The Rape of the Lock truly shows Pope’s genius for satirical poetry. This poem exposes in a witty manner the follies and absurdit.es of the high society of the times. All the recognised weapons of satire have been employed by Pope in a most effective manner. The principal targets of satire in this poem are the aristocratic ladies and gentlemen of Pope’s day.
Pope gives us an amusing picture of the society-ladies of his time. He tells us that the vanities of society-ladies do not end even with the death of the ladies. Apart from making fun of their late-rising, Pope tells us that the aristocratic ladies of those days were excessively fond of gilded chariots and of ombre. He also gives us a satirical division of ladies of different temperaments into different categories—fiery termagants, yielding ladies, grave prudes, and light coquettes. He mocks at the extravagant aspirations of the ladies who imagined matrimonial alliances with peers and dukes and dreamt of “garters, stars, and coronets”. Early in their youth, these ladies learnt to roil their eyes and to blush in a coquettish manner. Pope ridicules the fickleness and superficiality of the ladies ‘by referring to their hearts as moving toy-shops and their varying vanities.
The poet also makes fun of Belinda by telling us that, when she wakes up, her eyes first open on a love-letter in which the writer has spoken of “wounds, charms, and ardours”. The poet laughs not merely at a fashionable lady’s desire to receive love-letters but also at the conventional vocabulary of those love-letters.
The poet ridicules women’s excessive attention to self-embellishment and self-decoration. In a famous satirical passage, Belinda is described as commencing her toilet operations with a prayer to the “cosmetic powers”. “Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet doux” lie in confusion on Belinda’s dressing table. Ariel’s conjectures regarding the disaster that threatens Belinda are stated in some of the most amusing lines in the poem. Ariel wonders whether Belinda shall break Diana’s law, or some frail China-jar receive a flaw; whether she shall stain her honour, or her new brocade; whether she shall forget her prayers, or miss a dance-party; whether she shall lose her heart or her necklace. The paired calamities here are not merely ridiculous contrasts; they show the moral bankruptcy of the ladies of the time. These lines show how easily and irreparably chastity might be lost in the world of fashion. Honour, to a lady, was a publicly-worn accessory, like her brocade—easily stained; but if the stains were not visible, it would not matter. To her a masked ball had the same importance as a religious prayer, and she took her prayer with the light-wretchedness with which she went to a masked ball. Her heart could be lost as easily as a necklace which was no less precious. The confusion of values in these lines represents a disorder of the whole social system of the time. Big things like the loss of virtue might have no important consequences, whereas little things like the clipping of a curl might be disastrous. The poet laughs in the same vein at a lady’s petticoat which was by no means impenetrable: “Oft have we known that seven-fold fence to fail.”
There is a touch of satire in the following two lines in which the humour arises from the juxtaposition of an important matter with something trivial:
Here thou, great Anna ! whom three realms obey. Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.
The sham of Belinda’s purity is exposed when Ariel discovers an “earthly lover lurking at her heart”. Belinda is punished for her hypocrisy by Ariel’s desertion of her. A woman’s tantrums are satirised in the lines in which Belinda’s reaction to the clipping of a lock of her hair is described. A lightning flashes from her eyes, and screams of horror from her tear the skies.
The superficiality of the ladies of the time and a lack of any depth of feeling in them are ridiculed in the lines in which the domestic pets of the ladies are equated with their husbands. The death of a domestic pet caused as much grief to a lady of fashion as the death of her husband would have caused. Nay, even the breaking of a China-vessel in the house had the same effect.
The poet makes ironical references to a lady’s love of a coach-and-six, her interest in scandalous books, her desire to be invited to entertainments, and her readily making an appointment with a lover. Some very pungent satire is to be found in the lines which describe the strange shapes in the Cave of Spleen:
Here sighs ajar, and there a goose pie talks;
And maids turned bottles, call aloud for corks.
The poet is here making a sarcastic reference to the suppressed sexual desires of women and their unexpressed cravings or sexual gratification. Women’s tendency quickly to give way to sorrow and grief is ridiculed in the lines which describe the contents of the bag and of the phial which Umbriel brings from the Cave of Spleen. The contents are sighs, sobs, soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears.
