Puffs, Powders, and Pillars: The Strength of Form and Unresolved Tension in The Rape of the Lock

March 19, 2021 by Essay Writer

The verse of Alexander Pope often succeeds in conveying far more meaning than its words, taken at face value, might suggest. In The Rape of the Lock particularly, what at first seems like a light-hearted ribbing of upper class preoccupations, soon reads like a multi-layered meditation on class, religion, and social priorities. Certain tensions become clear to the careful reader, certain ironies and couched critiques are found to result from the way the poet has manipulated the form. These individual tensions rarely see resolution and it is these perpetually competing ideas that keep the poem relevant and worthy of continued consideration. Pope’s heroic couplets, using techniques such as unexpected emphasis, antithetical rhyme, and purposeful redundancy, engineer a construct of tensile force upon which he is able to build complex webs of multiple meaning. He creates a suspended series of intricate tensions that are never resolved, but which instead push against and counteract one another eternally. It is these everlasting pillars of competing ideas that ensure the poem’s legacy.

In the early part of the eighteenth century, the heroic couplet “was far and away the dominant verse form in Anglophone poetry and perhaps the characteristic form of verbal discourse in English” (Hunter 258-9). Pope found in it an agile method through which dynamic linguistic and metaphorical intricacies could be presented in The Rape of the Lock. A pair of poetic lines written in iambic pentameter, the heroic couplet was popular with contemporary readers and was, therefore, a mechanism through which he could make an instant connection with the audience he hoped to reach. However, popularity among his readership was not the only reason Pope may have chosen heroic couplets to author his solicitation for a détente between Arabella Fermor and Lord Robert Petre. This particular form gave him ready access to various rhetorical techniques that would allow him to sculpt the messages he wanted to convey in restrained ways. J. Paul Hunter explains that “form . . . does make demands and have implications. Verse forms are not decorative afterthoughts or neutral frames for messages” (269). Establishing definitive determinations about specific forms is an unfeasible, perhaps undesirable, pursuit, but one may study patterns and poetic tendencies of how forms are used to gain a better understanding of their effect on the reader. Forms can not have ideologies, but “traditions of usage create poets with habitual assumptions and readers with particular expectations, so that it may be possible – even obligatory – to think practically about the ideology of form in particular historic moments and for particular groups of authors and readers” (Hunter 258). Additionally, just as a form’s reception may change among groups of readers, so too, does the nature of a form change. Whereas to its contemporary readership, the heroic couplet provided a comfort of familiarity as well as an acceptable arena for critical wit, so over time the couplet has proven, in The Rape of the Lock, a lasting girder for a poem whose relevance has not faltered.

Many critics believe that much of the poem’s power stems from the fact that its couplets are self-contained statements. The poem’s overall themes are significant, but if they are remarkable or enduring, it is due to the power of the individual couplets, several of which in and of themselves, stand alone in terms of literary merit. (Though I agree with this idea, not all scholars support it. Hunter, for example, disagrees, claiming that Pope’s thought was never complete within the bounds of two lines unless he was writing a poem that consisted only of a single couplet (268).) While the nature of this particular poem is narrative and plot-driven, there is still room among its various couplets for individual analysis. “Heroic couplets had not always been written in the way Pope wrote them. He may be said to have regarded them as if they were stanzas, self-contained; or, if not quite that, as having a beginning, middle and even though at the end stood a gate, a gate which on some occasions he opened to allow the sense to drive through” (Cunningham 104). Within a self-contained unit, one can make an independent statement. Pope accomplishes this through dynamic structural and linguistic manipulation of meaning and emphasis.

For Pope, action takes place within, as opposed to between the couplets, which are “a flexible framework allowing perpetual activity” (Chico 252).Within the two lines, ten iambs, and twenty syllables, the potential for phrase division, types of rhyme, and plot advancement are many. Pope seems to have taken up the challenge to look at this form in new ways. How could it be manipulated to convey various levels of meaning? As forms change, “they carry within them various aesthetic hierarchies, material and theoretical indices, and ideological imperatives” (Chico 264). These layers and levels when left to be threaded together by the narrative alone may remain illogically discrete. In the hands of a capable poet, however, they may be woven into an intelligible, if multi-faceted, whole by the sophisticated rhetorical techniques the poet may choose to employ.

