Essays in Criticism,
July 1997 v47 n3 p220(20)
Severed hair from Donne to Pope.
Abstract: Hair has been depicted throughout English literature as reflective of the character of its owner. John Milton described Eve's hair as 'wanton' and Samson's hair was symbolic of both his strength and weakness. Severed hair, on the other hand, was depicted by John Donne as forever golden and youthful especially when it is given away. Alexander Pope's poems also give severed hair symbolic potential.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1997 Oxford University Press
The description of Adam and Eve that we are given when we first catch sight of them in Paradise Lost deals almost exclusively with their hair, and its symbolism:
hyacinthine locks Round from his parted forelock manly hung Clustering, but not beneath his shoulders broad: She as a veil down to the slender waist Her golden unadorned tresses wore Dishevelled, and in wanton ringlets waved As the vine curls her tendrils, which implied Subjection, but required with gentle sway, And by her yielded, by him best received, Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, And sweet reluctant amorous delay.
Even were it not for the extremely important position that this passage occupies in the narrative (these are the first mortal beings we have yet encountered), the description, particularly of Eve's hair, would call attention to itself by its sly ambiguity. 'Wanton' is one of those words which, when used in a prelapsarian context, implicitly call to mind all the current, fallen connotations by consciously excluding them.(2) Whereas Adam's hair hangs over a line break, but is then cut short by the early caesura ('Clustering,'), Eve's hair goes from being the object of 'wore' to becoming (wantonly) the subject of the next clause (assuming that 'waved' is an active verb paralleling 'curls'). The whole syntax indeed becomes dishevelled and impossible to untangle exactly.
Writing about this passage, a critic has noted that 'Milton's initial portrait of Eve' is 'essentially ambivalent', remarking that 'Curiously, seventeenth century poets tend to vacillate between praise and damnation in their depictions of women's hair'.(3) But it is not just in the seventeenth century that this ambivalence about hair - particularly women's hair - is to be found. Milton himself seems to point us towards his source for this description of Eve's hair: it is not often noted that the six final lines of the passage quoted rhyme abc abc, like the ending of a Petrarchan sonnet. It is perhaps the most extended and complex set of end-rhymes in a poem defiantly set loose from what Milton himself called 'the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming',(4) and its effect here is both to reinforce the sense of entanglement, and to call to mind all those sonnets, in Italian or in English, in which the mistress's hair is compared to a snare, or a forest.(5)
For hair is curious: let a lover adore his mistress's hair never so much, even touch it and kiss it, he would nevertheless be displeased to find a strand of it in his soup. Hair is at once the crowning, most freely-moving and lively part of the body, and also the part of the body which, along with the nails, is technically lifeless, accidental. The spectrum of values which it comes to represent in any age varies considerably, but because of its nature, hair will always evoke an ambivalent reaction. The Victorians, for instance, felt both fascinated and threatened by women with golden hair (much as Milton seems to be). For them, according to Elisabeth Gitter, the hair took on associations similar to those of gold itself, which 'was associated with the unearthly, with the radiance of the sun, with activity of the divine spirit', but also 'with death, dirt, and excrement'.(6) This association of hair with 'excrement' is ancient; through the ages, it is clear, hair has continued to carry with it strong, and strongly opposed, connotations.
But hair has other extraordinary properties besides ambiguity, and one notably which distinguishes it (along with the nails, which do not hold as great a poetical fascination) from the rest of the body. The hair can be cut without doing damage to the body, and without even doing permanent damage to the hair itself, which can grow back. Cutting of hairs is a common event - indeed, for a clean-shaven man like Milton, a daily event - yet in almost all religions and cultures, as well as in secular literature from the time of Homer, the voluntary or forcible cutting off of hair is an extremely significant symbolic act.(7) Milton's Samson comments on the seeming contradiction, that such an easily and commonly cut part of the body as the hair could be, at times, so sacrosanct: 'God, when he gave me strength, to show withal / How slight the gift was, hung it in my hair' (SA, 58-9). Harapha utterly denies that the hair itself can have any real power: thy strength, he tells Samson, thou 'Feign'dst at thy birth was given thee in thy hair, / Where strength can least abide' (1135-6). The very idea of 'strong hair' seems to contain a contradiction.
