Kathryn Walls – A Question of Competence: The Card Game in Pope’s Rape of the Lock. A Response to Oliver R. Baker


A Question of Competence: The Card Game in Pope's Rape of the Lock. A Response to Oliver R. Baker

Kathryn Walls

Published in Connotations Vol. 19.1-3 (2009/10)


Oliver R. Baker claims that previous commentators have failed to provide sufficiently comprehensive glosses on the game of Ombre as described in The Rape of the Lock iii.25−100. Noting that "[w]ithout a credible reconstruction of the three hands, informed readings of the card game […] are not possible" (Baker 210), he attempts to supply such a reconstruction. Baker is of course right to imply that we cannot determine the significance of Pope's description of Belinda (contemplating her hand) as "[t]he skilful Nymph" (iii.45) until we have assessed her strategies in the light of the rules of the game. But I am not convinced that his reconstruction (of, that is, the hands) is an advance upon that of Geoffrey Tillotson (dismissed by Baker as one of several who have tried but "failed to untangle Pope's enigma," 211).1) Tillotson is not Baker's sole target, but I have in what follows used his influential account ("Appendix C" in the second volume of the Twickenham edition of Pope's works) to stand for the broad spectrum of interpretations to date that Baker finds so inadequate.2)

We might begin with the question: how different is Baker's reconstruction of the hands from Tillotson's? The answer, surprisingly enough, is: scarcely at all. True, Tillotson hypothesizes certain preliminaries (a bid by Belinda, discards on the part of all the players), while Baker (213−14) chooses to read Pope's silence on these points as indicating, quite unambiguously, that Belinda does not bid (she plays, [→page 230] according to Baker, sans prendre), and that the other players choose not to discard (cf. Tillotson 388−89).3) It is also true that Tillotson takes the liberty of allocating specific values to the non−court cards—a liberty resisted by Baker.4) Otherwise, however, it would have to be said that his versions of both the Baron's hand and that of the anonymous third player are identical with Baker's own (as set out on 221). As for Belinda's hand, there is only one difference: where Tillotson allocates Belinda a non−court diamond, Baker allocates her a non−court club in its place, attributing her with a void in diamonds. Thanks to this latter point, his reconstruction of the hands is actually identical to one put forward by Edward G. Fletcher in 1935.5)

This problematic non−court card, whether diamond or club, is the one played by Belinda when following (one of) the Baron's first two diamond leads on the sixth and seventh tricks. Here it is important to note that Baker agrees with Tillotson on Belinda's possession of the Queen of Clubs, and on her use of the said non−court card (either before or after her Queen of Clubs) at this stage of the game.6) The essential question, then, is whether that non−court card is a diamond or a club. Baker's conclusion that it must be a club is based upon his interpretation of iii.75−80:

The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace;
Th'embroider'd King who shows but half his Face,
And his refulgent Queen, with Pow'rs combin'd,
Of broken Troops an easie Conquest find.
Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild Disorder seen,
With Throngs promiscuous strow the level Green.

According to Baker, these lines intimate "that Belinda and the Knight slough their losing clubs and hearts on the Baron's two diamond leads—a second disordered heap of Belinda's clubs and the Knight's hearts on top of the first—'[h]eaps on [h]eaps' (iii.86) indeed" (219). As Baker reads it, then, the diamonds of iii.79 are the Baron's victorious leads, lying confused with the trumped hearts (of the Knight) and Belinda's (also trumped) clubs—these latter including the Queen of [→page 231] Clubs as well as the non−court club that Baker thinks Belinda played on the sixth trick (and that Tillotson thinks she played on the seventh).

Until now, however, Pope has distinguished very clearly between the victorious cards and those that are trumped. These defeated cards include the "two captive Trumps" of iii.50, and the Knave of Spades that "[f]alls undistinguish'd by the Victor Spade" at iii.64 (first italics mine). It seems most unlikely that he would change his approach here by confusing the victorious diamonds with the (as it were) wounded or even dead "troops" that they have "broken" and "conquered." If a diamond is in the heap, it must be as a trumped card, not as a victor. In other words, the trumped cards must (as Tillotson and others have concluded) include (from Belinda) a diamond, along with the third player's pair of hearts and Belinda's Queen of Clubs. It would be a mistake, by the way, to allow Pope's plurals to complicate the matter. A single card is (and was) normally described as the "six [or, of course, any other number] of diamonds [plural]."

Baker claims that his (in my view, highly dubious) reconstruction of Belinda's hand has implications not only for the game, but also for her approach to it.7) Believing that Belinda's strength in clubs is greater (by one card) than generally thought, Baker argues that Belinda should have declared clubs as trumps—and, what is more, ventured for the Vole (225−26). But if Tillotson is right (as, in my view, is evident from iii.75−80), Belinda's strength in clubs is no greater than her strength in spades, and her decision to declare spades as trumps is perfectly sensible.8)

But Baker's dissatisfaction with Belinda's approach extends beyond her supposedly unwise choice of trumps. As Baker notes (222), while the Baron is playing his last card (the Ace of Hearts), "[t]he King unseen ⁄ Lurk'd in her Hand" (iii.95−96; italics mine). From this, Baker concludes that Belinda has been unaware of her possession of the King (having held it tucked behind the Queen of the same suit) until losing her Queen of Hearts in the eighth trick. It is for this reason, Baker thinks, that she does not play it in the fifth trick as (according to Baker, at least) she ought to have done. But while it certainly emerges that [→page 232] Belinda's King of Hearts would have drawn the Baron's Ace of Hearts and brought her immediate victory, it remains doubtful as to how Belinda (or anyone else) could have anticipated this.9)