One such technique is the manipulation of a reader’s expectation. Inherent in the structure of the heroic couplet are echelons of expected emphasis. Playing with expectation is an immediate way to start a reader out of complacency and to present a rhetorical strain that may need to be reconciled. The manipulation of these expectations goes a long way toward creating and harboring a tension that permeates the poem. “Each couplet involves . . . four fundamental units . . . divided rhetorically by a caesura and syntactically by some crucial grammatical relationship that implies cause and effect” (Hunter 267). These four half lines and their cause and effect relationship solicit certain expectations from a reader as far as which of the half lines will be emphasized. “The structure of the heroic couplet when divided into half lines creates primary emphasis for the final half line, culminating in the rhyme word, and secondary emphasis for the first and second half lines, leaving the first half of the second line without important emphasis” (Goosenik 191). This third half line serves as a break for the reader’s breath and concentration as he or she gears up for the punch that will come in the final rhyme’s most important half line. Therefore, by placing seemingly unimportant elements in a position of anticipated emphasis or by placing generally accepted items of importance in a position without emphasis, the poet produces irony and places himself at odds with the expectations of his reader. Such is the case in the following couplet:

Or stain her honour, or her new brocade; Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade (2.107-8 )

“Prayers” is placed in the third half line, the position of least emphasis. This indicates that to Belinda and her kind, prayers, and one can then infer, religion, are of little import. What is important, according to the tension of the line, is a masquerade ball. “For anyone with the religion of Belinda, going to prayers and attending the midnight masquerade is merely a matter of the time of day. The functions of the two activities are basically identical” (Goosenik 195). Later in the poem, when discussing Hampton Court Palace, the poet describes the location in terms of how Queen Anne utilizes it:

Here thou, great ANNA! Whom three realms obey, Doest sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea. (3.7-8)

The counsel of her political advisors, according to the arranged emphasis of the couplet, matters little compared to conversational gossip of those she may entertain. “By placing what should be significant in the unemphatic position and what should be trivial, but is important to Belinda’s world, in the most emphatic, Pope allows rhetorical structure to convey irony” (Goosenik 191). That irony, then, houses a tension, between what should be important and what to Belinda and Queen Anne is important. The careful reader realizes this and should begin to see the unlikely resolution of this tension, the unlikely change in Belinda’s outlook and priorities. The lack of a moral catharsis by the characters of the poem, despite evidence suggesting one is necessary, raises it beyond the realm of simple fable or fully resolved morality play. The astute reader should feel compelled to consider the work further, finding meaning in the ironies and hoping, futilely, yes, but as humans tend to do hoping, nonetheless, that upon the next read, the tension may perhaps be resolved.

Pope manipulates emphasis in other ways, as well. As Belinda prepares herself for the day, the poet enumerates the “unnumbered treasures” upon her dressing table. Among the gifts and grooming products brought to her from around the globe, one finds “[p]uffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux” (Pope 1.138). Each item featured in a list has a predetermined emphasis. The penultimate item in an alliterative listing such as this one is necessarily the least emphasized and, one would think, the least important. “Pope places [“bibles”] which should be of paramount importance in the least emphatic position in the line to show the reader that the values of Belinda’s world are upside down” (Goosenik 195). Instead of explicitly stating this, however, Pope uses his inherent understanding of how an audience member will read the line to convey his meaning subtly without having to articulate it. He lets particular word placement and expected emphasis work together to make his point for him. Instead of stating that Belinda treats religion as just another reason to be seen in public, he sweeps its iconography up with the accoutrement of makeup and places the key to moral redemption, “bibles,” in a position where it will most likely be overlooked or ignored.

