The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” is a 366-line verse epistle written in heroic couplets (pairs of rhymed lines in iambic pentameter), which explores a woman’s struggle to reconcile her desires for physical passion and spiritual contentment. Based largely on John Hughes’s English translation of Heloise and Abelard’s correspondence (1713), the poem retells a tragic story of love and separation. Peter Abelard, a twelfth century theologian, was hired to tutor Heloise, who was then sixteen or seventeen years old. The two fell in love and secretly married after Heloise gave birth to a child. Heloise’s uncle, who had originally hired Abelard to tutor his niece and who did not know of the marriage, arranged to have Abelard castrated as retribution for his seduction of Heloise. Separated from each other forever, Heloise became a Benedictine nun, and Abelard became a Benedictine monk. Their subsequent correspondence has been translated and published many times and has inspired generations of writers.

Pope’s poem begins as Eloisa, an English variation of Heloise, reads a letter from Abelard recounting their past. The letter awakens passion in Eloisa, who is unsatisfied with her life in the convent. Although she is a devout Christian, Eloisa realizes that religion cannot calm her heart: “In vain lost Eloisa weeps and prays,/ Her heart still dictates, and her hand obeys.” The convent has become “coldunmov’d, and silent,” and...

(The entire section is 470 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although Pope’s subject is medieval, the form of “Eloisa to Abelard” is classical. Pope’s model is Ovid’s Heroides (before 8 c.e.; Eng. trans, 1567), which contains a series of verse epistles in which fictionalized representations of historical women address their lovers. Pope was by no means the first English writer to borrow Ovid’s form. During the renaissance, Samuel Daniel, Samuel Brandon, and John Donne each wrote verse epistles, sometimes called heroic epistles, modeled on the Heroides. The most important Renaissance collection of heroic epistles is Michael Drayton’s Englands Heroicall Epistles (1597), which was revised and expanded in John Oldmixon’s Amores Britannici (1703).

Like Oldmixon’s work, Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” is very much the product of the eighteenth century. The poem, in fact, contains many of the characteristics of neoclassical literature, which flourished in late seventeenth and early eighteenth century England. In addition to basing his work on a classical model, Pope follows neoclassical practices by writing in heroic couplets, a verse form well suited to conveying the symmetry and balance central to neoclassical art. Describing the conflict within her own heart, for example, Eloisa states: “Ev’n here, where frozen chastity retires,/ Love finds an alter for forbidden fires.” In this couplet, the cold sterility of monastic life is...

(The entire section is 581 words.)