Friday, February 22, 2008

Rape and Torture

One of my favorite parts of Pope's The Rape of the Lock is the torture scene. This is, no doubt, news to those of you who know me well enough to know that I can't watch a movie if I think it has a torture scene in it. I fast forwarded through that part of the latest James Bond. I can hardly even watch the funny torture scene in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or the "War Stories" episode from the Firefly tv series.

At any rate, it takes some thought, some familiarity with 18th-century English, and sometimes a dictionary to even decipher what is happening in Pope's torture scene. The head sprite, or sylph, is giving the other sylphs a speech about what will happen if they don't fulfill their mission as little guardian fairies. He says anyone who fails will be tortured by being

stop'd in Vials, or transfixt with Pins;
Or plung'd in Lakes of bitter Washes lie,
Or wedg'd whole Ages in a Bodkin's Eye:
Gums and Pomatums shall his Flight restrain,
While clog'd he beats his silken Wings in vain;
Or Alom-Stypticks with contracting Pow'r
Shrink his thin Essence like a rivell'd Flower.
Or, as Ixion fix'd, the Wretch shall feel
The giddy Motion of the whirling Mill,
Midst Fumes of burning Chocolate shall glow,
And tremble at the Sea that froaths below! (II, 126-136)

Can you picture it? The erring sylph might be stoppered up in a vial, like a genie in a bottle. Or he might be pinned like a butterfly on display. He might be put into a lake of eyedrops. He might be wedged into the eye of a needle. He might have hair gel put on him so his wings are gummed up and he can't fly. He might have all the juice sucked out of him by a styptick, what men used to dry up their cuts from shaving. All of that could happen while a human was getting dressed and fixed up to go out. But the ultimate punishment, the most fearsome torture, is to be held over a cup of hot chocolate! My students always think they have to work too hard to get the comedy here, but I think that working through the impenetrable language actually makes the joke better.

No comments: