Refashioning a Classical Genre Eloisa to Abelard

Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard" records the imagined thoughts of Eloisa, writing from the convent of the Paraclete to her former tutor and lover Peter Abelard, himself now living in monastic retirement. Pope's main source was John Hughes's English translation (1713), via the French, of the extant Latin correspondence between the two lovers. Pope's recasting of this celebrated medieval love affair in the form of one of Ovid's Heroides — a set of fictional verse letters from celebrated heroines of Greek mythology — constitutes both a creative reworking and an implicit critique of its classical model. In his preface to the Restoration translation of the Heroides, Ovid's Epistles (1680), John Dryden had drawn attention to the delicate and searching nature of Ovid's depiction of the passion of love, but had also noted the somewhat knowing and modish way in which Ovid had "Romaniz'd his Grecian Dames," writing "too pointedly for his Subject" and making "his persons speak more Eloquently than the violence of their Passion would admit: so that he is frequently witty out of season: leaving the Imitation of Nature, and the cooler dictates of his Judgment, for the false applause of Fancy" (Dryden 1956-2000: vol. 1, 114, 112). Indeed, a notable feature of the Heroides is the way in which Ovid's deft recasting of familiar stories allows the reader a sophisticated knowingness about the heroines' emotions which goes beyond the perceptions of the women themselves. In his version of Canace's report of her incestuous passion for her brother Macareus, Dryden had extended this feature of Ovid's collection by adding witty strokes (marked in his text with inverted commas) that invite the reader to speculate on Canace's feelings during the act, and to entertain a prurient superiority toward her half-regretful, half-gloating reminiscences:

Forc'd at the last, my shameful pain I tell:

And, oh, what follow'd we both know too well!

"When half denying, more than half content,

"Embraces warm'd me to a full consent:

"Then with Tumultuous Joyes my Heart did beat,

"And guilt that made them anxious, made them great."

Dryden's knowing tone, and the neat antitheses by which it is conveyed, were immediately spotted and shrewdly parodied by the minor wit Matthew Stevenson:

When half denying, half contented We met in full, and full consented; Then what with Joy, and what with that Of guilt, my heart went pitty-pat.

("Conace to Macareus," ll. 51-4, in Stevenson 1680)

In "Eloisa to Abelard" Ovid's characteristic antitheses are deployed to quite different effect, to render with absolute seriousness the tumult of Eloisa's sufferings:

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: Now turn'd to heav'n, I weep my past offence, Now think of thee, and curse my innocence. Of all affliction taught a lover yet, 'Tis sure the hardest science to forget!

Eloisa's feelings expressed in her "sad" and "tender story" (l. 364), Pope makes clear in the final lines of the poem, are ones with which he feels a sense of close personal identity, and had rendered with wholehearted empathy.

During the course of the poem Eloisa attributes her woes to an irresolvable conflict between love and religious commitment. But the ultimate balance of her arguments, and of the poem as a whole, falls decidedly in favor of love. In "Palamon and Arcite," Dryden's version of Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," Arcite had depicted love as a formidably amoral force which overrides all human laws, sanctions, and obligations:

Each Day we break the Bond of Humane Laws

For Love, and vindicate the Common Cause.

Laws for Defence of Civil Rights are plac'd,

Love throws the Fences down, and makes a general Waste:

Maids, Widows, Wives, without distinction fall;

The sweeping Deluge, Love, comes on, and covers all.

And Dryden's translation of Lucretius' passage on love in Book IV of De Rerum Natura had stressed the futility of lovers' agonized and delusory strivings to attain physical unity and satisfaction:

For Love, and Love alone of all our joyes

By full possession does but fan the fire,

The more we still enjoy, the more we still desire.

("Lucretius . . . Concerning the Nature of Love," ll. 50-2)

Pope's Eloisa echoes the terms of both passages, but vehemently rejects their negative implications, defiantly proclaiming her unrepentantly single-minded commitment to Love's laws:

How oft', when press'd to marriage, have I said, Curse on all laws but those which love has made! Love, free as air, at sight of human ties, Spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies. Let wealth, let honour, wait the wedded dame, August her deed, and sacred be her fame; Before true passion all those views remove, Fame, wealth, and honour! what are you to Love? The jealous God, when we profane his fires, Those restless passions in revenge inspires; And bids them make mistaken mortals groan, Who seek in love for ought but love alone

When love is liberty, and nature, law:

All then is full, possessing and possest,

No craving Void left aking in the breast:

Ev'n thought meets thought ere from the lips it part,

And each warm wish springs mutual from the heart.

Pope's rendering of Eloisa's predicament answers precisely to Dryden's description of Ovid's capacity to provoke the reader's "concernment" with a heroine "in the violence of her passions" (Dryden 1956-2000: vol. 1, 54), while avoiding the artful "placing" of his speakers that, to more tender-hearted readers, seemed like frigidly masculine condescension. "Eloisa" was applauded throughout the eighteenth century for its "improvement" of the Ovidian epistle in a more passionately inward and full-blooded direction. Pope, Joseph Warton believed, had earlier translated Ovid's epistle of "Sappho to Phaon" with "faithfulness and with elegance" which "much excels" any of the versions in the 1680 collection. But that translation was, in Warton's view, itself far excelled by "Eloisa," the story of which was "more proper" than any other "to furnish out an elegaic epistle" (Warton 1782: vol. 1, 299, 311). Samuel Johnson overcame any uneasiness he may have felt at the potential blasphemy of some of Eloisa's sentiments to praise Pope's poem for having "excelled every composition of the same kind" (Johnson 1905: vol. 3, 105). And Oliver Goldsmith considered "Eloisa to Abelard" "superior to any thing in the epistolary way" (Barnard 1973: 456). [See ch. 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard.' "]

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