Playing Cards in Rape of the Lock

The Baron cutting the lock, Aubrey Beardsley

The Baron cutting the lock, Aubrey Beardsley

Yesterday I taught my 18th century literature class how to play the card game ombre.

Ombre is played by the characters in Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (which can be found in its entirety here).  The poem is a mock epic account of a severe breach of etiquette at a gathering at the royal palace.  Today we would call it sexual harassment.  Based on a real life incident, the Baron loses at cards to belle-of-the-ball Belinda and then sneaks up behind her with a pair of scissors and cuts off one of her ringlets (she is sporting two).  The 1711 episode set off a social storm, and Pope was asked to write the poem by a friend in the hope that a humorous treatment would help people laugh it off and move on.

The poem is brilliant, the work of a 23-year-old poet who is stepping into his powers and strutting his stuff.  By using the mock epic form, Pope is able to cast the characters as warriors in an epic battle and then make fun of them for their inflated sense of self-importance.  One of his common devices throughout the poem is yoking together something high with something low.  For instance, when Belinda names trump in the card game, the line echoes God’s creation of light in Genesis:

 “Let spades be trump,” she said, and trump they were.”

 Later, when she loses her lock, her screams are described as follows:

Then flash’d the living lightning from her eyes,
And screams of horror rend th’ affrighted skies.
Not louder shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,
When husbands or when lap-dogs breathe their last . . .

I set up our card playing session as follows.  Since the occasion is a ball, I invited the students to dress up and I myself came in a tuxedo.  I chose a nice room in the college, covered small glass tables with white table cloths, and provided coffee and cake, following a recipe for the latter from The Jane Austen Cookbook (although Austen is writing 100 years later).  Coffee was important because it is mentioned in the poem, a small thing once again described in epic terms.  Treat the following passage as a riddle and see if you can crack Pope’s mock epic language:

For lo! the board with cups and spoons is crown’d,
The berries crackle, and the mill turns round.
On shining altars of Japan they raise
The silver lamp; the fiery spirits blaze.
From silver spouts the grateful liquors glide,
While China’s earth receives the smoking tide.

 The mill is the coffee grinder, the shining altars are Japanese lacquered tables (upon which lanterns are set), and “China’s earth” is the china cups receiving the coffee from a silver tea service.

The coffee itself functions as a stimulant that helps precipitate the “rape” of the lock:

Coffee, (which makes the politician wise,
And see through all things with his half-shut eyes)
Sent up in vapours to the baron’s brain
New stratagems, the radiant lock to gain.

After having served ourselves coffee or tea, we proceeded to play the card game.  I explained the rules and then we played slowly as I read the poem aloud.  I have appended the rules and the sequence of play at the end of this post in case you want to do it yourself.  Since the original rules are fairly complicated, I have simplified them without, I think, sacrificing anything.

Pope’s card game is a tour de force.  Any competent players dealt these particular hands would bid and then play them as the players in the poem do.  When I think of other literary works where a game structures a story with comparable precision and imaginative brilliance, the only one that comes to mind is Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, which is the working out of a chess problem.

In his poem Pope gets everything exactly right, from the descriptions of the cards to the suspense of the game.  Belinda must win five of nine tricks, and while she wins the first four easily (she possesses the top four cards in the deck), she proceeds to lose the next four.  She wins the final trick, her king of hearts winning over the ace (which is a lesser card in ombre).

Those who know bridge or other such games will understand her strategy.  She has a lot of high trump cards, and her aim is to flush out all the trumps and then win the final trick she needs with either her high clubs or high hearts.   She does not anticipate, however, an uneven trump split.  The baron too has a lot of spades, one of which he uses to capture her king of clubs.

In the end, however, Belinda prevails and “exulting fills with shouts the sky.”  But as Pope warns, with overdone seriousness:

Oh thoughtless mortals! ever blind to fate,
Too soon dejected, and too soon elate!
Sudden, these honours shall be snatch’d away,
And curs’d for ever this victorious day.

My students find the Baron “creepy,” which he is.  They have a chance to explore his actions further in the assignment I have given them for Friday: they are to write a modern movie version of the poem, seeking to do with it what the movie Clueless does with Jane Austen’s Emma or 10 Things I Hate about You does with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  I’ll report back on their results.

Among the many issues that the poem raises, one is the power of satire.  Did Pope’s poem get people to laugh the incident off?  A follow-up question is whether they should have laughed it off. 

Like most satire, Pope’s poem does not seem to have succeeded in its stated objective.  Arabella Fermor, the real life Belinda, was furious, not amused.  She felt Pope had no business publicizing the affair.  We don’t know how the Baron responded, but if he’s anything like the boob in the poem, he probably didn’t have the imagination to be insulted.