No doubt it is true that Samson's God, not his hair, is the ultimate source of his strength: his locks are just as long at the beginning of the tragedy as at the end, but they seem to him at first 'redundant locks / Robustious to no purpose' (568-9). Yet at the same time the hair really is imbued with power. Whereas Milton held the fruit of the forbidden tree to be an example of positive, rather than natural law - that is, it did not differ in essence from other fruit, but only in the fact that God had decided to forbid its consumption - Milton makes it clear that the rule against Samson's cutting his hair has its basis, at least partially, in the very nature of the hair.(8) So Manoa reminds his son that there is 'strength / Miraculous yet remaining in those locks' (586-7). Samson too is conscious of their power, asking 'Shall I abuse this consecrated gift / Of strength, again returning with my hair / After my great transgression?' (1354-6). Milton thus reminds us that God can choose to lodge his strength in even the weakest and most trivial part of his creation. But he also tells us that although hair seems trivial, it can carry great symbolic and actual force - partly because, unlike the apple, once it has been plucked, it can and does regenerate.
Milton was drawing on common associations with hair when he chose to make Samson's hair so essentially ambiguous - imbued with real strength, yet at the same time powerless and frail. The Renaissance shared with many other periods and cultures 'the belief that the essence of life was thought to reside in one's hair . . . . Loss of hair amounted to the loss of one's vital force and hence to the forfeiture of one's life'.(9) On the other hand, hair, in contrast to other parts of the body, was often thought of as senseless and dead. Thomas Vicary for instance, the Elizabethan anatomist, explains the need for a layer of skin on the scalp by pointing out that there must be something containing nerves on the top of the head: the skin 'discusseth to the common wittes of al thinges that noyeth outwardly, for the heyre is insencible'. Hair was often referred to as an 'excrement', being a mere 'superfluitie of members, made of the grosse fume or smoke passing out of the viscoues matter, thickened to the forme of heyre'. Yet at the same time even the anatomist assigns to the hair a certain degree of life and sensibility; among its functions he mentions 'that by the cullour of the heyre is witnessed & knowen the complexion of the Brayne', and 'that the fumosities of the brayne might assend and passe lyghtlyer out by them'.(10) Nor were such terms and belief restricted to professionals - Gertrude, for instance, exclaims in horror to Hamlet that she sees his 'bedded hair, like life in excrements, / Start up and stand on end' (III. iv. 114-115).(11) The fact that Hamlet's hair seems to crawl is not only natural, given the shock and fright that he feels in seeing the ghost reappear, but also appropriate: hair is not supposed to have any life, but it does anyway; dead men are not supposed to move about the earth, but they clearly do. (It is the ghost himself who introduces the image to the play, claiming the power to make 'Thy knotty and combined locks to part, / And each particular hair to stand on end', I. v. 18-19). So one more ambivalence is added to the list: hair is divine yet earthly, vulnerable yet resilient, disposable and all-important, both living and lifeless.
This dual nature helps to explain why locks of hair, when given as tokens or fetishes (as they were for many centuries), served two very different purposes:
[M]uch of hair jewelry is mourning jewelry. But sentimental jewelry, made with the hair of one who was alive and loving, is also relatively common. In either case, death or love, the beliefs which inspired the use of hair in jewelry share the same roots.(12)
The 'roots' of this dual role - as symbol of both love and death - lie not only in the ambiguous nature of hair, but also in its unusual durability.
The poet who perhaps took greatest notice of these properties, and with whom hair jewelry in particular is especially associated, was Donne. In his Songs and Sonets he implicitly brings out yet another property of hair and hair-tokens, one of the most striking of all, and one which is essential to the mystique of all hair-jewelry. When hair is allowed to stay on the head, it eventually turns gray; when it is cut off and given away, on the other hand, it remains young and golden, even while the giver grows hoary and eventually dies. The first three times that hair is mentioned in the Songs and Sonets, it is turning white:
Till age snow white haires on thee
When with my brown, my gray hairs equal be
('Love's Usury', 4)
My five gray hairs, or ruin'd fortune flout.
