“Just in that instant, anxious Ariel sought
The close recesses of the virgin’s thought;
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amazed, confused, he found his power expired,
Resigned to fate, and with a sigh retired.”
-Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, (Canto iii, 139-146)
While Ariel and the other Sylphs are guarding every inch of Belinda’s body, the Baron approaches Belinda’s hair to chop off a lock to keep for his own. When Ariel becomes aware of the sexual thoughts (the “earthly lover lurking at her heart”) that have risen in Belinda’s mind, Ariel is “resigned to fate” and no longer able to protect Belinda. More than retired, Ariel has lost his power to protect her and therefore must forfeit the battle.
Previously Ariel warned Belinda to “beware of Man” (Canto i, 114). The issue, though, does not seem to be as much the man himself, but more the thoughts that had risen in her mind. Belinda was warned of the dangers of man and it was her thoughts that ultimately broke the protection Ariel held. The reader is led to believe that had her thoughts remained pure, her lock of hair would be secure upon her head.
In the first canto Ariel refers to Belinda as the “fairest of mortals” (Canto i, 27). She seems to be some special beauty, an exception to others. She’s mentioned as being one of “the Fair” (Canto i, 57). Bringing attention back to the quote, these thoughts seem to negate her beauty, or at least whatever makes her fair. A specific line in the quote says, “in spite of all her art.” Since many terms in the eighteenth century had multiple meanings, it is important to consult other sources for the definition of art. The Oxford English Dictionary states art as “skill in doing something, as in the result of knowledge or practice.” This use of art is attributed to Pope himself in his translation of the Iliad. If art is a skill as the result of knowledge, then Belinda becomes either a bright woman and/or a talented woman. It may be her art that makes her special and above “earthly” thoughts.
Another interpretation considers that Belinda herself is a work of art, rather than skilled or talented. Despite all of her beauty and creation into this nearly-perfect image of woman, she is still beastly in her thoughts. Her chest heaves, her mind begins to race, she’s allowed him (or at least the thought of him) in. In this sense, Pope’s Catholic background could have influence. Belinda is a work of art, protected by a mythical force, whose power is retired upon earthly thoughts. Similarly in Catholicism, humans are created, protected by spiritual forces, and allowed to face the consequences when their acts become secular.
This quote is at the peak of Belinda’s crisis, the moment where all the Sylphs have worked for is lost. Because the fair Belinda ignores Ariel’s warning of Man and allows the desires to penetrate her thinking, she is put in a dangerous situation which leads to the raping of a lock of her hair. The definition of art in the quote above either paints Belinda as a glorified image of woman or sheds light on Catholic influence.