Alexander Pope had used the Rosicrucian philosophy as the supernatural machinery of his mock-heroic poem Rape of the Lock. As for the supernatural machinery, which neoclassical criticism considers indispensable for an epic, Pope reveals remarkable inventiveness. The sylphs of “The Rape of the Lock” are Pope’s mocking recreation of the gods who watch over the heroes of epics and guide their fortune. It is nicely fitting that Pope’s supernatural beings, who are supposed to imitate Homer’s deities and Milton’s angels, are tiny, frail and powerless.
Although they are an amalgam of epic machinery, Rosicrucian lore, an English tale…, they are essentially Pope’s inventions. While Pope’s technique of employing supernatural machinery allows him to critique this situation, it also helps to keep the satire light and to exonerate individual women from too severe a judgment. If Belinda has all the typical female foibles, Pope wants us to recognize that it is partly because she has been educated and trained to act in this way. The society as a whole is as much to blame as she is.
Mock-heroic poems often include epic devices like the supernatural machinery to add to their satire. Homer and Virgil had much relied on Olympian deities, still Milton made use of the angelic hierarchy. In The Rape of the Lock, Sylphs play this role, and exhibit how the witty poet mocks the limitations of his society with a greater irony. In a letter to Arabella Fermor, on whom the protagonist Belinda is based on, Pope mentions – “The Machinery, is a term invented by the critics to signify that part which Deities, Angels or Daemons are made to act in a Poem. He admits that he had introduced it later, borrowing his idea from a French writing, Le Conte de Galealis. This original French text of Rosicrucian Philosophy had represented the supernatural entities in four categories – Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs and Salamanders. Pope nevertheless had interpreted them as female spiritual incarnations, satirizing the temperamental excess of his contemporary women. Thus the ‘fiery’ woman turns into Salamander after her death, ‘the graver Prude’ into a Gnome, ‘soft-yielding minds’ become Nymphs, and ‘the light coquettes’, airy Sylphs.
Of these the Sylphs are esteemed, as Pope uses them to mock the whims of coquettes like Belinda, the protagonist. Ironically he suggests that women should never be blamed for their faults, since the Sylphs “contrive it all”. The ladies cannot but whim only for the Sylphs because – “With varying varieties, from every part They shift from the moving toyshop of their heart. ” Ariel, the most important of the Sylphs has several roles to perform in Pope’s mock-heroic poem. He enacts the role of the chorus, commenting on the protagonist’s thoughts and actions.
Together with a host of other Sylphs, Ariel has the solemn responsibility of safeguarding Belinda’s virginity and honour. Moreover, through Ariel, Pope expresses one of the basic tenets of the Rosicrucian Philosophy, which is, to abdicate all interest in the opposite sex. Ariel instructs Belinda about this to safeguard her chastity. Thus warning her he mentions – “Oh, Pious Maid beware! … Beware of all but most beware of the Man. ” Ariel’s warning is Pope’s satirical way of referring to Belinda’s Puritanical conscience that warns her against the instinctive response of falling in love with a man.
Ariel’s advice would enable her to maintain an untainted reputation in a pretentious world in which the display of virtue is greatly valued. An important function that Pope attributes to the Sylphs is to dress up Belinda gorgeously with the best of ‘cosmetic pow’rs’. Here through the presence of the Sylphs, Pope satirizes the excessive importance that contemporary fashionable women would attach to their appearance and physical beauty. While Belinda sits at her dressing table like the goddess of pride, they perform the “secret rites of pride” on her.
Here the Sylphs symbolically represent Belinda’s narcissism and self-adoration. The imaginative appeal of Pope’s poetry is enhanced when he provides interesting aptronyms to the Sylphs. Her diamond eardrops are guarded by the aptronymous ‘Brillante’, her fan by ‘Zephyretta’, her wristwatch by ‘Momentilla’ and her sacred lock of hair by ‘Crispissa’. In the description of the Sylphs, Pope reveals an incredible imaginary beauty, particularly when he depicts Belinda’s river-journey, along the river Thames to Hampton Court – “Some to the Sun their insect wings unfold, Waft on the breeze, or sing in clouds of gold; Transparent forms, too fine for mortal sight, Their fluid bodies half dissolved in light. ” Pope provides a splendid description of how the “Airy garments of the Sylphs” are flying in “thin glittering textures of the filmy dew”. He mentions how the “richest tincture of the skies” plays with “ever mingling hues”, and how their wings fling new colours in every direction. Thus through the use of the Sylphs Pope adds a more imaginative beauty to his satirical poem.
Pope also attributes a prophetic power to the Sylphs when they predict the forthcoming danger that Belinda is about to face. When Ariel observes the failure of the Baron and his friends at the card game of ‘Ombre’, he instinctively senses that some danger would befall Belinda. He summons all categories of Sylphs including Sylphides, Fays, Fairies, Genii, Elves and Daemons to take special care on guarding Belinda’s hair, which is the most precious aspect of her beauty.
Unfortunately Ariel suddenly observes that “an earthly lover” is “lurking at her heart”. This suggests that Belinda had only pretended to be disinterested in men: in reality she is possibly in love. Since this violates the basic Rosicrucian principle, the Sylphs can no longer protect her though they strive heroically to impede the course of the pair of the scissors. From this point onwards the Sylphs become totally ineffective in further protecting Belinda and they are more mute witnesses to the tragic loss of her lock of hair.
In The Rape of the Lock, the Sylphs have been used by Pope essentially to entertain the readers by their fanciful beauty. However, they also provide greater sharpness to Pope’s satire, particularly in his presentation of the follies, flaws and vices of women. They also suggest, in an ironical way, that the cutting of a lock of heir, which is considered to be a trivial event, actually reveals the suppressed barbarism and brutality of the pretentiously cultures eighteenth century society.