('The Canonization', 3)(13)
Later in the sequence, although the lover and the beloved are now both dead, yet the hair is younger, stronger, brighter, as the opening stanzas of 'The Funeral' and 'The Relic' vividly show:
Whoever comes to shroud me, do not harm Nor question much That subtle wreath of hair, which crowns my arm; The mystery, the sign, you must not touch, For 'tis my outward Soul, Viceroy to that, which then to heaven being gone, Will leave this to control, And keep these limbs, her provinces, from dissolution.
When my grave is broke up again Some second guest to entertain (For graves have learn'd that woman-head, To be to more than one a bed), And he that digs it spies A bracelet of bright hair about the bone, Will he not let us alone, And think that there a loving couple lies, Who thought that this device might be some way To make their souls, at the last busy day, Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?
Clearly the hair here is serving many functions: it is a symbol of the soul, and also of unity, tying one skeleton together, tying one body to another, and serving as a token by which the souls too will recognize each other. Above all, the bracelet is what survives the lovers, and serves as a permanent sign of both their lives and their love. This ability of severed hair to stay young ('bright'(14)) is perhaps its most striking feature in these lines, especially if we remember the poor few faded hairs that were mentioned earlier in the volume. The lesson seems to be this: if you keep it to yourself, it will fade, and will die with you; if you give it away, it will outlive you, and serve as a memento of your beauty.
This lesson may sound familiar from another sequence of poems, where it does not, however, refer to hair. Shakespeare's sonnets begin by exhorting the beloved young man to reproduce in order to have an image of himself to show to the world when he himself is old or dead; Shakespeare urges not the sharing of hair, but of an heir. These two words were pronounced alike in the sixteenth century(15), and I think that we must recognize the shadowy presence of the second word if we are fully to appreciate Donne's poems. There is a natural similarity between a hair and an heir (especially a potential one), and for the Elizabethans this similarity was particularly poignant.
Shakespeare, as we have already seen, was conscious of the way that hair can at the same time be lifeless ('excrement'), and yet have potential for movement. This image appears not only in Hamlet but also in Macbeth: 'The time has been', Macbeth recalls,
. . . my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir, As life were in it.
(V. v. 10-13)(16)
He is lamenting the fact that he can no longer be moved, that he no longer reacts to outward horrors, such as the cry of women he has just heard; the cry, he now learns, was for the death of Lady Macbeth. In other words, he notices that the life has gone out of his hair just at the moment that he loses any chance of ever producing an heir. (He has already been told that no son of his will succeed, but has tried to fight against all such ill predictions.) 'Hair' in this case is not a pun, but an apt object to represent Macbeth's drained and barren life. One hundred twenty lines later, it is a pun:
Siward Had I as many sons as I have hairs, I would not wish them to a fairer death.
(V. ix. 14-15)(17)
In Antony and Cleopatra, which, in contrast to Macbeth's images of barrenness, is teeming with spontaneous life, there is an instance in which 'hair' refers to something full of potential vigour. Antony, having heard that Pompey's son, Sextus Pompey, is asserting his right to his father's dignities, reflects that
Much is breeding, Which, like the courser's hair, hath yet but life And not a serpent's poison.
(I. ii. 185-7)(18)
In these lines 'hair' is Rowe's emendation for the Folio's 'heire', and a very likely one (horsehair was said to turn to a living creature when put in water). Yet in some sense emendation is unnecessary, since it is not certain that the audience would have heard the distinction between the two words; and 'hair' in any case does refer to Sextus Pompey, Pompey's 'heir,' who is 'breeding' all the trouble.
