Ariel tells the Sylphs that he received some black omens, but he doesn’t know exactly what they are about, so he tells all of them to be on their guard. He lists all the possible misfortunes in a series of zeugmas, comically combining the very serious things with not serious, like staining her honour or her new brocade. He assigns various Sylphs to guard Belinda’s earrings, locks, and he puts as many as fifty to guard her petticoat, since it is such a fragile construction (with obvious sexual implications). He himself is going to guard Shock, Belinda’s dog. He also promises terrible punishments to the Sylphs who fail at their task. Again, the source of humour is that these punishments may seem to tiny Sylphs to be as terrible as those administered in Tartarus, and indeed, at one point Ariel quotes the example of Ixion. But the joke is that all these punishments are going to be inflicted through the means of various gadgets found in a lady’s dressing-room; for instance the Sylph who is going to be turning in a wheel forever, like Ixion, is going to be tied to the handle of the chocolate mill. The Sylphs take their posts and await the Fate.
Canto 2 begins with the description of the pleasure boat on the Thames. There are many beautiful girls there but Belinda is the centre of the attention. She is admired by many but does not favour anyone. She is also graceful and sweet, and that combined with her beauty hides her faults, if she has any. Her particular beauty are the two locks of hair on her ivory neck. They are admired by the Baron, who this morning, in a scene spoofing the classical heroes making sacrifices to gods, set up an altar made of French romances, on which he burnt three garters, one glove and some old billet-doux, asking gods of Love to give him a lock of Belinda’s hair forever. In the meantime, Ariel summons a general meeting of the Sylphs. He reminds them (but really tells the readers) that they are responsible pretty much for the smooth running of the whole universe, like the celestial bodies keeping to their orbs etc. But some of them have less important tasks, like guarding ladies and making sure they are always beautiful.
The Sylph continues explaining (in theory to the sleeping Belinda, but really to the readers) that Sylphs often protect a lady’s honour by providing her with too many admirers: where they all crowd out one another, there is no room for attachment. The Sylph, who now introduces herself as Ariel, Belinda’s head bodyguard (spirit-guard?), warns her that he has seen some premonitions that something bad is going to happen to her before sunset, but Ariel doesn’t know exactly what it is. She can just warn Belinda to be on her watch and beware especially men. At this point Belinda’s lap dog named Shock wakes her up by licking her face. When Belinda opens her eyes, the first thing she sees is a billet-doux (a love letter), and as she reads it, she quite forgets her dream. The canto ends with a description of Belinda’s elaborate morning routine (easily topping all Korean skincare routines), while the invisible Sylphs help her and her maid. The scene of the toilette is described in terms similar to those describing a warrior putting on his armour – very appropriately, since Belinda is also a warrior in the battle of flirting.
The recipe for the mock-epic is rather simple: you take the conventions of the epic poem and then apply them deliberately to a funny, “low”, or trivial subject. So as every epic poem, this one also begins with an invocation to the Muse, the epic question (along the lines of “say, Muse, what happened”) and answer (“this is what happened”). It is around noon and Belinda, the society belle, wakes slowly up. She rang for her maid but she is still half-asleep and in the sleep, her guardian Sylph reveals to her the secrets of Sylphs. When ladies die, their spirits still remain attached to the earth and everything they loved. The quarrelsome ones becomes Salamanders (because salamanders were believed to be immune to fire), the soft and yielding ones become water Nymphs, the prudes, drawn by their own gravity to the earth, become Gnomes, and the light and airy ones become Sylphs, who guard women’s honour. Some ladies who are too conscious of their good looks, and who are destined to become Gnomes in the afterlife, become obsessed with the trappings of nobility and refuse the proposals which they consider below them.
This is an old staple from my syllabus, but still, it will be nice to re-read it in its entirety. The poem was inspired by a silly quarrel which broke out in the small circle of Catholic aristocrats when Lord Petre cut of a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair. I always like to emphasize when I teach this poem that these people may seem old to us, because they lived a long time ago, and they dressed funny, but Lord Petre at the time of this episode was 21 and Arabella was 15. They were just a couple of overprivileged kids, really. Also, just two years later, before Pope managed to publish the second, expanded version of the poem, Lord Petre was already dead of smallpox, leaving behind his young wife (not Arabella), pregnant with their only child. Life was very fragile in the 18th century.
