The Symbol Of Coffee In The Rape Of A Lock By Alexander Pope
In her keynote address to the Modern Language Association, Mary Louise Pratt introduced the concept of a contact zone. Contact zones are social spaces where groups with “highly asymmetrical relations of power” interact and communicate with each other. This concept has since been used in our understanding of colonial relations and gender interaction. In Rape of a Lock, Alexander Pope uses classical form, structure and conventions to satirize 18th century society. Specifically, Pope criticizes the consumerism and materialism that consumed the aristocracy and was rooted in colonial expansion. Pope hyperbolizes this consumption in his lengthy descriptions of the foreign commodities. By doing so, he provides new ways of framing our understanding of the contact zone between the colonized and the colonizer. Pivotal to this understanding, both thematically and also structurally, is the description of coffee. Elaborate descriptions of the preparation and consumption of coffee in Rape of a Lock serve as a synecdoche for imperial expansion and the rise of consumerism in the colonizing British empire.
Coffee was brought to England from the Near East in the mid-17th century, scarcely half a century before Pope wrote his first iteration of Rape of a Lock. It quickly became an important staple of the elite and intellectual circles in England. Coffeehouses housed politicians and writers like Pope himself. Introduced into the country as a result of colonial expansion, consumption of the beverage was a twofold fascination. Not only was it a commodity never before seen in Britain and available only in limited quantity, but also it was representative of imperial subjugation and colonialism. It was specifically a foreign import, and this was what granted its novelty. The British aristocracy that are depicted drinking it are demonstrative of the imperial state. With subjugation of foreign lands came wealth and an economic boom, which encouraged consumerism. In the convention of Horatian satire, Pope’s indulgent use of classical imagery and hyperbolic language ridicules this consumption. Hyperbolic language, classical allusion, and zeugma are used to this end. Belinda may “stain her honor, or her new brocade”; the implication is that she vainly equates a product with her virtue. Pope details “India’s glowing gems” and the “Arabian combs” in Belinda’s boudoir. The synecdochal foreign commodity becomes representative of the state and its territories.
Canto Three of Rape of a Lock offers most direct exploration of this relationship. Pope exhaustively describes the preparation and consumption of coffee in lines 89 to 112. The conceit is presented in heroic couplets that are written in consistent iambic pentameter and end stopped; this mock epic adheres to the conventions of classical literature. Furthermore, the hyperbolic language utilized pays homage to heroic epics. The juxtaposition of classical concerns, such as war and loss, with those presented here, such as consumption and excessive description of coffee, serve to satirize the latter. The embellished lexicon helps achieve this effect. The verse is riddled with periphrasis: “grateful liquors” glide elegantly from “silver spouts” into “China’s earth”. The verbosity of Pope’s pompous description reflects the privilege of the class it depicts. China, or cups used to consume the beverage, are conflated with foreign empire. Similarly, the coffee is served on “shining altars of Japan”, or lacquered tables traditionally from the exotic country. Products are not directly invoked; instead, they are referenced to by the countries from which they originate. The poet’s commodity fetishization of coffee is a product of the contact zone, in which a tradition or cultural import is lauded by the colonizer for its exotic appeal. Not only is the preparation of the beverage elevated by religious reference to a holy altar, but also it is used to make royal allusion to spoons that are “crown’d”. Within the English constraints of the poem, coffee is thus conflated with monarchy. Coffee stimulates both “scent and taste”: the “smoking tide” stimulates the olfactory sense, and the taste is enjoyed over “frequent” and “rich” cups. Coffee additionally wields power over judgment and sense. Belinda enjoys the protection of the Sylphs against the potential dangers of the beverage. The “gentle Belle” of the poem has every care attended to. Some sylphs fan the “fuming liquor” and others keep her brocade unsullied. She is afforded privilege within the contact zone. The effects of coffee, however, overpower the Sylphs attempts to protect Belinda. Crucially, it is the curling vapor that coffee emits, reminiscent of Belinda’s lock of hair, that stimulates the Baron to violate her. The vapor of coffee is seen as something that can alter the mind and influence an individual’s actions. The consumption of the mind-altering beverage is pivotal to the structure: It catalyzes the action of the tale. It is “o’er the fragrant steams”, after all, that Belinda is assaulted, and this assault incenses Belinda in turn. Significantly, the violation of a figure with less social power, a woman, is carried out by a dominant patriarchal figure, a man, under the influence of, and literally over, coffee. The beverage, demonstrative of colonial expansion, enforces hierarchies in a contact zone.
While the preceding cantos offer commentary restricted to the trifles of the gentility, Canto three’s vision extends beyond this insular world. Coffee is described as that “which makes the politician wise,/And see thro’ all things with his half-shut eyes”. This references a world outside of the Court, where foreign culture and foreign resources lie. This world is juxtaposed with the splendor and triviality of Belinda’s world, which is largely insular. It is only indirectly through consumption, particularly that of coffee, that the Pope’s characters interact with the world outside the Hampton Court. The court serves as a microcosm of the British State, where social, political and economic spaces overlap and interact. The subjects delight in their foreign spoils, and act under the influence of them. However, the gaze is still distinctly Western and authorial, in its stereotypical itemization and fetishization of foreign commodity, emancipated from the customs attached to it. Pope’s use of the classical structure, theme, and imagery juxtaposed with the triviality of the poem’s subject matter coheres to create an effect both political and aesthetic. By describing a foreign commodity in the most classical of Western forms, Pope appropriates coffee for Western consumption. Presentation of the commodity is translated into terms of Western understanding: Sylphs are lifted from Western mythology, Pope warns the Baron of coffee’s ill effects with reference to Ovid’s Sylla, and Belinda is only able to delight in coffee when at least somewhat removed from it. The synecdoche of coffee not only contributes to the sardonic theme and language of the poem, but also reflects the social and structural concerns of Belinda’s world.
In The Rape of a Lock, Alexander Pope satirizes the materialistic preoccupations of colonial England in the 18th century. To explore this theme, he uses the synecdoche of coffee as a representation of England’s imperialist interests. Explorations of the poem’s structure, form, language and meter emphasize the importance of coffee as a symbol. Not only does the beverage serve as a catalyst for the events of the play, but also the elaborate descriptions of the preparation and consumption of coffee in Canto 3 reveal its representation of the contact zone. Taken from the colonized to be appropriated for the upper echelons of the colonizer’s society, coffee becomes a symbol of inequality borne of subjugation. As the liaison between the insular Hampton Court and the World, coffee hints at political occupations and social spaces beyond those portrayed by Pope. Ultimately, coffee serves as an imperial symbol that Pope uses to indulgently chide the lifestyle of 18th century aristocratic Britain.
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