Beardsley's Cave of Spleen

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration "The Cave of Spleen" embellishes the depiction of the grotesque in Canto IV of Pope's The Rape of the Lock. The term grotesque describes a style of decoration in which different, recognizable forms are intermingled and woven together. Animal suddenly shifts into human and then into plant or machine. In the illustration, form becomes very unstable and changeable by means of the grotesque — a thing is never one thing alone. The couplet form, however, disallows formal grotesque since the verse has to remain very stable. Because of poetic constraints, the content alone demonstrates the grotesque transformations which occur in the cave of spleen. Beardsley, as an illustrator, has more freedom to portray the grotesque through formal technique than does Pope. This style is very appropriate to represent the cave of spleen because it is Belinda's world of fashion and leisure turned upside down. Wolfgang Kayser points out that the grotesque renders the familiar terrifying: "We are strongly affected and terrified because it is our world which ceases to be reliable, and we feel that we would be unable to live in this changed world."

Beardsley brilliantly evokes a sense of instability in the illustration by allowing boundaries between objects and people to blur. The women's dresses curve sinuously, giving no sense of a body lying beneath them. They give rise to the vaporous atmosphere which Pope describes: "A constant Vapour o'er the Palace flies; /Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise." Pope then goes on to mention a quintessential element of grotesque: "Angels in Machines." Although the reader can specifically identify them as the sylphs of previous cantos, Beardsley literalizes Pope's description by portraying beautiful, winged women disintegrating into the scrolls and flourishes of decorative machinery. Pope then gives a stanza full of grotesque transformations:

Unnumber'd Throngs, on ev'ry side are seen,
Of Bodies chang'd to various forms by Spleen.
Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,
One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout:
A Pipkin there like Homer's Tripod walks;
Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pye talks;
Men prove with Child, as pow'rful Fancy works,
And Maids turn'd Bottels, call aloud for Corks.

Beardsley takes full advantage of Pope's poetic material: the illustration is overflowing with figures, giving a sense of fluid claustrophobia; in the bottom left, a pumpkin-shaped man shares an "Arm held out" with a teapot of the same size while a man's pregnant stomach interrupts their similarity; in the bottom right, a personified jar sits in equal position to a tiny man and the torso of the winged woman resembles a bottle while her exaggerated lower half gives emphasis to Pope's bawdy pun.

"The Cave of Spleen" in Pope gives Beardsley ample inspiration for a decadent treatment of the grotesque. Many Aesthetes found grounds for their artistic projects in the Eighteenth Century, in part due to the conception of that century initiated by Jules and Edmond de Goncourt in France. Linda Dowling describes the Goncourt's attitude toward the eighteenth century as

delightfully blending as it did a hedonistic self-abandonment to impressions with a precisian's sense of scholarship, [it] seemed to the poets and writers of the eighties and nineties to enlarge significantly the range of late-Victorian literary possibilities. Deeply partisan yet elegantly detached, the amateur of eighteenth-century culture could, they saw, safely consecrate himself to its beauty without committing himself to any ideological point of view, for his status as scholar permitted him to be a disinterested onlooker while allowing him a number of eccentric enthusiasms. (368-9)

With this version of the eighteenth century, the viewer can understand why Beardsley chose to illustrate the cave of spleen — a fantastic, unnerving space that shows Pope's ability to play with language and imagery while maintaining tight formal control.


Do any instances of the visual grotesque in the cave of spleen lie outside of Pope's verse?

How does the visual grotesque differ from the verbal?

Does Beardsley's formal grotesque critique Pope's dedication to the couplet?

How does Beardsley's use of the grotesque fit into the Aesthete agenda?


Dowling, Linda. "The Aesthetes and the Eighteenth Century." Victorian Studies 20.4 (1977): 357-377.

Harpham, Geoffrey. "The Grotesque: First Principles." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34.4 (1976): 461-468.

Kayser, Wolfgang. "The Grotesque in Art and Literature." The Victorian Web.

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.

Last modified 6 December 2007