"What dire offense from amorous causes springs, / What mighty contests rise from trivial things, / I sing [...]"
Occurring at the outset of the poem, this quotation establishes Pope’s epic parody. Pope declares that his poem will treat “amorous causes” and “mighty contests,” the usual subjects of epic poetry. His tone, however, suggests that love and war have suffered since the days of Homer and Virgil. Pope’s “amorous causes” have little in common with Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus or Dido’s passion for Aeneas. Instead, it is the Baron’s love for Belinda’s icon (her hair) that is the poem’s amorous subject. Correspondingly, the poem’s “mighty contests” arise from the theft of Belinda’s hair, not, for example, from the offended honor of Achilles or Menelaus. Pope’s satire will thus deal with these “trivial things,” not the heroic deeds of the epic past.
"First, robed in white, the nymph intent adores, / With head uncovered, the cosmetic powers. / A heavenly image in the glass appears; / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears. / The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side, / Trembling begins the sacred rites of pride."
Here Pope establishes the mock-heroic motifs that occur throughout the poem. He describes Belinda’s toilette not as a simple morning routine but as a hero’s ritualized preparation before battle. In this quotation, Pope depicts a religious rite in praise of a goddess. If performed to the goddess’ satisfaction, such a sacrament would ensure her protection on the battlefield. Of course, Belinda is not going into battle (at least, in the literal sense) but to Hampton Court Palace for a day’s courtly entertainment. Furthermore, the image of goddess is hardly a religious icon; it is Belinda’s visage in the mirror that inspires this devotion. Even the objects used to perform the “sacred rites” have simple, earthly purposes: cosmetics, pins, combs, etc. This quotation is from a longer passage that manipulates the arraying of the hero, a feature of traditional epic poetry.
“On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore, / Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.”
This quotation performs several functions within the poem. It illustrates Belinda’s great beauty, justifying the Baron’s admiration for her. It also introduces the poem’s religious critique. One of Pope’s concerns is the deterioration of religious worship in the early eighteenth century, which he symbolizes with Belinda’s cross. The cross serves an ornamental, not religious, purpose, adorning Belinda’s “white breast.” As an ornament, the cross remains sufficiently secular that “Jews might kiss” it and “infidels adore” it. The placement of the cross on Belinda’s bosom also introduces a sexual reading, and leaves ambiguous the implication that the Jews and infidels are admiring Belinda’s breasts and not the cross. The cross thus unites religious and erotic love in a single object, subverting established principles of Christian worship. This allows Pope to critique contemporary disregard for the principles of religion and morality.
“The adventurous Baron the bright locks admired, / He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired. / Resolved to win, he meditates the way, / By force to ravish, or by fraud betray; / For when success a lover’s toil attends, / Few ask if fraud or force attained his ends.”
From the outset, Pope figures the theft of Belinda’s hair as a sexual violation, describing the Baron’s actions as a “rape.” This quotation advances the sexual allegory introduced by the poem’s title. The use of the words “force” and “ravish” emphasize the theme of violation and indicate that the Baron will attempt to obtain the lock through underhanded and even immoral means. The phrase “by fraud betray” suggests the Baron’s willingness to take advantage of Belinda’s naïveté in order to secure her hair. Pope also works a social critique into the last couplet. Men, it seems, are congratulated for their sexual exploits, but no one thinks to ascertain if he had the woman’s permission or if he achieved sexual gratification by “fraud or force.”
“Here thou, great Anna! Whom three realms obey, / Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.”
Here, Pope employs a zeugma, a rhetorical device in which a word modifies two other words or phrases in a parallel construction, modifying each according to a different sense. In this instance, “take” modifies both “counsel” and “tea,” but one does not take counsel and tea in the same way. Pope’s use of the zeugma demonstrates that Hampton Court Palace both hosts affairs of state and provides entertainment for society. In concert with Pope’s later references to British trade and empire, this quotation alludes to the serious matters that exist outside of the aristocrats’ insular experience.
“Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought / The close recesses of the virgin’s thought; / As on the nosegay in her breast reclined, / He watched the ideas rising in her mind, / Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art, / An earthly lover lurking at her breast. / Amazed, confused, he found his power expired, / Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.”
At this point in the poem, the Baron is about to sever Belinda’s ringlets, and Ariel frantically attempts to warn her. However, when he sees that she harbors desire for “an earthly lover,” he loses his ability to guard her. It seems that Ariel can only perform his duty of protecting Belinda’s virtue when her heart is pure. Her attraction to the Baron indicates that she is already sexually compromised. Through this quotation, Pope suggests that one can only be pure if one’s thoughts are also pure. The instant thought turns to desire, the individual is lost. Therefore one must be pure in thought as well as deed to be virtuous.
“Not youthful kings in battle seized alive, / Not scornful virgins who their charms survive, / Not ardent lovers robbed of all their bliss, / Not ancient ladies when refused a kiss, / Nor tyrants fierce that unrepenting die, / Not Cynthia when her manteau’s pinned awry, / E’er felt such rage, resentment, and despair, / As thou, sad virgin! for thy ravished hair.”
Here Belinda languishes in “rage, resentment, and despair, after the theft of her hair. Pope explains that the extremes of fury and anguish that she experiences eclipse the sorrows of kings imprisoned after battle, scornful women who become spinsters, lovers robbed of their happiness, medieval women refused kisses, tyrants who die without repenting, and a woman whose dress is unkempt. Pope places each individual misery in its own line, equating each sorrow and demonstrating that all are subordinate to Belinda’s. In reality, however, the despair of a king captured in battle far outweighs the frustrations of a woman who appears disheveled. This passage serves to undermine Belinda’s grief at the loss of her hair, emphasizing the impropriety of her excessive reaction. This allows Pope to chastise those who allow trivial setbacks to overcome them.
“How vain are all these glories, all our pains, / Unless good sense preserve what beauty gains; / That men may say when we the front box grace, / ‘Behold the first in virtue as in face!’”
Clarissa’s description of an ideal woman occurs during her speech on the impropriety of worshipping beauty. She laments that men revere female beauty without assessing moral character. Women are not the gorgeous angels of male imagination but rather humans subject to moral deficiencies. Clarissa’s speech provides Pope with an opportunity to question the value that society places on appearances. Beauty, he establishes, is a fickle mistress. Many of the female charms that men seem to admire are actually created by artifice. Women take “pains” to enhance their beauty, painting (using cosmetics) and dressing in fine clothes. While women often enhance their features, “frail beauty” also fades over time, which no cosmetics can alter (V.25). Women therefore must have other qualities to sustain them after beauty’s decay. By that same token, men should recognize the futility of worshipping beauty and instead judge women based on their moral character.
“All are but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul.”
Occurring at the outset of this philosophical poem, this couplet succinctly encapsulates Pope’s views on the nature of the universe and its relation to God. According to Pope, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (I.30-1). More specifically it takes the form of a hierarchy, a “vast chain of being” in which everything has a place (I.237). For example, man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above beasts and fowl. Each element of the hierarchy—angels, beasts, man—is simply a “part” of the highly ordered “whole,” and every element has complete perfection according to God’s purpose.
“What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy, / The soul’s calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy, / Is virtue’s prize: a better would you fix? / Then give humility a coach and six.”
In this part of the poem, Pope explains man’s reward for virtuous behavior: “The soul’s calm sunshine.” This calm sunshine indicates that man assumes an imperturbable serenity, free of earthly desires. As Pope indicates, such serenity cannot derive from riches or fame, especially since material goods usually serve as an impediment to virtue. Though composed serenity might not seem like a particularly appealing reward, it cannot be given or taken away by any earthly being. According to Pope’s philosophical sketch, it also allows man to transcend his earthly experience and look “through nature up to nature’s God,” allowing man to pursue “that chain which links th’immense design, / Joins heav’n and earth, and mortal and divine” and “rise from individual to the whole” (IV.332, IV.263). Serenity is therefore the ultimate purpose of the human soul.
Pope’s Poems and Prose Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Pope’s Poems and Prose is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.