Thus the relationship of hairs to heirs depends upon the ability of both to outlast the bodies from which they spring, and to bind lovers together, and to provide some prospect of life even in death. Yet for the Elizabethans there may also have been a topical concern which linked the two. Queen Elizabeth, as is well known, had striking red hair, but no heirs. The question of the succession was a national issue almost from the time she acceded to the throne until she finally confirmed her choice of James upon her deathbed.(19) Elizabeth wore wigs imitating her natural hair colour from a rather early age, not from choice, but necessity. She had lost her hair to disease, to a sickness which, like all her ailments, necessarily raised the question of her fitness to produce heirs, or the possibility of her dying before having named one:
As a result of smallpox, the Queen became bald soon after her thirtieth year , and thereafter wore a wig. On her recovery she was much annoyed to hear the question of the succession had been debated by the Council, although it was a contingency they were bound to consider. Her grave illness also caused the matter to be raised in Parliament.(20)
Nor was the state of Elizabeth's hair a secret. It was widely known that she wore a wig, and this knowledge made ladies' wigs the fashion. 'For her, there was an unsightly deficiency which had to be hidden; but many of the ladies of her court, whatever the condition of their own hair, hastened to follow her example.'(21)
The queen continued to wear the same red wigs even in old age, and continued as well to play the part of a woman much younger than her years. As a visitor to the court recorded upon seeing a royal procession in 1598:
[N]ext came the Queen, in the 65th year of her age (as we were told), very majestic; . . . her hair was of an auburn colour, but false; . . . her bosom was uncovered, as all the English ladies have it till they marry.(22)
For all her luxuriant tresses and low-cut dresses, the queen could not prolong her summer indefinitely, yet she continued to refuse to nominate her successor. The pathos of this situation informs a work which is all about naming an heir, Nashe's Summer's Last Will and Testament of 1592. At the start of the play Summer explains,
Harvest and age have whiten'd my green head . . . And died I had in deed unto the earth, But that Eliza, England's beauteous Queen, On whom all seasons prosperously attend, Forbad the execution of my fate, Until her joyful progress was expired.(23)
The play contains no more such direct references to the Queen until Summer's final speech, but there continues throughout the note of sadness, of the necessary passing on from Summer to that which must follow. Notably, there appears the lovely song amply discussed by William Empson:
Beauty is but a flower Which wrinkles will devour. Brightness falls from the air. Queens have died young and fair.
As Empson says at the end of his treatment of this passage,
It is proper to mention a rather cynical theory that Nash wrote or meant 'hair'; still, though less imaginative, this is very adequate; oddly enough (it is electricity and mysterious vitality of youth which have fallen from the hair) carries much the same suggestion as the other version . . . Elizabethan pronunciation was very little troubled by snobbery, and it is conceivable that Nash meant both words to take effect in some way.(24)
If the theory is cynical, it is cynical perhaps in a way that Empson did not mean: not because the reading 'hair' is easier and less complex than 'air', but because it would be more pointedly directed towards the Queen. In any case the ambiguity continues to exist in the play as heard by the audience, whichever word Nashe may have written; these lines may well have brought to mind the real Queen, who sometimes gave herself the airs of a younger woman, but nothing more substantial.
Donne is as conscious of this possible homophony as any of his contemporaries. In his second verse epistle 'To Mr. I. L.' (1594), he plays on the fertility of the word 'hair':
So may thy woods oft poll'd, yet ever weare A greene, and when thee list, a golden haire; So may all thy sheep bring forth Twins; and so In chace and race may thy horse all out goe; So may thy love and courage ne'r be cold; Thy Sonne ne'r ward; Thy lov'd wife ne'r seem old.
These verses touch upon most of the associations with hair that I have been discussing: regeneration, succession, perpetual youthfulness. Donne wishes his friend an estate which, though often cropped, yet continues to produce; wishes that his son will be his heir (rather than that guardians should administer the inheritance); wishes that his wife, though she may be old, may never seem so. If we look again at the Songs and Sonets in the wider context of this poem and the other contemporary works discussed above, the hair bracelet of which Donne speaks assumes a fuller significance as a 'mystery' and a 'sign'. It takes on a resonance which transcends most of Donne's famous idiosyncratic conceits, for the bracelet implies continuity, and real security, at both a private and a public level. In the closing years of the sixteenth century, it was difficult to overestimate the importance of keeping some part of your youth preserved for (and as) posterity - of making sure that, although you die, you leave at least some hair apparent.
The specific symbolic implications of hair (and of its cutting) change from age to age; what remains is its ambivalent nature, hovering between vital importance and senseless triviality. So while one would not expect the greatest hair-cutting poem in English to carry quite the same overtones as Donne's poems, yet many of the associations made in the Renaissance remain relevant to The Rape of the Lock. Pope's poem is based on an actual incident, but it could not have happened better had Pope fashioned the story from his own imagination. It was lucky for the poet that Lord Petre cut off Arabella Fermor's favourite lock, and did not, for instance, eat her favourite apple: damage to locks (as Milton reminds us) is reversible, as other forms of damage are not. Pope needed to take the incident seriously, yet wished at the same time to make the parties laugh it off; for the fine line he had to draw, hair is the ideal material.