In addition to the mechanisms by which Pope is able to manipulate emphasis, the meter of the heroic couplet offers him an array of avenues by which to craft meaning and orchestrate tension. The ten two-syllable iambs of a couplet aid conciseness and present a “firmly controlled progression” (Cunningham 103). The aforementioned comfort that a reader of the day would have found in the reading of iambic pentameter afforded the form a certain accessibility. That comfortable reader is, therefore, more susceptible to messaging not explicit in the words of the poem. “The metre whispers to the reader the sense, the tone, the nuance which those words have not needed to be used for” (Cunningham 107). The potential of meter for varied rhythms and manipulated accent work to keep the reader engaged. Pope was loathe to put his audience to sleep. He crafted lines that bounced, with syllables that insisted on punctuation and invited animation.

Where wigs with wigs, with sword-knots sword-knots strive, Beaux banish beaux, and coaches coaches drive (1.101-102)

In this couplet, the normal emphasis of the iambs is stressed further. The percussive accent of the words “wigs” and “swords” equates them ridiculously. The “pleasurable effects of poetry are produced by subliminal verbal patterning” (Ligget 17). Our mind wants to find reasonable meaning in the messages it receives. The reader, therefore, would readily take a clue such as the punctuated words in a line’s carefully composed meter and draw parallels between them.

These sorts of illogical unions are reinforced throughout the poem through the use of sophisticated rhetorical techniques such as zeugma and chiasmus. Using these tools, Pope is able to juxtapose competing ideas and thereby further develop his intricate web of small tensions. Zeugma is “the yoking of two distinct idioms to a single verb [and] is the single most effective of Pope’s rhetorical tricks, in so far as it creates an ironic clash between seemingly disparate orders of value” (Norris 151). In a line we have previously examined, we see the verb “stain” referring to both Belinda’s “honour” and her “new brocade.” The implication, of course, is that by staining her dress, Belinda’s reputation, or honour, is thereby damaged. By connecting the one verb to the two incongruent nouns, Pope implies a level of parity between the young woman’s character and her outward appearance. Again, we find ironic tension between what should be important and what, in fact, is important to Belinda nestled lyrically in a single line. The couplet continues with another example, “Or lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball” (Pope 2.109). “The metaphorical meaning of both ‘stain’ and ‘lose’ is first emphasized and then we are asked to attach to it as object, unexpectedly, a noun which works with it in the literal sense only. The shock of inappropriate relation is conveyed” (Doody 217). This discordance may be read as humorous or discomfiting. The reader’s preconceived condition will affect his or her reaction. What does not change, though, is the tension between what should be valued and what is valued not at all.

With chiasmus, we find two parallel phrases balanced against one another, but with their parts of speech reversed. This technique is a mechanism by which “the poem plays with the concepts of dissimilarity and resemblance” (Cohen 207).

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign And wretches hang that jurymen may dine (3.21-22)

In line 21, the subject, “hungry judges” precedes the action “sign.” This imprimatur allows for two things: wretches, guilty or not, will go to the gallows sooner and the jurymen may get home to eat. The gravity of what the judges have done and the carelessness with which they have done it are pitted against one another. So, too, is the permanence of the wretches’ death, set against the temporary satiation of the jurymen. “Pope uses chiasmus to cross-connect moral significance with slight occasion” (Nicholson 84). In another example from Ariel’s warning to his fellow sylphs, we see threats to character and virtue being feared evenly with threats to material things.

Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law, Or some frail china jar receive a flaw; (2.105-106)

These sorts of rhetorical origami, coupling and folding opposite ends of possible meaning to create a decorous artifact, allow Pope the freedom to comment on the ambiguities he is witnessing among the upper class as well as create a pleasing piece of poetry that the same upper class will purchase and enjoy. When the narrator explains the Baron’s desire to obtain one of Belinda’s locks, “[b]y force to ravish, or by fraud betray,” the degree of his determination is implied. (Pope 2.32). A man may take something by force, but he may then be subject to the ridicule of others. The speaker undercuts the crime of taking something by force, however, by suggesting that once a deed is done, no one really remembers how it was accomplished.

