Pope as a Representative Poet of 18th Century


No writer reflects so clearly and completely the spirit of his own day as Pope does.

            One of the prominent features of any piece of literature is that it reflects the tendencies of the age in which it is written. It is the most typical and specific product of its time. Implicitly or explicitly, it reflects social and cultural values of its time. It must be the mirror of its age. If it does not reflect its age, it will lose its universality. It is good luck of almost all the periods of history that they have witnessed many great writers who became prominent and renowned because they depicted what they saw. The writers like Chaucer and Fielding are renowned realists. Pope is also one such poet. He is the most representative poet of his age. The poem, “The Rape of the Lock”, is a poem in which Pope appears before us as the spokesman of his age. He beautifully and skillfully brings before us the artificiality and frivolous aspect of his age. A critic observes: “It is the epic of trifling; a page torn from the petty, pleasure-seeking life of fashionable beauty; mise-en-scene of the toilet chamber and the card table; in short, the veritable apotheosis in literary guise of scent, patches and powders.”

Actually Pope’s age was a “Citified Age.” Most of the writers of that period wrote exclusively on the fashionable upper strata of London society. Pope shows us the true picture of the elegance, the deviltry, the perfidiousness, the japery, the frippery, the emptiness, the manners, the intrigues, the jealousies, the fashions, and the follies of the aristocratic class people of that age. J.R. Lowell writes: “It was a mirror in a drawing room, but it gave back a faithful image of society, powdered and rouged, to be sure, and intent on trifles, yet still as human in its own way as the heroes of Homer in theirs.”

            To examine the picture in detail, let us first examine the life and character of the ladies of the day well presented by Belinda. Clarissa is another female character who is representative of women. However, Belinda is truly the representative of society ladies of aristocratic class.  The women like, Belinda, would remain in bed till late in the day.

Now Lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,

And sleepless lovers , just at twelve, awake.

            The fair sex knew no other employment. The toilet-table was their great scene of action and drudgery. Belinda’s table is adorned with  articles of make-up. They are very expensive and are gathered from all the parts of the world.

 “This casket of India’ glowing gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breaths from yonder box.”

            The truth of this representation can be verified by Addison in “The Spectator.” “The Toilet is their great scene of business, and the right adjustment of their hair, and the principal employment of their lives.” Belinda before commending her toilet operation offered a prayer to the “Cosmetic Powers.” Religion was just a matter of show in that age.

 “Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux,

                          Now awful beauty puts-on all its arms.

            Then, the poet beautifully portrays the attitude of women towards morality. The women of that time gave no consideration  to moral values. Their main purpose to decorate themselves was to attract the attention of onlookers i.e. dukes and lords and allure them with their gestures. They easily flirted with men.  Belinda’s journey to Hampton Court is the best example of it. She sailed up the Thames surrounded by a group of philanderers and admirers. Here she was the center of their attention.

Favours to none, to all the smiles extends,

                                      Often she rejects: but never once she offends.” 

            Moreover, these fashionable ladies were beautiful and charming in their outer appearance but a glimpse into their inner appearance shows that they were morally corrupt, frivolous, empty, prick-teasers and prank having no sense of wisdom and sagacity. At one moment, they were attracted by one lover but at the other moment they were attracted by some other lover. The toy shops of their heart kept on moving if one lover had a well varnished coach and promised of a joy ride round the ring and the other had an attractive sword-knot.

With varying vanities, from every part

They shift the moving toy shop of their heart;

Where wigs, with wigs, with sword knots, sword knots strive,

Beaux banish beaux, and coaches coaches drive.”

            Pope further portrays the moral bankruptcy of these fashionable women. He says that reputation for these ladies was of greater significance to them than their chastity. Thalestris pointed out the need for losing everything even chastity for the sake of maintaining good reputation.  To lose virtue was nothing but not to lose a good name was their main concern.

 “Honour forbid! At whose unrivalled shrine

Ease, pleasure, virtue, all our sex resign.”

            Pope also depicts fashionable aristocratic women for their “Levity” because levity was the hall mark of those women. Their manners and behaviours were artificial. They knew the art of how to lisp, hang their heads aside, faint into airs and to languish with pride. They sank on their rich quilts and pretended sickness so that the young gallant should come to inquire after their health. But in doing so, their real purpose was to show them their costly gowns. They gathered at Hampton Court, a resort of fashion where even Queen Anne, “Dost sometimes council take, and sometimes lea.”