Similarly, mock-epic was the ideal medium. The effect of the mock-epic is not merely to deflate but rather to exalt its trivial subject with one hand, while with the other belittling it by the epic comparison. Such a method requires material that is liable to such swelling and shrinking; unsurprisingly, therefore, one of the earliest surviving classical works in mockepic tone concerns (and is narrated by) a severed lock: Callimachus' fragmentary story of the Lock of Berenice, which survives in its entirety in the Latin translation of Catullus (number 66).
Although Pope had to hand the perfect material to allow him to laugh and to elegize at the same time, his task was not therefore perfectly easy. It is notable that the first edition of the poem (1712), which was only about half as long as the second (1714) and subsequent editions, does not achieve the delicate equilibrium that the later, more familiar versions achieve. The weight of the images and the contrasts drawn in the first edition seems to lie preponderantly against the lock, which is trivialized far more than it is exalted. There is, for instance, the important series of images describing the falling and shattering of fragile China vases - a series first discussed by Cleanth Brooks:
Whether the nymph shall break Diana's law, Or some frail china jar receive a flaw. . . .
Or when rich China vessels, fall'n from high, In glitt'ring dust and painted fragments lie!
Thrice from my trembling hands the patch-box fell; The tott'ring china shook without a wind. . . .
Pope does not say, but he suggests, that chastity is, like the fine porcelain, something brittle, precious, useless, and easily broken.(26)
Aubrey Williams later explained that such imagery is common in poems and plays dealing with the fragility of women: 'in much of this vessel imagery, there is an emphasis on the irreparable nature of any damage done to fine glass or China, and an attendant emphasis on the irreparable nature of a loss of beauty, good name, or virginity'.(27) But these implications have a different, more satirical effect in Pope's poem. The repeated image calls to mind an opposition: the irreparable state of shivered porcelain or lost virginity reminds us, by contrast, of the nugatory and temporary nature of a haircut.
Of the three references to china given above, the latter two had already appeared in 1712 (I. 123-4; II. 80-1), and I believe that Pope was conscious of having mocked and trivialized the lock more than he wished to. In his dedication to the second version, he is careful to point out that he does, indeed, take it seriously: 'As to the following Canto's, all the Passages of them are as Fabulous, as the Vision at the Beginning, or the Transformation at the End; (except the loss of your Hair, which I always mention with Reverence)'.(28) What could Pope do to re-exalt the hair to a less trivial status? It contrasts to its own disadvantage with the seriousness of broken vases (and all they represent); nor does it benefit from the epic boast of the Baron, with its explicit and implicit comparisons:
What Time wou'd spare, from Steel receives its date, And Monuments, like Men, submit to Fate! Steel cou'd the Labour of the Gods destroy, And strike to Dust th'Imperial Tow'rs of Troy; Steel cou'd the Works of mortal Pride confound, And hew Triumphal Arches to the Ground. What Wonder then, fair Nymph! thy Hairs shou'd feel The conqu'ring Force of unresisted Steel?
(III. 171-8; 1712, I. 131-2)
This passage carries the double implications of all mock-epic: the lock is glorified by being compared to Troy and its heroes, while at the same time its insignificance is brought out by the contrast. But when one thinks of great 'Monuments' forever effaced by the sword, and more especially, when one is reminded of the way that the flesh of 'Men' is affected by 'unresisted Steel', the contrast once again seems overwhelming. Hair does not here seem to hold a middle position between significance and triviality, because it is contrasted only with what is more substantial and frangible.
In the second edition Pope rectified this imbalance, and he found his solution as it were within the hair itself: in the dazzlingly fine machinery of air which makes up the greatest part of the new material. How different the effect of the passage just quoted when read immediately after this:
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 Miltonic passage from which this is taken (and to which Pope refers us in a footnote) is sublime in its implied contrast of angelic substance and human flesh. Pope keeps the contrast, but with a new middle term being understood: hairy substance, which will not reunite so easily or so soon. With the addition of the sylphish machinery, the lock reassumes its appropriately liminal position: not so sensitive as the flesh of warriors, yet undeniably fragile, human, mortal.
