Rape of the Lock: Machinery of the Sylphs
Pope explains that “machinery” is a term invented by the critics to signify the part which deities, angles, or demons play in a poem. He goes on to say that the machinery in this poem is based on the Rosicrucian doctrine of spirits in which the four elements are inhabited by sylphs, nymphs, gnomes and salamanders. The sylphs, whose habitation is in the air, are the best-conditioned creatures.
Pope tells us that beautiful women return, after their death, to the elements from which they were derived. Termagants or violent tempered women become salamanders or spirit of the fire. Women of gentle and pleasing disposition pass into nymphs or water-spirits. Prudish women become gnomes or earth spirits. Light-hearted coquettes are changed into sylphs or spirits of the air.
The first and the foremost activity of the sylphs is the protection of fair and chaste ladies who reject the male sex. They guard and save the chastity of maidens and save them from falling victims to the “treacherous friends”. The gnomes or earth spirits fill the minds of proud maidens with foolish ideas of being married to lords and peers. These gnomes teach young coquette to ogle and pretend blushing at the sight of fashionable young men. However, sylphs safely guide the maidens through all dangers. Whenever a maiden is about to yield to a particular young man, more attractive and tempting man appears on the scene and the fashionable maiden at once transfers to the new comer. This may be called levity or fickleness in women but it is all contrived by the sylphs.
In most of the famous epics, “machinery” consists in supernatural beings like gods and angles who play a vital role in the poems thus showing that the human world is not independent and that supernatural powers have an important bearing in this world. Pope thought that his mock epic would be incomplete withoutmachinery. The machinery of his poem comprises the sylphs led by Ariel. Pope described wittily the occupation and tasks of the sylphs in general.
Ariel and his followers were assigned humble but pleasant duty of serving fashionable young ladies. Their functions are described humorously including saving the powder from being blown off from the cheeks of ladies, preventing scents from evaporating, preparing cosmetics, teaching the ladies to blush and to put on enchanting airs, suggesting new ideas about dress.
The sylphs show a delightful downscaling of the epic machines. They are heroic standards but feel scared when a crisis approaches. They are Belinda's counselors. They explain the various anxieties that make up Belinda's day.
“The Rape of the Lock” may be described as a satirical comedy of manners. The sylphs in this poem are both in mirror and mock customs and conventions of the society of the time. Belinda is told in a dream about the danger of life.
Reassuring Belinda in this way, Ariel is in fact undermining her moral position. He explains how a woman’s defence is achieved. A maid would fall to Florio if Demon were not at hand to divert her attention. It is the sylphs who make her do that.
The machines are present at every crucial situation in the play. The sylphs are present during Belinda’s journey by boat to Hampton Court. They have been warned by Ariel to remain alert and vigilant. Fifty of them take charge of Belinda’s petticoat. They attend on her when she plays Ombre. They hover around her when she sips coffee and they withdraw only when Ariel sees “an earthly lover lurking at her heart”. A gnome, called Umbriel, goes to the cave of Spleen and brings a bag full of sighs, sobs, screams and outbursts of anger, and a phial filled with fainting fits, gentle sorrows, soft briefs, etc. all of which are released over Belinda. And then sylphs are present to witness the flight of Belinda’s lock of hair to the sky.
The sylphs were added to the poem not simply as shinning trinkets and three-penny bits to a Christmas pudding but to develop and flavour the whole. They improve the literary and human mockery. The machinery of sylphs is the principal symbol of the triviality of Belinda’s world. “The light militia of the lower sky” is a parody of both Homeric deities and Miltonic guardian angles. Like these they have an ambiguous status; they exist within and without the characters. The sylphs who protect Belinda are also her acceptance of the rules of social convention which presume that a coquette’s life is a pure game.
The machinery of sylphs in this poem is vastly superior to the allegorical personages of respective mock-epics. It allows Pope to show his awareness of the absurdities which nevertheless is charming, delightful and filled with a real poetry. The myth also allows him to suggest that the charm, in past at least, springs from the very absurdity.
Machinery serves various purposes in the poem. It imparts splendour and wonder to the actors and the actions in the story. Like Homer’s gods, Pope’s sylphs move easily in and out of the lower world. What they really stand for – feminine honour, flirtation courtship, the necessary rivalry of man and woman – is seen in its essence, and is always beautiful.
These “light militia of the lower sky”, increase dramatic suspense and story depth. They help to universalize the whole action. They are in binding symbolism of the little drama.
The sylphan machinery is superb. Ariel offers a satanic substitute for Christianity. Addison advised Pope against adding the machinery of the sylphs to the poem but that Pope ignored the advice. Pope succeeded eminently in his design of introducing his element.
According to John Dennis, Pope’s machinery contradicts the doctrine of the Christian religion and all sound morality. They provide no instruction and make no impression upon a sensible reader. Instead of making the action wonderful and delightful, they render it absurd, and incredible. Dennis’ opinion is, however, not sound or convincing.