This having been said, Belinda can scarcely merit the epithet "skilful" if she has literally mishandled her hand. A very large question must remain, however, as to whether she is guilty of any such clumsiness. Baker's accusation depends upon his implicit interpretation of "[t]he King unseen" (iii.95) as (and the paraphrase here is my own) 'the king, previously unseen by Belinda.' There are two (overlapping) inferences involved, and it seems to me that neither carries conviction. First, it is unlikely that Pope would describe the King of Hearts as unseen by Belinda when (as no−one could deny) Belinda has seen it—especially if, as Baker claims, she has only just done so. It will be evident, then, that Baker's "by Belinda" inference depends for its viability on his "previously" inference. But while "previously unseen" happens to be one of the definitions of "unseen" given in the OED, the citations reveal that the word was applied not to items or people that might have escaped notice (as Baker supposes the King of Hearts has escaped the notice of Belinda), but to genuinely strange and⁄or unprecedented phenomena (miracles, monstrosities, prodigies).10) "[U]nseen" is, anyway, open to a more rewarding interpretation. Taken to mean "unseen by the other players," it works to project Belinda's delighted sense (once the Baron has led his Ace of Hearts, but in the seconds before she trumps it with her king) that he does not know what is coming to him. For a delectable moment, the relieved Belinda may contemplate the imminent effect of her (as she has just realized) powerful card on her perhaps over−confident and unsuspecting, or "unseeing," opponent.

Believing as he does that Belinda is far from "skilful," Baker finds line 45 ("[t]he skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care") "wickedly ironic" (223). On the contrary, however, what evidence we have suggests that Belinda plays her game quite competently. But although the irony that Baker sees may be a mirage, line 45 still invites the reader to smile. We do not smile, however, at Belinda's supposed lack of intelligence. [→page 233] (Indeed, at ii.9−10 she was credited by Pope her with a "sprightly" and even "quick" mind.11)) We smile, rather, at her innocence. Belinda has not yet learned to be nonchalant about social occasions. She expects much from her visit to Hampton Court, as we may deduce from her toilette at i.21−48, her glowing demeanor at ii.1−14, and (paradoxically, but most tellingly) the excessiveness of her despondency (and her expression of it) after the "rape"—this last being evident from, for example, her lament at iv.149−50: "Happy! ah ten times happy, had I been, ⁄ If Hampton−Court these Eyes had never seen." When it comes to Ombre, she "burns" to join the others at her table (cf. iii.25−26), and she wants—even expects—to win (iii.27−28).12) Then, when she does so, her reaction is the very opposite of urbane: "The Nymph exulting fills with Shouts the Sky, ⁄ The Walls, the Woods, and long Canals reply" (iii.99−100). Pope's description of her at iii.45 as a "skilful Nymph" reviewing her "Force" (or hand) "with Care" thus accords with his account of Belinda throughout. She is concentrating hard, applying her (perfectly respectable) intelligence to her hand with an intensity that is as touching as it is amusing.

But to acknowledge that Belinda has her wits about her is not to deny that she has what Baker rightly characterizes as "a fabulous hand" (222). Her success is largely (though not solely) attributable to the cards she has been dealt. Pope's representation of the game embodies this point through its alternation of contrary perspectives. According to one of these, the "real" people are in control ("Thus far both Armies to Belinda yield" iii.65; "The Baron now his Diamonds pours apace" iii.75). According to the other, the cards are larger than life, brimming with motivation (borrowed, one suspects, from their players) and agency:

The King unseen

Lurk'd in her Hand, and mourn'd his captive Queen.
He springs to Vengeance with an eager pace,
And falls like Thunder on the prostrate Ace (iii. 95−98)

Indeed, it is quite obvious that (as in most card games) the cards determine the decisions of the players at least as much as the players [→page 234] determine the functions (or, as Pope represents them, the initiatives and relative strength) of the cards.

Ultimately, however, the "Fate" (iii.66) that is symbolized by and disposes the cards is really Pope, whose purpose (if we may infer it from the effect) was to produce, at the very center of his pivotal canto, a parabolic action that parallels, in miniature, the beautifully shaped action of the poem as a whole.13) But there is a contrast between these smaller and larger actions. As noted by Ralph Cohen, Belinda's success is due entirely to her male cards—her three Matadores, her King of Spades, her King of Hearts.14) But the cards would seem to be stacked against her in the larger game, whose rules approximate those of life itself. Pope intimates as much (albeit through tactful euphemism) when he describes the distinct minority of court cards that are female: the "four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow'r, ⁄ Th'expressive Emblem of their softer Pow'r" (iii.39−40; italics mine).

Victoria University of Wellington
New Zealand



Works Cited

Cohen, Ralph. “The Reversal of Gender in ‘The Rape of the Lock.'” South Atlantic Bulletin 37.4 (1972): 54−60.

Fletcher, Edward G. “Belinda’s Game of Ombre.” Studies in English 15 (1935): 28−38.

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. Ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. 3rd ed. London: Methuen, 1962.

Tillotson, Geoffrey. “Appendix C.” The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. By Alexander Pope. Ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. 3rd ed. London: Methuen, 1962. 383−92.

Wimsatt, W. K. “The Game of Ombre in The Rape of the Lock.” Review of English Studies ns 1.2 (1950): 136−43.