Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady Themes

Alexander Pope

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem is, as an elegy should be, about death in the romantic context of thwarted love at a time when European women of the upper classes could fall under the almost absolute power of a guardian or parent until the age of maturity. Despite references to the dead lady’s soul’s flight to heaven—“its congenial place”—or her body in the grave (lines 63-70), her premature death inspires a concentration on the mortality of the human race, including that of the poet and the cruel uncle. The theme is only slightly less nihilistic than the related meaning of Pope’s satiric last judgment on the benighted human race in Book IV of The Dunciad (1742): “And Universal Darkness buries All.”

When, around 1717, Pope was contemplating a collected edition of his poems, he possibly regretted that certain kinds of Roman poems were not represented among them. Like Vergil, he had produced pastorals and an epic (a mock epic); he had also composed a Horatian Ars Poetica in his “Essay on Criticism” (1711). Missing from his canon was any imitation of Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.) or elegiac passages of the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.). This poem and Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard filled this gap with amatory and self-consciously melancholy poetry. There are similarities between Pope’s two love poems in tone and rhetorical devices, in basic motifs, and...

(The entire section is 521 words.)