Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

by Alexander Pope

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

When the poem begins, the speaker sees the specter of a dead woman with a sword piercing through her breast. The speaker describes the woman as beautiful, even in death. The young woman, it is revealed, took her own life; she formed a passionate attachment to her lover but was prevented from being with him by her guardian, and was thus compelled to commit suicide. The speaker wonders if it is "a crime to love too well"—if heaven considers it a sin—musing on the moral crime of suicide within Christian doctrine and drawing attention to the injustice of this belief.

The speaker describes her love as one that ascended far above the "vulgar flight of low desire"—thus, it wasn't based on material ambition or lust. The speaker therefore ultimately hopes that the purity of her love will be enough to justify divine absolution and that her soul has gone to heaven—"its congenial place"—despite her "sin."

The speaker then directly addresses the dead lover's guardian, the brother of her father: the lady's uncle. He was responsible for separating the lovers and, by extension, for the suicide of the young woman, so the speaker then curses the man and his family, calling for justice to be dealt by way of the deaths of any wife of child he may have. The speaker calls for a never-ending line of funerals to be delivered unto this man.

The speaker further condemns the fact that this lady died alone; it is implied that there was no one around who loved her. It was, instead, "foreign hands" that buried her and delivered her into eternal rest. There were no friends or relatives at her funeral, and there is not even a marker that denotes her grave. The only consolation the speaker can hope for is that she eventually found peace and that the angels spread their wings over her grave—that, even if there is no mortal marker of her body, there is divine recognition of her pure soul.

Finally, the speaker laments the fact that eventually all that will remain of this once beautiful and honorable lady will be a "heap of dust." He acknowledges that someday the woman's lover will also die and that, when he does, the woman will truly be dead, because there will be no one else to preserve her memory. Therefore, when he is gone, she will really be gone, too.

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