Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

by Alexander Pope
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Last Reviewed on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 527

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Alexander Pope (1688–1744) was a preeminent English poet, essayist, and translator who was known especially for his satirical poetry. Born into a Catholic family the year that William of Orange, a Protestant, became king and banned Catholicism, Pope was forbidden by law to receive a public education and was taught at home. His poem "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," though written in his typical heroic (rhyming) couplet, is a rather unusual work in Pope's oeuvre. Not only is it not satirical, but it is sympathetic to a subject that the dominant culture—influenced by Christian faith, both Catholic and Protestant—of his time did not consider worthy of commemoration: death by suicide.

The unfortunate lady of the poem is a victim of love. She has loved too deeply, and the grief that this love (which has been denied her) has brought eventually led her to kill herself. Pope, in the first stanza, refers to this act as "Roman"—alluding to classical Roman culture which, contrary to Pope's contemporary Christian faith, did not condemn suicide as a sin but rather commemorated it as a heroic act. Rather than condemning the woman for her sin when her ghostly form appears to him, the speaker berates her uncle and guardian for his lack of compassion for her plight.

The speaker also laments the absence of family and friends at the woman's funeral and her appalling lack of a grave marker. During Pope's time, it was common practice to deny anyone who had committed suicide burial on consecrated ground, as it was believed that, through this transgression against God, these people would be condemned to damnation. Thus, the woman's unmarked grave would not have been considered unusual or unjust in Pope's time. This practice even persisted into the twentieth century, and it is interesting to note that, in American law, suicide was still considered a crime in some states until well into the twentieth century.

Thus, the fact that Pope transgressed the considerable religious stigma against suicide in his own time was not insignificant. In 1782, John Wesley, along with many others, objected to the poem because it condoned the woman's act of suicide. Pope's biographer Maynard Mack, in an attempt to justify this choice, writes of an "incoherence" in the poem because of the divergence in the Roman and Christian views on suicide, which Pope alluded to in kind.

Another question that is frequently asked in relation to this work is the subject and purpose of the elegy. In Pope's time, elegies were created to commemorate real people and events. Based on his study of Pope's letters, literary critic Geoffrey Tillotson wrote in a 1936 issue of The Review of English Studies that in "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," Pope did something very unusual: "He was inventing an occasion as freely as if he were a novelist." In other words, he did not base the poem on a real event, as there is no historical figure to which the "unfortunate woman" can be positively matched. This seems to suggest that perhaps Pope invented the woman in order to inspire more general compassion toward those who committed suicide.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

“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”).

There are suggestions that the lady died tended by strangers—that strangers buried her in an unhallowed grave, without Christian burial rights because of her suicide—but that nature restored beauty and sacredness to her unmarked grave site, where angels “o’ershade/ The ground, now sacred by thy reliques made.” The next lines add that she is now mere dust, “as all the proud shall be.”

The poem concludes with a memento mori (a reminder to be prepared for death) in which the lover laments that he too will die and will no longer be able to mourn his beloved (lines 75-82): “Life’s idle business at one gasp be o’er,/ The Muse forgot, and thou beloved no more.”

Many critics have found the poem to be somewhat unsatisfactory and problematic. The circumstances of the lady’s life and death, for example, are not clearly portrayed; the feeling sometimes seems forced, the rhetoric artificial. Samuel Johnson, in his Life of Pope (1781), although he “allowed” that parts were written with “vigorous animation” or “a gentle tenderness,” stated that “the tale is not skilfully told,” noting that it was difficult to determine the character of either the lady or her guardian.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

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:

By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos’d,By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos’d,By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn’d,By strangers honour’d, and by strangers mourn’d!

By the same token, the poet-lover makes repeated use of rhetorical questions, which bid defiance to any answers other than what he already assumes: that his lady was wronged and should be glorified.

Pope’s heroic couplets give his poetry an aphoristic quality, as in the following observation on human mortality: “A heap of dust alone remains of thee;/ ‘Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be.” Poetic diction—elevated poetic statement—comes into play when black funeral clothes are termed “sable weeds.” There is pathetic fallacy when nature is said to cooperate in mourning at her gravesite: “There shall the morn her earliest tears bestow.”

Finally, in keeping with the rhetorical quality of “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” a simile appears in the explicit comparison between dull ordinary mortals with no “ambition,” and lazy oriental monarchs devoid of the dead lady’s godlike ambition (aspiration) in life: “Like Eastern kings a lazy state [sedateness] they keep.”