Pope's Poems and Prose

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


Despite Belinda’s tears and Thalestris’ reproaches, the Baron remains unmoved, refusing to relinquish the curl. Clarissa then waves her fan to gather the attention of those present. She asks the assembled group why society places so much value on beauty when it is not tempered by good sense. She notes that men often call women angels and worship them as such without assessing their moral character. She observes that beauty is ephemeral: “Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray; / Since Painted, or not painted all shall fade” (26-7). Because “frail beauty must decay,” women must have other qualities, good sense in particular, to guide them after beauty fades (25). Consequently Clarissa tries to convince Belinda that when tantrums (“airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding”) fail to restore her looks, it is “good humor” that will win the day (32, 31). Clarissa’s moralizing fails to comfort Belinda, and Thalestris calls her a prude.

Not pacified by Clarissa’s speech, Belinda and Thalestris prepare the other women to launch an attack on the men to regain the curl. Umbriel sits perched on a sconce, presiding over the epic struggle with mischievous glee. The humans fight “like Gods [...] nor dread a mortal wound” (44). The women quickly overpower many of the men: “A beau and witling perished in the throng, / One died in metaphor, and one in song” (59-60). Dapperwit falls in a faint, and Sir Fopling prays for mercy before falling as well. Sir Plume nearly overcomes Clarissa, but Chloe saves her, killing Sir Plume “with a frown” (68). When she smiles to see him fall, he quickly revives.

Belinda flies at the Baron, and the two lock in combat. She gains the upper hand, throwing snuff at his nose which causes his eyes to tear. She draws a “deadly bodkin” (here, an ornamental hairpin) and holds it at the Baron’s throat (88). (This is not, however, just any hairpin but rather has a mystical history. It was once three seal rings that Belinda’s great-great-grandfather wore, which were melted down after his death to make a belt buckle for his widow. The buckle was transformed into a whistle for her grandmother before it was melted into a hairpin for her mother, a hairpin which she, in turn, inherited.) Having defeated the Baron, Belinda again demands the return of her hair, her roar shaking the “vaulted roofs” (104). The lock, however, has been lost in the scuffle and cannot be found.

Though the humans cannot find Belinda’s lock, the Muse saw it rise towards the sky, for “none but quick, poetic eyes” could see it (124). The curl becomes “a sudden star [...] / And drew behind a radiant trail of hair” (127-8). The poem finally addresses Belinda, urging her not to “mourn thy ravished hair” (141). As a star, her ringlet adds “new glory to the shining sphere,” and stargazers for years to come can admire it (142). Long after Belinda herself dies and “all those tresses shall be laid in dust,” the star will remain a testament to her beauty (148).


Some critics have interpreted Clarissa’s moralizing as the voice of Pope, articulating the poem’s moral, but this is a gross misreading of the poem. Though Clarissa’s speech would certainly serve Pope’s basic purpose of reconciling the families of Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre, Pope’s satire achieves a broader and more complex social critique, ranging from the idleness of the upper classes to the sexual double-standard for women. Clarissa’s warnings about the ephemeral nature of beauty are valid but provide an interpretive problem. Although she assumes the voice of moral superiority at this point in the poem, it was she who provided the weapon that severed Belinda’s hair. She has therefore undermined Belinda’s honor and is largely responsible for the present quarrel. Thus Clarissa cannot claim moral authority as she attempts to do in this speech.

Clarissa’s failure to pacify Belinda creates an occasion for the poem’s second epic battle. Unlike the card game in the third canto, the struggle over the lock has erotic implications, which befit the sexual allegory of the poem. The din made during the fight—rustling clothing and confused shouts—more closely resembles erotic sounds than the noises of battle: “Fans clap, silks rustle, and tough whalebones crack; Heroes’ and heroines’ shouts confusedly rise” (40-1). The postures of the combatants likewise take on sexual connotations. During the fight, Sir Plume “draw[s] Clarissa down,” suggesting a sexual act rather than the striking down of an enemy (67). Similarly, Belinda basically sits on the Baron when she overcomes him, an obviously sexual position. The eroticism of the battle culminates with the sexual double meaning of the word “die.” Though “die” can refer to physical death, it is clear that the men are not actually expiring during the fight. Rather, Pope uses the word “die” as a metaphor for orgasm, in the sense of la petite mort (the little death). Most significantly, the Baron, who stole Belinda’s sexually-charged lock of hair, fights unafraid because he “sought no more than on his foe to die” (78). This suggests that his goal throughout the poem has been sexual gratification.

Despite its erotic overtones, the battle over the lock is also the culmination of Pope’s heroic parody. Following the epic paradigm, Pope invokes the martial Greek and Roman gods: “’Gainst Pallas, Mars; Latona, Hermes arms; / And all Olympus rings with loud alarms; / Jove’s thunder roars [...] / Blue Neptune storms” (47-50). Pope simultaneously undermines these lofty allusions by killing the men in rather ridiculous fashions. Dapperwit and Sir Fopling faint as the women overcome them, while Chloe kills Sir Plume “with a frown” (68). She smiles when he dies, and at her smile, Sir Plume “revive[s] again” (70). The absurdity of these deaths demonstrates the triviality of the scuffle and emphasizes Pope’s mock-heroic tone. The reversal of gender roles also contributes to Pope’s parody of the epic. In this battle, the women are the aggressors. Pope calls Thalestris “the fierce virago,” and she easily overcomes many of the men (37). While Thalestris is the most vicious of the female combatants, Belinda remains the heroic figure, flying to her enemy “with more than usual lightning in her eyes” (76). She abandons all pretext of lady-like grace. In a shout that echoes her victorious cry at the end of the card game, Belinda demands for the return of the lock: “Not fierce Othello in so loud a strain / Roared for the handkerchief that caused his pain” (105-6). Her rage thus turns her into a swarthy warrior, and she easily overcomes the Baron. At this point, Pope diffuses the epic tone of the poem. Belinda’s use of snuff trivializes the fight, causing the Baron to sneeze, a most unheroic action.

Pope provides a final epic flourish by relating the history of Belinda’s bodkin. He relates an elaborate tale that memorializes the bodkin’s evolution from three signet rings to a buckle to a whistle and finally to an ornamental hairpin. This history imbues the hairpin with the same significance as Agamemnon’s scepter or Achilles’ shield in The Iliad.

Pope concludes the poem with a final compliment to Arabella Fermor, the historical inspiration for Belinda. By depicting the lost curl as a star in the firmament, he refuses to chastise Belinda’s behavior and instead celebrates Miss Fermor and Belinda. The poem’s conclusion indulges female vanity, immortalizing Miss Fermor’s experience in verse just as the heavens become an eternal testament to Belinda’s beauty. Despite the poem’s social critiques, the poem ends with little moral development. Belinda’s hair will grow back, and her beauty will be admired even after her death. The poem is thus an example of Horatian satire; rather than exposing the evils of the aristocracy, the poem provides a gentle critique that generally sympathizes with the characters in spite of their follies.