The Rape of the Lock: As Text and Visual Art

By D. R. Gayton

In England, during the reign of Queen Anne and not long after the last English Catholic Monarchs had fled permanently to France, there occurred a strange incident that is still been spoken of until today. In the vicinity of London and in accordance with the fashion of the day, a group of young Nobles congregated for an evening of diversion and entertainment at the townhouse of a fellow young Noble. As was to be expected there were card games, music, rumors, liqueurs, and hot coffee poured into fine China cups. Through out the course of this particular evening revelries’ a young Baron somehow came to the acquisition of a pair of scissors, and somehow by the same token, a young Lady of fifteen came to lose a fine lock of hair from her impossibly contrived coiffeur. Immediately thereafter, the affronted young Lady demanded the restitution of her fine lock from the young Baron; refusing to return the lock, a bitter feud ensued between the young Lady and the young Baron that quickly escalated into a major conflict that threatened the very stability of the already beleaguered Catholic Nobility of England. The world might have remained oblivious to such a trivial loss had not the event been set to paper by Alexander Pope in his heroic mock-Epic The Rape of the Lock.


Being close friends to some of the members of the feuding parties in question, sources tell us Alexander Pope was personally approached by Mr. Caryl, cousin of the young Baron, to compose a poem that would expose the triviality of the whole thing and through humor attempt to bridge the hostile rift that had been created between the families of the young Lord and Lady (Wallis 7). The poem that originally begun with two Cantos written in less than a fortnight was to transform the 23 year old poet into the most famous writer in England (Gee 3). Further, Pope picking up on the popularity of the poem and being the lyric perfectionist that he was, would soon after expand this early version of his poem to five Cantos and spend the following 7 years perfecting every line. In Sophie Gee’s introduction to the poem she writes, “in 1712 readers were captivated by its brilliance: its perfect couplets, the world of wealth and glamour it depicted- a setting that also seemed so brittle it might break apart completely” (Gee, 3). Realizing the popularity and estimating its profitability, publishers quickly commissioned artists for the illustration of “The Rape of the Lock”. By the end of the 1700s there were numerous luxury copies of the poem in circulation with accompanying illustrations by numerous artists and engravers such as Louis du Guernier, Claude du Bosc and Henry Fuseli.


Following this tradition of fine book making, the unorthodox book editor Leonard Smithers of The Savoy, commissioned the 23 year old Aubrey Beardsley in 1896 to create a series of lithographic prints for a new deluxe edition of “The Rape of The Lock” (Gee 21). Beardsley who had previously done illustrations for Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur” and Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, was at first reluctant to take on the illustrative work, however by the time the first prints had been completed “Smithers immediately recognized the brilliance of Beardsley’s new drawings and described them not as illustrations, but as ‘embroidery’ …suggesting that the illustrator, like the poet, is engaged in close-work” (Gee 21). Only two years after the completion of these illustrations for Smithers, Beardsley ultimately succumbed to a protracted battle with tuberculosis. His career and body of work, although short cut by disease ultimately lived on and remained a long lasting influence on Art Nouveau and Modern Art. His illustrations for “The Rape of the lock” are singularly outstanding within his body of work because in these prints Beardsley was able to capture and translate into visual forms the very essence of Alexander Pope’s brilliant poem with an artistry and fineness that’s yet to be rivaled.


Written through its entirety in perfect iambic pentameter “The Rape of the Lock” consists of five epic Cantos and a total of 794 lines in couplets. The poem that Pope initially calls a lay, sets the tone immediately in line fifteen of the first Canto with, “Now Lapdogs give themselves the rousing shake, /And sleepless Lovers, just at Twelve, awake.” The contradictory image of sleepless love-sick lovers who cannot rise from bed before noon is a hilarious one. Further, as the epic narrative unravels we are presented with the Machinery, a hierarchy of Sprites, representatives of Nature’s four basic elements and active participants in human affairs. Amongst these fairy creatures are the Gnomes, demons of earth and mischief, the Sylphs, airy creatures and guardians of chastity, the Nymphs, creatures of fine minds and water, and lastly, Salamanders representing fire. Professor Cynthia Wallis writes, “the historical background of Pope’s poetry was characterized by paradoxical impulses of division and union, by boundaries and boundary crossing, by instability and order” (Wallis 10), and she is correct in many respects; for interwoven into the brilliant verses of ‘The Rape of the Lock” there can be found the sharp criticisms of a poet who is keenly aware of the many contradictions that exists within the world he inhabits:


Some Nymphs there are, too conscious of their Face, / For Life predestined to the Gnomes’ Embrace, / Who swell their Prospects and exalt their Pride, / When Offers are disdained and love denied./ Then gay Ideas crowd the vacant Brain,/ While Peers and Dukes, and all their sweeping Train, / And Garters, Stars and Coronets appear,/ And in soft sounds, ‘Your Grace’ salutes their ear… (1. 6. 79-86)

This is a written accusation to all those who fall back on their Titles for a sense of worth as human beings, simply because they have nothing else to fall back on. Unfortunately, the poet continues, it is this quest for admiration and status, born from an innate sense of deficiency, which spurns and ultimately molds the mind of the young.

