Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470
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 once knew. Grateful that she has “not yet forgot [her]self to stone,” Eloisa recounts the story of her love.
Before they became lovers, Eloisa saw in Abelard “some emanation of th’ all-beauteous Mind” and conflated his image with that of God. “Heav’n listen’d” as Abelard shared “truths divine” with his “Guiltless” student. Once their relationship became physical, Eloisa accepted his humanity and discovered happiness: “Back thro’ the paths of pleasing sense I ran,/ Nor wish’d an Angel whom I lov’d a Man.”
Their joy was short-lived. After Abelard’s assault, Eloisa was forced to trade human love for spiritual love, but she could never forget Abelard. Even as she took the holy vows, her eyes were fixed not on the cross, but on her earthly lover, whose remembrance now draws her away from God. Her memory of Abelard casts a “Black Melancholy” over her spiritual meditations, and she confesses that his image “steals between my God and me.” Knowing that only death will bring her peace, Eloisa hopes she and Abelard will be reunited in a single grave. The poem ends with Eloisa imagining that their tomb will not only warn young lovers to love more wisely but also add warmth and humanity to the “dreadful sacrifice” of religious ritual, and inspire a poet who will sooth Eloisa’s soul by retelling her tragic story.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
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 balanced by the heat of passion, a juxtaposition that Pope repeats throughout the poem. Hoping, as he wrote in An Essay on Criticism (1711) to make the “Soundan Eccho to the Sense,” Pope slows the pace of the first line with a pause after the word “here” and with the long vowel sounds in “frozen” and “retires.” In contrast, the second line of the couplet re-creates Eloisa’s passion as it accelerates with Pope’s use of alliteration and the repetition of the stopped t and d sounds.
A consummate artist, Pope creates similar effects and balances throughout the poem. The virgin’s “visions of eternal day,” for example, are contrasted with Eloisa’s “horrors of all-conscious night.” Pope achieves a sense of symmetry for the entire poem by dividing it into three roughly equal parts: the first third of the poem explores the love that existed in the past, the middle third Eloisa’s present conflict, and the last third her hope for future reconciliation.
Neoclassical art also celebrates verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. In An Essay on Criticism, Pope instructs poets to “First follow NATURE, and your Judgment frame/ By her just Standard.” On occasion, Pope appears to violate this principle. Eloisa, for instance, seems to attribute human emotions to inanimate objects, a poetic trope common in romantic poetry and sometimes referred to as the pathetic fallacy. Pope is careful, however, to preserve the verisimilitude of even the most imaginative passages. Eloisa reports, for instance, that while she was taking her sacred vows, “The shrines all trembled, and the lamps grew pale.” On first reading, the shrines and lamps appear to respond sympathetically to Eloisa’s plight, which would be an unmistakable violation of verisimilitude. The reader must remember, however, that the line records Eloisa’s impressions at a time when her eyes were filled with tears. The visual distortion caused by the tears could cause objects appear to tremble and the lamps to appear less bright. Although Pope’s speaker explores emotions that overwhelm her, the poet remains entirely in control. Using his carefully crafted couplets and respecting the bounds of realism, Pope remains true to the neoclassical aesthetic of his time.