“Hail, Wayward Queen”: Misogyny and the Spleen
In the eighteenth century the spleen served as a means of psychological oppression and as a mechanism for the misogynistic construct of hysteria. Although the mental affliction was not scientifically understood, our predecessors still contemplated the causes of what they knew to be melancholy, and oftentimes the spleen received the blame for causing people, primarily women, to have bad humors consisting of malaise and melancholy. This concept manifests in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” in Canto IV when the Umbriel, the “dusky melancholic sprite” descends into the Cave of Spleen where the source of Belinda’s “anxious worries” laments on its “pensive bed” (Pope 2483).
Simply put, Alexander Pope doesn’t present women in the best light. Although his satire revolves around the ridiculousness of the aristocracy, women don’t emerge from this unscathed. . Although Pope acknowledges in Canto I that society “early [tainted] the female soul” with intense lessons of gender roles, his writings are still mysoginistic. In Canto IV he personifies the spleen as a woman expressing melancholic attributes while being attended by her “handmaids” Ill-Humor and Affectation. The handmaids represent the imperatives of marriage. Ill-Humor is depicted as “an ancient maid”, unmarried and forced into a convent no doubt due to her bad attitude. Affectation is the exact opposite. She clearly accepts society’s conventions for women, but she takes it too far, relishing the drama of the hysterical woman trope, at least according to Pope. At least Pope thought women had souls. If only he didn’t believe that sadness was essentially a feminine trait stemming from the spleen and the uterus.
I know what you’re thinking. Men have spleens, too. Well, the female spleen lacks the “honorable” and “wise” characteristics that prevent the vapors in the male counterpart (Meek 107). There was literally no science involved in that determination (Meek 107). Clearly, medical professions were not the only ones involved in forming the construct of female hysteria. The word hysteria, by its etymology, suggests its connection to the womb, and that’s where the science gets worse (Meek 108). Crucially, the theory of “the wandering womb” is known for being a “fault of the uterus” as “vapors” rise from the uterus and trouble the brain (Meek 110). Now we have proof that science was not involved, as the vapors, a condition that was attributed to the spleen, were said to have an origin in the uterus as well.
The spleen as a source of ill humor was a convention since the time of the Ancient Greeks (“Glean on the Spleen” 08/02/2008). Undoubtedly, Pope was inspired in part by Anne Finch’s 1702 “The Spleen” (O’Neill 106). In her poem Finch “draws on and rejects medical wisdom” as she reshapes the theory to describe her frequent bouts of depression (Meek 111). What Pope missed, unfortunately, is Finch’s description of a similar splenetic fit occurring in a man, Robert Lower, who ultimately committed suicide (Meek 112). Did Pope simply over look that key part or did he disregard her explanation as a result of the vapors?
Pope alludes to these vapors during the Cave of Spleen scene. The images “A constant vapor o’er the palace flies” (39) and “Unnumbered throngs on every side are seen, /Of bodies changed to various forms by Spleen” (47-48) refer to hallucinations caused by the vapors (Pope 2484). Now, I don’t want to infer too much, but it sort of sounds like Pope’s discrediting women by afflicting them with psychological disorders.
Oh wait, that’s exactly what he’s doing, as exemplified in lines 57 through 59. “Hail, wayward Queen!/ Who rule the sex to fifty from fifteen,/Parent of vapors and of female wit…” (57-59). For the majority of their lives women are too troubled by uterine faults to be reasonable people. As Pope invokes the goddess of melancholia that autocratically governs the female conscious from menstruation to menopause, he attempts to pacify her with “spleenwort” (56), an alleged medical cure for bad humors (Pope 2484). On one hand, Pope blames society for the “instructed” hysteric nature of women, but on the other, he blames nature itself for the inherent hysteric nature of women (Pope 2480, 2484). He critiques society and biology in one swoop and provides literal solution besides a vague “good humor” in the words of the ignored Clarissa, who preached against vanity and selfishness (Pope 2492). Considering all of the terrible science working against her, it’s no wonder Belinda cried out: “To arms, to arms!” (Pope 2492) to fight for her loss. Why not give in to the faults of the “Menstrual flux and the whole Uterus” to combat the presumption of the oppressive sex (Meek 110)?
In his mock-epic Pope critiques the absurdity of the aristocracy by presenting a comical take on a true event as a means to mediate a feud between two upper-class families. His primary target might be the aristocracy as a whole, but Belinda, an aristocratic woman, is ultimately the brunt of the joke. During the eighteenth century melancholy was “exalted… as the mark of the distinguished sensibility” (O’Neill 108). “Fine ladies” were best associated with the condition of hysteria as they had “lost their native vigor” due to “unseasonal indulgence” and “the insults of passion or the excesses of midnight dissipation” (Meek 108). However, it is untrue that upper-class women were the only victims of the systematic scientific fallacies. Lower class women were also “subjected” to “hystericization” by doctors; they too were discredited emotionally and mentally as a means to remove their ability to express their pain (Meek 109).
In the end, the only symptom of the spleen that mattered in the patriarchy was silence, silence in response to male oppression and assault, and that was not the reaction the Baron merited from the spirited Belinda.
-Meek, Heather. “Of Wandering Wombs and Wrongs of Women: Evolving Conceptions of Hysteria in the Age of Reason.” English Studies in Canada 35 (2009): 105-28. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
-O’Neill, Michael. “”Anxious Cares”: From Pope’s Spleen to Coleridge’s Dejection.” Studies in Literary Imagination 44.1 (2011): 99-117. Abstracts in Social Gerontology. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
-Robert, Stanley. “Glean on the Spleen.” The Hobart Mercury [Tasmania] 02 Aug. 2008: B11. Print.
-Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Vol. 1C. New York: Pearson, 2010. 2479-2495.
Picture: “The Rape of the Lock.” Illustration print. The Metropolitan Museum. 1896. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.