Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......Pope opens with a statement announcing the topic of his poem: A gentleman–a lord, in fact–has committed a terrible outrage against a gentlewoman, causing her to reject him. What was this offense? Why did it incite such anger in the lady?
.......The woman in question is named Belinda
. She is sleeping
late one day in her London home when a sylph–a dainty spirit that inhabits the air–warns her that “I saw, alas! some dread Event impend.” The sylph, named Ariel
, does not know what this event is or where or how it will manifest itself. But he does tell Belinda to be on guard against the machinations of men.
.......Belinda rises and prepares herself for a social gathering, sitting before a mirror and prettying herself with “puffs and powders” and scenting herself with “all Arabia.” Afterward, she travels up the Thames River to the site of the social festivities, Hampton Court, the great palace on the north bank of the river that in earlier times was home to King Henry VIII. As she sits in the boat, “Fair Nymphs, and well-drest Youths around her shone, / But ev'ry Eye was fix'd on her alone.” In other words, she was beautiful beyond measure. She smiled at everyone equally, and her eyes–bright suns
–radiated goodwill. Especially endearing to anyone who looked upon her were her wondrous tresses:
- This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish'd two Locks which graceful hung behind
In equal Curls, and well conspir'd to deck
With shining Ringlets the smooth Iv'ry Neck.
.......Among Belinda’s admirers is a young baron at Hampton Court awaiting her arrival. He has resolved to snip off a lock of her hair as the trophy of trophies. Before dawn, before even the sun god Phoebus Apollo arose, the Baron had been planning the theft of a lock of Belinda's hair. To win the favor of the gods, he had lighted an altar fire and, lying face down before it, prayed for success.
.......After Belinda arrives at Hampton Court with her company of friends, the partygoers play Ombre, a popular card game in which only 40 of the 52 cards are dealt--the eights, nines, and tens are held back. It appears that the Baron will win the game after his knave of diamonds captures her queen of hearts. However, Belinda yet has hope, even after the Baron plays an ace of hearts:
- ...........................................The King unseen
Lurk'd in her Hand, and mourn'd his captive Queen.
He springs to Vengeance with an eager Pace,
And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace
The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky;
The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply.
.......Belinda wins! Coffee is served, the vapors of which go to the Baron’s brain and embolden him to carry out his assault on Belinda’s hair. Clarissa, a lady who fancies the Baron, withdraws scissors from a case and arms him with the weapon. When he closes in behind Belinda, she bends over her coffee, exposing a magnificent lock. But a thousand sprites come to her aid, using their wings to blow hair over the lock. They also tug at one of her diamond earrings to alert her to the danger. Three times they warn her and three times she looks around. But all is for naught. The Baron opens wide his weapon, closes it around the lock, and cuts. The rape of her lock enrages Belinda:
- Then flash'd the living Lightnings from her Eyes,
And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies.
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,
When Husbands, or when Lapdogs breathe their last,
Or when rich China Vessels, fal'n from high,
In glitt'ring Dust and painted Fragments lie!
.......A gnome named Umbriel
descends to the Underworld on Belinda’s behalf and obtains a bag of sighs and a vial of tears from the Queen of Spleen
. With these magical gifts, he means to comfort poor Belinda. First, he empties the bag on her. A gentleman named Sir Plume--prompted by his belle, Thalestris, a friend of Belinda--then roundly scolds the Baron for his grave offense. But the Baron is unrepentant. Umbriel then empties the vial on Belinda. Grief overcomes her as her eyes half-drown in tears
and her head droops upon her bosom. She says:
- For ever curs'd be this detested Day,
Which snatch'd my best, my fav'rite Curl away!
Happy! ah ten times happy had I been,
If Hampton-Court these Eyes had never seen!
.......Clarissa tries to mollify Belinda in a long speech, but fails. A bit of a melee ensues when Belinda attempts to retrieve her lost lock. “Fans clap, Silks russle, and tough Whalebones crack.” Belinda proves a fierce combatant. She attacks the Baron “with more than usual Lightning in her Eyes” and throws a handful of snuff
from Sir Plume's box up his nose. But, alas, when the battle ends, the lock is nowhere to be found.
.......However, the poem ends on a happy note for Belinda, Pope says, because the trimmed lock of her golden hair has risen to the heavens, there to become a shining star.