The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 17/A Key to the Lock

For other versions of this work, see A Key to the Lock.











Written In the Year 1714.



SINCE this unhappy division of our nation into parties, it is not to be imagined how many artifices have been made use of by writers to obscure the truth, and cover designs which may be detrimental to the public. In particular, it has been their custom of late to vent their political spleen in allegory and fable. If an honest believing nation is to be made a jest of, we have a story of John Bull and his wife: if a treasurer is to be glanced at, an ant with a white straw is introduced; if a treaty of commerce is to be ridiculed, it is immediately metamorphosed into a tale of count Tariff.

But if any of these malevolents have a small talent in rhime, they principally delight to convey their malice in that pleasing way; as it were gilding the pill, and concealing the poison under the sweetness of numbers.

It is the duty of every well-designing subject to prevent, as far as he can, the ill consequences of such pernicious treatises; and I hold it mine to warn the public of a late poem entitled, the Rape of the Lock; which I shall demonstrate to be of this nature.

It is a common and just observation, that, when the meaning of any thing is dubious, one can no way better judge of the true intent of it, than by considering who is the author, what is his character in general, and his disposition in particular.

Now that the author of this poem is a reputed papist, is well known; and that a genius so capable of doing service to that cause may have been corrupted in the course of his education by Jesuits or others, is justly very much to be suspected; notwithstanding that seeming coolness and moderation, which he has been {perhaps artfully) reproached with by chose of his own persuasion. They are sensible, that this nation is secured by good and wholesome laws to prevent all evil practices of the church of Rome; particularly the publication of books, that may in any sort propagate that doctrine: their authors are therefore obliged to couch their designs the deeper; and though I cannot aver the intention of this gentleman was directly to spread popish doctrines, yet it comes to the same point if he touch the government: for the court of Rome knows very well, that the church at this time is so firmly founded on the state, that the only way to shake the one, is, by attacking the other.

What confirms me in this opinion is an accidental discovery I made of a very artful piece of management among his popish friends and abettors, to hide his whole design upon the government, by taking all the characters upon themselves.

Upon the day that this poem was published, it was my fortune to step into the Cocoa-tree, where a certain gentleman was railing very liberally at the author, with a passion extremely well counterfeited, for having (as he said) reflected upon him in the character of Sir Plume. Upon his going out, I inquired who he was, and they told me he was a Roman catholick knight.

I was the same evening at Will's, and saw a circle round another gentleman, who was railing in like manner, and showing his snuff-box and cane to prove he was satirized in the same character. I asked this gentleman's name, and was told he was a Roman catholick lord.

A day or two after I happened to be in company with the young lady, to whom the poem is dedicated. She also took up the character of Belinda with much frankness and good humour, though the author has given us a hint, in his dedication[1], that he meant something farther. This lady is also a Roman catholick. At the same time others of the characters were claimed by some persons in the room; and all of them Roman catholicks.

But to proceed to the work itself.

In all things which are intricate, as allegories in their own nature are, and especially those that are industriously made so, it is not to be expected we should find the clew at first sight: but when once we have laid hold on that, we shall trace this our author through all the labyrinths, doublings, and turnings of his intricate composition.

First then let it be observed, that in the most demonstrative sciences some postulata are to be granted, upon which the rest is naturally founded.

The only postulatum or concession which I desire to be made me, is, that by the lock is meant

I. First then, I shall discover that Belinda represents Great Britain, or (which is the same thing) her late majesty. This is plainly seen in his description of her:

On her white breast a sparkling cross she bore:

alluding to the ancient name of Albion, from her white cliffs, and to the cross which is the ensign of England.

II. The baron, who cuts off the lock, or barrier treaty, is the E. of Oxford.

III. Clarissa, who lent the scissars, my lady Masham.

IV. Thalestris, who provokes Belinda to resent the loss of the lock, or treaty, the duchess of Marlborough.

V. Sir Plume, who is moved by Thalestris to redemand it of Great Britain, prince Eugene, who came hither for that purpose.

There are some other inferiour characters, which we shall observe upon afterward: but I shall first explain the foregoing.

The first part of the baron's character is his being adventurous, or enterprising, which is the common epithet given to the earl of Oxford by his enemies. The prize he aspires to is the treasury, in order to which he offers a sacrifice:

—— an altar built
Of twelve vast French romances neatly gilt.

