The Lesson of the Lock

Class with John Buck is a romp. A big, duck-footed man with a relaxed physique, Buck is inhabited with a chorus of voices, his hands hold all the expression of a Chaplin or Marceau. He pores over a line of poetry, eyes within inches of the page, rumples his hair, springs up to pace the room, tossing out questions like confetti. He is stopped cold by a student's comment. Jaw dropping, eyes popping, a quick doubletake to the open book in his palm, then, "Wonderful!"—a word like a cheer—and, "Exactly," whispered, like a key clicking into a lock.

b&w photo of professor, graying hair and mustache, book in hand, in front of chalkboard “12”

"Professor Buck, known for exciting students, is more concerned with how students excite him," said a colleague, introducing him for a radio interview. "It is this oscillation of excitements that earned Professor Buck the University-wide Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. He believes that students are best taught when they are taught to teach their teacher."

Buck stopped me in the parking lot one day. After the admiring reference to a term paper of mine, now some 12 years old ("I have it enshrined in my class notes"), with which he always begins our conversations, Buck began to tell me of the wonderful experience he had had in class the semester before, while he was a visiting professor at St. Xavier College in Chicago. A few minutes into his tale, I began searching the air for a tape recorder. A few semesters later, I arranged his appearance on the radio series produced by Penn State's Comparative Literature Department.

"One work John delights to teach is Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock,'" began the interviewer. "John, if ever there was a poem that needed a teacher, it's 'The Rape of the Lock.' What delights you so?"

"That poem is so witty and bright, so apparently merely sparkling—And in fact gravely serious. And loving."

In 1712, Pope was asked to placate two London families who had begun feuding when Robert Lord Petre outraged Arabella Fermor by publicly snipping off a ringlet of the young girl's hair. Pope wrote a witty short poem filled with literary allusions, a "mock-epic" patterned after Homer's Illiad, to "laugh them into good humor about it," says Buck. Pope gives this poem to the two families but, after the feud blows over, "Pope noodles with it, keeps working at it," seeing in it the germ of a longer poem, one with a deeper, more general meaning. In 1717, he has another evolution of the poem with the speech of Clarissa in Canto Five, which offers a new kind of stability.

"Clarissa's wonderful. She's introduced: 'Then grave Clarissa graceful waved her fan.' 'Grave' and 'grace,' that lovely internal rhyme. She can balance what no one else in the poem has been able to balance, so adding Clarissa—"

"Who—" interrupts the interviewer, "who and what is Clarissa?"

"Clarissa is a female Sarpedon."

"A sylph."

"No. Clarissa's real, a real human being. Sarpedon is one of Homer's heroes from the Illiad, and her speech, Clarissa's speech, is an elaborate allusion to Sarpedon's definition of heroism. She, Clarissa, invites Belinda to become heroic in the same way that Sarpedon, in the Illiad, invited Glaucus to become heroic."

Belinda—the poet's name for Arabella Fermor—is a girl, "just fully adolescent, just leaving childhood for the new state," when the Baron (Robert Lord Petre) cuts her hair. She is terribly outraged. "And Clarissa says to her," Buck continues, "Try to be better than the world in which you find yourself. Try not to succumb to the trivia, but to deal with that trivia in a way that involves, Clarissa says, good humor. Sense. Reason. But 'good humor' becomes, with Clarissa, a mode of heroism. Not simply a way of getting through social comedy."

"If I understand you correctly," says the interviewer, "the message of the poem is that the humor is light but that the function of the humor is not light."

"Ah—That's exactly right. The image I have constantly is of a right hand—this is a harpsichord, no, an organ—of a right hand, upper manual, light figure, and then an insistent left-foot pedal—the, the, the, the, the big passacaglia in the B-Minor Mass—that sense of enormous gravity underlying the lightness. But the lightness would not be worthwhile were it not supported."

"Well, now, that's your reference to classical music," pipes in the interviewer. "But in jazz, in boogie-woogie, you have the insistent rhythm of the left hand while the melody is being played by the right hand."

"That's right. If we imagine the left hand boogie-woogie playing the Dies Irae—" (The interviewer explodes in laughter.) "—then we have, then we have what Pope is doing. Because the left pedal is Clarissa saying, 'Darling, you're going to die. And we hope that you've lived a life—I want you to have lived a life—in which you can finally die with genuine dignity and worth. Don't poison yourself. And don't allow this terribly unpleasant event to have poisoned you."

