Belinda’s “anxious cares” and “secret passions” at the loss of her hair eclipse the “rage, resentment, and despair” felt by captured kings, scorned virgins, tragic lovers, and unrepentant tyrants (1, 2, 9). After the Sylphs withdraw, weeping at their failure to protect Belinda, a Gnome named Umbriel descends to the center of the earth to the Cave of Spleen. (During the eighteenth century, the spleen was associated with the passions, melancholy and discontentment in particular.) During his descent, he passes “a grotto, sheltered close from air,” in which Belinda reclines, afflicted by pain and a migraine (21). Two handmaidens attend to Belinda in her distress: Ill-Nature and Affectation.
Mists and vapors shroud the palace of Spleen. Grotesque figures of fiends and specters line Umbriel’s path, their “bodies changed to various forms by Spleen” (48). In this splenetic world everything is upside-down or inverted: “Men prove with child” (53). Carrying a sprig of “spleenwort” for protection against these fantastic figures, Umbriel arrives safely in the depths of the cave and addresses the Goddess of Spleen. Umbriel enumerates his mischievous acts which range from causing a beautiful woman to break out in pimples to convincing men that their wives are cuckolding them. He asks the goddess to “touch Belinda with chagrin” (77). Though dismissive, the goddess grants his wish. She gives the Gnome a bag containing “sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues” and a vial with “fairing fears, / Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears (84, 85). Umbriel takes the goddess’ gifts and ascends from the Cave of Spleen to Hampton Court Palace.
The Gnome returns to find Belinda in a disheveled and dejected state while being comforted by her friend Thalestris. (In Greek mythology, Thalestris was an Amazon; Pope’s use of the name suggests a fierce, combative woman.) Umbriel empties the contents of the goddess’ bag on the two women, fueling Belinda’s ire. Now outraged, Thalestris attempts to convince Belinda to avenge the wrongs committed by the Baron. In a speech full of rhetorical flourishes, Thalestris warns Belinda that the Baron will display her hair for the amusement of others, which will thereby endanger Belinda’s honor and reputation: “I [...] / Already hear the horrid things they say, / Already see you a degraded toast, / And all your honor in a whisper lost” (107-10).
Unable to rouse Belinda, Thalestris goes in a rage to Sir Plume, her own beau, asking him to demand the return of the hair. Sir Plume addresses the Baron in an unintelligible speech filled with eighteenth-century slang. The Baron mocks his manner of speaking and haughtily refuses to honor the request. He vainly displays the honors he has won, claiming that “this hand, which won it, shall forever wear” (138).
Upon the Baron’s refusal, Umbriel releases the contents of the goddess’ vial. The contents of the vial cause Belinda to cry self-piteously and languish in her “beauteous grief” (143). She curses the day’s events and bemoans her fate, wishing that she had never entered fashionable society but rather “unadmired remained / In some lone isle, or distant northern land” (153-4). She articulates her regret at not having listened to the Sylph’s warning or the morning’s evil omens. Belinda then laments the state of the lonely curl that remains, the sister of the severed lock.
The fourth canto opens with Belinda languishing in “rage, resentment, and despair,” eclipsing 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 (9). Pope places each of these individuals in their own line so that their sorrows have equal footing and none is subordinate. Of course, the despair of a captured king far outweighs the aggravation of a woman who appears disheveled. By placing all of these figures subordinate to Belinda, Pope accentuates the excess and impropriety of her grief after the theft of her hair, a minor setback. He thus chastises those who place excessive significance on trivial problems. Furthermore, by equating the disparate sorrows enumerated this first verse-paragraph, Pope emphasizes the importance of a moral code with which to evaluate the validity of these emotions.
Umbriel’s descent into the Cave of Spleen evokes the journeys to the underworld made by Odysseus in The Odyssey and Aeneas in The Aeneid. This sequence perverts the traditional epic justifications for visiting the underworld. Usually the hero requires guidance for his quest and travels to the underworld to consult a deceased friend or relative. Overcome with despair, Belinda has retired to her bed, so instead of the hero’s visit to the underworld, Pope depicts the descent of a trouble-making Gnome. Of course, Umbriel has no intention of assisting Belinda in recovering the lock; rather, he travels to the Cave of Spleen for methods to exacerbate Belinda’s pain. The use of the “spleen” sequence also allows Pope to explore Belinda’s emotional distress. In her sorrow Belinda is attended by Ill-Nature and Affectation whose presence suggests that the heroine’s grief is affected rather than a true reflection of her emotion. Her anguish is thus equally as decorative as her locks, completely undermining the elevation of her misery in the first verse-paragraph.
Pope further emphasizes the epic tradition in Thalestris’ speech. She figures the severing of the lock as an affront to Belinda’s honor, encouraging her friend to avenge this insult. Offended honor is a common theme in epic poetry; at the outset of The Iliad, Achilles is enraged at Agamemnon for insulting him. Thalestris’ attempts to rouse Belinda’s anger serve as a reminder of the behavior Belinda should be demonstrating as the epic hero. In Belinda’s place, Thalestris is outraged. Her presence reinforces Pope’s manipulation of the epic genre, borrowing the Amazon from Greek mythology. Here Pope also draws on chivalric ideals from the romance genre. She asks Sir Plume to defend Belinda’s honor by demanding that the Baron return the lock. Sir Plume fails utterly, muttering only slang terms in his confrontation with the Baron. His failure to restore Belinda’s honor demonstrates the degree to which chivalry has declined.
Pope’s discussion of honor in this canto reemphasizes the poem’s sexual allegory. Though the poem’s title figures the severing of Belinda’s hair as an overt sexual violation, Thalestris intimates that Belinda’s ultimate concern should be what the Baron will do with the ringlet. She worries that the Baron will display the curl to the public and thereby endanger Belinda’s honor and reputation. She envisions the Baron’s triumphant exhibition of the hair: “Methinks already I your tears survey, / Already hear the horrid things they say, / Already see you a degraded toast, / And all your honor in a whisper lost” (107-10). Thalestris’ depiction of Belinda’s humiliation demonstrates society’s emphasis on the external appearance of morality (i.e., reputation). Pope reinforces this focus on appearances at the end of the canto when Belinda laments her lost curl: “Oh, hadst though, cruel! Been content to seize / hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!” (175-6). The “hairs less in sight” suggest her pubic hairs, which are more explicitly sexual than the ringlet that the Baron stole. Belinda’s preference for the theft of her public hairs indicates that she would rather compromise her virtue than suffer damage to her looks. Pope thus demonstrates the misplaced significance and value that society places on external appearances.