Pope’s view of human beings...
Jonnie Comet29 April 1996
Alexander Pope's mock epic The Rape of the Lock portrays the suffering and humiliation of Belinda, the fair protagonist, at the hands of her would-be suitor. But the real heroine of the poem is Clarissa, Belinda’s friend and accomplice in her misfortunes. In divulging something of her rationale, through her actions and most especially in her profound soliloquy, Pope makes the point that this character of the poem most represents his own ideal of a salient being balanced between the ‘Thought and Passion’ depicted as extremes in his ‘Essay on Man’.
When the reader first encounters Clarissa by name, she is slipping the fateful scissors to the baron, enabling him to commit his atrocity against Belinda. Clarissa is malicious; she is motivated by her own attraction to the baron and hopes to exploit his attraction for her friend to compromise Belinda’s composure. She is certain that a violent fit will be the inevitable response, and expects to rise in the baron’s esteem as Belinda falls.
But Belinda’s emotional lament surprises them all. She is all vanity and passion, devoid of reason except to justify, or presume to justify, what she says and does. She decries the loss of her virgin curl (–I like to assume she has never had a haircut; vis., c. 2; ll. 19-28), without realising why she dolls herself up so exquisitely. Clarissa, in contrast, is mostly reason. To her, though she may well be comely, any methods by which a maiden might secure the attention and affection of a man are fair play.
A close reading of Clarissa’s speech in Canto 5 shows her to be the poem’s best-balanced of the characters, in spire of her cruel behaviour and selfish motives. From her initial rhetorical question, ‘(W)hy are Beauties prais’d and honour’d most’ to her closing argument, she implores the use of saneness above all. The beautifully bedecked Belinda has missed the point of all her outward appeal. Clarissa reminds her:
‘How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,
To Clarissa, a man is a fool to desire a woman for beauty alone, and a woman is a fool to demonstrate nothing but beauty in order to attract him. This is the balance which Pope is so eager to idealise. After all, as Clarissa so richly points out, beauty alone is no virtue, for it is fleeting. Beauty, therefore, cannot be an end in itself, but may be a means to meet one’s ultimate responsibility to society: to marry well and nurture heirs, not hairs. As Clarissa so soberly reminds, ‘…she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid’.
Poor vain Belinda does not realise she has already got what she sought. Clarissa, like Eloisa, or Swift’s Vanessa, has something of a masculine sensibility, in that she knows an enlightened beauty possessed of reason represents the best balance of character, appealing to both the passions and the mind. Though her behaviour may seem cruel, even abhorrent, she is at least sensible enough to call a spade a spade. All beauty will decay, and thus vanity is a losing battle; and so the smart woman– the one of true virtue– will maintain good humour through all. Clarissa concludes: ‘Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul’.
No-one applauds. Her point is utterly lost on the other characters, and a wild four-way melee ensues amidst bass and treble cries. Pope’s most obvious message is probably illustrated here: that people in general are too predisposed to chaotic passion to heed calm reason. Sane Clarissa’s foregone involvement in the fray demonstrates that even she is subject to a weakness for irrational action, though Pope has her free herself as if to indicate on whose side lie his own sentiments. At the end of the epic struggle, no-one really wins, giving credence to the image of man ‘Created half to rise, and half to fall’. The reader will note that as the baron and Belinda fall to the carpet, grappling madly in furious passion, the lock of hair ascends into the sky. The very item of their contention, both the instrument of their union in passion and the reminder of their abandonment of reason, is lost in the consummation of its ultimate purpose.
Clarissa was right, after all.
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p.1 - Pope makes... ‘Essay on Man’ - Pope; Essay On Man,E. 2; l. 13
p. 4 - (W)hy are... honour’d most - Pope; The Rape of The Lock, c. 5; l. 9
p. 4 - How vain... gains - Ibid, c. 5; ll. 15-16
p. 5 - she who... a Maid - Ibid, c. 5; l. 28
p. 6 - Eloisa, or Swift’s Vanessa - Eloisa, of Pope’s mediæval epic Eloisa to Abelard (1717), is a strong-willed female who bears the brunt of a forced separation from her lover by vowing chastity in a convent; Vanessa, of Swift’s ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’ (1713), is educated without regard to her sex by the poem’s narrator and declares her love for him by way of scholarly admiration
p. 6 - Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul -- Pope; The Rape of The Lock, c. 5; l. 34
p. 7 - Created half to rise, and half to fall - Ibid, e. 2; l. 13. Most people think this is a naughty double-entendre; but I prefer its more intellectual meaning, implied here. --JC