Pope’s protagonist is protected and guided by tiny fragile sylphs, who are portrayed throughout the poem as powerless creatures. Instantly we recognise the poem as a mock epic by the use of such delicate machinery who are supposed to take the role of the gods presented in epic texts, protecting and guiding the hero or in this case the heroine. The sylphs’ incapacity to seize or gain power demonstrates their inability to protect Belinda’s honour; nevertheless, we notice the importance of the sylphs as they demonstrate a major role in Belinda’s life.
It is also significant that Pope did not include the sylphs in his original text of rape of the lock, but in fact the sylphs were only introduced in his second making of his poem; evidently, Pope acknowledge the need to employ his machinery, perhaps as a dramatic device, however, there may be a great deal more to their existence than simply to create interest and entertainment for the reader.
It is through the sylphs that Pope is able to communicate his message to the reader, illustrating the absurdities of Belinda’s world; the sylphs are almost a tool which enables him to criticise Belinda’s character in a subtle matter and indirectly, he is able to satirise Belinda’s world and even society of the time. The sylphs are also a device to convey the character of the ‘coquette’ in the first canto. This is achieved indirectly through the characteristics of the sylphs rather than Belinda herself.
The priorities for women of Belinda’s social class are social ones. Women’s ‘toy is gilded chariots’ indicates an obsession with pomp and superficial splendour, whilst the love of ombre suggests frivolity. Another central concern is the protection of chastity, women such as Belinda are taught from an early age to promote themselves and manipulate their suitors without compromising themselves. The sylphs become an allegory for the mannered conventions that govern female social behaviour.
Principles like honour and chastity are no more than another part of social convention. Belinda is not conducting herself on the basis of abstract moral principles but by an elaborate social mechanism of which the sylphs are a fitting caricature. When the rape of the lock occurs the sylphs vanish to thin air, their job being done. An alternative reading of the need to include the machinery is that they allow the reader to enter a magical and paradisial dimension away from Belinda’s world.
Pope gives us the opportunity to acknowledge immortal beings that symbolise beauty and delicacy, in contrast to Belinda’s world which although possesses beauty maintains evil where ‘at ev’ry word a reputation dies’ and eventually Belinda’s only power is eliminated in attempt to satisfy the Baron’s desire. As a result, our concentration is not only diverted from mortals to unnatural beings but also from society to an unrealistic world illustrating paradise-like features.
The supernatural elements of the poem therefore, assert it is a mock epic. Some critics claim Pope embodies the machinery in his poem as an attempt to exalt Belinda. This is evident as the sylphs’ beauty reinforce Belinda’s beauty, their ‘insect wings unfold, waft on the breeze or sink in clouds of gold’, although these are not characteristics possessed by Belinda, their beauty still reflects on her.
In addition, we witness in canto 1 the sylphs preparing their heroine by glorifying her and making her appeal more beautiful at her ‘altar’ as a ‘heavenly image in the glass appears, to that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;’ here it is the skills of the sylphs which enable her transformation from an ordinary coquette to an almost goddess-like being, full of strength and magnificence. Nonetheless, this could be viewed as a way to glorify her prior to her deflation when she is exposed to the rape of her lock, creating a greater dramatic effect.
However, the sylphs are in many ways different to humans, Pope ensures this is apparent to the reader as he portrays that the sylphs can be repaired or healed: ‘fate urg’d the sheers, and cut the sylph in twain’ but the sylph ‘soon unites again’, however Belinda’s honour and chastity once lost cannot be regained and she becomes soiled and stained for life. Consequently, the differences of the two worlds are explicitly demonstrated, such a magical world cannot exist in the reality of life.
As we have established, the sylphs are creatures who must guard Belinda’s honour, on the other hand, they lack power, Pope possibly may have implied, that Belinda’s honour was destined to be destroyed or eliminated sooner or later, he could only demonstrate this by showing her protectors to be too weak in preventing such a deed from being performed. Evidently, the sylphs’ lack of power reflects Belinda’s lack of control over her chastity as he compares her to a ‘china jar’ and thereby emphasising her vulnerability and fragility.
It has been argued that the sylphs play a vital role in the downfall of Belinda, after all it is they who influenced the degree of her beauty as ‘awful beauty puts on all its arms’ thereby making her look appealing and attractive to a the eye, especially to men, so that Belinda is encouraged to behave as a coquette not only by society but by the sylphs themselves; forcing her ‘favours to none, to all she smiles extends’. Due to her beauty and flirtatiousness she draws the baron to her as ‘he saw, he wish’d, and to the prize aspir’d’, nevertheless it is his determination to gain his trophy which leads to the ultimate downfall.
The sylphs are present to engage Belinda’s heart until a man is able to occupy it, this results in the lack of action by Aerial during the rape of the lock, however one can only wonder what the sylphs could have done in relation to their powerless characteristics. It is apparent that the machinery illustrated by Pope maintains a various purposes, one of which is to help create and build the climax of the poem, but also to create dramatic irony as the sylphs gain knowledge that something is going to take place although they are ignorant of what it is exactly.
The sylphs in many ways manipulate both Belinda and events presented in the poem, not only do they act as her guiders although they are weak but they also glorify Belinda transforming her almost into a goddess where those around her admire and worship her beauty. Our enlightenment ‘oft she rejects, but never once offends’ reinforces our perception of the sylphs, but also indicates that she will be deflated and even demised.
As the epic progresses the sylphs seem to get smaller, first Ariel hovers above Belinda’s head, however, 50 sylphs are required to guard her petticoat and a thousand to defend the lock. This symbolism indicates their lack of power but also possibly questions the degree to which Belinda desires to remain chaste. Once Ariel enters her mind and establishes an ‘earthly lover lurking at her heart’, we begin to assume that perhaps the sylphs, although in large quantities, were unable to sustain her.
The similarities between the sylphs and Belinda’s world, asserts their comparable nature in relation to one another, this is evident from the luxurious descriptions as they sink in ‘clouds of gold’ in addition to their ‘glittering’ nature and the ‘gilded-mast’ which reflect on the solid jewel boxes, ‘coaches’, coffee pots presented in Belinda’s life. The supernatural world and the reality both emphasise the machineries materialistic concerns which is exists in Belinda’s society.