Eloisa to Abelard
(1079-1142) friend Plilintus
was in love and in trouble. To help him out the distinguished Parisian sent him several letters telling him about the love he once had for a young student of his. Heloise (1101-64) was eighteen, beautiful and her brilliance made her stand out against his popular following of thousands of students. At forty Abelard was a master scholar who was well versed in philosophy and theology. The letters contained the dire consequences of love gone horribly wrong and somehow one of these letters made its way into Heloise’s hands. In it Abelard wrote about how tragedy struck when she became pregnant and their affair was discovered.
At the time of his affair with Heloise he was living in the house of her uncle and guardian, a man named Fulbert, who was one of the canons of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. When the affair was discovered and Heloise found she was pregnant, Abelard conveyed her to his family chateau in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son, named Astrolabe. To appease her uncle, Abelard married Heloise (although she protested that she preferred to remain his mistress) on condition the marriage remain secret, since he was bound to celibacy if he was to advance in the Church. Her uncle, however, was not satisfied with this arrangement, and the relationship between the two men deteriorated to such an extent that Fulbert hired two ruffians, one of whom was Abelard's own servant, who broke into his bedroom one night and castrated him.
After that Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. Initially he resided at the prestigious abbey of St Denis
just outside of Paris, but following a series of confrontations with his superiors he left and established a small oratory
which he named the Paraclete
. His students soon discovered him there and encouraged him to keep teaching. They convinced him to drop his desires for a hermit’s life, but before he left the Paraclete
he brought Heloise there as an abbess of the nuns. Twelve years later Abelard’s letter to his Plilintus provoked seven letters between Heloise and Abelard which recounted their past affections for each other. Three of the most ardent ones came from Heloise.
Five hundred year’s later these letters were translated from Latin to French and became popular during the latter part of seventeenth century France. By 1713 John Hughes had translated and published the French version in England. Hughes was a friend of Pope’s at the time and it was these translations that Pope based Eloisa to Abelard on. Composed in 1716 the poem was initially published the following year in Pope’s Works. Using the heroic couplet with extraordinary erudition his accomplishments made it the dominant poetic form of his century.
Because a woman always addresses heroic epistles to a man who has abandoned her Pope drew from Ovid’s story of Heroides which is a collection of letters of prominent heroines from Greek and Roman Mythology to their absent lovers. Abelard and Heloise embody what one critic described as "sorrowing or rebellious love." Taking Heloise's three letters Pope recasts them as a single epistle and changes the heroine’s name to Eloisa. He has her speak a dialog to depict an inner turmoil. Pope called this The Argument and this idea paved the way for the poem with its chaos of “grace and nature, virtue and passion.” He places the poem in a gloomy and gothic setting to amplify the emotional fervor. Since Ovid's epistles were metaphorical language of what women were meant to feel, but not say, Pope avoided making it a narrative and instead wrote it as the anguished response of Eloise as she remembers the appalling and terrible results of her and Abelard's love for each other.
The movie title Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is actually a line from this popular poem. Eloisa’s fading memories are reflected in that one line. Throughout the poem she expresses a deep conflict between her love for Abelard and her devotion to God. The fact that both are painfully absent in her life magnifies the solitude of her life as a nun. And while her intellect is devoted to God it cannot preside over her “rebel nature” (26) and “stubborn pulse” (27). The moment she opens Abelard's letter to Philintus all her grief floods back as she reminds herself how “stern religion”(39) extinguished the flame of her heart. She yearns for Abelard to write to her as well (41-2) calling out for him to share his grief and pour his love out to her (49-58). Then she summons up her earliest meeting with him as her teacher (59-72).
It didn’t concern her that Abelard could not marry if he was to have a successful career as a theologian. She was ready to renounce all to love, which she saw as a faultless and perfect goal far higher than marriage. Saying even if Caesar, Emperor of the world had considered honoring her with marriage making her Empress, she would still prefer to be Abelard's mistress. It’s been twelve years and still she struggles to control her passion and direct her worship to God:
Oh come! Oh teach me nature to subdue,
Renounce my love, my life, my self – and you.
Fill my fond heart with God alone, for he
Alone can rival, can succeed to thee. (203-06)
Abelard, she assumes has an apparently peaceful lot (249-62). Eloisa envisions that his castration means that he does not have to struggle to control his passion. She imagines that he has “no pulse that riots, and no blood that glows” (252). She depicts her love, as alive and breathing while his is dead:
Ah hopeless, lasting flames! Like those that burn
To light the dead, and warm th' unfruitful urn. (261-2)
Daily life is relentlessly tattered by Eloisa’s conflicting emotions for Abelard and God (263-302). Abelard's image presses between God and herself; his voice encroaches into the hymns she sings; she sheds a tear for him for each rosary bead she counts. When her spirit is lifted to God, the thought of Abelard throws it into “seas of flame” (275). She pleads for him to reject her and yearns for “eternal rest” (302). A death wish appears as Eloisa describes herself, “propt on some tomb, a neighbour of the dead” (304) imaging her own apotheosis
yet at the summit of her celestial escape avoid thinking of Abelard; urging him to “suck my last breath and catch my flying soul” (324).In the last stanza (343-66) Eloisa prays that one grave may unite them again while dreaming the prospect of some prospective poet, united in “sad similitude of griefs to mine” (360), telling her sad and tender story.