The moral bankruptcy of the ladies is further ridiculed when Thalestris points out the need for sacrificing everything, even chastity, for the sake of maintaining a good reputation. Virtue might be lost, but not a good name:
Honour forbid ! at whose unrivalled shrine Ease, pleasure, virtue, all our sex resign.
The same attitude of mind is expressed in the lines in which Belinda declares that she would not have felt so offended if the Baron had stolen any other hair from her but spared that particular lock of her hair:
Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these !
These are undoubtedly among the most amusing lines in the poem. Nor can we miss the satire in the history of the deadly bodkin with which Belinda finally defeats her adversary. Pope’s satirical wit is also seen in Thalestris’s mentioning men in the same breath as monkeys, lap-dogs, and parrots, and Belinda’s recalling Poll’s muteness and Shock’s unkindness.
The gallants of the time are not spared by Pope. They are the target of mockery which is as sharp and keen as the satire on the ladies. One of the most amusing passages is the one in which the Baron is described as building an altar of love and setting fire to it with his amorous sighs and with tender love letters. The Baron’s worship of love here is comparable to Belinda’s worship of the cosmetic powers. No less amusing is the satire on gallants like Sir Plume. Sir Plume’s affectations are ridiculed with reference to his amber snuff-box and his spotted cane. We laugh at his “unthinking face” and his habit of excessive swearing. The poet pokes fun at other gallants like Dapperwit and Fopling: “One died in metaphor, and one in song.”
The conversation of the ladies and the knights at the court amuses us by its emptiness and shallowness. The talk generally cantered round dance-parties, court-visits, and sex-scandals: “At every word a reputation dies”. The pauses in conversation were filled by snuff-taking, fan-swinging, singing, laughing, ogling, etc. The hollowness of the upper classes of the time could not have been more effectively exposed to mockery. Nor does the poet spare the hungry judges and the jury men who were in a hurry to get back home. The two principal diversions of the time, the game of ombre and coffee-drinking, have also their share of ridicule. The serving of coffee was one of the three principal ceremonies of the fashionable world, the other two being Belinda’s toilet and the Baron’s amatory pyre. All these ceremonies expose the normal vacuum in which they are performed. Each ceremony highlights a social absurdity because of the extravagant importance that it receives at the cost of serious concerns of life. Then we have several catalogues wittily conveying the muddle and the hypocrisy of fashionable society of the time.
The Rape of the Lock abounds in sparkling and scintillating wit. The poem is a comic assault on a society preoccupied with superficialities. There is, no doubt, a certain element of cynicism in the satire here but, on the whole, the satire is of the genial variety. If the poem attacks the fashionable world of Belinda, the attack is mostly good-humoured and moderated by a sense of the attractiveness of those whose failings are exposed.
One of the critics, however, finds too much harshness in Pope’s satire on feminine frivolity. The Rape of the Lock, according to this critic, shows Pope as a merciless satirist. Pope can be inimitably pungent, but he can never be simply playful, this critic believes. “Under Pope’s courtesy there lurks contempt, and his smile has a disagreeable likeness to a sneer. Pope suggests the brilliant wit whose contempt has a keener edge from his resentment against fine ladies blinded to his genius by his personal deformity.”
The satire in The Rape of the Lock on aristocratic manners is a commentary on polite society in general, and on fashionable women in particular. It exposes all values, especially trifling and artificial ones. It ridicules the laziness, idleness, frivolities, vanities, follies, shams, shallowness, superficiality, prudery, hypocrisy, false ideas of honour, and excessive interest in self-embellishment of the aristocratic ladies of the eighteenth century. It ridicules also the foppery, amorous tendencies, bravado, snuff-taking, and affectations of the aristocratic gentlemen of the time. Humour, wit, irony, sarcasm, innuendo, persiflage, insinuations are all employed as weapons of attack. An occasional touch of obscenity makes the satire spicy.