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: 498

When the poem begins, the speaker sees the specter of a dead woman with a sword still piercing her breast. He sees her blood dripping from the sword, but he remarks that the woman is still beautiful, even in death. As he considers her, he wishes desperately to know whether or not she has been forgiven for taking her own life and has been admitted to heaven. He addresses her directly, saying,

Oh ever beauteous, ever friendly! tell,
Is it, in heav'n, a crime to love too well?

This woman took her own life as a result of her guardian refusing to allow her to be with her lover. Because their love was hopelessly terminated by this act, the lady impaled herself out of despair, being unable to live without her love. The speaker then fears that the woman will be denied admittance to heaven as a result of this sinful act (i.e., self-murder). Rather than focus on what she did, however, the speaker considers why she did it, hoping that this rationale will be duly considered by heaven in order to justify the eventual righteousness of her actions. To this end, he asks,

Is there no bright reversion in the sky,
For those who greatly think, or bravely die?

He hopes that despite her act of sin, her other qualities will tip the balance in her favor in terms of divine judgement. The speaker, while admitting that suicide is a sin, also considers the fact that it was love that drove the woman to this act, which is not a sin (and quite the opposite). To the speaker, it is not a transgression that the woman loved so deeply and completely that she could not bear a life without her love. Instead, the speaker considers this definitive act a demonstration of her unwavering commitment to her love, and he argues, rather, that it was an affirmation of her virtues rather than an illustration of her vices.

The speaker even makes the claim that this woman's suicide was fated, claiming that

Fate snatch'd her early to the pitying sky...
So flew the soul to its congenial place.

Because the odds were stacked against her, the speaker implies that the woman had no choice but to kill herself, as the only honorable demonstration of her commitment to love. Her death, when considered in this way, was not a sin against God but rather an inevitable act brought about by the unyielding cruelty of her fate. Furthermore, if God is considered the progenitor of all life, the speaker might also be implying that, having created the circumstances of this woman's life, God cannot be considered just if her fatal act is ultimately condemned (as it was brought about by God's own hand). The speaker then concludes, believing in the mercy and divine justice of the heavens, that this woman must have been admitted to heaven—and views this as the only consolation in the wake of her tragic life.

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