Our author here takes occasion maliciously to insinuate this statesman's love to France; representing the books he chiefly studies to be vast French romances: these are the vast prospects from the friendship and alliance of France, which he satirically calls romances: hinting thereby, that these promises and protestations were no more to be relied on than those idle legends. Of these he is said to build an altar; to intimate that the foundation of his schemes and honours was fixed upon the French romances abovementioned.

A fan, a garter, half a pair of gloves.

One of the things he sacrifices is a fan; which, both for its gaudy show and perpetual fluttering, has been held the emblem of woman: this points at the change of the ladies of the bedchamber. The garter alludes to the honours he conferred on some of his friends; and we may, without straining the sense, call the half pair of gloves a gauntlet, the token of those military employments, which he is said to have sacrificed to his designs. The prize, as I said before, means the treasury, which he makes his prayer soon to obtain, and long to possess.

The pow'rs gave ear, and granted half his pray'r,
The rest, the winds dispers'd in empty air.

In the first of these lines he gives him the treasury, and in the last suggests, that he should not long possess that honour.

That Thalestris is the duchess of Marlborough, appears both by her nearness to Belinda, and by this author's malevolent suggestion that she is a lover of war.

To arms, to arms, the bold Thalestris cries:

but more particularly by several passages in her speech to Belinda upon the cutting off the lock, or treaty. Among other things she says, "was it for this you bound your locks in paper durance?" Was it for this so much paper has been spent to secure the barrier treaty?

Methinks, already I your tears survey;
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded toast.

This describes the aspersions under which that good princess suffered, and the repentance which must have followed the dissolution of that treaty; and particularly levels at the refusal some people made to drink her majesty's health.

Sir Plume (a proper name for a soldier) has all the circumstances that agree with prince Eugene:

Sir Plume, of amber snuffbox justly vain,
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane,
With earnest eyes ——

'Tis remarkable, this general is a great taker of snuff, as well as towns; his conduct of the clouded cane gives him the honour which is so justly his due, of an exact conduct in battle, which is figured by his cane or truncheon, the ensign of a general. His "earnest eye," or the vivacity of his look, is so particularly remarkable in him, that this character could be mistaken for no other, had not the author purposely obscured it by the fictitious circumstances of a "round unthinking face."

Having now explained the chief characters of his human persons (for there are some others that will hereafter fall in by the by, in the sequel of this discourse) I shall next take in pieces his machinery, wherein the satire is wholly confined to ministers of state.

The sylphs and gnomes at first sight appeared to me to signify the two contending parties of this nation; for these being placed in the air, and those on the earth, I thought agreed very well with the common denomination, high and low. But as they are made to be the first movers and influencers of all that happens, it is plain they represent promiscuously the heads of parties; whom he makes to be the authors of all those changes in the state, which are generally imputed to the levity and instability of the British nation.

This erring mortals levity may call:
Oh blind to truth! the sylphs contrive it all.

But of this he has given us a plain demonstration; for, speaking of these spirits, he says in express terms,

—— The chief the care of nations own,
And guard, with arms divine, the British throne.

And here let it not seem odd, if in this mysterious way of writing, we find the same person, who has before been represented by the baron, again described in the character of Ariel; it being a common way with authors, in this fabulous manner, to take such a liberty. As for instance, I have read in St. Evremont, that all the different characters in Petronius, are but Nero in so many different appearances. And in the key to the curious romance of Barclay's Argenis, both Poliarchus and Archombrotus mean only the king of Navarre.

We observe, in the very beginning of the poem, that Ariel is possessed of the ear of Belinda; therefore it is absolutely necessary, that this person must be the minister who was nearest the queen. But whoever would be farther convinced that he meant the treasurer, may know him by his ensigns in the following line:

He raised his azure wand.

His sitting on the mast of a vessel shows his presiding over the South-Sea trade. When Ariel assigns to his sylphs all the posts about Belinda, what is more clearly described than the treasurer's disposing of all the places in the kingdom, and particularly about her majesty? But let us hear the lines:

——Ye spirits, to your charge repair,
The fluttering fan be Zephyretta's care;
The drops to thee, Brillante, we consign,
And, Momentilla, let the watch be thine:
Do thou, Crispissa, tend her fav'rite lock.

He has here particularised the ladies and women of the bedchamber, the keeper of the cabinet, and her majesty's dresser, and impudently given nicknames to each. To put this matter beyond all dispute, the sylphs are said to be wondrous fond of place, in the canto following, where Ariel is perched uppermost, and all the rest take their places subordinately under him.

