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.)