Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pope's Ombre Enigmas in the Rape of the Lock1

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pope's Ombre Enigmas in the Rape of the Lock1

Article excerpt

To appreciate the Ombre allusions in The Rape of the Lock a modern audience must first understand how this compUcated and counterintuitive card game is played. Successive editors have exhaustively glossed Pope's many aUusions to late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century literature and the classics, but they have largely neglected to provide similarly comprehensive glosses to this long-obsolete card game.2 Without a credible reconstruction of the three hands, informed readings of the card game Pope carefully describes in Canto III of his satire are not possible. Pope's correspondence, coUected and re-edited by George Sherburn, gives no evidence that he withheld or revealed the reconstruction he had in mind; although common sense tells us that Pope must have had one.3 Only when we know which cards were dealt can we evaluate how skilfully, or unskilfully, the players enacted the first mock-battle at Hampton Court that afternoon. That the combatants might be bewilderingly inept, but also defy Fate and foil one combatant's "Thirst of Fame" (iii.25) is consistent with contemporary recipes for mock-epic. Whether one or more of the players violate the tenets of good card play is a seldom asked, but important question: and one that can be addressed only after obtaining a reliable reconstruction.

It is astonishing that after almost three centuries no one has published an entirely satisfactory reconstruction. All are inconsistent with Pope's text, or the rules of the game, or both.4 Over a half-century ago, William K. Wimsatt cautioned that by the extent to which any hypothetical reconstruction exceeded the evidence given it could have no critical bearing on the poem.5 Wimsatt might also have pointed out the corollary, that by the extent to which any reconstruction falls short of all the evidence given - that is, it does not take full account of several somewhat opaque lines in the poem - it, too, must have diminished critical bearing. It is important to fully account for the content of Pope's forty couplets (iii.25-104). Some lines may serve several purposes. None are meaningless metrical fillers: Pope was far too skilled for that. For example, "At Ombre singly to decide their Doom," the adverb "singly" may mean Belinda will be L'Hombre for this tour, or that this contest will entail only one tour, or both (iii.27). Wimsatt concluded that a complete reconstruction was impossible, but he did not point out that such was unnecessary - indeed there is no unique solution.6 The solution, like that to many enigmas, is ridiculously simple; unfortunately, given our distance from its early eighteenthcentury interpretive context, the derivation of this solution is lengthy and tedious. The information not given directly by Pope must be inferred from close reading of his text, together with an understanding of the rules of the game, and knowledge of the tenets of good card play - the only reliable tools available: but tools readily available to Pope's contemporary audience. Outlines of the more important rules and a glossary of terms unique to the game are appended to this paper.

At least eight reconstructions have been published. The earliest was by William Pole in 1874/ followed by Henry Hucks Gibbs in 1878,8 and George Holden in 1909.9 Edward Fletcher published two in 1935,10 and in 1940, Geoffrey Tillotson appended a modification of Pole's reconstruction to The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope.11 This reconstruction, which he did not revise through the second and third Twickenham Editions of 1952 and 1962, remains that most commonly cited in the literature. Arthur E. Case published his own in 1944, 12 and Wimsatt, recanting his impossibility pronouncement, published a partial reconstruction in 1973.13 Why these reconstructors, spanning a century from Pole to Wimsatt, five of whom were distinguished scholars, failed to untangle Pope's enigma would make a separate study. I believe that this is an extreme example of the accretions of scholarship conflicting with the evidence of unbiased close reading, with the latter being ignored. …

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