The Rape of the Lock'>

The emblem tradition and Pope's The Rape of the Lock

Kloss, Catharine Berret, Department of English, University of Virginia

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries emblems were vastly popular forms of decoration and moral instruction. As composite symbolic pictures, their influence depended on the belief that the visible could represent--even contain--that which was invisible like Egyptian hieroglyphs, the apparent source of the tradition. The art of iconography, a canon of fixed symbols for single abstract qualities, developed parallel to emblems; both forms provided pictorial sources for painters, gardeners, sculptors, architects--and poets. Pope’s familiarity with the emblem tradition can perhaps be credited to his love of painting as well as to the belief in the relationship of the sister arts which he shared with others of his time. His own brief tutorial with the painter Charles Jervas, in 1712 and 1713, probably accounts for his heightened sensitivity to the pictorial as he was revising the 1712 version of The Rape of the Lock. An examination of the revisions reveals that many expand the poem's meaning visually, particularly through allusions to the emblem tradition, direct adoptions of familiar emblematic images, and the creation of original, contemporary emblematic characters and forms,

The characterization of Belinda shares many pictorial characteristics with the tradition of Venus in painting, and the new, elaborate toilet scene clearly portrays her as an emblem of Vanity. The role of Clarissa expands in the 1717 poem with her parody of Sarpedon’s speech, in which she offers Belinda the opportunity to trade in her mirror of Vanity for that of Prudence.

Pope specifically draws on the popular tradition of emblems representing both divine and earthly love. His ingenious invention of the sylphs seems influenced by the cupid figures in art who emigrated into emblem books. In Pope’s poem, they are the higher order of beings appropriate to epic, and they emphasize also the subject of love and its expressions. I have suggested that Pope uses them to parody love conventions, for he makes them try to prevent earthly love. The familiar scenes of love’s trials appear everywhere in Pope's lines, and allusions to love emblems add a visual dimension to what otherwise might be clichés. When the images further suggest the moral emblems of Hugo and Quarles, they develop the alternative side of Pope's sympathetic attitude toward Belinda, instructing that another kind of love, that of good sense and virtue, should direct her actions. Pope also makes emblems of the objects of fashionable life which surround Belinda at home and at Hampton Court. Lovely as well as functional, these artifacts express an appreciation for formal beauty, but they also represent the debasement of traditional spiritual values through ceremonies without spiritual meaning. Rituals support not sacred intentions, but profane ones; their artifacts emblematize the characters who use them. Pope’s “luxurious” 1714 edition of the poem, with its engravings and ornaments, manifests clearly his own love of the beautiful.

Finally we examine the Cave of Spleen episode, with its whimsical, animated forms, and its contemporary emblems for eighteenth-century personalities. Pope displays here as well his awareness of the faintly sinister tone of many emblems and of the dream-like, fluid perversions of natural forms found in grotesque art.

Pope, unlike the early emblematists whose work he knew, did not personify standard virtues and vices so much as the characters of his contemporaries, For him as well as for his models, however, both Nature and Art conveyed messages from the infinite, and behind every thing visible lay order, harmony and design, This conviction inspired his emblematic imagery and his allusions to the emblem tradition in art.

Note: Abstract extracted from PDF file via OCR.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Pope, Alexander -- 1688-1744 -- Rape of the lock, Emblems in literature
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