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Wednesday 22 February 2012

Angels in Machines

Most of the planets and moons in the Solar System are named after characters from Greek mythology. The moons of Uranus are an exception, with most of the names swiped from Shakespeare’s plays. But two of the moons, Umbriel and Belinda, aren’t Shakespearean characters. They sound like they might be, but actually they come from a narrative poem by Alexander Pope. It’s called The Rape of the Lock, and it’s the daftest poem in the English language.

The phrase “The Rape of the Lock” may bring a bizarre image to mind, but you’d be wrong. It’s not a lock in the sense of a keyhole, but a lock of hair. Pope was writing in the genteel and sophisticated 18th century, when young women were obsessed with following all the latest fashions in clothes and hairstyles (times have changed since then, obviously). In those days, to go up behind a woman and snip off a lock of her hair was a crime of the utmost seriousness -- and if the victim was at all important (or thought she was), then it would very likely start a war. Well no, it wouldn’t... but Pope was a satirist, so he was allowed to exaggerate. The Rape of the Lock is a heroic tragedy modelled on Greek epics like the story of the Trojan War.

Belinda is the heroine of the story. When she discovers that a lock of her hair has been cut off, she goes into what can best be described as a hissy fit. Or that’s how it might be described today -- in Pope’s time, it was called a “fit of spleen”. Unknown to the people around her, Belinda has a whole host of invisible sprites who look after her every need. Umbriel is one of them. When she has her hissy fit, he heads off on an undercover mission to the Cave of Spleen (in the internal logic of the poem, this all makes perfect sense). The cave turns out to be a pretty cool place: “Now glaring Fiends, and Snakes on rolling Spires, Pale Spectres, gaping Tombs, and Purple Fires: Now Lakes of liquid Gold, Elysian Scenes, And Crystal Domes, and Angels in Machines.”

I’ve no idea what “Angels in Machines” means, but it sounds distinctly surreal. The surreal aspect of the poem was picked up by Aubrey Beardsley in his illustration The Cave of Spleen from 1896 (detail below):
So what happened to the lock of hair? It rose up into the sky and became a new star which could be seen through telescopes (“Galileo’s eyes”). Maybe that’s where they got the idea for the moons of Uranus!

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