The Rape of the Lock: Desire between Couple(t)s-A Counselling Intervention

Article excerpt

Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714) (1) was inspired by a rift between two prominent (yet 'recusant') English Roman Catholic families, after Robert, 7th Lord Petre had raffishly removed part of the coiffure of Arabella Fermor, a young 'beauty'. Pope himself glossed the occasion:

   A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both desired me to write a
   poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was in
   this view that I wrote my Rape of the Lock, which was well received
   and had its effect in the two families. (2)

I want, here, to focus on this originary motive for the poem, and to suggest ways in which it informs the poet's larger purpose--to create a social poem which negotiates tensions within the age-old battle of the sexes. The finished masterpiece, I shall argue, has relevance not only to contemporary debates about the ideology of gender (3) but, in particular, to the rise of our now-ubiquitous 'counselling' culture. (4) For such a discussion it is important that the 'Offence' occurred within a tightly knit, 'marginal' group, (5) and that the poetic strategy develops a phantasmagoric 'interpretation' of the incident, as a proto-Freudian (6) narrative in which attentive intelligence has transformed the strength of Desire (7) into mock-heroic sweet reason.

The occasional nature of the poem's composition is declared in its notable opening:

   What dire Offence from am'rous Causes springs,
   What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,
   I sing--This verse to Caryll, Muse! Is due;
   This, ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
   Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise,
   If She inspire, and He approve my Lays. (I, 1-6) (8)

The conventional capitalisation of abstract terms such as 'Offence', 'Causes' or 'Subject' serves to underline the balanced rationality (and counselling overview) that Pope will bring to bear on the 'dire' interrelational encounter: its existential particularity is being translated into soothing generalities concerning human behaviour. At the same time, the italicisation of 'Caryll' and 'Belinda', and the capitalisation of 'She' and 'He', help to transform the incident into the realm of common behaviour and shared poetics. John Caryll was Pope's friend, the 'well-wisher' who asked him to make a poetic intervention in the family quarrel; 'Belinda' is a euphonious variation on Arabella (Fermor). The poet's voice is announced--'I sing', negotiating a switch in register from the quasi-philosophical rhetoric of 'Causes' into the aesthetic domain. And he immediately presents his voicing as a double gift: due to the friend but offered to the poem's heroine, who is also the inspirer of the verse. The invocation begins to home in more directly on the matter in hand:

   Say what strange Motive, Goddess! Cou'd compel
   A well-bred Lord t'assault a gentle Belle?
   Oh say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor'd,
   Cou'd make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?
   In tasks so bold, can Little Men engage,
   And in soft Bosoms dwells such mighty Rage'? (I, 7-12)

The poetic convention of the muse is manipulated to suggest a preliminary deification of Belinda herself. The heroine of the poem becomes also its muse, thus gratifying her offended pride. This serves to indicate that while the poem will consist, in general, of inter-familial counselling, Pope's intervention is skewed to favour Belinda's point of view. Pope is here using (in recent parlance) his 'emotional intelligence' (9) to place the opening under the sign of the 'feminine'. Such partisan tact helps transform the ensuing action and reaction so that the inter-personal becomes the political. The mot(J of the poem is the socially acknowledged wildness of masculine desire (his' 'selfish gene'), and the 'stranger Cause' is a variant of the Freudian conundrum 'What does the woman want?'. There is a satiric edge to the word 'Lord'--an intimation that the 'truth universally acknowledged' about eligible, wellborn and rich young men belongs, in fact, to a patriarchal code--but one introjected by ambitious young women for marriage purposes. …