In Cantos II and III, assess the importance of the sylphs in our understanding of Pope's attitude to his subject in The Rape of the Lock.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Identifying the author's attitude toward the subject of a literary work may be a difficult task. The author's attitude can only be inferred from the narrator's tone. Additionally, it may be confirmed through elements contributing to the story's mood (setting, characterizations, descriptions, diction, etc.). Therefore, to find the attitude of Pope toward the subject matter in The Rape of the Lock, the first step is to determine the tone.

The narrator's tone is established by vocabulary, phrasing, diction, and sentence structure. Incidentally, mood is very different from tone in that mood paints the feeling of the characters within the story. For example, a story may have a frightening mood but an objective narratorial tone as in some stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

To reiterate, the narrator's tone can give inference to the author's attitude toward the subject matter. In The Rape of the Lock the narratorial tone is a lightly jesting tone of both ridicule and praise. You can see this from the opening lines in the words am'rous, trivial, slight, praise:

What dire Offence from am'rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,
Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise, .... (Canto I)

When Pope turns to talking about a fair maiden's dressing ritual aided by sylphs in Canto II, then to the protection granted by Ariel and his fairies in Canto III, this tone is heightened. Thus the inference of Pope's attitude is clarified.

To Fifty chosen Sylphs, of special Note,
We trust th' important Charge, the Petticoat: (Canto II)

anxious Ariel sought
The close Recesses of the Virgin's thought;
As on the Nosegay in her Breast reclin'd,
He watch'd th' Ideas rising in her Mind, (Canto III)

To an audience steeped in reading classical mythology, the mythological allusion to and image of sylphs attending a fair maiden's dressing table under the instruction of Ariel would evoke humor and laughter, thus pointing at the author's attitude. However, for contemporary readers, the sylphs and others of Ariel's legions make a less significant impact because, in large part, contemporary readers are not well versed in classical reading in the way literate members of the English upper classes were in the 1800s.

The introduction of the sylphs by Pope is an important indication of the attitude with which Pope addresses the subject of the theft of Belinda's lock of hair--incidentally, the poem is based upon a true event that caused a temporary feud between two families. From the tone and from the clarification provided by the mythical allusion to sylphs, it may be inferred that Pope's attitude toward the theft of Belinda's lock is one of gentle chiding ridicule that such a relative trifle should so severely divide two families. It may further be said that the mythical allusion to sylphs adds greatly to revealing the attitude of gentle ridicule in Pope's chiding poem, The Rape of the Lock.

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