Student ID: 1002416
Student ID: 1002416
EN330 Eighteenth-Century Literature
Dr Christina Lupton / Dr David Taylor
How much does the body seem to matter in eighteenth-century literature?
When Alexander Pope writes in An Essay on Criticism that ‘True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest’ (297-8), he perpetuates the eighteenth-century belief in the association between dress and expression – a process through which the body is positioned as a site of conflict between material and literary worlds. Writing in a society which privileges masculine political and literary expression, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift bestow the locus of that tension, quite literally, onto the female body. Consequently, the female body becomes a controlled construct. Belinda is not simply a managed image of the real figure of Arabella Fermor but instead, like Celia, her body is manipulated to serve a purpose (Chico 3). The subsequent dressing and shaping of the female body establishes a metonymical association whereby adornments, such as clothing, jewellery and cosmetics, express the meaning of the body. Yet in this way, a tension emerges between gendered artists. Woman’s process of self-fashioning conflicts with the poetic projects of Pope and Swift who attempt to assert their own artistic influences, rendering the female body, as Pope imagines in ‘The Rape of the Lock’, as a ‘painted vessel’ (II. 47). The female body does not simply endure as a site of self-critical misogyny, but more importantly embodies artistic anxieties that are inseparable from the eighteenth century’s culture of commodity that threatened to displace the traditional artist: the poet.
In both ‘The Rape of the Lock’ and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, the female body is violated by a male figure. While Belinda’s hair is ‘ravish’d’ by the Baron, Celia’s privacy is similarly violated by Strephon (IV. 10). However, these violations are achieved through materials that represent the female body’s public appearance. For Swift, the subsequent metonymical association between body and object is central to the formation of Celia’s body. Celia is denied a physical presence, leaving the poetic frame while Strephon and the reader enter it. Swift thus subverts Pope’s use of the dressing room as a place of theatrical display. Swift, through Strephon’s scrutiny, establishes Celia’s body piecemeal through her adornments and the accoutrements of the dressing room. Swift informs us that ‘No Object Strephon’s Eye escapes’ (47). Strephon’s gaze is only able to produce an image of Celia in her absence through these objects. The poem’s second stanza exposes the reductive quality of this strategy,
Strephon, who found the Room was void,
...Stole in, and took a strict Survey,
Of all the Litter as it lay;
Whereof, to make the Matter clear,
An Inventory follows here (5-10).
The items of adornment that come to define Celia in the poem’s subsequent lines are presented here as ‘Litter’, little more than ‘fragments lying about, rubbish... a disorderly accumulation of things’ (OED, sense 4.). Swift underlines the incongruity of Strephon’s attempt ‘to make the Matter clear’ through objects that are negatively-inflected as ‘Litter’, establishing the ‘Matter’ of Celia’s body in the ‘void’. For Laura Baudot, the ‘void’ is thus fundamental, evoking ‘the language of philosophical materialism’ (642). With reference to the Epicurean notion that the universe is composed of matter and void, Baudot positions Swift’s poem alongside Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura which sets out ‘to strip nature of any divinity, prove that all is matter and void, and thus cure readers of superstition’ (Baudot 638). Baudot’s argument makes it clear that Strephon’s process similarly attempts to cure the superstitions associated with Celia’s image as ‘The Goddess’, solving the ‘lie’ of her public appearance (3, 17). But by reducing Celia to the objects that adorn her body and the accoutrements which beautify it, Strephon constructs a corrupted bodily presence. The greatest threat to Celia’s body, and by extension her identity, is therefore Strephon himself. Unable to separate body from object, Strephon’s ‘foul Imagination’ renders the ‘Matter’ of all future female characters ‘void’, seeing the ‘Litter’ as ‘Matter’ (121).
Ellen Pollak therefore is not quite clear enough in her argument when she states that ‘appearances have actually become substitutes for things themselves’ (77). The ‘appearances’ that Pollak describes must be read more specifically as objects. The identity of Belinda is likewise established through the culmination of materials. When Belinda beautifies herself, Pope parodies the epic genre’s conventional arming of a soldier: ‘Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms’ (I. 139). The description does more than simply set the tone for the poem’s mock-heroic conflicts. Crucially, Beauty’s ‘arms’ are those of ‘Unnumber’d treasures’, of ‘The various off’rings of the world’ (I. 129, 130). Accordingly, we find an exotic world on Belinda’s dressing-table, ‘This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks, / And all Arabia breaths from yonder box’ (I. 133-4). Sight and smell combine to provide Belinda’s body, on the one hand, with a sensuous exoticism, but on the other hand an overpowering sensuousness that, like Celia’s chamber and its ‘excremental Smell’, corrupts the true appearance and odour of her body (111). Pope thus proposes that ‘Beauty’ is ‘awful’ in its two senses. On the one hand, it displays the ‘sublimely majestic’ aspects of imperial luxuries, exposing a culture of commodity that is ‘worthy of profound respect’ (OED, sense 2.). But on the other hand, ‘awful Beauty’ is literally ‘terrible, dreadful, appalling’, (OED, sense 1.); accordingly, Daniel Defoe refers to the scene caused by the 1665 plague in his A Journal of his Plague Year (1722) as ‘awful, and full of Terror’ (75). Recognising these semantic tensions is crucial in determining the significance of Belinda’s commodified body.
