Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

A Question of Competence: The Card Game in Pope's the Rape of the Lock. A Response to Oliver R. Baker*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

A Question of Competence: The Card Game in Pope's the Rape of the Lock. A Response to Oliver R. Baker*

Article excerpt

Oliver R. Baker claims that previous commentators have failed to provide sufficiently comprehensive glosses on the game of Ombre as described in The Rape of the Lock iii.25-100. Noting that "[w]ithout a credible reconstruction of the three hands, informed readings of the card game [...] are not possible" (Baker 210), he attempts to supply such a reconstruction. Baker is of course right to imply that we cannot determine the significance of Pope's description of BeUnda (contemplating her hand) as "[t]he skilful Nymph" (üi.45) until we have assessed her strategies in the light of the rules of the game. But I am not convinced that his reconstruction (of, that is, the hands) is an advance upon that of Geoffrey TiUotson (dismissed by Baker as one of several who have tried but "faUed to untangle Pope's enigma," 211).1 TUlotson is not Baker's sole target, but I have in what follows used his influential account ("Appendix C" in the second volume of the Twickenham edition of Pope's works) to stand for the broad spectrum of interpretations to date that Baker finds so inadequate.2

We might begin with the question: how different is Baker's reconstruction of the hands from TiUotson' s? The answer, surprisingly enough, is: scarcely at all. True, TiUotson hypothesizes certain preUminaries (a bid by BeUnda, discards on the part of aU the players), while Baker (213-14) chooses to read Pope's sUence on these points as indicating, quite unambiguously, that Belinda does not bid (she plays, according to Baker, sans prendre), and that the other players choose not to discard (cf. Tillotson 388-89).3 It is also true that Tillotson takes the liberty of allocating specific values to the non-court cards - a liberty resisted by Baker.4 Otherwise, however, it would have to be said that his versions of both the Baron's hand and that of the anonymous third player are identical with Baker's own (as set out on 221). As for Belinda's hand, there is only one difference: where Tillotson allocates Belinda a non-court diamond, Baker allocates her a non-court club in its place, attributing her with a void in diamonds. Thanks to this latter point, his reconstruction of the hands is actually identical to one put forward by Edward G. Fletcher in 1935.5

This problematic non-court card, whether diamond or club, is the one played by Belinda when following (one of) the Baron's first two diamond leads on the sixth and seventh tricks. Here it is important to note that Baker agrees with Tillotson on Belinda's possession of the Queen of Clubs, and on her use of the said non-court card (either before or after her Queen of Clubs) at this stage of the game.6 The essential question, then, is whether that non-court card is a diamond or a club. Baker's conclusion that it must be a club is based upon his interpretation of iii.75-80:

The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;

Th' embroider' d King who shows but half his Face,

And his refulgent Queen, with Pow'rs combin'd,

Of broken Troops an easie Conquest find.

Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild Disorder seen,

With Throngs promiscuous strow the level Green.

According to Baker, these lines intimate "that Belinda and the Knight slough their losing clubs and hearts on the Baron's two diamond leads - a second disordered heap of Belinda's clubs and the Knight's hearts on top of the first - '[h]eaps on [h]eaps' (iii.86) indeed" (219). As Baker reads it, then, the diamonds of iii.79 are the Baron's victorious leads, lying confused with the trumped hearts (of the Knight) and Belinda's (also trumped) clubs - these latter including the Queen of Clubs as well as the non-court club that Baker thinks BeUnda played on the sixth trick (and that TiUotson thinks she played on the seventh).

UntU now, however, Pope has distinguished very clearly between the victorious cards and those that are trumped. These defeated cards include the "two captive Trumps" of Ui.50, and the Knave of Spades that "[f]alls undistinguish'd by the Victor Spade" at iu. …

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