Rivaling the sun in her beauty and radiance, Belinda sets off for Hampton Court Palace, traveling by boat on the River Thames. A group of fashionable ladies and gentlemen accompanies her, but “every eye was fixed on her alone” (6). Her “lovely looks” and “quick” eyes command the attention and adoration of those who see her (9, 10). Belinda’s glittering raiment includes a “sparkling cross,” which she wears on her “white breast,” inspiring the worship of her admirers (7). Her most striking attribute is the “two locks which graceful hung” in ringlets on her “ivory neck” (20, 22). Pope describes these curls as labyrinths of love intended for the “destruction of mankind,” imprisoning any hearts that get caught in their snares (19).
One of her devotees, the Baron, greatly admires her ringlets and has resolved to steal them for himself, “by force [...] or by fraud” (32). On this particular morning he rose early to build an altar to Love at which to pray for success in this venture. He created a pyre and on it sacrificed “all the trophies of his former loves” (40). Fanning the flames with “three amorous sighs,” he burned “three garters, half a pair of gloves” and “tender billet-doux” (42, 39, 41). The powers heard his prayer and chose to grant half of it.
As the boat makes its way to Hampton Court, Belinda and her companions enjoy a lighthearted journey. Ariel, however, is anxious, remembering the foretold “impending woe” (54). Concerned for Belinda’s safety, he summons an army of Sylphs to protect her. The sprites assemble, their bodies incandescent in the glittering sunlight. Ariel addresses them, much the same as a general addressing his troops. He reminds them of their duties: guiding celestial bodies, regulating weather, guarding the British Throne, and “[tending] to the Fair” (91). As part of their responsibilities to the Fair, the sprites protect ladies’ powders, perfumes, curls, cosmetics, and hair, working to “assist their blushes, and inspire their airs” (98).
Because “some dire disaster” looms over Belinda, Ariel charges a phalanx of Sylphs to act as her bodyguards (103). He charges Zephyretta with the care of Belinda’s fan, Brillante her earrings, Momentilla her watch, and Crispissa her locks. Ariel himself will protect Shock, her lapdog. Above all, he is concerned that someone might “stain her honor” (107). He therefore chooses fifty select Sylphs to guard her petticoat, which sometimes fails to protect a woman’s virtue. Ariel warns that any sprite who neglects his duties “shall feel sharp vengeance” (125). The Sylphs report to their posts and wait for the “birth of Fate” (142).
In the second canto, Pope relies on martial language to situate his poem within the epic tradition and reinforce his satiric manipulation of the genre. Much like the combs, pins, and cosmetics that Pope assigns military value in the first canto, Belinda’s physical appearance is defined within militaristic terms. The beauty of her curls attracts admirers, which Pope compares to a trap meant to ensnare enemies. Similarly, he refigures Belinda’s seven-layered petticoat as a fortified wall meant to withstand the attacks of invading forces. As Pope establishes in his description of the coquette, a woman must attract a suitable husband but simultaneously refrain from so great an attraction that she compromises her virtue. Her curls thus perform the former duty, capturing the attention of men while her petticoat functions as an impediment to the loss of her chastity. Of course, as Ariel notes, “we have known that seven fold fence to fail,” and he commands an army of fifty Sylphs to take defensive positions around the petticoat, ready to defend Belinda’s virtue from amorous assailants (119). Pope, however, makes the Sylphs’ militaristic role ironic: they are not guarding against Belinda’s failure but rather protecting her from excessive success at attracting admirers. Pope thus critiques society’s contradictory expectations with regard to female sexuality.
As the irony of Pope’s military allusions suggests, Pope develops the poem’s sexual allegory in the second canto. From the outset of the poem, the theft of Belinda’s hair has sexual implications, specifically in the poem’s title: The Rape of the Lock. Pope’s use of the word “rape” denotes explicit sexuality in the cutting of Belinda’s curls. Pope’s word choice in the second canto strengthens this sexual imagery. The poem indicates that the Baron has resolved to steal the locks “by force to ravish” (32). The use of the words “force” and “ravish” emphasizes this theme of sexual violation. The phrase “by fraud betray” with regard to the Baron’s desire for the curls similarly equates the theft of the lock with a man taking advantage of a woman’s innocence (32).
Even Ariel suspects that the foretold “dire disaster” will take the form of a sexual assault (103). He speculates that Belinda might be fated to “break Diana’s law,” an allusion to the Roman goddess of chastity (105). In the following line he worries that “some frail china jar [will] receive a flaw” (106). Literary instances of broken pottery often indicate the loss of virginity. Ariel’s final anxiety is that Belinda might “stain her honor or her new brocade” (107). While the staining of Belinda’s honor is overtly sexual, the staining of her dress likewise has sexual implications, alluding both to female sexual maturity (menstruation) and to the tearing of the hymen (loss of virginity).
The sexual implications of The Rape of the Lock culminate with the locks themselves. Though Pope describes Belinda’s ringlets as hanging down her “smooth ivory neck,” the sexualized double-readings throughout the second canto suggest a more explicit secondary reading of Belinda’s curls (22). A sexualized reading of Belinda’s locks as pubic hairs reinforces Pope’s portrayal of their theft as rape. The “rape” of the lock therefore represents a greater threat to Belinda’s virtue than the theft of her hair would suggest.
Just as it does in the first canto, religious imagery parallels the language of force in the second canto. Much like the ritualism of Belinda’s toilette in the first canto, Belinda’s charms become objects of worship. Of particular note, of course, are her locks, which draw the attention of many admirers, chief among them the Baron. The rituals he performs at dawn are an act of worship. He builds an altar—a feature of both pagan and Christian worship—to celebrate Belinda’s beauty. On the altar the Baron places “twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt” to honor Love, rather than gilded Bibles (38). This equation of religion and secular love echoes the presence of Bibles and billet-doux together on Belinda’s dressing table in the first canto and further serves Pope’s mock-heroic purposes. The ritual sacrifices performed by the Baron mimic the epic convention of sacrificing to the gods to secure their favor before a venture. The powers’ decision to grant only half of the Baron’s desire alludes to a common feature of the epic in which the interference of the gods is a mixed blessing. Yet Pope undercuts the traditional power of the gods. Their half-blessing does not have tragic consequences for the Baron; rather, he only succeeds at securing one of Belinda’s curls. Pope further undermines the piety of prayer, replacing it with the Baron’s “three amorous sighs” (42).
The poem’s comic attitude towards religion implies that the worship of beauty amounts to sacrilege. Pope crystallizes this religious perversion in the cross that Belinda wears. The cross seems to serve not a religious function but rather an ornamental one, much like the equation of the Bible with billet-doux and French romances. Indeed, this central symbol of Christianity remains secular, so “Jews might kiss” and “infidels adore” it just as easily as Christians (8). Pope even sexualizes this traditionally religious object, placing it on Belinda’s “white breast” and thereby suggesting that the Jews and infidels are instead admiring her breasts (7). By subverting established principles of religious worship, Pope critiques society’s willingness to value appearances and other insignificant matters over a moral lifestyle.