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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Some Remarks on Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”

As the song says, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”. Not Christmas. Rather, Autumn, also known as college book sale season. Among my finds this year are a well-bound three-volume facsimile edition of the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible (Old Testament 1635, New Testament 1582) and Clarendon Press editions of various 17th-century Cavalier poets (Carew, Crashaw, Cleveland, Lovelace). But  the Holy Grail for this year (so far) has been finding a near-complete set of the Twickenham Edition of the poems of Alexander Pope (it's only missing the volume containing his minor poems). For those not in the know, the Twickenham Edition — published by Methuen in the UK and Yale University Press in North America — is the gold standard in Pope scholarship, excellently edited and printed, and quite difficult to get hold of. Each volume was priced at only $5, but because they were having a buy-two-get-one free sale, two of the volumes were free. So I paid $20 total. You, dear Reader, will just have to take my word for it when I tell you that I am very excited about this.

So excited am I, in fact, that within a week I had already read three of the six volumes (along with Geoffrey Tillotson’s little volume, On the Poetry of Pope). In other words, I have decided to immerse myself in Pope for awhile. I just finished with volume II, The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. I had read The Rape of the Lock as a first-year undergraduate English major, which was a long time ago. I was perhaps too young to appreciate its artistry then. Now I rank it high amongst Pope’s works. (At the same time, a work of Pope's that I used to rank very highly, An Essay on Man, has now a much lesser share in my esteem.) The poem is a mock epic, using the loftiest of language and all the devices of the Iliad to depict a trivial event: a man cutting a lock of hair from the fair Belinda. It does not mock the epic form; rather it uses the epic form to mock the banality of 18th-century consumer society.

There are two versions of The Rape of the Lock. The first came out in 1712, followed by an expanded version in 1714. I may be singular in preferring the 1712 version. Of course, I understand what Pope was doing in introducing the divine “machinery” of sylphs and nymphs into the 1714 poem, that he had to do so in order to more closely follow (and lampoon) the received epic form. Still, it seems to me that there is more integrity in the 1712 edition, as well as an energy that seems to have been rendered more diffuse as the poem was expanded.

I have less to say about the poem itself than about the Twickenham Edition of it. Again, the Twickenham is excellently edited and printed. The introductions to each work are very long; though they are informative, they do at times border on the tedious. The copious footnote annotations are a wonder of scholarship, though, as is almost inevitable with such scholarly editing, there is a fine line between information and intrusion that is sometimes crossed. However, for any scholar truly interested in Pope, the notes are indispensable. Perhaps the highest praise that can be bestowed on the Twickenham Edition is that, despite being over 50 years old, it is still referred to as the definitive edition. The only other such editing masterpiece in this class that I can think of off the top of my head is the Latham and Matthews edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys.

To give a flavor of the thoroughness of the notes, here is Canto V, lines 105-106 (1714 ed.):
        Not fierce Othello in so loud a Strain
        Roar’d for the Handkerchief that caus’d his Pain.

In his footnote, editor Geoffrey Tillotson, rightly points out the allusion to Thomas Rymer, A Short View of Tragedy (1693), who had criticized Shakespeare for overemphasizing the handkerchief as a plot device in Othello: “So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call’d the
Tragedy of the Handkerchief?” (p. 135). Besides citing literature that could have influenced Pope, the footnotes give much information connecting passages to details about his life and work, through his correspondence and the accounts of others such as Spence.

However, as thorough as the notes are, they occasionally miss something. I will give two such examples from The Rape of the Lock. The first is from Canto III, lines 117-118 (1714):

        Coffee, (which makes the Politician wise,
        And see thro’ all things with his half-shut Eyes)

In the footnote inserted there, Tillotson cites the Tatler and the Spectator for contemporary references to the connection between politicians and coffeehouses. Valid as this observation may be, by focusing blindly (pardon the double pun) on the coffeehouse connection, he misses the connection between politicians and their eyes, and hence to allusions to, for example, Shakespeare and Samuel Butler. See, for example, Act V, scene iv of King Lear:

        Get thee glass eyes, and like a scurvy politician, seem
        to see the things thou dost not.

