The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope
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What is the role of supernatural machinery in The Rape Of The Lock?

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First of all, let us define the so-called supernatural machinery. Here is a helpful quote from a letter Alexander Pope added to the second edition of the poem:

The Machinery, Madam, is a term invented by the Critics, to signify that part which the Deities, Angels, or Dæmons are made to act in a poem: For the ancient poets are in one respect like many modern ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance. These Machines I determined to raise on a very new and odd foundation, the Rosicrucian doctrine of Spirits.

Thus Pope is mocking both ancient Greek and Roman poetry, much lauded by the Romantics and the major source of inspiration for European poetry (the poem is an epic, an ancient form if ever there were one), and the pettiness of his contemporaries. He is ridiculing the concerns of his fellow Englishmen by making a tiny incident take cosmic proportions, all through his sylphs, a satirical take on the traditional machinery.

It is also helpful to take into account Pope's Catholic faith and its ostracized status in Britain at the time to understand what he is getting at. Mocking tradition and inventing substitutes for the gods is also a way to rebel against the hegemonic Anglican faith that forbade Catholics from taking part in much of public and political life.

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The role of supernatural machinery in this mock epic is key. The chief sprite, Ariel, is presented as the commander of the sylphs and other faeries who are trying to work hard to protect Belinda and to prevent fate taking its course. Ariel appears in Canto I in a dream to Belinda, warning her to beware of pride and men, but then again, after Belinda has appeared in society Ariel appears with his army of faeries and tells them to be wary because it is clear something terrible will happen on that day:

This day, black omens threat the brightest fair
That e'er deserved a watchful spirit's care:
Some dire disaster, or by force, or slight;
But what, or where, the Fates have wrapp'd in night.

The job of these sylphs and supernatural beings is therefore to do everything they can to prevent calamity by protecting Belinda, and particularly her lock of hair which ends up being cut. Of course, the supernatural machinery in this text is used by Pope to establish his mock epic. The fact that supernatural armies of faeries have to work so hard to prevent such a "calamity" shows that he is poking fun at Belinda and the way that the "rape of the lock" was made into an event of such importance, whereas in reality it was nothing at all. The supernatural machinery is thus used by Pope to reinforce his central message.

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