The poem in the NAEL edition begins with Pope’s dedicatory letter to Arabella Fermor, who inspired the poem. The letter was added to the second edition. He begins it with a usmmary of its publishing story, which I am not sure is completely truthful: it was intended only to be circulated privately, but it found its way into the hands of some private publishers, and then Pope was forced to provide an authorized edition before he was quite done with finishing it. Now he presents a second, expanded edition, with the “machinery” added. Somewhat patronisingly, he says he has to explain to Arabella what he means, even though ladies don’t like long words. So “machinery” means supernatural elements, and Pope borrowed his from Rosicrucian mythology (Rosicrucianism was a kind of esoteric system which appeared in the 17th century and may have started as a piece of fake news; first some publications appeared claiming the existence of hitherto unknown and very select secret society, and then people became inspired by them to actually found their own secret societies.) So this is where Pope got his Sylphs and Gnomes from. The letter ends with the claim that of course all the events and persons are fictitious (except for the cutting of the lock), and the only thing Belinda of the poem has in common with Arabella is her beauty. As a sign-off, Pope pays her some very elaborate compliments along the lines of “I wish my poem was as beautiful as you are, but I cannot hope it won’t attract any criticism, unlike you.”
Pope continues the list of the critics he values, using (as the Helpful Footnote says) phrases borrowed from their own writings to characterize them. Horace talked to his readers like a friend, convincing them about the correctness of his precepts which he fully realized in his own poetry. Dionysius of Halicarnassus found new beauties in every line of Homer. Petronius was learned and elegant. Quintilian gave us good methods arranged in good order, like the arms stored orderly in a magazine. Longinus’ own writings were the best example of what the sublime is. But after them, unfortunately, came the dark ages, when “the monks ended what the Goths began”. Pope here gives us a fairly standard view of the Middle Ages in his era, and I don’t need to add, very biased. Fortunately after that came Erasmus, “the glory of the priesthood and the shame”, because he was a priest who was persecuted for his views. Italy under Pope Leo X saw the revival of the arts, when “a Raphael painted, and a Vida sang.” Marco Girolamo Vida was apparently enough of a specialist interest even in Pope’s times, because he felt obliged to add a gloss explaining who he was, but apparently he valued him very highly as well, claiming that his home town of Cremona will become as famous for him as Mantua became for Virgil. After the sack of Rome the Muses dispersed in the north, “but critic-learning flourished most in France”, because the French were “born to serve” and obeyed their critics like Boileau. But Britons kept on fighting for their independence, like they used to in the times of the Romans (Pope here conveniently omitting the fact that in fact England did become a Roman colony in the end, just a few decades later than France). But there were a few native English critics who “less presumed and better knew”, and who taught the English what good poetry should be. These were Earl of Roscommon and the patrons of mentors of the very young Pope, Duke of Buckingham and William Walsh. The latter, who died just one year before Pope composed the poem, gets a touching eulogy about how he taught his Muse to fly, but now without her guide his Muse is just going to sing short numbers, not looking for fame and some similar expressions of rather faux modesty.
And so ends An Essay on Criticism, admittedly a rather dry reading, though enlivened by meeting all the old friends, i.e. the lines which started to function on their own as famous quotations. I understand why Pope has the second longest entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations after Shakespeare. Some beautiful rhymes (who would rhyme “extreme” with “phlegm”?) and I guess Pope’s tight couplets must be also a mine for phoneticians for the words which used to rhyme in his times but don’t rhyme in ours (like “safe”/”laugh”).
Canto 3 of the poem is about the ethics and behaviour of the ideal critic. They should appear rather diffident and not too didactic (even pretending they just remind their audience what the readers have forgotten rather than teaching them the things they have not known. That does not mean that they should not express their opinion honestly: really good poets can take criticism, and it’s not worth one’s time to try to placate the bad ones. But who can do it when “Appius reddens at each word you speak”? Pope in a rather disingenuous gloss claims he has no idea why a poet and critic John Dennis meant it to be the portrait of himself. Perhaps it was because his tragedy Appius and Virginia, produced just in the year of the poem’s composition, was such a notable flop. Pope also advises against criticising the poets who are people of high rank, because it’s not going to bring any results: they are going to produce their dull poems and it can just bring trouble upon the critic. On the other hand, the critic also should not be too trigger-happy, criticising everything without exception. Some of them even criticise clergymen “for fools rush in, where angels fear to tread”. So where can one find the ideal critic? Of course among the ancients. Pope starts his list, inevitably, with Aristotle, comparing him to a traveller who arrived at an island of savages (“savages” meaning here “poets”) and civilised them by making them accept his law. The poets accepted it, because it seemed logical that the man who conquered nature should also be the judge on poetic matters.