Ultimately, however, the poem is a powerful indictment on how people in a materialistic society lose sight of what is really important and become hung up on their own self-importance.  Reading Rape of the Lock today is like reading scandals about stars in the tabloids (say, Brittney Spears) or watching Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight.  What was mock epic in Pope’s day is hype today.  And while it’s easy to mock the narcissism of the stars, we are no less laughable for being obsessed with them.  We may have even less of a sense of shame than the characters in Pope’s poem.

By the way, Arabella eventually came to appreciate Rape of the Lock.  She was older and it had, after all, immortalized her for all time.

Rules for Ombre

Note: Ombre has some resemblances to the game Spades.  Although I have updated some of the rules for simplicity’s sake, these modified rules will still allow you to enjoy the game and play the hand dealt in the poem.  For the complete 18th-century rules in all their considerable complexity, consult the Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, vol. II, appendix C.  This six-volume set can be found in most good college libraries.  The hands laid out here are those suggested by the Twickenham edition.

 3 players, 40 card deck (remove the 10s, 9s, and 8s).  Deal 27 cards and leave the remaining 13 in a pile for exchanges.

Order of rank

Ace of Spades (Spadilla), 2 of trump (Manilla), Ace of Clubs (Basta), King, Queen, Knave, Ace, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 (if not Manilla). Note that the red Aces are less powerful than Kings, Queens, and Knaves.

 Bids (from low to high)

Simple game in suit – 5 tricks in conjunction with a partner* with diamonds, hearts or clubs as trump (called “suit”) – 2 pts

Simple game in color – 5 tricks in conjunction with a partner* with spades as trump (called “color”) – 4 pts

Solo in suit – 5 tricks on your own, with diamonds, hearts or clubs as trump – 4 pts

Solo in color – 5 tricks on your own, with spades as trump – 8 pts

Tout in suit – All nine tricks, with diamonds, hearts, or clubs as trump – 16 pts.

Tout in color – All nine tricks, with spades as trump – 32 pts.

*Your partner is the player who has a king in a suit for which you do not have that king.  It is a good idea to lead a low card to that suit immediately so you know your partner at once.

Dealing and bidding

Deal nine cards to each player. The cards not dealt are placed face down, and, after the bidding, the players take turns exchanging low cards in the hope of getting something higher or emptying out a suit.

The person to the left of the dealer bids or passes.  If she bids, she should start low.  The next player either passes or asks, “Is it in [the next bid up]?”  If the bidder says yes, then that is her new bid.  If she says no, the asker has that bid and fields possible questions from the third player.  After a player has won the bid, she can go higher but (obviously) not lower.  The player who wins the bid announces trump.  If the bid is in “suit,” he or she announces diamonds, hearts or clubs. If the bid is “in color,” then, by definition, spades is trump.

The player who wins the bid then can exchange as many cards as he or she wants with the stockpile.  The other two follow until they wish to stop or until the pile is depleted.  Face cards may remain in the pile if, perhaps to preserve a void in a suit, the players exchange fewer than the 13 cards that are there.

In this card game, the dealer is the anonymous player (referred to by some scholars as “Sir Anonyme”), and Belinda (to his left) opens and wins the bidding at solo game in suit. She then raises the bid to solo game in color by naming spades as trump.  By bidding solo, she has to win five tricks by herself.  If she fails, it will be called codille.  The Twickenham edition speculates that she trades in five cards with the stock pile, the Baron trades in four, and Sir Anonyme trades in two (seeking to empty out a suit so that he can win at least one trick with his two trumps).  This leaves two cards in the stockpile, one of them the ace of diamonds (not a particularly high card in this game).

 Hands in Rape of the Lock (with guesses for the lower cards), listed in order played:

Belinda’s Bid: Solo in color (5 tricks solo with spades as trump)

Belinda                                    Baron                                Sir Anonyme

 ace of spades (Spadilla)       four of spades                    six of spades

two of spades (Manilla)        five of spades                     three of spades

ace of clubs (Basta)                seven of spades*               two of hearts**

king of spades                          knave of spades                three of hearts

king of clubs                             queen of spades                knave of clubs

six of diamonds                       king of diamonds            seven of diamonds

queen of clubs                          queen of diamonds          four of hearts

queen of hearts                        knave of diamonds          six of hearts

king of hearts                           ace of hearts***                knave of hearts

*a spade must be played here because Basta counts as a trump

**devoid of trump, he can throw off anything

***lower than the king, queen and knave

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  1. By Playing Cards Jane Austen Style on October 2, 2012 at 1:00 am

    […] have written in a past post about authors making use of games as extended metaphors, the two most brilliant instances being the […]


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