For when success a lover’s toil attends, Few ask, if fraud or force attained his ends (2.33-34)

The narrator has prejudiced the reader toward acquittal before the crime has even been committed. A tension remains between a foreshadowed guilt and an ambivalent jury. Robert Markley suggests that these complexities see “Pope the champion of drawing room civility . . . replaced by Pope the incisive commentator on the political ambiguities of his day.” (73) I would argue, however, that one Pope is not being replaced by another. Instead, techniques such as zeugma and chiasmus allow his various messages to coexist. The opposing implications push against one another, resisting the other’s attempt to alter or weaken it, thereby reinforcing the strength of each as well as Pope’s statement over all.

In The Rape of the Lock, Pope is touching on several pairs of competing elements: Belinda versus the Baron, the sylphs versus that which threatens their lady, the insular upper class English set and the outside world from which they are now obtaining their trinkets. Between these individual sides, tensions exist. Pope could have chosen to write in monosyllabic, masculine rhyme. The story would have been conveyed, but not endured. The nature of the end rhyme in many of Pope’s couplets is one means through which new tensions may be discovered upon multiple readings. Antithetical rhyme, in which the last two words of each line rhyme but have opposite meanings, is one such mechanism. For example, the last words in each of the lines below imply wholly different meanings:

Know farther yet; whoever fair and chaste Rejects mankind, is by some sylph embraced (1.67-68)

By associating the notion of chastity with a signifier for intimate contact, Pope is playing one notion of success off another. Belinda’s virtue, traditionalists might think, lies in her virginity. However, in her mind, her virtue lies in the nature of her outward appearance. She is not bothered that her honor may be compromised. She exclaims, “Oh hadst though, cruel! been content to seize/Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these” (Pope 4.175-6). She would not have minded so much a more private violation. As long as she is blemished in a way that others can not see, to her, virginity and intimacy are of one accord. We have entered now “a world in which appearances have actually become substitutes for things themselves where virtue has been reduced to reputation” (Pollak 77). When Ariel is explaining to Belinda that she is surrounded by protective sylphs, he says,

Some secret truths, from learned pride concealed, To maids alone and children are revealed. (1.37-38)

Belinda has little use for anything concealed. She believes anything she possesses of value should be on display for all to see. “These antitheses follow Pope’s normal satiric pattern of inversion of values” (Goosnik 193). The reader must balance what he understands to be a properly aligned moral compass with what he is being told Belinda believes. More than likely, these two visions will be at odds. Pope’s genius lies in his ability to craft language such that the tension is conveyed, but does not prompt us to stop reading. We want to read on, perhaps seeking a resolution that may never come.

Antithesis does not only occur in end rhymes. We see more than one antithetical pairing in this couplet:

Safe from the treacherous friend, the daring spark, The glance by day, the whisper in the dark (1.73-4)

Hunter believes that “often, the force of a couplet hangs on our noticing the conflict between the words.” (266). In these lines, we notice much. A “treacherous friend” is an oxymoron, which Margaret Anne Doody refers to as “the governing figure of speech of Augustan poetry, the central figure of its poetic thought” (217). Which friends are to be trusted? What treachery lurks behind the intentions of those we believe to be our allies? “Spark,” the text’s endnotes quote Mr. Johnson, may be defined as “a lively, showy, gay man,” someone who may prove treacherous to a virginal young woman. “Spark” is also used as a pun, to form an antithetical rhyme with “dark.” In the second line, “day” serves as an additional counterpoint to the impression of dark. “Glance” and “whisper,” each potentially furtive forms of communication, play off one another, as well. Ariel is continuing in this couplet his explanation that he and the other sylphs protect “the purity of melting maids” (Pope 1.71) when their virtue is threatened by a flirtatious beau. Such circumstances are, indeed, moments of passionate confusion for young women, knowing in their heads how they should act; feeling with their hormones how they would like to act. The contrasts in this couplet capture that dissonance, the idea that something can be good and bad, light and dark, desired and undesirable all at the same time.

End rhyme may also be a source of tension when the two rhyming words are two different parts of speech. These oppositions are much more subtle than the techniques we have discussed thus far. They, nonetheless, contribute to recurring rhetorical strain in the poem. Take, for example, the passage just as Belinda’s hair is snipped from her head.