            Pope also depicts women who were fond of playing different games at some party. He gives us a vivid account of the popular card-game, Ombre, Quadrille, Lao and Whist, etc. For these ladies, the lap-dogs had greater importance than their husbands. They gave as much importance to a broken China jar as to their honour, and as much to religion as to dances and masquerades. It means Honour was a word with little meanings for them.

                                    “Whether the nymphs shall break Diana’s law

Or some frail China jar receive a flaw

Or stain her honour, or her new brocade

Forget her prayers or miss a masquerade

Or lose her heart, or necklace at a ball

                                  Or whether Heaven has doomed that Shock must fall.”

When Belinda’s lock was severed by the Baron, Lord Peter, she cried hysterically because she could not bear the loss of that particular lock because she thought that it was the lock that added charm to her beauty. She would not have been much hurt if Baron had stolen any other hair.

 “Oh, hadst thou, cruel, been content to seize

Hairs less in sight, or any hair, but these.”

Pope realistically portrays true nature of women who were careless and hasty in adopting different ways to be sorrowful and grieved. When Umbriel went to the Cave of Spleen and brought bag, it was full of sighs, sorrows, melting grief and flowering tears.

Then, Pope points out the shallowness and superficiality found in the women of aristocratic class of his time. They are also clear from the gossip that was made at the court. “At every word a reputation dies.” There were pauses in conversation. This conversation contained snuff-taking, fan-swinging, or “singing, laughing, ogling and all that.” “Coffee drinking was another diversion of that time. It was coffee that gave rise to a clever device in Baron’s brain to obtain possession of a lock of Belinda’s hair. It was coffee that made the politician wise.”

He further points out and satirizes the evil passion of jealousy among the ladies of his time. It is a passion which has always been a characteristic of most of the women since the time immemorial. Clarissa was jealous of Belinda’s beauty and fame. We can say that it was her jealousy that forced Clarissa to add fuel to the fire. She stealthily provided a pair of scissors to the Baron in order to pamper  him in his vicious plan.

One thing is worth mentioning here. Pope not only criticizes women for their weaknesses but also men for their manners. Like the ladies of aristocratic class, the young men of that time also had no moral sense. The representatives of these young men are Florio and Demon. They tried to outdo one another to win the hearts of the ladies. They were fond of reading French Romances. In the poem, Lord Peter kept an eye on Belinda’s lock to attain his end. He was also building an altar of love and setting fire to it with his amorous sighs and with tender love letters. He also prayed to the god of love.

But chiefly Love to Love an alter built of,

Twelve vast French Romances neatly guilt,

There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves

And all the trophies of his former loves.”

Sir Plume is also portrayed and satirized for his affections for his amber snuff-box. He was a laughing stock for his unthinking face”and his habit of excessive swearing. The victories of these men without any brains or higher ideals”were victories over the hearts of the young ladies and the “various trophies which they win from them.” These men played cards and enjoyed theaters. To have a clear view of men’s emptiness and folly, analyze the speech of Sir Plume to Lord Peter.

“My Lord, why, what the devils?

Zounds, damn the lock!God, you must be devil!

Plague on it is past-a jest—-nay, prithe, box!

Give her the hair.” He spoke and rapped his box.”

The poet also jeers at two gallants like Dapperwit and Fopling. The poet says: “One died in metaphor, and one in song.”

Pope does not spare the politicians, judges, jury men and merchants of his time. He says that the judges worked for material interests. In their greed, they made hasty decisions without caring any justice.

The hungry judges soon the sentence sign

                  And wretches hang that jurymen may dine.”

            Pope has very beautifully, skillfully and artistically the condition of men and women of his time but there are some limitations in his working as a realist. First limitation is that he describes only the life of aristocratic classes of the city of London. He does not mention anything about the lower and middle classes of his society. Secondly, the underworld has been overlooked altogether.

            To sum up, we can say without any hesitation and fear of contradiction that though there are some limitations in Pope’s working style as a realist, whatever he has depicted, clearly shows that he probes keenly into the aristocratic class and brings before us the devilries, perfidiousness, japery, and amorous and prick-teasing attitude of the women of his time. He is worthy of getting a place with the great realists like Chaucer and Fielding. We fully agree with the remarks of an American critic who praising the poem says: “In ‘The Rape of the Lock’, Pope has caught and fixed forever the atmosphere of the age. No great English poet is at once so great and so empty, so artistic and yet so void of the ideal on which all high art rests.”                                                     (Words: 1849)