Pope: Mockingly Meant
ALEXANDER POPE IS THE MASTER OF ENGLISH NEOCLASSICAL POETIC satire. The master of the mock-heroic technique. And a master apologist for his role as satirist. Like Dryden’s, his mock-meanings are often cryptic, however, and the reader, from Arabella Fermor to us, must often work to catch them. And one of his greatest acts of legerdemain is to mockingly masquerade as one who heals with morals what he hurts with wit.
As Ellen Pollak has best shown, in Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock Belinda is portrayed as an uppity little flirt who resists taking her place in a more bourgeois patriarchal paradigm as wife and mother.1 I would want to add only that, as Murray Cohen argued some years ago, Pope has constructed his poem as a problem in interpretation,2 the fundamental problem of which, I would insist, is how Belinda is to take the Baron.
The second half of the poem’s epic question has not been answered very well by critics: “Oh say what stranger Cause, yet unexplor’d,/Cou’d make a gentle Belle reject a Lord?” (1.9–10, TE, vol. 2). Belinda chooses to interpret the Baron’s assault negatively, as well might any reader sensitive to the essential powerlessness of women in her society. The Baron is a libertine rake, a Dorimant, a Rochester, out for another conquest, and when he meets resistance, he resorts to a more aggressive form of sexual will-to-power. Given this interpretation, why should Belinda not reject the sexist, rapist pig? And yet, Belinda—and the reader— could reinterpret the Baron’s intention as honorable, reading his praying to the god of “Love… Soon to obtain, and long possess the Prize” (2.37–44) as his desire to possess forever not only the