Couplets and Curls: A Theory of Form

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Practitioners of formalism are frequently anxious to assert the primacy of aesthetic value and its pleasures, whether that formalism is characterized as "new," "activist," or "normative." In so doing, they often register a critical fatigue with and rebuke of historical and ideological criticisms. (1) Likewise, a common critique of formalist criticism per se is that it labors to write out cultural contexts, or, when this is impossible, to transform the historical backgrounds into occasions of poetic figuration and even allegory. (2) While these tensions are vividly evident in recent publications on this topic, critics are hesitant to define the "form" of formalism, such that it is not always clear what they are defending, apart from a valuation of aesthetics and pleasure. (3) Asking "What Is New Formalism?" Marjorie Levinson concludes "that form is either 'the' or 'a' source of pleasure, ethical education, and critical power is a view shared by all the new formalism essays ... but despite the proliferation in these essays of synonyms for form (e.g., genre, style, reading, literature, significant literature, the aesthetic, coherence, autonomy), none of the essays puts redefinition front and center." (4) Thus the category of form is often an assumed, though elusive, quality.

To consider the problem of form, I turn to The Rape of the Lock (1712/1714), a text with a storied, if somewhat perplexing, role in the history of formalist criticism. (5) As Christopher Norris has aptly demonstrated, formalist-minded critics of an earlier generation such as F. R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks have privileged the poem as a tour-de-force of the aesthetic ideal--"that of the poem as a pure, self-enclosed product of verbal artifice"--while grappling with the fact that "poetry and politics are so far intertwined as to make it very hard to read [Pope] without some knowledge of the relevant 'background.'" (6) The Rape of the Lock is undoubtedly a remarkable formal accomplishment (John A. Jones calls it a "triumph of style"), but it also insists upon a connection to contemporary society and manners from the start, beginning with the dedicatory epistle addressed to Arabella Fermor and the opening acknowledgement that Pope's friend, John Caryll, passed on the gossip. (7) But for Brooks in particular, "poetic 'form' is equated" with the poem's pleasurable ambiguities, a notion elaborated more recently by critics such as Margaret Anne Doody and J. Paul Hunter. For Doody, the couplet is "a flexible framework allowing perpetual activity." Hunter argues that historically the couplet contained "no hint of complacency, smugness, or ease," and singles out The Rape of the Lock as an example of how the couplet instead uses "the easy opposition as a way of clarifying the process of deepening qualification and refinement." (8) Both critics are clearly invested in revaluing the couplet and helpfully suggest ways that this form, which can appear sealed and didactic, can also lend itself to complication. (9) By emphasizing how this poetic form is politically progressive rather than ideologically conservative, however, such assessments can obscure the extent to which the question of form more generally evokes a variety of aesthetic, epistemological, and ideological connotations. (10)

I argue that Pope's text invites us to analyze form, but from a different viewpoint--that of the representation of form. While others have recently addressed materialism in the period and Pope's particular indebtedness to Berkeley, and still others have offered numerous cultural contexts for Pope's poem, here I intend to broaden our understanding of form by broaching the uneasy transformations and mutations that persistently give shape to The Rape of the Lock. (11) Pope will later argue in the verse epistle To a Lady: Of the Characters of Women (1735) that women are tellingly resistant to the identifying, and stabilizing, imperatives of form: they are "Matter too soft" for "a lasting mark to bear," and so are "best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair. …