Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

While some of Pope’s contemporaries, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montague, used the verse epistle as a vehicle for satire, Pope used the form to explore the conflicting desires and psychological torment of his heroine. Eloisa longs for the love and passion she and Abelard once shared. Her desire for Abelard prevents her from finding solace within her present life of quiet celibacy. At times Eloisa regrets her love for Abelard, which she associates with both the flames of passion and damnation: “In seas of flame my plunging soul is drowned.” Eloisa recognizes, however, that without the memory of their love, she would be less alive, even less human. She understands that her religious vows, a final rejection of earthly love, represent a death as well as a rebirth. The warmth and vitality of her youth died when she “with cold lipskiss’d the sacred veil.”

Eloisa cherishes the memory of her time with Abelard even as she acknowledges their sins: “I ought to grieve, but cannot what I ought;/ I mourn the lover, not lament the fault;/ I view my crime, but kindle at the view,/ Repent old pleasures, and sollicit new.” She further expresses the ambivalence of her feelings through oxymoron; Abelard’s memory is a “delicious poison” that causes her “dear horrors.”

Earlier poets such as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne explored the relationship between human and divine love, often repeating the Neoplatonic idea that...

(The entire section is 450 words.)