In Ends of Empire, Laura Brown argues that Belinda’s adornments are ‘the products of mercantile capitalism’ (428). Seeing history mediated through gender, and more explicitly through the female body, Brown argues that the ‘richly adorned female figure is identified first of all with the products of trade and prosperity, and then with the whole male enterprise of commerce that generates those commodities’ (429). It is through this process that Queen Anne is belittled; ‘the glory of the British Queen’ is assimilated to ‘a charming Indian screen’ (III. 13-14). Emphasised by the rhyme, the ‘Queen’ is reduced to a ‘screen’; the object literally screens the reader to the Queen’s correct value of her monarchical body. The female body is thus exhibited as a commodity. Thalestris underlines the consequences of such an exhibition, chastising Belinda for allowing the ‘ravisher [to] display your hair, / While Fops envy, and the Ladies stare!’ (IV. 103-4). For Thalestris, the displayed lock would not simply redirect the focus away from Belinda’s own body, when previously ‘ev’ry eye was fix’d on her alone’ (II. 6). More significantly, it would reinforce the synecdochical treatment of her body and hair, in the same way that the ‘Litter’ constitutes Celia’s body. Belinda’s body is thus reduced to little more than a commodified ‘glorious prize’ of man’s imperial designs (III. 162). Ellen Pollak’s reinterpretation of Brown’s argument exposes the significance of this reduction. Pollak rightly argues that the ‘irrational materialism of bourgeois values’ objectify the female body by focusing on ‘surface over substance’ (77). The material adornment of the female body exposes its own the superficiality.
Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace appropriately extends Pollak’s argument, proposing that the female body is best read through the metaphor of fine china and porcelain – a material that seemingly usurped the dress as the defining expression of femininity in the eighteenth-century (154). Kowaleski-Wallace states that Belinda, on one hand, is ‘like a precious piece of china, ready to be broken at any moment’ (153). Ariel, the chief Sylph, recognises this parallel in his proleptic warning that ‘some frail China jar [might] receive a flaw’ (II. 106), a caveat that proves true when the rape of the lock is compared to the destruction of ‘rich China vessels’ (III. 158). However, on the other hand, china offers ‘a blank, textual surface upon which culture could write its notions of gender’ (Kowaleski-Wallace 154). In other words, like porcelain, the female body ‘carries no significance until it has been shaped, moulded, painted and fired’ (Kowaleski-Wallace, 154). A gendered tension subsequently emerges as both Pope and Swift explore the artistic conflict between the woman’s self-fashioning of her own body and the male inflection of that process.
Central to this tension is the preoccupation with surface beauty. In ‘The Rape of the Lock’, Pope suggests that ‘If to her [Belinda] share some female errors fall, / Look on her face, and you’ll forget ‘em all’ (II,17-18). The importance of artifice is accentuated here, with the metrical stress emphasising ‘on’. The deceitful nature of surface beauty overpowers ‘female errors’. Such artifice appears empowering for the female body. The ‘cosmetic pow’rs’ that transform Belinda into ‘the Goddess’ ( Canto I. 124, 132) likewise enable Celia, through ‘Five Hours’ of ‘Dressing’ to become ‘The Goddess’ (1-3). Publically, the female body can deceive and allure. Belinda’s locks of hair are imbued with such potency. Pope informs us that they ‘graceful hung behind / In equal curls’ (II. 19-20). Pope’s use of ‘hung’ emphasises the ‘well conspir’d’ nature of Belinda’s adorned body (21). Belinda’s artificial beauty thus ‘draws us in with a single hair’ (II. 28); such is the potency of that allure that even the reader, ‘us’, is implicated. The fact that ‘a single hair’ can ‘insnare’ ‘man’s imperial race’ may appear comically hyperbolic but, as Tita Chico argues, cosmetic adornment was often seen in the eighteenth-century as a threat to the social order (4). In this way, with its deceiving expression, the body is dressed for a social ‘Advantage’, (An Essay to Criticism 298). Belinda inverts gender hierarchies in becoming ‘the rival’ of the sun, typified as masculine, ‘his beams’ (II. 3 [emphasis mine]). Pope’s suggestion in ‘Epistle to a Lady’ that ‘Pow’r [is] all their end, but Beauty all the means’ conveys this sense male anxiety, a fear that the self-fashioning of the female body establishes a Siren-like expression (220).
