The Role of Supernatural in “The Rape of the Lock” OR Significance of Supernatural Machinery in “The Rape of the Lock” OR Supernatural Machinery in “The Rape of the Lock”


“Machinery is a name given to the actions of deities and other supernatural beings.” (Dictionary of literary Terms)

Use of supernatural machinery has been one of the prominent and traditional features of an epic. No epic poem would have got great success if supernatural machinery had not been used in those epics. Their presence in these epics shows that human world is not independent and they have an important bearing on this world. These supernatural powers are immortal figures. They may be only the watchers of the scenes from the clouds. They seem to be participating actively upon the earthly stage. That’s why, it seems that the real plot is being performed in the skies and the human beings are just cat’s paw in their hands because the actions of the heroic characters in any epic poem are presented to the intervention of gods. We have so many master-pieces in epic forms like the Ilied,the Odyssey, the Aenied,theParadise Lost, the epics of the Hindus, the Ramayan and the Mahabharata. In all these epics, we find machinery which consists of supernatural beings like gods and angels. All these play a vital role in the action of the poems. Shakespeare’s “The Midnight’s Dream” also introduces fairies who are tiny beings.

           In “The Rape of the Lock”, the concept of supernatural machinery is a distinguished feature. Pope himself was aware of its vitality which is well brought in bantering words of Pope himself. “The use of these machines is evident; since no epic poem can possibly subsist without them, the wisest way is to reserve them for your greater necessities: when you cannot extricate your hero by any human means, or yourself by your own wit, seek relief from heaven, and the gods will do your business very readily.Pope has skillfully and artistically used this machinery in his poem but in doing so, his real purpose was to satirize the elegance, the emptiness, the meanness, the jealousies, the treacheries, the intrigues, the fashions, the frivolities and the follies of the aristocratic men and women. That’s why, he uses the character of Belinda and Clarissa like women and the supernatural machinery which comes into existence after the death of women.

           Pope exclaims in the dedication that machinery in his poem is based on “Rosicrucian Doctrine.” This doctrine claims that the four elements are inhabited by the sylphs, nymphs, gnomes and Salamanders. He tells that after their death, beautiful women return to their elements from which they were derived. Violent temper women become Salamanders or spirits of fire after their death.

                            “The spirits of fiery termagants in flame

                             Mount up, and take a Salamander’s name.”

          The souls of gentle and submissive ladies become nymphs. They undergo Pythagorean Metempsychosis which means transmission of souls from one creature to another.

                                      “Soft yielding minds to water glide away,

                                       And sip, with nymphs, their elemental tea.”

           Similarly, Pope propounds and claims that there are mischievous women who become gnome after their death. This idea is evident through the following lines.

                                      “The graver prude sinks downward to a gnome,

                                      In search of mischief still on the earth to roam.”

           Then Pope says that there are coquettish women who become sylphs as penalty  after their death. This trend is revealed through the following lines when he says:

                                       “The light coquettes in sylphs aloft repair,

                                      And sport and flutter in the field of air.”

          In “The Rape of the Lock”, Ariel is the head of supernatural machinery. In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare first time used this name and Pope took it from Shakespeare’s play. However, he derived the idea of the sylphs from a French Book, “Le Comts do Gabalis.” The first and foremost occupation of the sylphs is to protect fair and chaste ladies who reject the male sex. It is they who guard and save the chastity of maidens who are ready to yield to their lovers. Ariel is a ring-leader  and watchful spirit of this group of the sylphs. He himself says that he and his companions are given a very meager but pleasant task of attending the fashionable women. Their duty is to save the powder from being blown off from their cheeks, to refrain aroma from being evaporating, prepare cosmetics and teach them how to choose dresses, etc. Even they have the power to be the part of their dreams. Ariel challenges the protection of Belinda and claims that he can guard her at any cost.  It is he who appears as a handsome youth in her dream and tells Belinda that she is in the protection of “Unnumber’d Spirits” whom she can never see with her naked eyes. He further tells her that something wrong is going to happen with her. He warns her to shun the mischievous act of others specially men.

                                       “In the clear mirror of thy ruling star

                                      I saw, alas! Some dreadful event impend,

        It is these spirits who decorate the women and assist them in becoming coquette. When Belinda with the assistance of her maid servant, Betty decorates herself like a warrior arming himself before going on some adventure, it is these sylphs who get the credit.

                                       “The busy sylphs surround their darling care;

                                      These set the head, and these divide the hair,

                                      Some fold the sleeves, while others plait the gown;

                                      And Betty’s prais’d for labours not her own.”

         Actually, the real purpose of the poet is to point out and satirize the perfidiousness, japery and amorous affairs found in the young men and young women of his age. He points out that it is gnomes that teach the young girls how to attract a lover and how to stain the soul of these girls in their immaturity and make them flirt with young men by instructing them how to roll their eyes. They tell the women how to get special place in the hearts of their lookers.

                                       “Tis these that early taint the female soul,

                                      Instruct the eyes of young coquettes to roll,

                                      Teach infant cheeks a bidden blush to know,

                                      And little hearts to flutter at a beau.”

