When I taught Rape of the Lock recently, my students were puzzled by the Baron’s obsession with Belinda’s locks. They expressed similar befuddlement at Tom’s obsession with Sophia’s muff in Tom Jones and with Harriet’s obsession with Mr. Elton’s pencil stub in Emma. (See Thursday’s post on fetish objects.) These fixations struck them as incomprehensible desires from a bygone age.
To make the fixations relevant, I compared Belinda’s lock to a sports autograph. Autographs are big business and, if you’ve kept up with football news recently, you’ll know that the lure of the money that autographs can bring has gotten several high profile football players in trouble in recent years (Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Florida State’s James Winston, Georgia’s Todd Gurley). I think people desire autographs for the same reason that the Baron wants Belinda’s lock: it’s a physical link to the transcendent power that the athlete represents. By touching a fragment of the divine, fans can imagine themselves transcending the physical realm as great sports people seem to do. Wearing an athlete’s jersey works in a related way.
In Rape of the Lock, the Baron longs for Belinda’s transcendence and thinks that, if he owns even a piece of her, he will be wafted up into the same sylphan realms. He feels trapped in darkness and thinks that she can release him.
She is not the first woman about whom he has thought this. With each of his love affairs, he has obtained a physical token: “three garters, half a pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves.” With each he has been disappointed and we know that he will be disappointed again. Here he is eyeing Belinda:
The Adventrous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d:
Pope makes clear that the initial high the Baron feels, which fills him with a sense of power, is evanescent, just as the thrill of obtaining an autograph quickly passes away. Once the beauty fades or the athlete declines, one searches around for other tokens to fill the void. Pope emphasizes the evanescence in the following passage where the Baron discovers he has lost the lock:
Some thought it mounted to the Lunar Sphere
Since all things lost on Earth, are treasur’d there.
There Heroe’s Wits are kept in pondrous Vases
And Beau’s in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases.
There broken Vows, and Death-bed Alms are found,
And Lovers Hearts with ends of Riband bound;
The Courtiers Promises, and Sick Man’s Pray’rs
The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs,
Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;
Dry’d Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.
The passage is an echo of the Paradise of Fools passage in Book III of Paradise Lost, set on the backside of the moon. The treasured trophy of today ends up in the forgotten attic box of tomorrow. Before that stage is reached, however, “little men” like the Baron unleash a lot of havoc with their desiring.