The meeting points the sacred hair dissever From the fair head, for ever, and for ever! Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies. Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast, When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last, Or when rich china vessels, fallen from high, In glittering dust, and pointed fragments lie! (3.153-160)

Three of the four couplets featured in the passage end in rhymes that pair two different parts of speech. Primarily, this technique keeps the poem from falling into a pattern of predictable, flat rhyme scheme. However, there is also a more intricate counter-balancing of ideas at play here. The lock takes on the character of a relic when it is described as sacred. To be dissevered is to end its reign as a beatific adornment. The scissors have caused it to rule no more. Yet, the finality of “dissever,” a verb meaning to remove and implicating to end, is paired with “for ever,” an adjectival phrase indicating permanence, eternity. Belinda may have hoped her youthful physical beauty would have been ceaseless, but now it is the end of her beauty that the poem indicates will be everlasting. The complexity of a notion such as this one is astonishing, all the more so as it serves a perfect example of the powerful tension that can be conveyed in a single couplet. The tensions extant in couplets such as these work against one another to form a tensile strength that serves as a strong support structure for any further, more explicit or over-arching meaning (Liggett 19). Hunter acknowledges this strain within couplets and argues that this formal tension serves to encourage “the preservation and acceptance of difference rather than a working out or modification or compromise” (266). After all, whether in terms of scholarship or entertainment, are not two passions played off one another in a perpetual state of tension far more interesting than the inevitable watered down reality of resolution? Though it is natural for the human ear, the human mind, to desire solution, it is just as natural to viscerally enjoy the discordant journey one takes to find it.

The last couplet in the above passage is one in which the antithetical rhyme actually crafts a visual impression of opposites. It is not the first time in the poem that the idea of precious china being broken is grounds for deep despair. Here, “rich china vessels” may fall “from high” – from a high shelf, perhaps, from a dining table top; or could the implication be that prized china sits in an even more reverent elevated location? The ultimate in material things may have origins in the divine. The narrator is suggesting that their demise would warrant the same amount of grief as the death of a husband. We see lofty attention paid to so material an object as the couplet paints the picture of a delicate specimen falling from an abnormally high place only to end up in fragments, lying decimated in the lowest possible position. Where it once had been acted upon, set in a place described particularly has “high,” the vessel now engenders the verb “lie,” and is strewn, ruined, in bits, much as Belinda believes her reputation and herself to be.

Even over the course of five cantos, the recurrence of certain rhyme pairs and line endings is not accidental. On three separate occasions, Pope rhymes “rage” with “engage.” Near the beginning of the poem, we read:

In tasks so bold, can little men engage, And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage? (1.11-12)

Soft bosoms would be the last place one might expect rage to harbored. The image is dissonant and continues the inter-textual tensions of the poem. When we find this rhyme pair again in Canto Three, we have a different set of players – no longer “little men” nor those with soft bosoms:

The rebel knave, who dares his prince engage Proves the just victim of his royal rage. (3.59-60)

In this couplet, we encounter rage in a locale more appropriate than a soft bosom. Additionally, we have moved away from “little men” and into the realm of princes. In Canto Five, when we see the rhyme pair for the final time, our combatants have been elevated even further, from princes to gods.

So when bold Homer makes the gods engage, And heavenly breasts with human passions rage; (5.45-46)

The metaphor of “bosoms” returns, but this time in the form of “heavenly breasts” raging with a passion perhaps, by this point, at home there. Through threads such as these, Pope’s metaphor progresses from a single couplet of somewhat illogical irony to a series culminating in divine reference and more appropriate emotion. The relevance for us exists in the fact that despite the repetition, despite the evolution of the metaphor, nothing is resolved. In this context, neither gods nor little men seem capable of bringing about a resolution. By Canto Five, the rage is still neither abated nor satisfied.