The whole story brings before us another quality of these spirits. We come across them whenever there is something special or critical. Belinda’s journey to Hampton Court by the boat is the best example of it. We find these spirits present there. Here, Ariel once again comes forward and warns his fellows of the danger which Belinda may face.

                                       “Whatever spirit, careless of his charge,

                                      His post neglects, or leaves the fair at large,

                                      Shall feel sharp vengeance soon overtake his sins

                                      Be stopped in vials, or transfixed with pins.

          Similarly, during Belinda’s journey to Hampton Court, these pigmy spirits are threatened and warned for their negligence in duty. They are threatened to be shut up in small bottles, to be held in the eyes of bodkin, to be stuck up in gums and pomades and to be pierced through with pins. That’s why, we see some machines protecting Belinda’s petticoat. They surround Belinda when she plays the game of ombre. One takes the charge of Belinda’s fan and the other takes care of her rings. They start hovering around her when she sips coffee. But they all are disappointed and withdraw when Ariel peeps into her heart and doubts that there is something wrong.

                                       “Sudden he view’d, in spite of all her art,

                                      An earthly lover lurking at her heart.

                                      Amaz’d, confus’d, he found his pow’r expir’d,

                                      Resign’d to fate, and with a sigh retir’d.

         A gnome called Umbriel goes to the Cave of Spleen but when he returns, he is carrying a bag full of sighs, sobs, screams and outbursts of anger. He releases all these over Belinda after the cutting of Belinda’s lock by the Baron and Belinda also acknowledges the warnings given by Ariel.

                                       “   ‘Twas this, the mornig omen’s seemed to tell

                                      ——– —————————————————–

                                      A sylphtoo warn’d me of the threat of fate,

                                      In mystic visions, now believ’d too late!”

        The sylphs are also present to witness the flight of Belinda’s lock of hair to the sky. In the end, when Belinda throws a big amount of snuff into the Baron’s nostrils, it is these spirits who carry the sarcastic grains of tickling sharp particles of snuff to all the parts of his nostrils. As a result, we see the Baron flooding with tears. He starts sneezing so loudly that the whole Hampton Court starts resounding with his harsh words.

        Besides all this, the machinery in “The Rape of the Lock” has many other functions. This machinery provides splendor and wonder to all the actors in the story. Like Homer’s gods, Pope’s sylphs have the characteristic to move easily in and out of the lower world. They can surprise us but there is nothing to offend our sense of parable. Their presence gives ordinary human impulses a sensuous or concrete form. Dr. Johnson says: “The sylphs were added to the poem not simply as shining trinkets and three-penny bits to a Christian pudding, but to develop and flavor the whole.” If we compare the machinery of “The Rape of the Lock” with the machinery of Homer and Milton, we can see the difference in another feature. As we know that these spirits were based on Rosicrucian Doctrine. The Ariel spirits of Rosicrucian mythology were tiny and light which suit his mock-epic poem. The pigmy beings suit the theme and the atmosphere of the poem. We can say that neither the gods of Homer nor Milton’s angels would have been able to do something for his flimsy poem. So in this poem, we see a band of spirits, who

                                       “In the fields of purest ether play

                                      And bask and whiten in the blaze of day.

       These tiny spirits are as artificial as the society depicted in the poem. Pope himself claims: Human persons in this poem are as fictitious  as the Airy ones.” We can say that Pope’s use of this myth shows that he wants to do justice to the intricacies of the feminine mind. The way he treats the sylphs shows his attitude to Belinda and the special world in which she is living. A critic has observed: “In ‘The Rape of the Lock’, new things are made familiar and the familiar things are made low.”

         It may be pointed out that Addison had advised Pope against the use of machinery of the sylphs to the poem but Pope completely connived his advice. Rather he succeeded in launching this machinery successfully and introduced his element of marvellous.

         John Dennis is also against Pope’s use of machinery. He is of the opinion that Pope’s machines present contradictory outlook as compared to the doctrine of Christian religion and all sound morality. He says that these spirits have no allegorical or sensible meaning in them. That’s why, they provide no instruction and make no impression upon the mind of the readers. They do not make the action of the poem wonderful rather they create absurdity and incredibility. However, we do not agree with John Dennis because his arguments hold no water as they are futile and unconvincing. As a critic says: “All the epic poets like Homer, Virgil, Tasso and Milton made use of the machinery and it was in the fitness of things that Pope should also parody it in his mock-epic.”

          Having made this survey, we can say without any hesitation and fear of contradiction that supernatural machinery plays the role of great significance in almost all the actions performed in the poem. This machinery is superior to all the allegorical personages of Boileau and Garth in their mock-epics, Le Lurtin and The Dispensary. It is not only superior in its novelty but also for the oblique satire which results from its actions done in the poem. Pope’s purpose in writing this poem was to satirize the aristocratic men and women of his age, and he has used supernatural machinery skillfully and artistically. We fully agree with the remarks of G. Holden who says:“It is Pope’s use of machinery, moreover, which more than any other single feature made the poem the signal success that it is.”(Words: 2034)