Q. What is the significance of supernatural machinery in “The Rape of the Lock”?
Q. Alexander Pope’s use of supernatural machinery heightens the mock-heroic effect of the poem The Rape of the Lock. Discuss.
Supernatural machinery is a term that refers to the involvement of gods or other supernatural entities in the unfolding of a story, a common device in ancient epic poems like Homer’s “The Iliad” and Virgil’s “Aeneid.”
Pope borrows this device but modifies it according to his poem’s lighter and satirical spirit. Instead of gods and goddesses, Pope introduces a society of spirits or “sylphs” that watch over the poem’s protagonist, Belinda, and other high-born ladies.
Belinda’s world is controlled not by gods but by these trivial sylphs and gnomes, a metaphor for the frivolity of the society Pope is satirizing. Ariel, the chief of these sylphs, is no Zeus or Athena but a light and somewhat ineffectual sprite whose primary concern is preserving Belinda’s chastity and, more importantly, her beauty.
The sylphs’ attempts to prevent the lock’s “rape” (or cutting) and their failure to do so mimic the epic battles and divine interventions of classical epics but in a faraway heroic context, creating a mock-heroic effect.
Influence of Rosicrucian Doctrine
Pope’s use of supernatural machinery in “The Rape of the Lock” heightens the poem’s mock-heroic effect by juxtaposing the epic and the trivial, the grandiose and the petty, the divine and the vain.
The result is a rich satire that exposes and ridicules the pretensions of its time while also providing a delightful reading experience filled with wit and humour.
Alexander Pope introduces several supernatural beings that form part of the Rosicrucian cosmology. Here’s a list of these beings with some details:
1- Sylphs (Air): These are spirits of the air, led by Ariel. In the poem, they are portrayed as light and ethereal beings. They have the task of protecting Belinda, the poem’s protagonist. Sylphs hover around her, guarding her beauty and virtue. They also attempt to prevent the Baron from cutting off a lock of Belinda’s hair but fail in their endeavour.
2- Gnomes (Earth): Gnomes are spirits associated with the earth element. They are not central to the action in “The Rape of the Lock.” In the Rosicrucian tradition, gnomes are often associated with hidden treasures and secrets beneath the earth. It fits Pope’s subtext about society’s hidden desires and vanity.
3- Nymphs (Water): Nymphs are water spirits. They don’t play a significant role in the narrative. However, they, along with the sylphs, gnomes, and salamanders, contribute to the mock-epic tone of the poem. Traditionally, nymphs are linked to emotions and romantic pursuits.
4- Salamanders (Fire): Salamanders are spirits associated with the fire element. Like the gnomes and nymphs, salamanders do not play a prominent role in the poem. Traditionally, they symbolize passion and transformation.
The Sylphs’ Role in the Toilet Scene
Pope uses the Sylphs to magnify the triviality and exaggerated importance placed on outward beauty by society. Pope presents the Sylphs’ dedication to safeguarding Belinda’s cosmetic rituals and beauty products in a mock-heroic style. He uses epic language to describe their actions, which raises ordinary activities to epic proportions.
To fifty chosen Sylphs, of special note,
We trust th’ important charge, the Petticoat:
Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail,
Tho’ stiff with hoops, and arm’d with ribs of whale;
Form a strong line about the silver bound,
And guard the wide circumference around.
This description humorously emphasizes the extreme measures taken to protect the sacred realm of Belinda’s toilette. The Sylphs’ involvement in the toilet scene highlights the ridiculousness of the societal values that prioritize physical appearance over more important matters.
Militia of the Lower Sky
In ‘The Rape of the Lock’, Pope uses the phrase ‘militia of the lower sky’ to describe the sylphs. These supernatural beings act as Belinda’s protectors and guardians.
Know then, unnumber’d spirits round thee fly,
The light militia of the lower sky
The Cave of Spleen
The “Cave of Spleen” is an essential supernatural element in Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem, “The Rape of the Lock.”
It also personifies the psychological condition of “spleen,” a term in Pope’s time associated with various forms of melancholy, irritability, or capricious mood.
The description portrays the Cave of Spleen as a dark and gloomy place where discontent, ill humour, and weak spirits reside. Pope creates an atmospheric image of the cave:
Here living Teapots stand, one arm held out,
One bent; the handle this, and that the spout:
A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pie talks;
These lines depict the cave as a surreal place filled with anthropomorphic household objects, emphasizing the triviality of the issues causing spleen.
The Cave of Spleen plays a significant role in escalating the poem’s conflict. The allegorical figure of ill-humour offers a ‘spleen’ and a ‘vapour’ to Belinda. She is in distress and upset after the Baron cuts off her lock of hair.
These items symbolize emotional distress and exaggerated sentimentality, further inflating Belinda’s reaction to her loss.
The Cave of Spleen is a brilliant example of Pope’s use of supernatural machinery to heighten the mock-heroic effect. Alexander Pope gives physical form to the emotional state of the spleen. He depicts it as a place of dark and absurd melancholy.
Pope satirizes the irrational mood swings and disproportionate emotional reactions of the aristocratic society he’s portraying. Thus The Cave of Spleen satirizes upper-class society’s petty concerns and exaggerated emotions.
In conclusion, using supernatural machinery in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is integral to the poem’s satirical effect and overall meaning. The sylphs, the dream, the Cave of Spleen, and the celestial judgment of the lock all serve to transform a trivial social incident into an epic event. It reveals Pope’s mastery of the mock-heroic style.
The inclusion of supernatural elements elevates the trivialities of the social elite to the level of divine importance. This is consistent with Pope’s objective to satirize the petty squabbles and shallow concerns of the aristocracy in the 18th century.
Pope demonstrates the absurdity of his society’s disproportionate reactions to trivial matters by applying epic conventions to a trivial subject matter.
Furthermore, the supernatural machinery underscores the importance of appearance, reputation, and social conventions in the society Pope depicts. The sylphs’ efforts to preserve Belinda’s beauty, the ill omen of the dream, the melancholy and petulance represented by the Cave of Spleen, and the transformation of the lock into a star all reflect the social obsessions of the time.
Although invisible and ethereal, the sylphs, gnomes, nymphs, and salamanders mirror the human characters’ vanity, superficiality, and pretensions. Thus, these supernatural entities are not just decorative elements but also instrumental in the poem’s beauty.