When he wrote the poem, Pope too felt that he was “condemn'd whole years in absence to deplore” and imagine “charms he must behold no more” (362), as his recently-acquired friend, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, set out for a five-year stint in Constantinople, as wife of the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Pope fully empathizes with the past love story when he writes: “He best can paint'em, who shall feel'em most.” (366) .
In Eloisa to Abelard Pope offers the reader a tragic heroine, ensnared in bleak surroundings and imprisoned by the fateful, emotional circumstances. One literary scholar says that, “Perhaps not a little of the feeling he instills so powerfully into this depiction comes from his own experience as a person of ardent sensibility caged in a crippled body.” A terrible illness afflicted Pope in his childhood leaving him deformed and as an adult his height is recorded as 4 ft 6 in and he suffered many headaches. His stature made it hard for him to begin mutual love relationships with women and many say that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu rejected and laughed at his declaration of love for her. Perhaps the intense feeling of this poem suggests a relationship to his personal experiences of frustrated romantic feelings.
An article from The Literary Encyclopedia tells about the reactions of other critics across the span of time.
The poem was immediately popular in its own day and remained so for a long time, valued for its demonstration of Pope's capacity to give expression to matters of the heart as well as to those of the mind. Matthew Prior published a poem, in 1719, complimenting Pope for having woven “a silken web”, in which the colours would never fade. James Delacour argued, in 1730, that the piece had “beauties scarce to be imitated, much less transcended. … The many gloomy horrors and mournful images … softened with his all-tender expressions, make it a master-piece for succeeding ages.” In 1756 Joseph Warton, who for the most part saw Pope as a poet of the second order, praised the poem as an “instance of the Pathetic” and claimed that “the reputation of Pope, as a poet, among posterity, will be principally owing to his Windsor-Forest, his Rape of the Lock, and his Eloisa to Abelard.” In his Life of Pope, 1781, Dr Johnson described the epistle as “one of the most happy productions of human wit”. In the Romantic period, William Lisle Bowles, who on the whole regarded Pope's poetry as second-rate, referred to “this transcendent poem” and declared his “conviction of its being infinitely superior to everything of the kind, ancient or modern. … Nothing of the kind has ever been produced equal to it for pathos, painting and melody.” Even in the Victorian period, generally so sceptical of Pope and everything Augustan, the Rev. Whitwell Elwin claimed, in 1871, that “The Rape of the Lock and Eloisa to Abelard stand alone in Pope's works. He produced nothing, which resembled them. They have the merit of being masterpieces in opposite styles... Eloisa to Abelard is remarkable for its fervid passion and tender melancholy.”
The resurgence of the significance of Pope’s work beginning in the 1930’s was slow when it came to recognizing Eloisa to Abelard
probably because of the popularity of wittier satires. However as interests in gender studies emerged in the latter part of the twentieth century there has been a new admiration of Pope's inspired work from a woman's point of view, in particular ones with the extraordinary moral honesty and tragic stature like Heloise.
One scholar suggests that the letter writing would have spanned several years until her death saying that “the poem represents at once a finished letter and a letter that, apparently finished, is actually in the stormy process of being written.” While the text doesn’t explain whether Abelard longs for Eloisa as she does for him it does convey the sense that God and Abelard are “mystical” rivals for Eloisa’s attention. With the transposition of a nun’s death into a consummation of her marriage to Christ, it is the ultimate meeting of the bride with her spouse. Many favor the idea that Alexander Pope intended to leave the poem’s ending unresolved so the reader,who-- like Eloisa, continues to struggle for a solution and that the poem “may stop, but it does not end.” Abelard and Eloisa were interred in adjoining monuments at the Paraclete Monetary. He died in the year 1142, she in 1163.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Pope, Alexander," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Castrating the Nun in Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard:
Eloisa to Abelard, (1717):
Francus, Marilyn. “An Augustan’s Metaphysical Poem: Popes’ Eloisa to Abelard.” Studies in Philology 87.4 (1990): 476-91.
McNeal, Nancy. “Imagery in Eloisa and Abelard: Portrait of a Rebel.” Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 1.3 (1980): 145-51.
Public Domain text taken from:
RPO -- Alexander Pope : Eloisa to Abelard: