ELEGY to the memory of an

UNFORTUNATE LADY" Alexander Pope (1717) "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" is considered, along with Eloisa TO Abelard, one of the two greatest lyric poems written by Alexander Pope. He deals ostensibly with the subject of a young woman, dead possibly by her own hand, whom no one mourns. However, the ghost he supposedly sees acts only as the triggering topic, while the elegy's true topic is the mortality that remains the heritage of all humans, even, or perhaps more especially, poets who celebrate the death of others. Historians do not know whether the woman who inspired Pope's musing actually existed. His speaker identifies her in the opening line only as a "Beck'ning ghost, along the moonlight shade."

She invites the speaker to move close and points to a nearby glade. Then the speaker notices her "bleeding bosom," in which "the visionary sword" gleams. He stops to wonder whether heaven considers loving too well a crime, particularly if it results in one's acting "a Lover's or a Roman's part." He references a Roman to suggest suicide. The Catholic Church, of which Pope remained a devout member, considered suicide a mortal sin, but Pope reveals his compassion in questioning that edict for the sake of the homeless spirit.

If heaven does not approve of one human's loving another beyond bearing, and the death by one's own hand that might result, why then, the speaker wonders, would heavenly "Pow'rs!" allow, or even cause "Her soul aspire / Above the vulgar flight of low desire?" Pope searches for someone or something to blame for the folly of love that ends in death. He accuses heavenly forces of first producing the "Ambition" for love. It "first sprung" as the "glorious fault of Angels and Gods," their images flowing down to earth to inhabit the breasts of humans. In adopting the term image, Pope recalls the biblical description of the creation of man, a creature made in his creator's image. He considers the fact that as a result of human frailty, most souls only "peep out once an age," the rest of the time remaining "sullen pris'ners in the body's cage." He adopts figurative language by using the traditional image of a heart either imprisoned or set free by passion.

The speaker imagines the young woman's soul snatched by fate into "the pitying sky. / As into air the purer spirits flow." That would allow her soul to fly "to its congenial place," leaving no virtue behind to "redeem her Race." However, instead, a force took her life, because he can "See on these ruby lips the trembling breath," her "cheeks, now fading at the blast of death." All positive imagery disappears as the speaker contrasts his previous flight of fancy with what he now envisions, a once-warm breast turned cold, and love deserting her once-passionate eyes. The speaker places a curse on whatever being caused the apparition's death, declaring that "frequent herses" should "besiege your gates" while his children and other family members die. So many should die that neighbors behold a veritable parade of hearses, in order to compensate for the death of the innocent maiden who could not be


buried in hallowed ground because of her manner of death.

Because the young woman will not be allowed a traditional funeral, no one will cry for her. Instead, the speaker tells her, in order to show that he understands:

By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos'd, By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos'd, By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn'd, By strangers honour'd, and by strangers mourn'd! (51-54)

Pope captures a dirgelike rhythm through the use of repetition, also imitating the delivery of a sermon in which a speaker would repeat points for emphasis. The speaker tries to comfort the spirit, basically asking what it matters that the rituals of burial are not observed. Rather than humans' furnishing the flowers to mark her solitary grave, nature, a far purer force, will care for her, preserving her memory. While flowers dress her grave, "the green turf" will "lie lightly on thy breast," and the morning dew will act as tears, promoting the growth of the season's first roses. True angels will hover over her grave, a superior substitute for the statuary marker that no one furnished.

The speaker at last notes the peace of the spirit's unmarked resting place, as Pope moves into the poem's closing lines. All humans will one day be "A heap of dust," and as with this young woman, that will be the only "art" each person leaves behind. He comments on the value of art to outlive its creator, here disagreeing with that idea. "Poets themselves must fall, like those they sung," meaning that the poets who write of the great achievements of those who have died must also die. While the poet now weeps for those about whom he writes, soon he will have need for someone to weep for him. His death will then cause the previously dead to be forgotten for good, as with "The Muse forgot," they shall be "belov'd no more!"

While Pope likely did not actually believe that one day no poet would exist to celebrate those who went before, he may have been commenting on the very personal nature of poetry and art. No one poet may substitute for another, as their approach varies. While great art may bear resemblance to other great art, each exertion results in a unique creation. The death of an artist puts an end to his art. Pope may have meant the spirit to represent his poetry, with his lyric representing his premonition regarding the future of his work.

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  • anette
    What beck'ning ghost along the moonlight shade by alexander pope?
    8 months ago

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