The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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What is the role of the supernatural in The Rape Of The Lock?

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The supernatural machinery in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock contributes to the mockery of the mock epic through the antics of Ariel and the other supernatural beings who assist Belinda in her beauty rituals, warn her of disaster to come, try to protect her, and aid in the scuffle after the lock of hair has been cut.

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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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What is the role of the supernatural machinery in Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"?

In his address of the poem to the heroine, Miss Arabella Fermor, Pope tells why there is supernatural machinery in the poem:

The Machinery, Madam, is a Term invented by the Criticks, to signify that Part which the Deities, Angels, or Daemons, are made to act in a poem. . . .

Because Pope is writing a paradoy of a classical Greek epic poem, which always features the greater and lesser gods in the ancient Greek belief system, Pope has to populate "The Rape of the Lock" with similar gods and divine helpers to that the parody mirrors its source, the epic.

At the beginning of Canto 1, in fact, the poet assures the heroine, Belinda, that she is surrounded and constantly watched:

Know then, unnumber'd Spirits round thee fly,/the light Militia of the lower Sky;/These, tho' unseen, are ever on the Wing,/Hang o'er the Box, and hover round the Ring.

Pope establishes here that Belinda, like any Greek epic hero or heroine, is protected at all times by minor gods, in this case, he calls them "Sylphs," whose job is to make sure nothing befalls Belinda or her belongings.  The humor (and irony) is that this supernatural machinery is operating only to protect a lock of hair rather than to protect an epic hero fighting for his own and his country's survival.

Belinda's chief protector is a Sylph named Ariel:

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,/Nourish'd two Locks, which graceful hung behind/In equal Curls. . . .

One of Pope's purposes for the poem is to gently remind the warring aristocrats that issue of the stolen lock of hair is, in relative terms, ridiculous, and so he carefully weaves this epic structure around the locks of hair--in the quote above, we have a supernatural being whose only job is to look after the locks of hair.

When, in Canto III, the poem reaches a critical point--the rape of the lock--Pope describes again how the supernatural machinery operates to try to save Belinda's hair.  Just as Lord Petre is about to cut Belinda's lock, we read

Ev'n then, before the fatal Engine clos'd,/A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd;/Fate urg'd the Shears, and cut the Sylph in twain. . . .

The sacrifice of a minor supernatural being has close parallels in Greek epics, and we also must note that, because this is a mock epic, the action has to be at least partially the result of fate, not human action--"Fate urg'd the Shears" is simply another aspect of the supernatural machinery at work.

Pope's inclusion and use of the supernatural machinery is critical to the overall effect of this mock-epic poem: while deflating a few egos, and putting into perspective the loss of a lock of hair, the poem must reflect the conventions of classical Greek epics, and the supernatural elements are an indispensable conventional element.

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

As in the Iliad, the supernatural has a part to play in this mock-epic poem. In the Iliad,it is gods and goddesses who interact with and help their favorites, such as Achilles. In The Rape of the Lock, Belinda is watched over not by a god or goddess but by a guardian spirit, Ariel, who tries to warn her of coming danger and who appoints a host of sylphs to protect her. Later, Umbriel takes over from Ariel, but neither spirit is able to save her from losing a lock of her hair.

Having worried spirits trying to protect Belinda from the fate of having a lock of her hair cut by an admirer highlights how silly Belinda's "plight" is. The truly heroic warriors of ancient Greece and Troy needed divine protection and guidance, as their lives were at stake, but Belinda is not going to die or even suffer any pain or permanent damage from losing some hair. She hardly needs to be hovered over by sylphs and worried spirits.

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

Since Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" is a mock epic, the poet includes supernatural machinery in this poem, but parodies it by having the beautiful women return to the elements from which they came as anything but the elevated creatures such as the gods and angels that true epics employ.

The violent tempered women, or termagants, return as salamanders, or spirit of the fire; the women of pleasing dispositions return as nymphs, or water spirits; prudish women become gnomes, or earth spirits;  coquettes, or light-hearted women comes as sylphs, or spirits of the air.

It is in their occupations that Pope employs his satire, too.  The sylphs, for example, protect the chaste maidens from falling victim to the "treacherous friends" of the male sex. While the gnomes fill the minds of young maidens with foolish ideas, teaching them to ogle the men and pretend to blush, the sylphs safely guide the maidens through all the dangers.

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What is the role of supernatural machinery in the poem The Rape of the Lock?

The supernatural machinery in Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock contributes greatly to the mockery of this mock epic. Let's reflect on how this works.

A supernatural being introduces the poem's conflict. Belinda's guardian sylph, Ariel, whispers a warning into her dreams. She is to beware, for some horrible disaster will befall her that very day. Ariel will try his best to protect her, but she must watch out. This seems quite ominous, and in a serious epic, such a supernatural warning would be ominous indeed; but readers soon learn that the disaster is none other than the Baron cutting of a lock of Belinda's hair. The mockery has begun.

Indeed, the mockery begins even before the lock of hair is cut, for Belinda is aided in the solemn rituals of beautifying herself by a whole host of supernatural beings. They aid her in a routine that almost becomes an act of worship at the altar of beauty (notice the satire again). The Baron, too, goes through a set of prayers and sacrifices as he prepares to cut Belinda's lock of hair. The mockery is strong, for in a regular epic, these characters would be preparing for grand deeds and calling on supernatural beings to aid them in life-or-death situations. Here, they are merely enacting the trivial.

Before the Baron cuts Belinda's hair, Ariel gathers an army of sylphs to try to prevent the disaster. They station themselves to watch, even multitasking by helping Belinda during her card game. In the end, though, Ariel notices that Belinda's thoughts are not completely pure, and he therefore fails to prevent the lock from being snipped.

Later in the poem, the gnome Umbriel goes to the Cave of Spleen (encountering all kinds of obstacles along the way) and gets sighs and tears for Belinda as she mourns her lost lock of hair. Again, we have a mockery of a journey to the underworld found in most epics.

When the lock of hair gets lost after a supernaturally aided yet horribly silly scuffle, the poet tries to console Belinda by telling her that perhaps the lost lock will end up an immortal constellation in the heavens. Something trivial is once again made supernaturally central in a mocking and hilarious manner.

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