And Butler’s Hudibras (1662), III.ii.351-356:

        ‘Mong these there was a Politician,
        With more heads than a Beast in Vision,
        And more Intrigues in ev’ry one,
        Than all the Whores of Babylon:
        So politick, as if one eye
        Upon the other were a Spy;

Before moving on to the next example, there is something else notable about the above lines from Pope. If one reckons “half-shut” as two words rather than one, as I believe one ought, then the second line is technically a ten-monosyllable heroic, which Pope had declaimed against in his An Essay on Criticism (1711), lines 344-349:

        These Equal Syllables alone require
        Tho’ oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
        While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
        And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
        While they ring round the same unvary’d Chimes,
        With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.

On the other hand, in a letter to William Walsh (22 October 1706), Pope allowed for the practice under certain limited conditions:  “Monosyllable Lines, unless very artfully manage, are stiff, or languishing: but may be beautiful to express Melancholy, Slowness, or Labour.” This would excuse its appearance in the example from the Essay on Criticism (“And ten low words…”), but not from The Rape of the Lock (“And see thro’ all…”).

(The editors of the first volume of the Twickenham Edition, containing the Essay on Criticism, duly note that Lord Shaftesbury had also inveighed against “Ten-Monosyllable Heroicks” in the same year as Pope’s Essay came out.)

The next example from The Rape of the Lock where Tillotson has missed something worthy of a footnote occurs in Canto I, lines 75-76 of the 1712 version, or Canto III, lines 11-12 of the 1714 version. I reproduce both versions:

        In various Talk the cheerful hours they past,
        Of, who was Bitt, or who Capotted last:

        In various Talk th’instructive hours they past,
        Who gave the Ball, or paid the Visit last:

The lines are an homage to the opening lines of Lord Rochester’s “A Ramble in St. James’s Park” (Poems on Several Occasions, Antwerpen, 1680, p. 14):

        Much Wine had past with grave discourse,
        Of who Fucks who, and who does worse;

This escaped Tillotson, which is a pity, as it gives us an interesting standpoint from which to discuss the relative merits of the two versions. It helps to discuss each of the couplet’s lines in turn. Since the second line contains more slang in the 1712 version (“bitt” = cheated at cards, “capotted” = scored all of the tricks), it preserves the sinking effect of Rochester’s use of “fuck”. In Rochester we move from “grave discourse” to fucking. There is sinking in Pope’s lines too, but in the later version the bottom to which the reader sinks in the second line is effectively raised. It is a shorter fall. As frivolous as they may be, giving balls and paying social visits are certainly more elevated than cheating at cards. As such, I wish Pope had left his second line unchanged.

If the second line contains the bottom to which the reader sinks, the first line contains the height from which he dives. In changing “cheerful hours” to “th’instructive hours” Pope has raised the height from which the whole sentiment leaps. There is also more irony in the later version, since though the conversation may be cheerful enough (1712), it is certainly not instructive (1714). The alteration also has the merit of bringing the sense much closer to Rochester’s: “grave” discourse better corresponds to “instructive” than to “cheerful”.

In short, the alteration of the first line was felicitous; that to the second was not.

Finally, one more observation on The Rape of the Lock. When the editors refer to period literature in their footnotes, it is almost always to literature that predates Pope’s. In other words, they are more interested in what may have influenced Pope than in who was influenced by him. As an editorial decision this is fair enough, and at least it prevents the notes from swelling even further. But I was struck by something I’d not thought of before. I recently read Charlotte Lennox’s novel The Female Quixote (1752) for the first time. Its heroine is a young lady named Arabella who is rendered romantically delusional by reading of too many 17th-century French romances. I though of this when I came across these lines from The Rape of the Lock, Canto II, lines 37-38 :

        But chiefly Love — to Love an Altar built,
        Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.

This is much the way Arabella’s volumes are described as her father is attempting to set fire to them — they are large gilt folios. Furthermore, Pope’s dedication to the 1714 edition of The Rape of the Lock reveals that the real identity of his Belinda was Miss Arabella Fermor. As Lennox’s novel makes abundantly clear, the morality depicted in these French romances was by turns frivolous and absurd. So is the morality depicted in The Rape of the Lock.

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