In Alexander Pope’s mock epic, “The Rape of the Lock”, a lot of issues are discussed about the state of affairs in Pope’s England. By implication, there are a lot of recurrent themes in the poem signalling the ideas and the condition of Pope’s contemporary society. Themes in “The Rape of the Lock” include the themes of triviality, misplaced priorities, vanity, love, and fate.
In the first two lines of the five canto poem, the poet stresses the theme of triviality:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs What mighty contests rise from trivial things
These lines highlight the triviality surrounding every matter arising from the poem. By “trivial things” in the second line, Pope indicates that the cutting of Belinda’s lock should not have evoked a “dire” consequence as we later have in the poem.
Also in lines 11-12 of the first canto, we can infer the theme of misplaced priorities:
In tasks so bold, can little men engage, And in soft bosoms, dwells such rage.
While Baron is belittled for devoting his time on frivolities, Belinda’s irksome reaction to her forcefully deprived lock of hair is also appropriately questioned. Ultimately, Pope attempts to paint a society that has gotten her priorities wrong and has treated matters of less importance with seriousness of the grave ones.
Subsequently, in lines 105-111, when Belinda is conveyed a warning of an impending doom in her dream by Ariel, her guardian sylph, the theme of fate is aptly portrayed:
Of these am I, who thy protection claim, A watchful sprite, and Ariel is my name, Late, as I rang’d the crystal Wilds of Air In the clear Mirror of thy ruling star I saw, alas! Some dread Events impend Ere to the main this morning’s sun descend But Heav’n reveals not what, or how, or where.
This revelation not only foretells what will happen later on but it also marks an unavoidable fate. This explains why despite the frantic proactive efforts by the sylphs to prevent the occurrence of any such event, predestination still prevails.
Although the poem seems to be a conflict between Belinda and Baron (beauty and brute force), the poem is however a direct portrayal of love from both angles. In lines 19-24, the poet does justice to Belinda’s charms with which she entraps every gentleman that comes her way, especially with her locks:
This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind, Nourish’d two locks, which graceful hung belong ... Love in those labyrinths his slaves detains And mighty Hearts are held in slender chairs. (Canto II)
The foregoing excerpt shows how Belinda ensnares men with her two locks. She is particularly comfortable with all the furtive stares and glances stolen at her by the opposite sex. Baron happens to be one of her admirers and he is specifically captivated by the “bright” locks:
Th’ Advent’rous Baron the bright Locks admir’d He saw, he wish’d and to the price aspir’d (Canto II)
In essence, if Baron had avoided the use of brute force in his approach to the inexhaustible love he has for Belinda, maybe the storyline may have been something different. And also if Belinda had put her pretences out of the way, the thematic focus of “The Rape of the Lock” definitely will be solely love. Nevertheless, there is the recurrence of theme of love all through the poem although it is concealed by pretences and brute force. It is only because Baron admires Belinda and her pair of locks that prompts him into forcefully taking from her one of the locks.
Another noticeable theme in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is the theme of chastity versus physical appearance. While Ariel and other sylphs pay much attention to Belinda’s chastity, Belinda is much concerned with her physical appearance. This we can draw inferences for from two occasions. The first is during the preparations of Ariel and other sylphs to repel the impending event. While Ariel assigns a few sylphs to guard Belinda’s ornaments and locks (which earmark her physical appearance), he does assign fifty sylphs to guard her “petticoat”, “the wild circumference around” (which are markers of her chastity):
To fifty chosen sylphs, of special note, We trust th’ important charge, the petticoat And guard the wide circumference around. (Canto II)
However, in Canto IV, when Belinda is at grief at her stolen lock, her lamentation clearly shows she cares about her physical appearance over any other thing which includes her chastity:
Oh hadst thou, Cruel! Been content to seize Hairs less in sight, or any Hairs but these!
By “hairs less in sight”, she implies her pubic hairs. Hence, this stresses how much her physical appearance means to her.
More importantly addressed in the poem is the theme of vanity. It is the underlying theme Pope attempts to reflect in the poem. This, perhaps, is what Clarissa tries to justify though she lacks the moral authority because she is instrumental in the cutting of Belinda’s hair.