One source for Pope's inspiration in this matter, a precedent which sets hair somewhere between harsh physicality and airy insubstantiality, can be found in a passage of Ovid to which Pope refers us. To his apostrophe to the Baron -
Ah cease rash Youth! desist ere 'tis too late, Fear the just Gods, and think of Scylla's Fate! Chang'd to a Bird, and sent to flit in Air, She dearly pays for Nisus' injur'd Hair!
Pope adds the note, 'Vide Ovid. Metam. 8'. There we get the full legend: how the fate of King Nisus' army depended upon the preservation of his lock of purple hair, which his daughter Scylla (who is in love with the enemy general) cuts off while he is sleeping. Scylla herself not only remarks what a strange substance hair is to hold so much power, but also implicitly contrasts it with both air (fire) and steel:
ire per ignes Et gladios ausim! Nec in hoc tamen ignibus ullis Aut gladiis opus est, opus est mihi crine paterno.
(I would dare undergo both fire and sword! Yet in this case I need neither fire nor sword, but the hair of my father).
Yet if Ovid was particularly sensitive to the place of hair somewhere between the fiery and the steely elements, he was by no means the only one of Pope's predecessors to have written suggestively about the complex nature either of hair or of air. Robin Grove perceptively notes how the addition of the machinery to the second edition corroborates the mock-epic duality already in place. Mock-epic, he writes, 'necessarily works both ways. So far, so complex. In 1714 these ironies redouble. They endure no breach but an expansion, into something more luminous and airy still. For the new poem sets a parallel below the human scale, as well as above'.(30) Grove's allusion to Donne is felicitous: for Donne is not only the poet of hair, but of airiness, and above all of fine discriminations of scale of substance. 'Air and Angels', from the Songs and Sonets, combines all three of these elements in a notoriously complicated scheme which, roughly summarized, says that just as angels assume bodies of air (which is slightly less pure than they) when they appear on earth, so Donne's love will find its vessel in his mistress's love (which is slightly impure), rather than in her hair, which is 'too much', too 'bright' to contemplate. The specific gradations and equivalences are almost impossible to sort out exactly, but the sense that is conveyed is of an ethereal and continuous spectrum, in which angels and air and love and women and hair all participate and, at the borders, touch upon one another.
Pope shows a similar concern with the way in which the lightest details can develop into something more substantial; he is the heir of Donne not so much in his choice of subject matter as in his exquisite sensitivity. For Pope, hair is not trivial or substanceless, but is several degrees more substantial than certain other (quite important) elements. In his more misogynistic moments, he even leans towards Donne's idea that a woman's hair, far from being inessential, is the most substantial part of her character. His second Moral Essay, the 'Epistle to a Lady' concerning the characters of women, begins
Nothing so true as what you once let fall: 'Most Women have no Characters at all'. Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear, And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair.
A woman's hair, in this case, is not to be taken lightly, for the rest of the woman is 'too soft' to stand up on her own. Similar imagery occurs also in Ariel's first speech in the Rape:
What guards the Purity of melting Maids, In Courtly Balls, and Midnight Masquerades, Safe from the treach'rous Friend, the daring Spark, The Glance by Day, the Whisper in the Dark; When kind Occasion prompts their warm Desires, When Musick softens, and when Dancing fires?
Of this passage David Fairer has written: 'Spark, fires, warms, softens, melting: the imagery is of woman as a piece of wax. In the heat of passion she becomes pliable, impressionable, and loses hold of her identity'.(32) Ariel's answer to his own question is that it is airy creatures like himself who preserve these 'too soft' women from collapse. But it is by imbuing women with a concern for such trivialities as hair that sylphs carry out their duties of protection; and we should remember as well that it is to women's hair that, according to the 'Epistle,' we are to look for any strong or distinguishing feature of a woman's character; so that we might equally well answer Ariel's question by saying, not air, but hair.
Thus, once again, the role of the sylphs has been to raise up both Belinda/Arabella and her hair from the rather demeaning position they had occupied in the original version. In the 'Epistle' Pope compares women to the specious colours of the rainbow:
Come then, the colours and the ground prepare! Dip in the Rainbow, trick her off in Air.
In the Rape this speciousness is reserved for the sylphs, who are
Dipt in the richest Tincture of the Skies, Where Light disports in ever-mingling Dies.
