Thursday, August 8, 2013

Book Review: The Rape of the Lock

Title:          The Rape of the Lock (1717)
Author:      Alexander Pope
Pages:        38

  “What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
   What mighty contests rise from trivial things,”

The opening lines of my last read title, ‘The Rape of the lock’ throw much light on the very theme of the book. Interestingly, based on the true story of a minor scuffle between two aristocratic families that took the form of intense enmity, the book was actually a reconciliation attempt by their common friend Alexander Pope. He was an 18th century English poet best remembered for his translation of the Greek epic ‘Homer’. Home-schooled by his rich catholic parents because he was physically deformed and suffered from constant bouts of illnesses of various kinds, Pope produced wonderful works and carved his name as a major literary figure at that time.

With Gnomes, Elves, Angles, Sylphs, lovely metaphors and the like, these verses take us to a magical world of courtship, ball games and flirting. The beautifully woven verses divided in five parts or ‘canto’ present an interesting story. This is considered to be a major work in the mock-heroic genre. It mocks a small incident and compares it to the Trojan war. In a nutshell, the plot goes like this:

Belinda, an 18 year old high-society girl, is extremely beautiful and attractive. She gets up at noon after dreaming of a warning of an ill omen given by her chief guardian Sprite, Ariel. However, she discards it as a casual dream. She then follows an elaborate ritual of dressing up for a party at Hampton Court where all the aristocratic people are coming to have a ball.
“Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms”
 Her maids and even supernatural Sylphs help her dress her perfectly for the party.
“The busy Sylphs surround their darling care,
These set the head, and those divide the hair,
Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown:
And Betty's prais'd for labours not her own.”
 Later at the Hampton court, she catches the fancy of an adventurous baron who sets his desire on one of the two lovely locks of her hair (on either side of her neck).
 “Th' advent'rous Baron the bright locks admir'd;
He saw, he wish'd, and to the prize aspir'd”

 Her Sylphs try to warn her many times but Belinda is busy enjoying Ombre (a card game). The  Baron prays to the God of love and with a little help from Clarissa (Belinda’s friend) and after a little effort, finally succeeds in cutting the lock. 
                “But when to mischief mortals bend their will,                 
How soon they find fit instruments of ill!
Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting grace
A two-edg'd weapon from her shining case”

When Belinda comes to know of this theft, she becomes withdrawn and depressed while the baron celebrates his victory. Hence, Umbriel (one of the Sprites) goes to the cave of spleen and brings a bag full of woes, sighs and tears and pours it on her.
                   “On the rich quilt sinks with becoming woe,                      
Wrapt in a gown, for sickness, and for show.
The fair ones feel such maladies as these,
When each new night-dress gives a new disease.”
 Therefore, she acquires a fiery mien and demands her lock back which the baron shamelessly refuses. Clarissa then gives her a long lecture on the merits of virtues over beauty but Belinda is undeterred.
 “Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;
Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul."
 A squabble follows the fiery arguments in which suddenly the lock rises up the sky and becomes an ever shining star. Hence, even after all die, Belinda’s name will shine forever.
 “When, after millions slain, yourself shall die:
When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,
And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,
This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame,
And 'midst the stars inscribe Belinda's name.”

The poem draws allegory from the Trojan War. The lock becomes the abducted queen Helen. Pope based the character of Belinda on Arabella Fermor and that of the Baron on her suitor, Lord Petre. Both came from aristocratic families and were friends to Pope. If you are a lover of verse, this one is not to be missed. A basic knowledge of Greek mythology would greatly help. The verses are high in quality and meaning. Needless to say, I would love to read more works of this great author! 

Some random excerpts are given below:

“On her white breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.”

 “If to her share some female errors fall,
Look on her face, and you'll forget 'em all.”

 “For when success a Lover's toil attends,
Few ask, if fraud or force attain'd his ends.”

 “Oh thoughtless mortals! ever blind to fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate.
Sudden, these honours shall be snatch'd away,
And curs'd for ever this victorious day.”

 “She said: the pitying audience melt in tears.
But Fate and Jove had stopp'd the Baron's ears.”

 "Boast not my fall" (he cry'd) "insulting foe!
Thou by some other shalt be laid as low”

 “Not all the tresses that fair head can boast,
Shall draw such envy as the Lock you lost.”

(Images taken from the Internet)