What Use of Machinery does Pope Make in The Rape of the Lock?


The term “machinery” is invented by the critics, to signify the special role played by deities, angels, demons, and even by gods in a poem. In the ancient epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey and down to Milton’s Paradise Lost, supernatural beings play a vital role in the actions of the poems showing that the human world is not independent of them. They exert a decisive influence on human heroes and actions. Although The Rape of the Lock is a mock-heroic poem and it makes use of the supernatural machinery to be classed with the epic poems, it would not be undeserving to mention that Pope’s attempt to use this machinery is quite successful in his design.

In the dedication, Pope has made it clear that he has borrowed the supernatural elements from the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits. According to this doctrine, the four elements – earth, air, water, and fire are inhabited by spirits which are called sylphs, nymphs, gnomes, and salamanders. These spirits are motivated differently in accordance with their functions in relation to human activities. These four spirits, the sylphs who inhabit the air as supposed to be the best-conditioned creatures imaginable. The gnomes or demons of earth delight in mischief.

Pope also tells us of their origins, the beautiful women, often their death returns to their elements from which they are derived, they are turned into sylphs. The women of violent temper pass into their native elements after their death and become salamanders or the spirits of the fire. Women having a gentle and pleasing nature become nymphs or water- spirits. Prudish women become gnomes or earth- spirits.

These supernatural beings have their respective function to perform. The sylph protects the chaste and fair ladies who reject the male sex. The sylph is also entrusted with the guarding of chastity of the maidens when they are about to yield to their lovers. They also save the maidens from falling victims to the allotment of ‘treacherous friends’ and spirited young men whose music melts their hearts. The gnomes make the proud maidens indulge in vain dreams of being married to lords and peers. These spirits teach young coquetted to ogle and pretend to blush at the sight of the fashionable young men who cause their hearts to flutter, whenever a young woman is in danger of being seduced by a young man, the sylphs contrive to divert her mind towards a more charming young man. The machinery of Pope’s poem comprises the sylphs led by Ariel.

The function of the supernatural machinery is not as important as it is in the great epics. They are “light” by any heroic standards. At the time of crisis, they feel scared. Pope has made use of them to describe the fashion and style of the society. Ariel describes how the sylphs under his leadership protect the young beautiful women.

The machinery did its duties quite satisfactorily. The machinery is presented in every crucial situation in the play. The sylphs keep watch upon Belinda when she makes the journey to the Hampton Court; fifty of them were engaged by Ariel to take charge of Belinda’s petticoat. At the game of ombre and at time of drinking coffee, they were present and alert. They withdraw themselves when they found ‘an earthly lover lurking at her heart’. A gnome called Umbriel goes to the cave of spleen and returns with a bag full of sighs,  screams, and outbursts of anger. This was a vial filled with fainting fits, gentle sorrows, soft grief etc. The sylphs witnessed the flights of Belinda’s lock of hair to the sky. The bag brought by Umbriel was opened to release the things upon Belinda. The machinery was thus kept in the reader’s view of the last.

Pope has provided the myth of the sylph a special idea. The spirits were used as symbols of the polite convention. They also represent his attempts to do justice to the intricacies of the feminine mind.

The use of the supernatural machinery although not on the scale of Homer or Milton, had added grace to his poem. According to Wilson Knight, the “light militia of the lower sky” increases dramatic suspense and depth to the sky. In this connection, Pope has recovered something of Homer’s vision of divine order.

The Rape of the Lock, at first sight, appears to be a work of art without heart, besides, the addition of the machinery to the poem has not been criticized by the critics. But it may be said that the machinery has given it a meaning and charming effect. So its inclusion into the fable is quite justified.

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