Here again I cannot but observe the excessive malignity of this author, who could not leave the character of Ariel without the same invidious stroke which he gave him in the character of the baron before:

Amaz'd, confus'd, he saw his pow'r expir'd,
Resign'd to fate, and with a sigh retir'd.

being another prophecy that he should resign his place, which it is probable all ministers do, with a sigh.

At the head of the gnomes he sets Umbriel, a dusky melancholy sprite, who makes it his business to give Belinda the spleen; a vile and malicious suggestion against some grave and worthy minister. The vapours, phantoms, visions, and the like, are the jealousies, fears, and cries of danger, that have so often affrighted and alarmed the nation. Those who are described, in the house of spleen, under those several fantastical forms, are the same whom their ill-willers have so often called the whimsical.

The two foregoing spirits being the only considerable characters of the machinery, I shall but just mention the sylph, that is wounded with the scissars at the loss of the lock; by whom is undoubtedly understood my lord Townshend, who at that time received a wound in his character for making the barrier-treaty, and was cut out of his employment upon the dissolution of it: but that spirit reunites, and receives no harm; to signify that it came to nothing, and his lordship had no real hurt by it.

But I must not conclude this head of the characters without observing, that our author has run through every stage of beings in search of topicks for detraction. As he has characterised some persons under angels and men, so he has others under animals and things inanimate: he has even represented an eminent clergyman as a dog, and a noted writer as a tool. Let us examine the former:

—— But Shock, who thought she slept too long,
Leapt up, and wak'd his mistress with his tongue.
'Twas then, Belinda, if report say true,
Thy eyes first open'd on a billet-doux.

By this Shock, it is manifest he has most audaciously and profanely reflected on Dr. Sacheverell, who leapt up, that is, into the pulpit, and awakened Great Britain with his tongue, that is, with his sermon, which made so much noise, and for which he has been frequently termed by others of his enemies, as well as by this author, a dog. Or perhaps, by his tongue may be more literally meant his speech at his trial, since immediately thereupon, our author says, her eyes opened on a billet-doux. Billet-doux being addresses to ladies from lovers, may be aptly interpreted those addresses of loving subjects to her majesty, which ensued that trial.

The other instance is at the end of the third canto:

Steel did the labours of the gods destroy,
And strike to dust th' imperial tow'rs of Troy.
Steel could the works of mortal pride confound,
And hew triumphal arches to the ground.

Here he most impudently attributes the demolition of Dunkirk, not to the pleasure of her majesty, or of her ministry, but to the frequent instigations of his friend Mr. Steele. A very artful pun, to conceal his wicked lampoonry!

Having now considered the general intent and scope of the poem, and opened the characters, I shall next discover the malice which is covered under the episodes, and particular passages of it.

The game at ombre is a mystical representation of the late war, which is hinted by his making spades the trump; spade in Spanish signifying a sword, and being yet so painted in the cards of that nation, to which it is well known we owe the original of our cards. In this one place indeed he has unawares paid a compliment to the queen and her success in the war; for Belinda gets the better of the two that play against her, viz. the kings of France and Spain.

I do not question but every particular card has its person and character assigned, which, no doubt, the author has told his friends in private; but I shall only instance in the description of the disgrace under which the duke of Marlborough then suffered, which is so apparent in these verses:

Ev'n mighty Pam, that kings and queens o'erthrew,
And mow'd down armies in the fights of loo,
Sad chance of war! now destitute of aid,
Falls undistinguish'd ——

And that the author here had an eye to our modern transactions, is very plain, from an unguarded stroke toward the end of this game:

And now, as oft in some distemper'd state,
On one nice trick depends the gen'ral fate.

After the conclusion of the war, the publick rejoicings and thanksgivings are ridiculed in the two following lines:

The nymph, exulting, fills with shouts the sky,
The walls, the woods, and long canals reply.

Immediately upon which there follows a malicious insinuation, in the manner of a prophecy (which we have formerly observed this seditious writer delights in) that the peace should continue but a short time, and that the day should afterward be cursed, which was then celebrated with so much joy:

Sudden these honours shall be snatch'd away,
And curs'd for ever this victorious day.

