Themes

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

Physical vs spiritual passion

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Alexander Pope’s "Eloisa to Abelard" is a poem of oppositions. The two lines that form each of the heroic couplets by which it is composed might be seen as reflecting the contrary impulses that torment Eloisa, the poem’s protagonist. Perhaps the most recurring of these conflicts is between spiritual and physical passion. As a nun, Eloisa knows that she must set aside Earthly affections in favor of devotion to the divine. While Abelard has suffered physical castration, a punishment that symbolizes the literal obliteration by the spiritual of the physical passions, Eloisa’s castration is merely metaphorical, taking the form of her nun’s vows. She is still therefore subject to her physical desires, as is clear, even at the moment she takes her vows:

Not on the Cross my eyes were fix'd, but you,

and the figure of Abelard, and the physical human passion he represents often interposes itself between her and God:

Thy image steals between my God and me.

She even has trouble, as can be observed in her reflections on her time with Abelard prior to their marriage distinguishing the physical man from the spiritual God:

Heav'n listen'd while you sung;

And truths divine came mended from that tongue.

The conflict between Eloisa’s physical body, and her spiritual will is perhaps embodied best by how she commands, yet is unable to compel her body to act in accordance with her Christian Faith:

In vain lost Eloisa weeps and prays,

Her heart still dictates, and her hand obeys.

Damnation

The reason Eloisa recoils from the pleasures of her past is her Religious fear of damnation:

In seas of flame my plunging soul is drown'd.

The irony is that the imagery of Hell is already manifesting itself to her, both in how she experiences separation from her lover and in the setting in which she is confined. She describes her frustrated love for Abelard as:

hopeless, lasting flames! like those that burn

To light the dead, and warm th' unfruitful urn.

In addition to this the convent where Eloisa dwells, which is supposed to be a stronghold of Christian virtue and a refuge from worldly suffering is portrayed as a prison alike to damnation:

Relentless walls! whose darksome round contains

Repentant sighs, and voluntary pains

Pope seems here to be implying that religious observance, and the self-denial it involves are the real damnation, one which is chosen voluntarily not imposed as a punishment for sin.

Love as the highest virtue in the universe

Pope’s portrayal of love is as an aesthetic virtue which stands alone, above other human virtues and aspirations:

Fame, wealth, and honor! what are you to Love?

The metaphorical highness of love is reinforced by his associating it with the physical imagery of flight:

Love, free as air, at sight of human ties,

Spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies.

Love does not play by human rules, or submit to human sanctions. But Pope goes still further in portraying Eloisa, a woman empowered by the love she feels, as a being to whom even the divine is potentially subordinate:

Should at my feet the world's great master fall,

Himself, his throne, his world, I'd scorn 'em all

Even offered all the fruits of divinity, Eloisa ultimately chooses the humanity and the simplicity of love, of being:

mistress to the man I love.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

While some of Pope’s contemporaries, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montague, used the verse epistle as a vehicle for satire, Pope used the form to explore the conflicting desires and psychological torment of his heroine. Eloisa longs for the love and passion she and Abelard once shared. Her desire for Abelard prevents her from finding solace within her present life of quiet celibacy. At times Eloisa regrets her love for Abelard, which she associates with both the flames of passion and damnation: “In seas of flame my plunging soul is drowned.” Eloisa recognizes, however, that without the memory of their love, she would be less alive, even less human. She understands that her religious vows, a final rejection of earthly love, represent a death as well as a rebirth. The warmth and vitality of her youth died when she “with cold lipskiss’d the sacred veil.”

Eloisa cherishes the memory of her time with Abelard even as she acknowledges their sins: “I ought to grieve, but cannot what I ought;/ I mourn the lover, not lament the fault;/ I view my crime, but kindle at the view,/ Repent old pleasures, and sollicit new.” She further expresses the ambivalence of her feelings through oxymoron; Abelard’s memory is a “delicious poison” that causes her “dear horrors.”

Earlier poets such as Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Donne explored the relationship between human and divine love, often repeating the Neoplatonic idea that human love can ultimately bring an individual closer to God. Eloisa’s experience, however, is more complicated, and Pope refuses to reduce her story to a salvation narrative. Eloisa’s love for Abelard prevents her from finding spiritual bliss, yet spirituality, or at least the poem’s medieval Christianity, is cold, barren, and lifeless. When Eloisa reports that her love causes her to shed “too soft a tear,” the reader recognizes that without human love she would be not only less passionate but also, perhaps, less compassionate, more like cold “pale-ey’d virgins” of the convent. Through love and suffering, Eloisa has grown spiritually, but her reward is unceasing torment.

Far from a simple poem about lost love, “Eloisa to Abelard” explores the sometimes agonizing complexity and irreconcilability of physical and spiritual longing. Equally important, it does so through the voice of a heroine who is intelligent, articulate, and sophisticated. While many eighteenth century writers, including Pope, satirized women and ridiculed feminine passion, Eloisa is presented sympathetically, even heroically. She is, perhaps, the most complex female character in early eighteenth century British literature, and she anticipates the heroines of later literature, including those of Henry Fielding’s Amelia (1751), Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748), and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847).

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