Supernatural machinery of ‘The Rape of the Lock’

Supernatural machinery of ‘The Rape of the Lock | Dr. Warburton has remarked that the preternatural agents are very happily adapted to the purposes of the poem, “The Rape of the Lock.’

Supernatural machinery of ‘The Rape of the Lock’

Let us begin with Dr. Johnson’s own statement about the supernatural machinery of The Rape of the Lock. “To the praises which have been accumulated on The Rape of the Lock by readers of every class, from the critic to the waiting maid, it is difficult to make any addition. Of that which is universally allowed to be the most attractive of all ludicrous compositions. Let it rather be now enquired from what sources the power of pleasing is derived.”

Dr. Johnson further remarks, “Dr. Warburton, who excelled in critical perspicacity, has remarked that the preternatural agents are very happily adapted to the purpose of the poem. The heathen deities can no longer gain attention: We should have turned away from a contest between Venus and Diana. The employment of allegorical persons always excites conviction of its own absurdity: they may produced effects, but cannot conduct actions; when the phantom is put in motion, it dissolves; thus discord may raise a mutiny, but Discord cannot conduct a march, not besiege a town. Pope brought into view a new race of Beings, with powers and passions proportionate to their operation. The sylphs and gnomes act at the toilet and the tea-table, what more terrific and more powerful phantoms perform on the stormy ocean, or the field of battle they give their proper help and do their proper mischief.”

Pope’s chief object, when he wrote the first version of The Rape of the Lock, was to diminish the pretty quarrel over the lock of hair, and not to ridicule the heroic kind of poetry, or to provide humorous parallel to all the principal ingredients of epic. But the immense and unexpected reception of its first version led Pope to enlarge it in the second edition of 1714 by giving it a better form and structure. In this edition, therefore, Pope increased the length of the poem from two cantos to five by adding further ‘allusions’ to the epic as the visit to the Cave of Spleen (parodying the epic visit to the underworld), the game of ombre (paralleling the arming of Achilles) and above all, the extensive machinery of the Ariel and the sylphs.

The word ‘machinery’ refers to the part which the Deities, Angels or Demons are made to act in a poem. “These machines”, said Pope in his dedication, “I determin’d to raise on a very new and old foundation, the Rosicrucian Doctrine of Spirits.” This theory, which Pope goes on to outline, had first been formulated in 1614 in the Fame Fraternitatis in Germany. It has been used to provide fashionably exotic entertainment in Le Comte de Gaballs (1670) by the Abbe de Montfaucon de Villars. An English translation of this had appeared in 1680. The theory then, was familiar enought by 1712-14 when Pope grafted it on to his first version of The Rape of the Lock. According to the Rosicrucians the four elements – fire, water, earth and air were inhabited by four kinds of spirits – Salamanders, Nymphs, Gnomes, and Sylphs respectively. They had their origin from the elements of nature and their temperaments were suited to their elements. They were of both sexes.

With the Rosicrucian theory as formulated by de Villars, Pope fused other familiar notions, always with the aim of improving his epic parody. He took over the notion that angels and devils are the souls of the departed and thus his spirits have a pre-existence as human beings like the shades in the Virgilian underworld. He used the idea that such transmigrated souls interest themselves in the fortunes of their friends and enemies on earth just as the Olympians do in Homer. He followed a traditional habit in making his gnomes ‘bad’, although they are not so in Le Conte de Gabalis, and was thus enabled to parody the celestial quarrels in Homer. He stuck strictly to contemporary science to describe the cosmos which the sylphs inhabited.

The machines, that is the spirits introduced in the poem are diminutive beings. They have insect wings, they can change their shape and sex, can see the future, can inspect the heart of the mortals. They are airy and unsubstantial and remain invisible to the human eye. Ariel is their chief.

The sylphs and gnomes, nonetheless, play a very significant role in the scheme of the poem. they are the “guides and guardians of the purity of the melting maids” whose ‘honour’ they preserve by shifts that embody all that is most superficial in the conquette’s life, by playing on her concern with swordknots, wigs, coaches and men, by playing off Damon against Elorio, by shifting the ‘moving toyshop of her heart, by stimulating what the world calls ‘levity’.

Their action cannot be matched with human action. Their function is more delicate than that of human being. They help Belinda in arming her for the conquest of beauty and love. They preside over the toilet, ‘save the powder from too rude a gale, steal from rainbows a brighter wash, curl their waving hair, assist their blushes.” They hang about Belinda’s ear- rings and watch her petticoat. Umbriel gives the ‘vapours’ to Belinda, opens overhead the caskets of melancholy and ill nature. If the sylphs are the embodiment of good. then the gnomes are of evil.

Besides the appreciation of Warburton and Dr. Johnson, the supernatural machinery of the poem has been criticised severely by critics like Dennis. In Dennis’s opinion, the author of The Rape has run counter to this practice both of the ancients and moderns. He has not taken his machines from the religion of his country, nor from any other religion or morality. His machines contradict the Christian religion, contradict all sound morality, there is no allegorical nor sensible meaning in them, and for these reasons they give no instruction, make no impression at all upon the mind of the sensible reader.

Dr. Dennis goes on enumerating the faults of these machines. He says, “Instead of making the action wonderful and delightful, they render it extravagant, absurd and incredible. They do not in the least influence the action; they neither prevent the danger to Belinda, nor promote it, nor Retard it, unless, perhaps it may be said, for one moment  which is ridiculous. And if it be her object, that the author designed only to entertain and amuse to that I answer, that for that very reason he ought to have taken the utmost care to write his poem probable.”

And the last defect according to Dennis is that the Machines in this poem are not taken from one system but are double, may triple or quadruple. In the first canto we hear nothing but sylphs and Gnomes and Salamanders, which are Rosicrucian Visions. In the second we meet with Fairies, Genii, and Demons, beings which are unknown to those fantastic sophisters. In the fourth, Spleen and the Phantoms are derived from the powers of Nature and are of a separate system. Fate and Jove, which we find in the fifth canto, belong to the heathen religion.

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