As the game at ombre is a satirical representation of the late war, so is the tea-table that ensues, of the council-table, and its consultations after the peace. By this he would hint, that all the advantages we have gained by our late extended commerce, are only coffee and tea, or things of no greater value. That he thought of the trade in this place, appears by the passage, which represents the sylphs particularly careful of the rich brocade; it having been a frequent complaint of our mercers, that French brocades were imported in great quantities. I will not say he means those presents of rich gold stuff suits, which were said to be made her majesty by the king of France, though I cannot but suspect that he glances at it.

Here this author (as well as the scandalous John Dunton) represents the ministry, in plain terms, taking frequent cups,

And frequent cups prolong the rich repast;

for it is manifest he meant something more than common coffee, by his calling it,

Coffee that makes the politician wise;

and by telling us, it was this coffee, that

Sent up in vapours to the baron's brain
New stratagems ——

I shall only farther observe, that it was at this tabic the lock was cut off; for where but at the councilboard should the barrier treaty be dissolved?

The ensuing contentions of the parties upon the loss of that treaty, are described in the squabbles following the rape of the lock; and this he rashly expresses without any disguise,

All side in parties ——

and here you have a gentleman who sinks beside the chair: a plain allusion to a noble lord, who lost his chair of president of the council.

I come next to the bodkin, so dreadful in the hand of Belinda; by which he intimates the British sceptre, so revered in the hand of our late august princess. His own note upon this place tells us, he alludes to a sceptre; and the verses are so plain, they need no remark:

The same (his ancient personage to deck)
Her great great grandsire wore about his neck
In three seal rings, which, after melted down,
Form'd a vast buckle for his widow's gown;
Her infant grandame's whistle next it grew,
The bells she gingled, and the whistle blew;
Then in a bodkin grac'd her mother's hairs,
Which long she wore, and now Belinda wears.

An open satire upon hereditary right! The three seal rings plainly allude to the three kingdoms.

These are the chief passages in the battle, by which, as hath before been said, he means the squabble of parties. Upon this occasion he could not end the description without testifying his malignant joy at those dissensions, from which he forms the prospect that both should be disappointed, and cries out with triumph, as if it were already accomplished,

Behold how oft ambitious aims are crost,
And chiefs contend till all the prize is lost.

The lock at length is turned into a star, or the old barrier treaty into a new and glorious peace. This, no doubt, is what the author, at the time he printed this poem, would have been thought to mean; in hopes by that compliment to escape the punishment for the rest of this piece. It puts me in mind of a fellow, who concluded a bitter lampoon upon the prince and court of his days, with these lines:

God save the king, the commons, and the peers,
And grant the author long may wear his ears.

Whatever this author may think of that peace, I imagine it the most extraordinary star, that ever appeared in our hemisphere. A star that is to bring us all the wealth and gold of the Indies; and from whose influence, not Mr. John Partridge alone (whose worthy labours this writer so ungenerously ridicules) but all true Britons may, with no less authority than he, prognosticate the fall of Lewis in the restraint of the exorbitant power of France, and the fate of Rome in the triumphant condition of the church of England.

We have now considered this poem in its political view, wherein we have shown, that it has two different walks of satire; the one in the story itself, which is a ridicule on the late transactions in general; the other in the machinery, which is a satire on the ministers of state in particular. I shall now show that the same poem, taken in another light, has a tendency to popery, which is secretly insinuated through the whole.

In the first place, he has conveyed to us the doctrine of guardian angels and patron saints in the machinery of his sylphs, which being a piece of popish superstition that has been exploded ever since the reformation, he would revive under this disguise. Here are all the particulars which they believe of those beings, which I shall sum up in a few heads.

1st. The spirits are made to concern themselves with all human actions in general.

2dly. A distinct guardian spirit or patron is assigned to each person in particular:

Of these am I, who thy protection claim,
A watchful sprite ——

3dly. They are made directly to inspire dreams, visions, and revelations.

Her guardian sylph prolonged her balmy rest,
'Twas he had summon'd to her silent bed
The morning dream ——

4thly. They are made to be subordinate in different degrees, some presiding over others. So Ariel has his several under officers at command:

Superiour by the head was Ariel plac'd.

5thly. They are employed in various offices, and each hath his office assigned him:

Some in the fields of purest ether play,
And bask and whiten in the blaze of day;
Some guide the course, &c.

6thly. He hath given his spirits the charge of the several parts of dress; intimating thereby that the saints preside over the several parts of human bodies. They have one saint to cure the toothach, another the gripes, another the gout, and so of the rest.

