by Melany Su
Literature, as an art, captures and typifies fleeting moments in time. In their introduction “The Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas,” the editors of The Norton Anthology to World Literature discuss the stylized modes of expression that characterize literary genres by Enlightenment writers. Established literary conventions characteristic of each genre allow readers to expect the experience they receive from a text (98). The deliberate, artificial formal features of Enlightenment writings, such as those by Behn, Pope, and Voltaire, work to stabilize the otherwise transient, fluid experience of the world. Artistic stylization, according to the editors, helps impose “formal order on the endless flux of event and feeling” (99). Through the rhyming couplets and artistic discourse in The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope illustrates that art makes stable one’s experience of the world.
Pope begins the second canto of the mock epic by describing the physical setting surrounding the eye-catching Belinda as she sails down the river Thames. Ariel the Sylph calls for “his denizens of air” (I.55): they move about the vessel as “lucid squadrons” and “aerial whispers” (I.56-57). Pope’s diction suggests and reinforces the evasive, transient quality of these ephemeral zephyrs:
Transparent forms too fine for mortal sight,
Their fluid bodies half dissolved in light,
Loose to the wind their airy garments flew,
Thin glittering textures of the filmy dew,
Dipped in the richest tincture of the skies,
Where light disports in ever-mingling dyes,
While every beam new transient colors flings,
Colors that change whene’er they wave their wings. (II.61-68)
The zephyrs dancing around the traveler seem to escape human senses. They are unattainable by human sight; they cannot be pinpointed by light; and, evading with the wind, they escape human grasp. Our experiences of them are momentary and constantly in transience.
Yet even as our senses seek to gather a stable experience of the surrounding zephyrs, the evasive quality of the “aerial whispers” seems somewhat undermined. The deliberate rhythm and rhyme schemes of the mock-epic, structured in couplets, confine the otherwise elusive aerial whispers into fixed patterns constructed by the poet-artist. In the lines following, artistic terms convey a sense of control over nature. The “filmy dew” is “[d]ipped in the richest tincture of the skies, / Where light disports in every-mingling dyes”; nature is altered by the art of illumination (II.64-66). The light make the colors dance, and the colors, “wav[ing] their wings” almost seem to mimic the waving hand of an artist as he paints a canvas.
This artistic discourse carries on as Ariel explains the role of the fantastical creatures of the “aerial kind” (II.76). The aim of sylphs and sylphids, Ariel explains, is “to tend the Fair” (II.91):
To draw fresh colors from the vernal flowers
To steal from rainbows e’er they drop in showers
A brighter wash; to curl their waving hairs,
Assist their blushes, and inspire their airs; (II.95-98)
The act of describing the natural world—an artistic act—stabilizes one’s experience of nature. Just the “glittering textures of the filmy dew” are the production of an artistic hand, the sylphs and sylphids draw from nature the colors with which they maintain and reinforce transient natural appearances. Through the art of “steal[ing] … / [a] brighter wash,” the rainbow’s appearance can be maintained and enhanced.
Pope’s deliberate, crafted language in The Rape of the Lock inscribes the ephemeral elements of nature into a structure that stabilizes one’s experiences of nature. Though features of the landscape seem to evade the human senses, a prevailing artistic hand imposes a sense of control over them. The poet’s artistry recreates the experiences he describes, and thereby stabilizes the experience of nature.
“The Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner et. al. 3rd ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 91-99. Print.
Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner et. al. 3rd ed. Vol. D. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 326-44. Print.