Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

by Alexander Pope
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Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 347

Suicide and Christian Doctrine

The speaker of the poem makes the case that because the woman in the poem took her life as a result of the cruelty of her uncle and guardian, her suicide ought not to be considered a sin—thus, the speaker argues that she should be admitted...

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Suicide and Christian Doctrine

The speaker of the poem makes the case that because the woman in the poem took her life as a result of the cruelty of her uncle and guardian, her suicide ought not to be considered a sin—thus, the speaker argues that she should be admitted into heaven. The speaker entreats the heavens to consider whether or not "to love too well" is a crime; here, the speaker is pointing out the fact that a person who loves wholly and completely (with love itself being encouraged by the Church) cannot be condemned for ultimately being unable to bear a life without the person she loves. The speaker cannot believe that someone who died so "bravely" or thought so "greatly" could be callously damned because of the fact that suicide is a universal and categorical sin.

The Desire for Justice

The speaker visits a curse on the dead woman's uncle and guardian. He declares that if there is any "eternal justice," any future wives that the uncle might take or children he might have will die tragically. The speaker suggests that this curse would be a natural punishment that would arise from "hearts unknowing how to yield." Just as the man's obdurate actions were uncompromising in their cruelty to the young woman, so too will his punishment be unyielding. The speaker calls for funeral processions, one after another, to beset this man's door: a persistent reminder of his injustice toward the lovers.

Mortality and Memory

The speaker describes the fact that one day, all that will be left of the young woman is dust. While the woman's lover may be alive and thus keeps her memory alive, the speaker notes that someday the lover will die—"Poets themselves must fall"—and it is then that the dead women will be truly gone. For now, the lover grieves the loss of the woman and gives a kind of life to her, because he still has a life of his own. But once he is gone—as he inevitably will die—she will be wholly and truly forgotten.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

The poem is, as an elegy should be, about death in the romantic context of thwarted love at a time when European women of the upper classes could fall under the almost absolute power of a guardian or parent until the age of maturity. Despite references to the dead lady’s soul’s flight to heaven—“its congenial place”—or her body in the grave (lines 63-70), her premature death inspires a concentration on the mortality of the human race, including that of the poet and the cruel uncle. The theme is only slightly less nihilistic than the related meaning of Pope’s satiric last judgment on the benighted human race in Book IV of The Dunciad (1742): “And Universal Darkness buries All.”

When, around 1717, Pope was contemplating a collected edition of his poems, he possibly regretted that certain kinds of Roman poems were not represented among them. Like Vergil, he had produced pastorals and an epic (a mock epic); he had also composed a Horatian Ars Poetica in his “Essay on Criticism” (1711). Missing from his canon was any imitation of Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.) or elegiac passages of the Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.). This poem and Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard filled this gap with amatory and self-consciously melancholy poetry. There are similarities between Pope’s two love poems in tone and rhetorical devices, in basic motifs, and in the vagueness of the narratives.

Heroic love in the Ovidian tradition is not a private affair, but rather a drama that is played on the stage of history and that is supposedly well known to readers. In “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” Pope was trying to write an Ovidian poem of heroic love, but about a private—even obscure—affair. His own note on the poem’s title suggests that the lady was a woman intending monastic retirement, as memorialized in verses by “the Duke of Buckingham.” There have been conjectures about the reality of the unfortunate lady; many commentators, however, doubt that she existed anywhere outside of the author’s imagination.

The poem, emulating Renaissance aesthetics, contains a mixture of Christian and pagan classical sentiments; this mixture, sometimes confusing, is especially important because the poem deals with an issue that Christianity views as a sin—suicide. Pope wants his readers to overlook this aspect (a difficult task, especially given the era in which he wrote), so he stresses the classical noble or heroic view of the suicide of a true lover or an ancient Roman hero. The opening question about the lady’s eligibility for a “bright reversion” to a Christian heaven is therefore answered by assertions that her death had a pagan nobility (a “lover’s or a Roman’s part”) or had the flawed grandeur of rebellious “Angels and of gods.” The mixture of pagan and Christian sentiments may also have led to the poet-lover’s vengeful (and contradictory) cursing of the “false guardian” because of the guardian’s lack of Christian charity toward the ward: “So perish all, whose breast ne’er learned to glow/ For others’ good, or melt at others’ woe.”

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