Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady Analysis

Alexander Pope

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady” is a melancholy, emotion-charged poem of eighty-two lines, involving a poet’s celebration of his lady, who committed suicide because her guardian thwarted their love. As an elegy, the poem follows the conventions of the genre in its effusive praise of a young, prematurely deceased person whose foreshortened life serves as an inspiration to present and future generations.

The elegy opens with a male poet who beholds his beloved’s ghost with a sword piercing her bleeding heart. He addresses her, until line 74, questioning her fate as a thwarted lover and a suicide: “Is it, in heav’n, a crime to love too well?” Why has she been treated so shabbily by her family? Will she be remembered for the wonderful woman that she was? Is she now in heaven, now in possession of some kind of peace, despite her Christian sin of suicide? Her ambition destined her for the heavens, and her departure from this earth has deprived her family below of all “virtue (to redeem her race)” (lines 11-28).

The poem proceeds next to a diatribe against her uncle and guardian. The poet-lover actually compounds the guardian’s failings in Christian charity toward his female ward by heaping curses for the early death of the uncle’s entire family to an overwrought, even surrealistic degree (“And frequent hearses shall beseige your gates/While the long fun’rals blacken all the way”).

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(The entire section is 441 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Alexander Pope’s “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” like his equally melancholy Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard (1717), is usually associated with an atypical impulse toward Romanticism in his canon because of an indulgence in sentiment that is uncommon in his longer poetry. The fact that both poems are monologues, treating women in a similar grandiose vein of thwarted love and loss, emphasizes their kinship, especially in relation to contemporary conventions of excessive passion in the sentimental tragedies of a playwright such as Nicholas Rowe.

The elegy’s opening lines are stagey; they seem an echo of Hamlet’s meeting with his father’s ghost. Pope makes use of a supernatural Gothic situation and a declamatory style of address often seen and heard on the eighteenth century stage. Pulling out all the stops in the presence of the gory ghost, the grieving lover stresses the pathos of his lady’s tragedy.

The heightened sentimentality of the poem stems from its being packed with elaborate rhetoric. There is the pounding symmetry of Pope’s masterful heroic couplets (or closed pentameter couplets) to lend order to the emotionally discordant subject matter of lost love. As part of his declamatory mode, the poet-lover’s couplets can employ rhetorical repetition, replete with parallel phrases, echoing sounds, and modulated meaning that climaxes in a summary closing line possessing internal balance:

(The entire section is 423 words.)