Last Updated September 6, 2023.
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.