Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

by Alexander Pope

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

The Speaker

Though the speaker is eulogizing the dead woman in the poem, it is unclear whether or not the speaker was the lover of this women or whether he is an observer remarking on the events of her tragic, thwarted love.

In the final stanza, the speaker references the lover who sustains the memory of the dead woman. Though this man is referred to in the third person throughout—which might suggest that the speaker is not the lover—the stanza also begins with the line "Poets themselves must fall," which establishes a connection between the inevitable death of poets (and, by extension, the speaker) and the description of the woman's lover's death in this stanza. However, never once in the poem is the woman referred to as "my love" or likewise, and the speaker narrates her life from the position of an outside observer (if an observer who is passionately moved by the events of her life), which lends more credence to the idea that the speaker was not the woman's lover.

In either case, the speaker mourns the loss of the woman's life. He narrates the circumstances that lead to her suicide and the union with her lover that was denied her. He implores the heavens to take pity on her soul and to deliver her unto heaven, despite the fact that she took her own life—a sin in Christian doctrine. He mourns the fact that she died alone and friendless and contemplates the nature of her legacy; once her lover dies, so too shall any memory of her.

The Unfortunate Woman

The unnamed titular woman is the main character in the poem, and the reader learns that she took her own life, impaling herself with a sword in her breast, because her guardian refused to allow her to be with her lover. The narrator says that she thought "greatly" (her thoughts were of the highest order) and died "bravely" (her actions were heroic and justified)—a victim of Fate who was endowed with an imperious and cruel guardian. The narrator describes how she died alone and friendless, in the company of strangers: it was "foreign hands" that closed her eyes, arranged her body, and buried her. While "foreign" in this case could mean literal foreigners or merely people who were unknown to her, in either case, the woman died and was buried by people who did not know her.

The Woman's Uncle and Guardian

When the parents of the young woman died, she was left in the care of her father's brother. It is then revealed that this man, the woman's guardian and uncle, prevented the woman and her lover from being together. The speaker then curses this man for his cruelty. The speaker feels that it would be befitting of "eternal justice" if everyone that this man loves or loved—wives or children—died tragically so that he, too, would be visited with the pain that he inflicted upon his niece and ward.

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