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:
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
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
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
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,
Examine the following lines:
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).
How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
How might these lines tie into the theme from Paradise Lost that knowledge is a source of sin and innocence of knowledge
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sun-shine of the spotless mind! (207-209)
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
What is the purpose of including these lines? What do they suggest about Pope? What might they suggest about his audience?
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)
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