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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780

Class 19

Oct 31: Alexander Pope, Eloisa to Abelard (2532)

    Post #9 Due - Group A

    Class Objectives:

  • To review midterm
  • To discuss Pope's poem
  • To analyze the couplet form

    As mentioned last class, Pope's poem "Eloisa to Abelard" draws on a medieval love story that was retold many times in many ways. It was a popular subject in poetry. Because this is a story retold many times, you can begin to see the literature as a series of choices rather than inevitabilities. As you read the poem, draw on principles of critical reading and begin to assess the literature as both communication and artistic object.

    Pope's elegant, compressed heroic couplets set the standard in versification for the eighteenth century. You will find them far more compressed than any other couplets; take the time to unpack them and understand the communication in the lines. First of all read the poem for comprehension. Read it all the way through in order to grasp what is happening in each couplet. Then read it in terms of artistry, asking how each poet achieves the effects he has. Read the poetry out loud as well in order to become accustomed to the aesthetic pleasures of eighteenth-century verse -- the rhythms and the rhymes. Definitely read the poem several times.

    Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:


    The Couplet:

    couplet form -- two lines, generally iambic pentameter, with end rhymes; given to a structural balance or antithesis of ideas and sounds

    caesura -- or the pause in a line of poetry

    balance -- an effect of evenness or a structure of parts which offset one another on each side of a pause in a line of poetry

    antithesis -- an effect of contrast between balanced parts of speech or ideas -- balancing one term against another.

    "true antithetical structure demands not only that there be an opposition of idea, but that the oppostion in different parts be manifested through similar grammatical structure" (Holman and Harmon)

    Zeugma (yoking); a version of which is syllepsis -- taking counsel or tea; transitive verb or preposition takes more than one object

    Metonymy -- substitution of the name of an object closely related to the object itself: mask for woman at the theatre, "Garters, Stars and Coronets" for members of the nobility (continuous association from whole to part)

    Synecdoche -- a trope that substitutes a part for whole; arms for soldiers

    2. Backgrounds

    Pope's poem draws on a literary tradition of the heroic epistle made famous by Ovid. See headnote to the poem. These poems took the form of fictious letters written by mythological women to the lovers who abandoned them. See James M. Hunter's website and translations for more information.

    What does Pope's heroine have in common with the heroines of Ovid's poems? How is her situation different? What is the purpose of Pope's adaptation of the genre?

    Pope's poem also draws on the historical figures of Pierre Abelard and Heloise, two famous medieval lovers who after their affair went on to significant careers in the church. For more information on their background, see the article by I. R. F. Gordon in the Literary Encyclopedia.

    You can also view the original translation of their letters in the eighteenth century, from which Pope drew most of his information, from the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, available from our library. The quickest way to find the third edition of the text translated and compiled by John Hughes is to do a "Quick Search" with keyword "Abelard" and date 1718.

    How does Pope adapt the historical and literary resources? How does Pope focus his poem? What is the controlling theme?

    For a visual depiction of the story, see the painting "The Parting of Abelard from Heloise" by Angelika Kauffmann, in the color insert in the Norton Anthology. How does this depiction differ from the poem? What does it highlight?

    3. Discussion questions

    Note the role of the gothic setting throughout the poem. For example, how do the opening lines depict the psychological landscape of the letter-writer?

      In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
      Where heavenly-pensive contemplation dwells,
      And ever-musing melancholy reigns;
      What means this tumult in a vestal's veins? (1-4)

    How does Eloisa convey her conflict to Abelard? At what points does Abelard's image/memory interfere with her devotion to God?

    Why is Eloisa writing? See for example the lines: "Yet write, oh write me all, that I may join / Griefs to thy griefs, and echo sighs to thine" (41-2). What role does correspondence play in the creation and satisfaction of desire?

    How does Pope construct the female voice? How well does he do?

    How sincere is Eloisa's request:

      Ah no! instruct me other joys to prize,
      With other beatuies charm my partial eyes
      Full in my view set all the bright abode
      And make my soul quit Abelard for God. (125-128).

    Examine the following lines:
      How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
      The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
      Eternal sun-shine of the spotless mind! (207-209)

    How might these lines tie into the theme from Paradise Lost that knowledge is a source of sin and innocence of knowledge is virtue?

    What are the "spots" on Eloisa's mind?

    Does Eloisa envision the possibility of her reunion with her lover? If so, how would it be?

    The speaker fluctuates between desiring Abelard and desiring to forget Abelard and devote herself to God. What arguments does she use for each?

    What conclusion does she reach at the end of the letter? How is this satisfactory?

    Recall what Porter said about "melancholy" and the "English Malady." How might the English fascination with melancholy explain the popularity of Pope's poem?

    In terms of our discussion of the body and the passions, how does this poem depict the relationship between the body and the passions? What is the source of power? What is the source of pain?

    Note the closing lines that reflect on the poet:

      And sure if fate some future bard shall join
      In sad similitude of griefs to mine,
      Condemned whole years in absence to deplore,
      And image charms he must behold no more,
      Such if there be, who loves so long, so well,
      Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
      The well-sung woes will sooth my pensive ghost;
      He best can paint 'em, who shall feel 'em most. (360-6)

    What is the purpose of including these lines? What do they suggest about Pope? What might they suggest about his audience?

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