Eloisa to Abelard Analysis
by Alexander Pope

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Eloisa to Abelard Analysis

Alexander Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717) is the poet's artistic interpretation of the actual tale of a French nun, Héloïse, who fell in love with her tutor, Peter Abelard. The two become romantically involved and, when Héloïse became pregnant, Abelard encouraged her to become a nun. Abelard apparently boasted of his affair with the young and clever Héloïse, which caused her uncle (in whose care she grew up) to castrate Abelard. After his castration, Abelard joined a monastery, and eventually published several theological doctrines as well as an autobiographical work Historia Calamitatum. This inspired Héloïse to write a letter to Abelard, which set in motion a series of letters exchanged between the two.

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Pope's poem is an extended epistolary poem written in heroic couplets. The letter is written from the perspective of Héloïse, here "Eloisa," who uses the letter as an opportunity to delineate the relative merits of divine love versus human love. Eloisa's ultimate contention is that divine love is stronger ("thy oaths I quit"); however, the extended discourse replete with metaphorical language suggests that in fact she is unable to choose. Her commitment to God is, in her intellectual mind, more important, but she is continually called back to Abelard ("Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?"). Despite Eloisa's interest in choosing virtue over passion, her choice is not convincing to the reader, who perceives from the substance of the poem that circumstances (i.e. their earthly separation) have forced her choice, rather than her own resolution. In moments of honesty, Eloisa admits that the monastery is an unforgiving and unpleasant place ("Relentless walls!"). She acknowledges her love for Abelard as human love ("All is not Heav'n's while Abelard has part, / Still rebel nature holds out half my heart").

Eloisa invites "grace serene" and "virtue heav'nly fair" to take over her heart and cause her to forget Abelard, but the results of her plea are questionable. The poem ends with Eloisa requesting that they be buried together. She vividly imagines onlookers at their grave asking that they not be cursed with the same love that Abelard and Eloisa did. If one future bard experiences such a love as Eloisa and Abelard did, Eloisa hopes that this person, who can best understand the couple's love and woe, renders their story in song (as Pope did).

Pope, through Eloisa, contends that true love cannot be stifled by time, circumstance, or religion.

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 Eloisa longs for the warmth and passion she...

(The entire section is 1,461 words.)