The flutt'ring fan be Zephyretta's care,
The drops to thee, Brillante, we consign, &c.

7thly. They are represented to know the thoughts of men:

As on the nosegay in her breast reclin'd,
He watch'd th' ideas rising in her mind.

8thly. They are made protectors even to antmal and irrational beings:

Ariel himself shall be the guard of Shock.

So St. Anthony presides over hogs, &c.

9thly. They are made patrons of whole kingdoms and provinces:

Of these the chief the care of nations own.

So St. George is imagined by the papists to defend England; St. Patrick, Ireland; St. James, Spain; &c. Now what is the consequence of all this? By granting that they have this power, we must be brought back again to pray to them.

The toilette is an artful recommendation of the mass, and pompous ceremonies of the church of Rome. The unveiling of the altar, the silver vases upon it; being robed in white, as the priests are upon the chief festivals; and the head uncovered, are minifest marks of this:

A heavenly image in the glass appears,
To that she bends ——

plainly denotes image worship.

The goddess, who is decked with treasures, jewels, and the various offerings of the world, manifestly alludes to the lady of Loretto. You have perfumes breathing from the incense pot in the following line:

And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.

The character of Belinda, as we take it in this third view, represents the popish religion, or the whore of Babylon; who is described in the state this malevolent author wishes for, coming forth in all her glory upon the Thames, and overspreading the whole nation with ceremonies:

Not with more glories in th' ethereal plain
The Sun first rises o'er the purple main,
Than issuing forth, the rival of his beams
Launch'd on the bosom of the silver Thames.

She is dressed with a cross on her breast, the ensign of popery, the adoration of which is plainly recommended in the following lines:

On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

Next he represents her as the universal church, according to the boasts of the papists:

And like the Sun she shines on all alike.

After which he tells us,

If to her share some female errours fall,
Look on her face, and you'll forget them all.

Though it should be granted some errours fall to her share, look on the pompous figure she makes throughout the world, and they are not worth regarding. In the sacrifice following you have these two lines:

For this, ere Phebus rose, he had implor'd
Propitious Heav'n, and ev'ry pow'r ador'd.

In the first of them he plainly hints at their rising to matins; in the second, by adoring every power, the invocation of saints.

Belinda's visits are described with numerous waxlights, which are always used in the ceremonial part of the Romish worship:

—— Visits shall be paid on solemn days,
When num'rous wax-lights in bright order blaze.

The lunar sphere he mentions opens to us their Purgatory, which is seen in the following line:

Since all things lost on earth are treasur'd there.

It is a popish doctrine, that scarce any person quits this world, but he must touch at Purgatory in his way to Heaven; and it is here also represented as the treasury of the Romish church. Nor is it much to be wondered at, that the moon should be Purgatory, when a learned divine hath in a late treatise proved the sun to be Hell[3].

I shall now, before I conclude, desire the reader to compare this key with those upon any other pieces, which are supposed to have been secret satires upon the state, either ancient or modern: in particular with the keys to Petronius Arbiter, Lucian's True History, Barclay's Argenis, and Rabelais's Garagantua; and I doubt not he will do me the justice to acknowledge, that the explanations here laid down, are deduced as naturally, and with as little violence, both from the general scope and bent of the work, and from the several particulars: farthermore, that they are every way as consistent and undeniable, every way as candid, as any modern interpretations of either party on the conduct and writings of the other. And I appeal to the most eminent and able state decipherers themselves, if, according to their art, any thing can be more fully proved, or more safely sworn to?

To sum up my whole charge against this author in a few words: he has ridiculed both the present ministry and the last; abused great statesmen and great generals; nay, the treaties of whole nations have not escaped him, nor has the royal dignity itself been omitted in the progress of his satire; and all this he has done just at the meeting of a new parliament. I hope a proper authority may be made use of to bring him to condign punishment. In the mean while I doubt not, if the persons most concerned would but order Mr. Bernard Lintot, the printer and publisher of this dangerous piece, to be taken into custody and examined, many farther discoveries might be made both of this poet's and abettor's secret designs, which are doubtless of the utmost importance to the government.

  1. "The character of Belinda (as it is here managed) resembles you in nothing but beauty." Dedication to the Rape of the Lock.
  2. For a full account of the political transactions relating to this treaty, see The Conduct of the Allies, and Remarks on the Barrier Treaty.
  3. The reverend Dr. Swinden.