The Rape of the Lock: A Faithful Picture of the 18th Century Life
Pope has presented a true and faithful picture of the eighteenth century life in its manifold aspects in The Rape of the Lock. It is the real source of his strength. In no other poet do we find such a forceful and true reflection of the life of his age, as in Pope. Leslie Stephen observes,
“Pope or his title to the name has been disputed; he had a power or weakness in which he has scarcely been rivalled. No writer reflected so clearly and completely the spirit of his own day.”
His want of originality means the extreme and even morbid sensibility, which enables him to give the fullest utterance to the ideas of his class, and of the nation, so far as the nation was really represented by the class. Comparing Pope with Shakespeare, Lowell writes,
“Truly as Shakespeare is the poet of man as God made him dealing with great passion and innate motives, so truly is Pope the poet of society, the delineator of manners, the exposure for those motives which may be called acquired, whose spring is in habits and institutions of purely worldly origin.”
Eighteenth Century life of Lords and Ladies
Life in the eighteenth century was artificial. It was the age of clubs and coffee-houses. People cared more for outward glamour than for inherent virtues. Corruption pervaded the society. The spirit of self- sacrifice which is the salt of a nations life, was extinct among public men in the age of Pope. The fashionable society or the aristocratic class was completely devoid of sincerity. The tone of gallantry which men showed while addressing ladies, was in fact a mockery of chivalry. Similarly, it appeared from the behaviour and ways of ladies that their main aim was to attract and ensnare men.
Presentation of women of the upper classes
From the picture of women presented by him, Pope is apt to infer that “women are all frivolous beings whose one genuine interest is in love-making.” The fashionable ladies like Belinda used to get up very late in the day. They awoke from the dreams of love in an atmosphere of perfume. They were wonderfully fond of lap-dogs. The toilet was a sacred task. Jewels, cosmetics, powders, rows of pins, perfumery and paints were magnificently displayed on the toilet table. They, spent considerable time in toilet. Armed with all the charms, they appeared in society and drove in gilt coaches or in sedan chairs. They often visited beautiful and majestic places in the company of fashionable young men to break the monotony of theatres and balls. They were also fond of gambling and playing cards. They spent all their time in love-making and coquetry.
According to Dr. Johnson their minds were as ‘unfixed’ as their eyes which shone on all alike. Their hearts were ‘moving toy-shops’.
Fans were important paraphernalia of court ladies. The elaborate hoop petticoat was in fashion. The fashionable ladies, used the juice of Belladonna to enlarge the pupil of their eyes. The Ring in the Hyde Park and the Box at the theatre were two favourite resorts frequented by the ladies of quality for the display of beauty and fashion. Mock astrologers were also common. There were many like Partridge who prophesied –
“The fate of Louis, and the fall of Rome.”
Presentation of fops and gallants
The young gallants of Pope’s time were also much interested in the frivolous and fashionable life. The spirit of chivalry was dead. The Baron rudely snip off a lock of hair of Belinda while as honourable man will resort to some other fair and dignified way. The odd number of his former trophies of love suggests that, perhaps, they too were stolen like Belinda’s lock. The young men were very punctilious about dress. They were “fops tailor-made men without any brains or higher ideals.” They prided on their snuff boxes and malacca canes and were fond of drinking and gambling. They indulged themselves in amorous intrigues and idle frivolities.
A faithful picture of the artificial life of the time
Thus we see that the vanity and shallowness of the artificial life of his day and its mannerisms are faithfully presented in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock. He has exposed the foibles and frivolities of the eighteenth century society. He comes before us as the representative of his age and the poem may well be called an expression of the artificial life of the day, of its card-parties, toilets, lap-dogs, tea-drinking, snuff-taking and idle vanities. According to an eminent American critic,
“In The Rape of the Lock Pope has caught and fixed forever the atmosphere of the age…… No great English poem is at once so brilliant and so empty, so artistic and yet so void of the ideal on which all high art rests.”
Except Shakespeare, probably no English poet has left so may lines which have passed into the daily usage of his country-men; and a rich and beautiful fancy, a noble sense of intellectual and moral beauty streams through his verse like the sunshine through a pellucid pane, in my own judgement the exquisitely delicate fancy of The Rape of the Lock, and the restrained and dignified pathos of the Elegy on an Unfortunate Lady, are among the choicest products of English poetry. The fashion of literature has changed, but many modern readers, fatigue with obscurity, and affection, and paradox, and exaggeration, will gladly turn to a poet who never wrote a careless or an unmeaning line, who embodied in transparent verse so many noble thoughts and images and characters, and whose language, if it has not the Rembrandt-like depth of colouring of some of his successors, has at least all the severe and polished beauty of Greek sculpture. But the charm of his versification is more the charm of supremely perfect rhetoric than of music, and, like the century he represented, poetic sensibility and imagination are in his poetry unduly subordinated to the reasoning power.
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