The ironies, tensions, and antitheses in the poem discussed thus far leave no doubt the fact that Pope found fault with the behavior and priorities of those about whom he was writing. Their misaligned concerns and elevation of material objects and outward appearance to positions more important than character are evident even if one does not know Pope’s personal situation. The resounding messaging in the formal language is clear. The more one knows about the poet, however, the more insight may be gained into the motives of the messaging and though not pertinent to the power of form in the poem, the poet himself is worth a brief mention. It is fair, I believe, to consider the facts of his life as a background for the tensions we find in the poem.

Pope was torn between the society upon which he was casting a satirical eye and a perspective outside of it. There were many ways in which he was at odds with the world to which he was born. A decidedly middle-class, physically malformed Catholic in eighteenth century England, he maintained a complicated relationship with the society that he admired. While his intellect and industrious nature obtained for him a comfortable existence, his accession to the upper class would never be possible. Much of Pope’s life and work, in fact, embodied this tense relationship. For example, he was recusant, that is, a person who refused to convert to the Church of England. However, his devotion to Catholicism could have been categorized as tepid at best. One can truly only speculate about in what ways Pope may have been torn, about the divides that may have existed between where he was in society and where he wanted to be, between what he thought of society and what he admired about it. We cannot, then, assign these speculations as the source or motive for his use of form to construct competing, unresolved tensions, but to consider them enriches one’s appreciation of the forces at play.

The narrative tension in The Rape of the Lock is not resolved. The lock is not recovered and Belinda is left with the lofty idea that the poem itself will serve as a far more enduring testament to her beauty than any physical adornment could have proven (Chico 263). Words can endure, yes, so this promise by the poet is possible, but not guaranteed. The mere fact that the poem is written does not ensure its longevity. Flat words composing easily resolved ideas may be fine for a moment’s entertainment, but do not have the strength to endure. The ironies and competing ideas pushing against one another in this poem form a lasting foundation for Pope’s ideas and critiques the likes of which are applicable in any age. The formal techniques available to him were the steel threads he used to craft tension upon which he was able to frame his narrative, articulate his argument, and ensure that we would still be excavating meaning from the poem today.

Works Cited

Chico, Tita. “Couplets and Curls: A Theory of Form.” Philological Quarterly 86.3 (Summer 2007): 251-268. EBSCO Host. Web. 30 October 2012.

Cohen, Ralph. “Transformation in The Rape of the Lock.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 3.3 (1969): 205-224. JSTOR. Web. 12 September 2012.

Crehan, Stewart. “The Rape of the Lock and the Economy of ‘Trivial Things.’” Eighteenth- Century Studies 31.1 (1997): 45-68. JSTOR. Web. 12 October 2012

Cunningham, J. S. “Appendix C: The Heroic Couplet.” The Rape of the Lock. By Alexander Pope. Ed. Cunningham. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1971. 103-107. Print.

Gosselink, R.N. “The ‘Dissolving Antithesis’: Technique in The Rape of the Lock.” Humanities Association Review/La Revue de l’Association des Humanites 24 (1973): 191-96. Print.

Hunter, J. Paul. “Form as Meaning: Pope and the Ideology of the Couplet.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 37.3 (1996): 257-270. Print.

Liggett, Pamela Slate. “Pope’s Phonetic Triangles: The Heroic Couplet in The Rape of the Lock.” New Orleans Review 15.4 (Winter 1988): 17-22. Print.

Markley, Robert. “Beyond Consensus: The Rape of the Lock and the Fate of Reading Eighteenth- Century Literature.” Critical Essays on Alexander Pope. Ed. W. Jackson and R. P. Yoder. New York: Hall, 1993. 69-83. Print.

Nicholson, Colin. “The Mercantile Bard: Commerce and Conflict in Pope.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 38.1 (2005): 77-94. EBSCO Host. Web. 12 October 2012.

Norris, Christopher. “Pope Among the Formalists: Textual Politics and The Rape of the Lock.” Ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris. Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 134-61. Print.

Pollak, Ellen. “The Rape of the Lock: A Reification of the Myth of Passive Womanhood.” Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985. 77-107. Print.

Wimsatt Jr., W.K. “One Relation of Rhyme to Reason: Alexander Pope.” Modern Language Quarterly 5.3 (1944): 323-339. Print.

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