Swift similarly explores this anxiety, but focuses his attention on the notion of deceit. The ‘cosmetic pow’rs’ that facilitate Belinda’s adornment prove their strength in ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ (I. 124). Celia’s ‘Five Hours’ of adornment creates an artifice that conceals publically everything that Strephon subsequently finds privately (1). For Strephon, making ‘the Matter clear’ means overturning that concealment. Interestingly, satirical responses to ‘The Rape of the Lock’, such as J.B.’s ‘The Art of Beauty: A Poem’ (1719), adopted Swift’s focus, proposing that Belinda dressed to conceal her physical flaws. But while the ‘female errors’ that Celia obscures may be repulsive and scatological, they are also entirely human. The potential for the woman to become an artist of her body is subsequently undermined insofar as what Strephon interprets as a ‘lie’, Celia’s public beautification, is in reality the consequence of the critical gaze Strephon enacts.
The focus on surface beauty therefore underlines the way in which the body is constantly under scrutiny by itself and, more importantly, by others. As John Berger explains in Ways of Seeing, ‘a woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself... From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually’ (40). The female body is thus ‘a sign not of [woman’s] own subjectivity but of a male desire of which she is the object’ (Pollak 77). Yet this desire is inherently critical. It is no coincidence therefore that mirrors dominate both poems. Belinda’s response to her reflection at first appears to be vain self-adoration,
A heavn’ly Image in the glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her eye she rears;
Th’ inferior Priestess, at her altar’s side,
Trembling, begins the sacred rites of Pride (I. 125-8).
However, rather than seeing herself, Belinda sees a goddess – the vain image to which she must vainly aspire. The process of beautification, ‘the sacred rites of Pride’, are mockingly positioned as a religious sacrament, with Belinda worshiping the ‘heav’nly Image’ she finds in the mirror. The result, as Laura Brown accurately suggests, is the obscuring of the true female body which ‘seems often to be slipping from sight’ (‘Reading Race and Gender’, 427). It becomes clear that Belinda turns herself into ‘an object of vision: a sight’ (Berger 47). Her narcissistic tendencies must be read as the result of the male preoccupation with the appearance of the female body as an object, both beautified and commodified like fine china. In short, the dressing of her body expresses the nature of man.
It is entirely apposite that Belinda should be cautioned ‘Beware of all, but most beware of man!’ (I. 114). The gender specificity of this threat engenders a satirical dialogue about society’s misguided values. The revised 1717 version of ‘The Rape of the Lock’ includes a speech delivered by Clarissa ‘to open more clearly the Moral of the poem’ (qtd. in Rumbold 80). In her speech, Clarissa questions society’s obsession with public appearance, serving as a critical response to Belinda’s wish that the Baron had seized ‘Hairs less in sight’ (IV. 176). For Belinda, an affront to her public adornments, specifically her lock of hair, is worse than one enacted to her private pubic region. Clarissa thus reminds everyone that ‘beauty’ is ‘frail’ and ‘must decay’ (IV. 26). However, her advice receives ‘no applause’ (IV. 35). Such a lack of response underlines society’s misdirected preoccupations with the female body. As Pope reminds us, the real bodies emblemised by the fictional Belinda inhabited a world of ‘courtly Balls, and midnight Masquerades’ (I. 72). The beautification of the female body at such events was crucial, with the body being valued for its ability to secure not only the woman’s social position but also her families (Rumbold 86). The female body is adorned not vaingloriously, but rather as the only means, however reductive it may be, to ensure one’s own status as a woman. The irony is, of course, that that process which combines the seemingly incongruous socioeconomic values of sexual display and chastity ultimately results in the destruction of the female body. Pope thus fulfils the role of the satirist writing ‘with a sense of moral vocation and a concern for the public interest’ (Quintero 1).