Before the cutting of the lock, the poet shows Belinda, the innocent, in her boudoir, surrounded by her paints and perfumes, curling her dazzling hair. "What's the song from the musical, 'I feel pretty, oh so pretty—'" Buck sings a snatch of the West Side Story tune. "Belinda loves looking in the mirror because she's a little girl and she's very pretty. She doesn't make up in order to impress men. That's not her motive at all. Belinda simply wants to be beautiful. So that at lines 51 to 2 of Canto Two, she's floating on the Thames and everyone is looking at her: 'Smooth flow the Waves, the Zephyrs gently play, / Belinda smiled, and all the World was gay.' That's what she wants. She wants to be radiant in a radiant world. It's a perfect pastoral world in which inside and outside are completely continuous.

"What she doesn't know, of course, in her bright, lovely world, is that the Baron, in the darkness of early morning, has sacrificed to Love that he may be able to clip her lock."

She attends a party, plays a lengthy game of cards called "Ombre" (Man), and, as she is sipping her coffee, "The Baron takes a pair of scissors, sneaks behind her. A little sylph intervenes—" Buck draws out his funny, falsetto, stage-melodrama voice: "'Ev'n then, before the fatal Engine clos'd, / A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd; / Fate urg'd the Sheers, and cut the Sylph in twain, / (But Airy Substance soon unites again) / The meeting Points the sacred hair dissever / From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!" The little sylph, the creature of her earlier condition, comes right back together. But the hair is gone now, for good. Everyone screams. The Baron declares that he has triumphed.

"In Canto Four—in some ways the most thrilling Canto of the whole poem—Ariel, Belinda's guardian sylph, gives up because he can no longer guard her condition, she is no longer what she was, and a new being, a gnome, Umbriel, comes on the scene, descends to the cave of spleen—" Pause. "The cave of menstrual distress." Dramatic pause, then he resumes: "—acquires there a bag of sighs and a vial of tears, brings them back, and dumps them on Belinda. Let me read some of this: 'Here, in a Grotto, sheltred close from Air, / And screen'd in Shades from Day's detested Glare, / She [Spleen] sighs forever on her pensive Bed. . . .' She has maids, Ill-Nature and Affectation. She has next to her side, Pain, and at her head another attendant, Migraine. Skip down to line 39—"

"We're really talking about menstrual distress, right?"

b&w phoro of professor, graying hair and mustache, in front of chalkboard, “1714 (hyster)ic”

"We really are."

"Okay." The interviewer lets out an embarrassed laugh. "No ambiguity involved at all?"

"Well—Well—" Buck combs his fingers through his hair. "There is ambiguity, because no one has ever said that about this poem. No one has ever said that the Cave of Spleen is a locus of specifically female pain.

"But if we think of what Umbriel says when he summons Spleen, lines 57 following, 'Hail, wayward Queen! / Who rule the Sex'—women—'to Fifty from Fifteen.' Well, 15 to 50 is about the time, right?"

"From onslaught to termination."

"Yeah, to menopause. That's right. In that world, we see wonderful things. Lines 47 following: 'Unnumber'd Throngs on ev'ry side are seen / Of Bodies changed to various Forms by Spleen. / Here living Teapots stand, one arm held out, / One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout: / A Pipkin there, like Homer's Tripod walks; / Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pye talks; / Men prove with Child, as pow'rful Fancy works, / And maids turn'd Bottles call aloud for Corks.'

"Now, I remember any number of approaches, essays, addressed to this. If we include any comment—if criticism includes any comment on that last line, 'And maids turned bottles call aloud for corks,' it's always been seen as evidence of female appetite, sexual appetite.

"Three years ago, at St. Xavier's College in Chicago, I was teaching this poem for the, I don't know, 20th time? A poem that I know well, a poem the criticism for which I know well. And I read this passage, secure in the knowledge I knew exactly what was going on, and one of my students, Lisa Juarez, said, 'It's the world of PMS and menstrual distress, isn't it.' What?!" Long pause. Then, muttering incredulously, as if responding to Ms. Juarez, "Nobody's said that . . . That's not what we've said.

"The minute we say that," Buck continues, popping out of his verbal flashback, "what we see suddenly is that all of the transformed figures are figures transformed into vessels for fluid. Leaky vessels. The last line, 'And maids turned bottles call aloud for corks.' It's not, it's not 'Thrust something into me,' it's 'Stop me up, stop me leaking. I don't want to be doing this.' The pipkin that walks around on three little legs, this little sloshing jar—That world is not the world of general neurosis. No! It's a world of women feeling terribly unhappy."

"I understand all of this," says the interviewer, tentatively, "and certainly I think it is a valid addition to the interpretation. The one line I don't understand is the line, 'Men prove with child, as powerful fancy works.' Is that women wishing that men had to do this?"

"Yes it is!" He claps his hands. "Exactly right!" Quickly he finds his normal voice: "Well, now, what we're dealing with here is interpretation. We are not dealing with verification. But that line is there, and it seems to me, it isn't men's powerful fancy, it's—" A husky female voice takes over, "They should have to do this. Why should I have to go through this, month after month, the end being to suffer in childbed."

"Don't identify too fully, now, John," the interviewer laughs.

"That's right, I'll try not to—" A scoffing laugh gives way to utter seriousness: "Twenty-five percent mortality for mothers in childbirth in the 18th century. Twenty-five percent!" He pauses. "There is another even more serious gravity underlying this poem. If we read Renaissance carpe diem love poetry, 'Come live with me and be my love and we will all the pleasures prove . . .' Well, we may all the pleasures prove, but if I become pregnant, I have a 25 percent chance of dying. Christina Rosetti will treat that in 'Goblin Market,' and will say, 'We can't let them do this to us. Their dreams of joy are mortal to us. For them, it's an inconsequential one-time event. For us, it's the proximity of death.'

"That's the world Clarissa tries to explain to Belinda. In this reading—in Lisa Juarez's reading, in the reading she schooled me in—two things happen, two events. One is the clipping of the lock. The other is Belinda's first menses. What Umbriel brings back from the Cave of Spleen, what he adds to her distress, is her first menses.

"I think—this is partly simply a result of my excitement about my student's recognition—I think there is the event of the Baron's cutting her lock, and it is almost simultaneous with another event, which is not the Baron's fault at all: The onslaught of this condition—the condition of women in the fallen world, the condition of women cursed, the condition of monthly pain, suffering, sighing, and of suffering perhaps much greater than the monthly suffering, the suffering that can kill you."

"But are both, in a sense, the end of innocence?"

"Yes, they are. That's absolutely right. Because you see the reason Belinda's lock becomes vulnerable, in the fiction of the opem, is that Ariel, her guardian sylph, looks into her mind and sees an earthly lover lurking near her heart. The minute he sees that she's thinking about a real man—" Buck claps his hands. "He's gone. Inside and outside, in her mind and outside in the world, where men want to kiss her bosom, in her ovaries, her insides, and out in the world through the Baron, innocence is ending. It's not the Baron's fault. It's the condition that is inevitable. She will fall into the world of experience."

Buck pauses. "What's astonishing about the menstrual reading of this part of 'The Rape of the Lock' is that for 250 years, no one has ever mentioned such a reading of the poem."

Master Teacher John Buck remains an assistant professor, the rank at which he was hired more than 20 years ago. He is more puzzled than bitter about his low status in a department, a university, where professors march upward through the ranks: assistant, associate, full professor—professor emeritus. "They let me teach," he says when I ask. He runs his hand through his hair. "They pay me to do it." (In a note to me later he writes, "The real point here is that I would pay to teach.") The problem, he admits, is his discomfort with scholarly publishing, one leg (with teaching and community service) of that three-legged stool of academic promotion. While he continues to explore both the medical knowledge and the theological interpretation of menstruation in the 17th and 18th centuries to better understand this new "Rape of the Lock," he has no plans to publish his—his student's—radically new, and rich, reading of the old classic. And not because Juarez has any plans to. A woman in her early 30s when she took his course, a computer programmer, and "an absolutely spectacularly interesting person," Juarez's dream was to teach elementary school. "She's now doing it," Buck reports. "Fifth grade, I think."

Buck once did print a scholarly article, he recalls, on the poem "Alexander's Feast" by John Dryden. To do so, he had to sit down with his ideas, sort them by genus and species and color and size, discard the small or imperfect or duplicative ones, dip the remainder in ink, spread their wings flat, and transfix them to 8_x11 sheets of paper. He could not bear to read his article when it came out in Texas Studies in 1973. It was no longer an argument—flexible, interruptible, contradictory, probing—but a diatribe, as if John Buck had all the answers. Nor did he ever examine "Alexander's Feast" again. "It just seemed," he says, "sort of finished."

"Can I interrupt you for a minute?" The radio interviewer is persistent: "The Rape of the Lock" is not finished. "Because it seems to me there's a contradiction involved here, if we're talking about the poetry with any kind of validity. We have the advice at the end of the poem, Don't take this so seriously in order to survive in life—"

"No. It doesn't say that. It says, Take it with good humor. Humor means a temperament, but it also means a liquid. Clarissa's going to say—" He hum-sings, doodle-oodle-oo, looking for the page: "'What then remains, but well our Power to use, / And keep good Humour still whate'er we lose?' We lose humor, liquid, every month. We have to sustain good humor. We pour spleen, old blood, out every month. In spite of that, we have to stay up, stay balanced."

"Well," the interviewer says, "it would seem to say we have to do spiritually what we do physically, because we pour out old blood in order to be renewed." "That's right. Exactly."

Last Updated September 01, 1991