Aubrey Beardsley picks up felicitously on this passage, and in the “The Toilet” (Figure 1) he depicts Lady Belinda the Heroine of the Cantos wedged between her vanity and her maid. On the vanity lay all the luxury imports that money can buy like “Offerings of the World” to the Beauty of Belinda. As she gazes at her self in mirror with the languor that is heighten by the careless drooping of her robe, we may suppose the young girl has already forgotten the love letter she just read. On the background, painted upon a windscreen is the scene of an idyllic Greco- Roman garden. By locating the windscreen with the garden directly in the same visual angle as the central figure of the print, Beardsley is both alluding to the poems extensive use of myth, and Pope’s mockery of the solemnity of what he called the “Rites of Beauty.”

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Figure 1. “The Toilet” (Detail), Lithograph, 1896

Conversely, both poet and illustrator hint satirically at the same point: in this world of unnumbered pixies and vast luxuries, things couldn’t be otherwise, nor could there be a living beauty more deserving of the worlds luxuries than the fair Belinda.

Continuing with the descriptive verses on the beauty Belinda, in Canto II we see her aboard a barge traveling down the River Thames with all eyes “fixed on her alone”. Of her charms and beauty plenty could be said, and is said, however, it is her locks that take up the most lines:


In equal Curls, and well Conspired to deck… / And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains. / With Hairy sprindges we the Birds betray, / Slight lines of Hair surprise the Finny Prey, / Fair Tresses Man’s Imperial Race ensnare, / And beauty draws us with a single Hair. (2. 2. 20-29)

Pope’s contemporaries would’ve been able to immediately detect the sexually charged innuendos within these verses and laugh at the Baron who of Belinda’s beauty and many charms, it is her locks he sees and desires to posses as a prize. As the narrative continues, but not before an entire army of sprites, nymphs, sylphs and fairies have been called on to protected Belinda, she finally arrives at Hampton Palace. Never mind that Belinda has taken the entire day to get ready to go out, everything in this world is as it should be, the poet implies, just as at Hampton Palace:

in various Talk the instructive Hours they past, / Who gave a Ball, or paid the Visit last: / One speaks the Glory of the British Queen,/ And one describes a charming Indian Screen; / A third interprets Motions, Looks , and Eyes; / At every word a reputation dies. (3. 2. 11-16)

As the sun sets the guest draw near a game table where Belinda, the Baronand another one of her beaux sit together for a game of Ombre. Here, Pope satirically references the heroic battles of ancient Greek epics to describe the suggestively named card game. The deck of cards with its Queens, Kings, Knaves, and spades becomes entire troops with rigidly defined hierarchies. The gaming table becomes a “Velvet Plain” and every move of hand is a battle waged within a war. Ultimately the fair Belinda wins the game by a “Trick”, which in context could mean either stratagem or fraud. Irrespective of how victory is won the young Lady screams triumphantly and the evening merriments continue. Further glimpses of interior life of the upper classes are gracefully described as the climatic point when the young Lady loses her lock of hair approaches. Lines 105 through 120 of the fourth Canto manage to evoke the intoxicating effects of all this luxury and coffee upon the senses. Coffee was the new, exotic and fashionable beverage from the orient and perhaps it was the coffee, the speaker says, that “went up in vapors to the Baron’s Brain” and inspired him to steal the lock. For immediately thereafter we see the young Baron inching forward towards Belinda, then Clarissa as if reading the Baron’s mind slide him a pair of scissors as an army of Sylphs, Nymphs, and pixies mobilizes to protect Belinda and the lock; but to no avail, “The meeting points the sacred Hair dissever/ From the fair head, forever and ever!” (4. 14. 154).

It is this very climatic moment at Hampton Palace that Aubrey Beardsley coverts into visual forms in his lithograph “The Rape of the Lock”. Although titled after the poem and visually descriptive of the climatic moment when the Baron steps forward and snips off the lock of hair, the genius behind Beardsley’s composition is that the main action does not occur either at the center of the frame nor even in the direct field of vision. By placing a curious midget at the center forefront of the frame and a window with vertical lattice-work with the neat row of trees in the far background, the viewer is invited to casually observe the room and the people with in it. To the left of the frame the Baron stands, almost on tiptoe with scissors in hand; the tip of his shoe perfectly aligned to the tip of his nose. Of Belinda, only her naked nape is revealed, creating tension as the sharp scissors hover over her. At center background of the frame and bellow the window, stand two figures who although not particularly identified within the poem, add to the lecherous undertones behind it.


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                     Figure 2.”The Rape of the Lock,” Lithograph, 1896

The only witness of our intrusion into the scene is the sprite-dwarf or gnome who stands with a cup in hand smiling at us from the center forefront of the frame. This smiling gnome-dwarf who although also never identified or described within the poem is one of the mischievous sprites, or gnomes described within the Machinery. In Beardsley’s print, this fancy little gnome revels in the night’s mischief and invites the viewer to laugh at the whole scene in complicity with him.


Discovering the trespass committed against her “Belinda burns with more than mortal Ire, and fierce Thalestris fans the rising Fire” (4. 3. 94). Depressed, then angered to her self Belinda says, “Was it for this you took such constant care…and bravely bore the double loads of Lead?” (4. 10. 97-110). After all she had just spend the entire day dressing, and besides curling, ironing, combing, teasing, and stitching her hair, stylist of that time used heavy leads on dyes and hair molding products.

In sorrow Belinda continues:

methinks already I your Tears survey, / Already hear the horrid Things they say, / Already see you a degraded Toast, / and all your Honor in a Whisper Lost! (4. 10. 107-10)

As comic and ludicrous as Belinda’s complaint may seem to both the poet and the reader, Pope and his contemporaries must have been perfectly aware that “in snatching a lock of Arabella’s [Belinda’s] hair when there was an expectation that he [the Baron] would marry her, and where no offer was forthcoming, Lord Petre delivered a public embarrassment, even an insult,” (Gee 14). Finally to add humor to the whole event and by way of showcasing the hypocrisy of his society’s trivial codes of conduct, Pope ends Belinda’s complaint suggestively enough with: “oh hadst thou, Cruel! been content to seize, Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!” (4. 14. 174-75) The sexual allusions of these verses would’ve appear as obvious to Pope’s contemporaries as they do to us, and to the astute ones with a sense of humor, highly amusing to say the least.


Having had enough of grieving and complaining Belinda finally rises “with more that usual lightning in her eyes” to confront the young Lord who snipped off her lock.

To Arms, to Arms, fierce Virago cries, / and swift as lightning to the Combat flies. / All sides in parties, and begin the Attack; / Fans clap, Silks rustle, and tough whalebones crack; / Heroes and Heroines shouts confusedly rise / And base and treble voices strike the skies (5. 3. 37-42)

Belinda then cries out “Return the lock”, and threatens to kill the Baron with her pedigreed bodkin. Not surprisingly it is this instance of the poem that Beardsley uses captures in his lithograph “The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles”(figure 3). Compositionally arranged like a Greco-Roman high relieve, Belinda is depicted in full profile lunging forward like a veritable Athena as she clutches her fan like a club. On her dress, which takes up more than a quarter of the frame, Beardsley meticulously embellishes vulva-like flowers and a burst of seashells and of hearts. On the floor at the bottom right of the frame lays a turned over chair and a cane, while on the top far right, Sir Fopling, the young man with the drooping shoulders and large periwig “a mournful glance upwards casts”.


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          Figure 3 “The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles,” Lithograph, 1896

Here again, as in “The Rape of the Lock” (fig. 2), Beardsley plays with Pope’s use of fairies and places the boy-gnome at center of the viewers’ field of vision. Again the mischievous fairy-boy is seen reveling in the mayhem that surrounds him, however, this time instead of inviting the viewer to share on the fun, he simply lays

arms akimbo and smiles as if saying to himself “now look what y’all have done!” Foreseeing no amicable end to this feud over the lock either in real life or in even within the poem, Pope ends it simply and poetically by sending the Lady’s severed lock into the sky as a star.

It is uncertain whether the real Belinda believed Pope’s final assertion that at least in verse her severed lock would forever be remembered; what is certain however is that,

“Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to grey; / Since painted or not painted all shall fade, / And she who scorns a man shall die a maid, / What there remains but well our power to use And Keep good humor still, whatever we lose? (5. 2. 26-31)



Wall, Cynthia. “Introduction: Cultural and Historical Background”. The Rape of the: Bedford Cultural Edition. Ed. Cynthia Wall. Boston: Bedford Books. 1998. 3-38.

Gee, Sophie. “Introduction”. The Rape of the Lock: Vintage Pope. A. Pope. London: Random House. 2007. 9-27.

Pope, Alexandre. The Rape of the Lock: A Heroi-Comical Poem. New York: Dover Publications. 1968.