Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Virgin Idols and Verbal Devices: Pope's Belinda and the Virgin Mary

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Virgin Idols and Verbal Devices: Pope's Belinda and the Virgin Mary

Article excerpt

"True Poesy, like true Religion, abhors idolatry"

Edward Young, Conjectures on Original Composition, 1759(1)

Everyone knows that when the heroine of Alexander Pope's mock-epic The Rape of the Lock exclaims, "Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these," she is talking about her virginity (IV. 175-176).2 Most critics take Belinda's distress over losing a lock of hair to be an indication of her problematic privileging of reputation over virtue, or sign over referent.3 The superficial Belinda values the hair on her head-a visible sign of her virginity-more than her pubic hair, which is presumably more connected to real virtue because of its physical proximity to her hymen. Belinda's obsessions with visual signs and with her virginity fit the Protestant stereotype of the idolatrous and sexually deviant Catholic, a figure whose appearance in anti-Catholic propaganda provides an important context for Pope's poem. By analyzing The Rape of the Lock through the lens of antiCatholic critiques of virginity, idolatry, and the Virgin Mary, this essay makes it possible to read Belinda's outcry not as evidence of her problematic devaluation of virginity and over-investment in visible signs, but rather as indicative of the poem's own skeptical attitudes about the sanctity of virginity and about the possibility of knowledge beyond the material world.

The Rape of the Lock fictionalizes an incident that disrupted an elite Catholic community: a "well-bred" young man (Lord Petre, who supplies the basis for the Baron in the poem) clipped a lock of hair from a young woman (Arabella Fermer, who becomes Belinda in the poem) whom he may have been courting (1.8). As a satiric "poèm à clef," the poem inherently raises questions about mimesis, the relationship between réfèrent and representation. Moreover, the central tension in The Rape of the Lock lies in the relationship between the literal and the symbolic. The action hinges on the connection of Belinda's hair to her actual, physical virginity, a crucial dimension of the poem that critics have often referenced but whose significance is commonly ignored.4 The style in which Belinda wears her hair, mostly piled up but with two long curls on each side of her neck, was a customary fashion for young marriageable (virgin) women. The locks are thus a material signifier of virginity, something whose material existence is otherwise difficult to determine. The cutting of the lock is, then, a symbolic rape, and the poem investigates the power and relevance of such a symbolic act.

Like the poem, the Church of England's critique of Catholics at this time centers on problems of signification and representation. Protestant theologians and propagandists excoriate the idolatry of Catholicism, hi particular the worship of saints, especially Mary, and the doctrine of transubstantiation.5 From their perspective, Catholicism privileges visual symbolic practices and propagates the erroneous notion that icons can stimulate spirituality. Protestantism, by contrast, prioritizes language; only words-specifically "the word" of the Bible-can lead to God. The Protestant critique of mariolatry argues that Catholics worship Mary instead of God (the thing that she represents or mediates for) and thus that veneration of Mary is idolatrous. Protestants worry not so much that physical representations (of Mary or God) will be substituted for the real thing, but more that Mary will be substituted for God; that is, they worry that the thing intended to represent God's goodness (Mary) instead becomes the focus of worship.

In addition to idolatry, the issues of virginity and celibacy are crucial to the debates between Protestants and Catholics that I am proposing are a key context for understanding Pope's poem. Catholicism maintains a belief in the spiritual advantages (if not total superiority) of virginity over marriage, while Protestant reformers attack the Catholic emphasis on celibacy and virginity. …

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