Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Rape of the Whisker and Fuzwhiskiana: Regrooming Pope's Rape of the Lock in Early Nineteenth-Century Cambridge

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Rape of the Whisker and Fuzwhiskiana: Regrooming Pope's Rape of the Lock in Early Nineteenth-Century Cambridge

Article excerpt

WHEN, IN 1712, John Caryll asked Alexander Pope to write a poem to settle a private dispute enacted in public between two high-society families he hoped to '"laugh them together again.'" (1) Robert, Lord Petre had, famously, cut off one of Arabella Fermors prized twin locks of hair, "which graceful hung behind / In equal curls, and well conspird to deck / With shining ringlets her smooth iv'ry neck" (2.20-22). (2) He thereby visibly damaged her comportment to the outside world, and potentially initiated scandalous insinuations about the level of intimacy which had made such a breach of decorum possible. In a world that valued reputation as an accomplishment, and even as a necessity for women to be deemed eligible spouses, visible virtue was all. In The Rape of the Lock (1714) Arabella Fermor turns into "Belinda," Lord Petre into "The Baron" within a heightened, luxuriant world of beaux and belles, fripperies and fans, captured in seemingly elevated heroic couplets which comically dignify superficial actions and actors so as to expose their triviality in a comically exaggerated way. (3) Pope perfects his use of mock-heroic to achieve his dual satiric purpose of simultaneous admiration and critique: (4) for Maynard Mack, he "represents the absurdities of the fashionable world with affection," while never letting us "forget that in such a world ethical judgments have reached a sad disarray" when so much value is placed on "trifles." (5)

A strikingly similar set of parallels exists between The Rape of the Lock and two of its early nineteenth-century adaptations, which participate in a varied sequence of creative afterlives experienced by Pope's poem. Like their predecessor, The Rape of the Whisker by "Whiskerando Squib" and the anonymous Fuzwhiskiana (both 1838) were inspired by a real-life event involving the scandalous theft of its protagonist's hair; now, however, both victim and perpetrator are male; a whisker, not a lock, is stolen; and the setting shifts from the rarefied social entourage of Hampton Court to the self-enclosed cloisters of Trinity College, Cambridge. (6) These two poems deploy overtly literary techniques, such as parody and allusion (to Pope and to other literary sources), but also those belonging to the wider operations of adaptation defined by Linda Hutcheon, as "both a product and a process of creation and reception." (7) These whisker poems are a "product" of The Rape of the Lock's evolving reception history; and yet, in responding to a different, if comparable event, which takes place in a distinctive time and place, they also reprocess Pope's satiric purpose, to observe with dual attachment and comic contempt "absurdities" and "trifles" characterizing the context of their own production. As such, they cast an intriguing light both on the workings of literary adaptation more generally, centering upon the enduring legacy of The Rape of the Lock, and on undergraduate life at Cambridge University in the early nineteenth century.

However, the intertextual relationships The Rape of the Whisker and Fuzwhiskiana establish with Pope's poem expand further than parodic reworking or, indeed, recontextualization. They suggest a capacity for its central conceit to exercise a powerful hold on the creative imagination: it is a critical commonplace that The Rape of the Lock's focus on hair goes far beyond its significance to Belinda, or indeed to Arabella Fermor, to gesture towards the poetic act itself. Pope both introduces a brutal act and undermines its violence in the poem's very title: "rape," then as now, connoted sexual violation, but also (the sense invoked here) a more restrained notion of theft, of "something snatched away" (Johnson). (8) It positions hair's central role as a metonym for the body and, more specifically, sexuality ("hairs less in sight"), which transforms its tangible physicality into a more potent symbolic function that identifies the poem itself as both act and artefact: the Baron's "glittering forfex" may perform the deed, but it is Pope who finally appropriates the lock by sublimating it to the celestial spheres where it acquires an immortal fame contingent with its memorialization in these lines: "The lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame, / And 'midst the stars inscribe Belinda's name" (5. …

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