In English literature, the name of Alexander Pope will always remain immortal. In all of his works, he has proved himself to be a master of keen observation of life. Combining his artistic quality of writing with his knack for delving deep into the social structure of mankind, he has the ability to present beautiful literary sketches of man and his society. One such work is his famous satirical poem The Rape of the Lock. The Rape of the Lock is a supreme example of a mock-epic style. It has the grand style and characteristic of the epic and rather trivial matter.
In an epic, one of the most noticeable element is the presence of supernatural or divine beings. In Homer’s Iliad, we have Zeus, Apollo, and other deities. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, we have God, his angels, Satan, and his demonic force. In all epics, such divine spirits exist. It is a vital characteristic of an epic. The purpose of such divine machinery is not only mere decoration but it also serves to elevate the style, bring out human characteristics, and gives reason to fate.
We have mentioned before that The Rape of the Lock is a mock-epic. Therefore, if in an epic there are divine spirits, they must exist in a mock-epic too even though on a lower scale. Pope does not ignore this; it is interesting to note here that in this initial writing of the poem he did not include any such divine machinery. At that stage, though the poem was more concise, it lacked the vitality of the later edition where he included the divine spirit.
Before reading the actual poem, we find a sort of preface on dedication addressed to Arabella Fermor. Over here to a certain extent, he elaborates on the inclusion of the spirits. In The Rape of the Lock, the divine spirits are derived from the Rosicrucian Doctrine. Christian and Greek theology would be inappropriate in a mock-epic as they are inherently solemn. Pope made a fortunate choice in the Rosicrucian spirits, a fantastic system of supernatural beings believed in by a community known as the Rosicrucian, Pope came across it in a French book Le Comte de Gabalis.
According to this Rosicrucian doctrine, the spirits inhabiting the universe are the Sylphs, nymph, gnomes, and salamanders. The Sylphs and nymphs are supposed to inhabit the air and are of good and sweet nature. The gnomes and salamanders live on the earth and mischievous and demonic in nature. It is these spirits which form the divine machinery of The Rape of the Lock. Though many critics speak against the inclusion of this divine machinery, one must appreciate Pope’s deft handling of the spirits’ world. It has given more machinery to the poem and curtailed any chance of its becoming dull and boring in fact. Pope has handled the divine machinery so skilfully that we do not feel bore with the spirits’ world.
In course of the poem, we find that Pope explained these Sylphs who were once beautiful woman become Sylphs after death, a woman with fiery attitudes become Salamanders, a woman of gentle and submissive nature become water spirits or nymphs. The woman who pretends to be very modest takes inferior from a gnome. The souls of flirts go up into the air and take the forms of Sylphs.
In the context of the poem, we shall see that these Sylphs have a vast and varied number of functions. In the poem, they are Belinda’s actual attendants, sort of invisible guardians. They float around her, making sure that she is pleasing to the eye at all times rescuing her from the advances of lecherous men, helping her to flirt coquettishly and another such thing which was fitting for the fashionable lady of the day. This reminds one of a grand epic where the Gods and Goddesses interfere in the lives of the mortals. Being of a lower quality, these Sylphs and gnomes emphasize the mock-epic style. Indeed the sylph Ariel himself describes his fellow being as “light militia of the lower sky”.
As the poem goes on, the function of these spirits is further elaborated. Inline 178, Pope says that when men attribute a woman’s modesty to her sense of honor it is actually these sylphs who are guarding her purity. The gnomes teach the young woman how to flirt from an early age by rolling their eyes coquettishly, affecting blushes and falling for young men at the slightest chance. The Sylphs do not allow these girls to yield to any young man’s advances who are lecherous.
The divine machinery also serves to increase the suspense of the play. By their foreknowledge, they create suspense. For example, it was Ariel who forewarned Belinda that she should be alert and most of all to be aware of man when Belinda sits at her dressing table improving her beauty by various cosmetics and ornaments. It is not Betty her maid who is doing her assistance, it is the Sylphs who hover around fixing her hair and putting her ornaments there, it is one of their jobs to adorn the female sex.
It was Addison who discouraged Pope from including this divine machinery but after reading The Rape of the Lock, one cannot condemn Pope for it. He has given a vital spontaneity to the poem because this divine machinery is almost Homeric and Miltonic in a sense while dealing with a subject of less importance it farther improves the style of the mock-epic. Thus we must applaud Pope for his skillful use of these tiny spirits in his delightful poem The Rape of the Lock. He has indeed not only delighted his reader but proved himself to be an exceptionally skillful master of his pen and imagination.