When the sylphs thus take on the burden of insubstantiality, the hair recovers a significance it does not have in the first edition; and the effect is felt even on lines that remain unchanged. On the lines describing the actual moments of severance - 'The meeting Points the sacred Hair dissever / From the fair Head, for ever and for ever!' (III. 153-4) Tillotson has this note:
for ever and for ever - 'To emphasise the fact that the hair could not unite again, as the bisected sylph had done' [Holden]. This may be part of its significance now, but Pope cannot have so intended it from the start since the sylphs do not appear in the first version. (p. 154)
Pope's revision, as mentioned above, makes the hair seem more vulnerable, and its loss more serious; but it also makes us think more closely and physically about the nature of its substance. It renders the hair hairier, that is to say, and in so doing it calls back the significances of hair that readers of poetry such as Donne's will find familiar. In the 1712 version, the hair was lost to the reader, almost in the same way it was lost to the Baron: it became so overwhelmed by the epic strife surrounding it, that one forgot about the hair, and what a strange and wonderful thing it is. The introduction of the sylphs, with their tiny viewpoint, helps us to focus on the hair again, to remember its property of durability, and to remember as well, therefore, that cutting off hair can be a very fine way of preserving part of oneself. The introduction, then, of Clarissa's plangent line - 'Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey' (V. 26) - calls to mind the Elizabethan association of locks of hair with preserved youth, in a way of which the first edition might not have been capable. Even lines that have been retained, such as those near the conclusion -
Not all the Tresses that fair Head can boast Shall draw such Envy as the Lock you lost. . . . [When] all those Tresses shall be laid in Dust; This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame
are less mocking in the later version. The immortality associated with the lock may still be mock-heroic, but in refocusing our attention on the severed lock, Pope is able to draw on hair's symbolic potential, both inherent and inherited, and so make Belinda's curl a theme worthy of his song.
1 All quotations from Milton refer to the edition of the complete poems in two volumes, edited by Alastair Fowler and John Carey, (1971).
2 See the earlier description of the river of Paradise that runs 'with mazy error', (IV. 239}; compare also VII. 302, where the waters move 'With serpent error wandering'. The ominously restricted meaning of these words in context is discussed in Arnold Stein, Answerable Style: Essays on Paradise Lost, (Minneapolis, 1953), pp. 66-7, and Christopher Ricks, Milton's Grand Style, (Oxford, 1963), p. 110.
3 Robert D. Newman, 'Entanglement in Paradise: Eve's Hair and the Reader's Anxiety in Paradise Lost,' Interpretations, Vol. 16, No. 1, (Fall, 1985), p. 113.
4 Milton's note on 'The Verse,' added in the second edition; Fowler, p. 39.
5 See, for example, sonnets 196-198 of Petrarch's Canzoniere.
6 'The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian Imagination,' PMLA, Vol. 99, No. 5, (October 1984), p. 943.
7 Examples abound, but note the prominence of hair in J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, especially Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, ch. 5, ('Tabooed Things'), sections 6 ('Hair Tabooed'), 7 ('Ceremonies at Hair-Cutting'), and 8 ('Disposal of Cut Hair and Nails').
8 The doctrine of the apple as an essentially indifferent example of 'positive right', (in John Carey's translation) is to be found in Milton's De Doctrina, Book I, chapter x. Were it not for this hint in De Doctrina, the difference between apple and hair might not be immediately apparent: Adam and Eve do seem to feel magical effects upon eating the forbidden fruit. But these effects are only temporary and specious; any permanent effects are the result of disobedience, not of the fruit itself. (It is clear, I think, that if they were to taste the fruit again in Book X, no intoxication would follow.) The idea that power is truly, and not just metaphorically, invested in Samson's locks, on the other hand, is supported by several passages in his prose works, most notably Eikonoklastes, ch. XXII.
9 Gustav Ungerer, 'Sir Andrew Aguecheek and His Head of Hair', Shakespeare Studies XVI, (1983), p. 113.
10 Thomas Vicary, The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man, ed. F. J. Furnivall and Percy Furnivall, E.E.T.S., e.s. 53, (1888); repr. Millwood, NY, 1975; pp. 26, 24, 25.
