Eloisa to Abelard

by Alexander Pope

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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