Pope's Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose Summary and Analysis of The Rape of the Lock: Canto III


The third canto begins with a description of Hampton Court Palace and the amusements of life at court. The palace’s towers rise up from the meadows overlooking the River Thames. Pope indicates that it is at this site that “Britain’s statesmen” deal with matters at home and abroad and where Queen Anne holds court (5). Belinda and her companions arrive at Hampton Court and disembark the boat to take part in the day’s activities. They first engage in gossip, discussing balls, fashion, and political matters. They punctuate their conversation with taking snuff and fluttering fans.

After the afternoon’s pleasant conversation, Belinda sits down to play cards with the Baron and another man. They play ombre, a three-handed bridge with some features of poker. Pope describes the game as a battle: the three players’ hands are “three bands [prepared] in arms,” troops sent to “combat on the velvet plain” of the card table (29, 44). Like the commander of an army, Belinda reviews her cards, declares spades trumps, and sends her cards into combat. She meets with early success, leading with her high trumps (49-56).

The suit breaks badly (54) when “to the Baron fate inclines the field” (66). He retains the queen of spades (67) with which he trumps her king of clubs (69). The Baron then leads high diamonds until he nearly sets (beats) Belinda, who is “just in the jaws of ruin” (92). On the last trick, however, Belinda takes the Baron’s ace of hearts with the king, who “spring to vengeance with an eager pace, / And falls like thunder on the prostrate Ace” (97-8). By recovering the last trick, Belinda wins back the amount she bid and therefore takes the game. Thrilled at her victory, Belinda “fills with shouts the sky” (99). The speaker then interjects to remind the reader that Fate holds some disaster for Belinda.

After the game, coffee is served to the ladies and gentlemen at Hampton Court. The vapors of the coffee inspire the Baron with new strategies for stealing Belinda’s locks. With the assistance of Clarissa, who presents him with her scissors, he endeavors to cut Belinda’s hair. He fails three times to clip her lock from behind, without her knowledge; the Sylphs frustrate his every attempt. They intervene by blowing the hair out of danger and tugging on her earrings to make her turn around. In a last-ditch effort to protect his charge, Ariel accesses Belinda’s mind with the intent to warn her, but he is shocked to find “an early lover lurking at her heart” (144). Belinda’s strong attraction to the Baron places her beyond Ariel’s control, and he retreats, defeated. The scissors’ blades finally close on the curl. As the shears close, a Sylph gets in the way and is cut in two. As a supernatural being the Sylph is easily repaired; the curl, however, cannot be restored. The Baron celebrates his victory while Belinda’s “screams of horror rend the affrighted skies” (156).


Pope’s rendering of the card game as a heroic battle advances his epic parody and foreshadows the scuffle over the lock in the fifth canto. He again figures Belinda as an epic hero, and the extended metaphor of the game as a battle reinforces her masculine approach. During the game, Belinda’s strategy is aggressive and ambitious, and Pope shows Belinda’s desire for the recognition that the “battle” will bring to her: “Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites, / Burns to encounter two adventurous knights / [...] And swells her breast with conquests yet to come” (25-8). In keeping with the martial theme, Pope portrays Belinda as a cunning general: “The skillful nymph reviews her force with care” (45). He further depicts her cards—her army—as virile male characters: “Now move to war her sable Matadores / In show like leaders of the swarthy Moors” (47-8). Pope emphasizes this hyper-masculine depiction of Belinda when she wins the game. Rather than graciously acknowledge her victory with modest reserve, Belinda gloats over the losers: “The nymph exulting fills with shouts the sky” (99). Unlike the ten years of violent combat over Troy in The Iliad, however this evening’s card game is the pastime of young aristocrats. By elevating this trivial amusement with the language of the epic struggle between two civilizations, Pope suggests that the bravery once exhibited on the battlefield by Greek and Trojan heroes is now limited to the petty games and flirtations of the upper classes.

The heroic theme extends to the severing of the lock. The Baron’s three attempts to cut Belinda’s hair mirror the hero’s trials before completing his quest, which Pope emphasizes at the end of the canto by comparing the Baron’s victory to the conquest of Troy. Likewise Clarissa’s arming of the Baron with her sewing scissors evokes the tradition of lovers’ farewells before battle. Of course, the theft of Belinda’s hair is an insignificant squabble in comparison to the abduction of Helen and a decade of war.

With the complicity of Clarissa in the severing of Belinda’s lock, Pope introduces a criticism of the relationships between women, which he explores in the poem’s sexual allegory. Clarissa’s willingness to participate in the metaphoric “rape” of Belinda suggests that rather than a sisterhood united against male sexual advances, women seek to undermine each other in the competition to find a suitable husband. Belinda’s sexual fall would remove her from the marriage market, ensuring less competition for rich or titled young men such as the Baron. Of course, a woman does not have to compromise her virtue to lose her honor, which Pope depicts during the gossip at the beginning of the canto: “At every word a reputation dies” (16). In this society, the loss of reputation has much the same result as sexual transgression. Pope’s depiction of unkind womanly attitudes towards each other serves to criticize society’s sexual double-standard in which a woman must attract a husband without compromising her virtue.

In the third canto Pope expands his social critique beyond the trivial entertainments and petty squabbles of the aristocracy. Using the structure of the heroic couplet (rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter), he creates parallel constructions that expose the harsh realities of life outside of the amusements of Hampton Court Palace. He describes Hampton Court as the place where Queen Anne “dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea” (8). 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. The zeugma thus reveals Hampton Court as a palace that hosts both matters of state and social diversions. Similarly, in the second verse-paragraph, some of Belinda’s companions discuss balls and visits while another “speaks the glory of the British Queen, / And one describes a charming Indian screen” (13-4). While some members of the party relate stories about their social engagements, the references to the “British Queen” and “Indian screen” serve as reminders of the world outside of Hampton Court. In particular the words “British” and “Indian” evoke the British Empire, worlds away from the comfort of Hampton Court. The serving of coffee, “which makes the politician wise, / And see through all things with his half-shut eyes” likewise suggests British trade and a political world beyond the amusements of this aristocratic party (117-8). Pope’s use of parallel constructions within the heroic couplet thus reveals the serious matters that exist outside of the lords’ and ladies’ gossip.