11 Oxford Shakespeare, ed. G. R. Hibbard, (1987).
12 Pamela A. Miller, 'Hair Jewelry as Fetish,' in Objects of Special Devotion: Fetishism in Popular Culture, ed. Ray B. Browne, (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1982), p. 89. Miller is speaking for the most part of the nineteenth century. Yet also in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, 'Hair was cherished as a relic of the beloved in life or after death', according to Margaret Sleeman, 'Medieval Hair Tokens,' Forum for Modern Language Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4, (October 1981), p. 325.
13 All quotations from the Songs and Sonets refer to Theodore Redpath's edition, (1956).
14 Keats uses the same adjective in the final stanza of his ode 'On Seeing a Lock of Milton's Hair'.
15 'A weak articulation of initial h or its complete disappearance is to be inferred from several puns in Shakespeare . . . [including] heir - hair'. Helge Kokeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation, (New Haven, 1953), p. 308.
16 Arden Shakespeare, ed. Kenneth Muir, (1964).
17 This same pun appears elsewhere in Shakespeare - the fifty hairs on Troilus's chin that represent Priam's fifty sons, for instance (Troilus and Cressida, I. ii).
18 Cambridge Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, (1990). The information about horsehair I derive from Bevington's note ad loc.
19 The other woman involved in the succession question - Mary Stuart, James's mother - also had notable hair. Mary had based her claims to the English throne partly on her descent, but partly as well on the fact of her proven ability to produce an heir. Perhaps this added to the shock when it was revealed at her execution that she had secretly been wearing wigs for years. After her head had been severed from the body, the executioner raised it aloft to show it to the people; but the head itself almost immediately dropped down again, leaving him with an auburn wig in his hand. According to the official account, the people 'saw that it was already very white-haired, and that the hair had not very long before been cut off to the scalp'. That this spectacle made a deep impression can be seen from the hint of it in Spenser's Faerie Queene. Spenser describes only the (putative) trial of Mary, not her execution, but Mary appears there in the character of Duessa, and is described thus:
this that seem'd so faire And royally arayd, Duessa hight That false Duessa, which had wrought great care.
(V. ix. 40)
This same Duessa, in Book I, (published six years previously), was stripped of this royal array; and then it had been revealed that 'Her craftie head was altogether bald', (I. ii. 47).
20 Sir Arthur Salusbury MacNalty, Elizabeth Tudor: The Lonely Queen, (1954), p. 236.
21 John Woodforde, The Strange Story of False Hair, (1971), p. 13.
22 From the journal of Paul Hentzner, as reprinted in W. B. Rye, England as Seen through the Eyes of Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth and James the First, (1865), pp. 104-5.
23 Thomas Nashe, The Unfortunate Traveller, and other works, ed. J. B. Steane, (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 150-1.
24 Nashe, p. 195; William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, (3rd. ed. 1968), p. 26. Earlier in the play (pp. 164-5) there is a confusing story about shaved heads.
25 Quoted from the edition of Donne's Satires, Epigrams, and Verse Letters, edited by W. Milgate, (Oxford, 1967). Milgate dates the poem August 1594 based on a conjecture by R. C. Bald.
26 Cleanth Brooks, 'The Case of Miss Arabella Fermor', from The Well-Wrought Urn, (New York, 1947), p. 87. The canto and line-number references which I have added refer to the final version as found in the Twickenham edition of Pope, (gen. ed. John Butt), Vol. II, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, (3rd ed., 1962), as do all references hereafter, except those specifically marked as referring to the 1712 version, also repr. in the Twickenham edition.
27 'The "Fall" of China and The Rape of the Lock', originally published in Philological Quarterly, (1962), repr. in Essential Articles for the Study of Alexander Pope, ed. Maynard Mack, (Hampden, CT, 1964), p. 278.
28 Tillotson, p. 143.
29 p. Ovidii Nasonis, Metamorphoses, ed. William S. Anderson, (1985).
30 Robin Grove, 'Uniting Airy Substance: The Rape of the Lock 1712-1736,' in The Art of Alexander Pope, ed. Howard Erskine-Hill and Anne Smith, (1979), p. 62.
31 Twickenham edition, Volume III. ii, ed. F. W. Bateson, (1951).
32 The Poetry of Alexander Pope, (Harmondsworth, 1989), p. 64.