ‘The Love Affair in Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock’ in Alexander Pope The Rape of the Lock, A selection of critical essays, ed., John Dixon Hunt (London: Macmillan and Company Limited, 1969) [14]

Rogers,P, ed., Alexander Pope The major works, (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2006) [2]

Rousseau, J.J, ‘Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, or first discourse’ (1750) in) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) [5]

Ward,A.W, ed., M.A, Litt.D, The Poetical works of Alexander Pope, (London:Macmillan and Co, Limited, 1930) [1]

Williams,C.D.’The Luxury of Doing Good: Benevolence, Sensibility and the Royal Humane Society (1996) in L.Brace, ‘Improving the Inside: Gender, property and the 18th century self’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12 (2010) [3]

Wimsatt, W.K and Source, J.R ‘The Game of Ombre in Rape of the Lock,’ The Review of English Studies, New Series, 1 (1950) [12]

Wipprecht, C, ‘The Representation of Women in Early 18th Century England’ (Druck Und Binding :Norderstedt, 2006) [7]

 

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