Contrastingly, Swift extends his satirical focus more explicitly than Pope, proposing that woman’s scrutiny of her body serves to criticise the male surveyor. Through Celia’s ‘magnifying glass’, the misogynistic scrutiny of the female body is transferred onto the female herself (60). Extending the microscopic investigation of the ‘horror and disgust’ found in the naked Brobdingnagian female body in Gulliver’s Travels, Swift details a similar scrutiny of Celia (88). Again using objects to describe the body, Swift informs us that the mirror exposes ‘The smallest Worm in Celia’s Nose’ (64). The use of the superlative, ‘smallest’, underlines the extent of the female’s self-scrutinizing gaze. However, Celia must fundamentally expunge the ‘Worm’ ‘faithfully’, because she must be faithful to her public image as ‘The Goddess’ (3). While her faithfulness may be deceitful, leading men to call her ‘sweet and cleanly’, it remains unpunished (18). Instead, Strephon is ‘punish’d for his Peeping’ (120). Swift explains that ‘His foul Imagination’ will now link ‘Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks’ (121-2). Adopting eighteenth-century theories of epistemology, Swift reveals that Strephon’s experience will lead to associations which position the male gazer as the victim. As Jae Num Lee succinctly puts it, ‘the irony lies in that fact that Celia’s image need not be ruined by his discovery of the truth’ (85). Subsequently, the poem fashions itself as a sustained examination of the male interrogation of the female body.
Strephon thus becomes Swift’s satirical victim, as he underlines the malignity of misogynistic attitudes. What is most significant is not that the ‘excremental Smell’ poisons Celia’s ‘Flesh’, clothing and room (111, 106), but rather than it poisons Strephon’s imagination, making it ‘foul’ (121), rendering it ‘grossly offensive to the senses’ (OED sense 1. a.). When the speaker pities ‘wretched Strephon blind / To all the Charms of Female Kind’, he identifies Strephon’s blinded approach to the female body. While ‘the Charms of Female Kind’ can be positive, marked for their ‘fascinating or attractive influence, exciting love or admiration’ (OED, sense 3. a.), Strephon can only see the ‘Charms’ in terms of their witch-like ‘magic power or occult influence’ (OED, sense 1. a.). He becomes unable to accept her public image, viewing it as a ‘lie’ (17). The poem’s speaker proffers one final caveat,
He soon would learn to think like me,
Such Order from Confusion sprung,
Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung (141-144).
The ‘Matter’ that Strephon had attempted to ‘make clear’ in the poem’s opening lines now is little more than ‘Confusion’, with the ‘Litter’ devolving into ‘Dung’. But while the ‘gaudy’ nature of the female body may be far from ideal, it is inevitably more aesthetically and sensually pleasing than the ‘Dung’. The female body is thus lost within this ‘Confusion’, the real Celia obscured by both Strephon’s and Swift’s material and scatological obsessions. Through the conflict between material and aesthetic worlds, Swift’s textual anxieties as poet become clear since, unlike Pope, even the verse cannot reconcile Celia’s bodily imperfections.
Contrastingly, for Pope, the decay of the female body does not establish a poetical crisis but inversely engenders the rise of the poet. In the final canto, Belinda’s restoration of the lock in material terms fails because it is ‘lost’ (V. 108). Pope thus proposes that we must ‘trust the Muse’ who saw the lock ascend to the ‘Lunar sphere’ (V. 123, 113). However, the immortalised lock does not add ‘new glory’ to Belinda’s body but rather to ‘the shinning sphere’ of poetical musings (V. 142). Pope concludes with the affirmation that ‘This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame, / And ‘midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name’ (V. 149-150). Pope’s self-meriting strategy uses female body to achieve the poet’s ‘fame’. Belinda’s body, obscured by the items that adorn it and violated by the Baron, is now usurped by Pope himself, with the literary defeating the material. The final couplet of ‘Epistle to a Lady’ expands upon this notion. Despite framing the poem as a celebration of Martha Blount’s virtues, Pope provides a final consolation to Martha that the ‘gen’rous God’ ‘Kept Dross for Duchesses, the world shall know it, / To you gave Sense, Good-humour, and a Poet’ (289, 291-2). The hypermetrical nature of this couplet reveals that Pope is literally going further than he has ever before, at least in this poem, to inform the world about Martha’s virtues. Pope therefore does not simply end by offering Martha himself as the male ‘Poet’ but rather poetically emphasises his own value as ‘Poet’. What the world will ultimately know is not Martha’s virtues but Pope’s poetic expertise.
But perhaps herein lies the ultimate satirical perspective. Pope’s assumption of authority over the female body, presenting it as something to be consumed immortally through literature, is hypocritical, if not even self-satirical. Implicating himself, Pope thus critiques a society which readily consumes the literature of female subjugation. The fact that he can achieve fame through such usurpation of the female body supports his argument. Ultimately, for Swift and Pope, the female body matter because it endures as a satirical device that does not merely expose the malignity of misogynistic attitudes but outlines the complex tensions evidenced in the eighteenth-century with its bourgeoning commodity culture and imperial expansionism. But while Swift, through Strephon, underlines the disparity between artistic and material obsessions, Pope promises a resolution of that conflict, a belief which vacillates between hope and despair. The female body is ultimately central to the conceptual understanding of eighteenth-century culture, merging literary and socio-political concerns in order to reflect the period’s own irresolute tensions.
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