Eloisa to Abelard

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Abelard and his pupil Heloise by Edmund Leighton, 1882

Eloisa to Abelard is a verse epistle by Alexander Pope that was based on a well-known Mediaeval story and published in 1717. Its immediate fame resulted in a large number of imitations throughout the rest of the century and other poems more loosely based on its themes thereafter.

The poem and its background[edit]

Pope’s poem was published in 1717 in a small volume titled The Works of Mr Alexander Pope. There were two other accompanying poems, the “Elegy to the memory of an unfortunate lady” and the original version of the “Ode on St Cecilia’s Day”. Such was the poem’s popularity that it was reissued in 1720 along with the retitled “Verses to the memory of an unfortunate lady'” and several other elegiac poems by different authors.[1]

“Eloisa to Abelard” is an Ovidian heroic epistle inspired by the 12th-century story of Héloïse d'Argenteuil's illicit love for, and secret marriage to, her teacher Peter Abelard, a famous Parisian philosopher some twenty years her senior. After their affair and marriage, her family took brutal vengeance on Abelard and castrated him, following which he entered a monastery and compelled Héloïse to become a nun. Both then led comparatively successful monastic careers. Years later, Abelard completed the Historia Calamitatum (History of misfortunes), cast as a letter of consolation to a friend. When it fell into Heloise’s hands, her passion for him was reawakened and there was an exchange of four letters between them written in an ornate Latin style. In an effort to make sense of their personal tragedy, these explored the nature of human and divine love. However, their incompatible male and female perspectives made the dialogue painful for both.[2]

In Pope's poem, Eloisa confesses to the suppressed love that his letter has reawakened. She recalls their former life together and its violent aftermath, comparing the happy state of “the blameless Vestal” with her own reliving of past passion and sorrow. The memory of it turns the landscape gloomy “and breathes a browner horror on the woods” (line 170). It disturbs the performance of her religious offices, where Abelard’s image “steals between my God and me” (line 267). But, since relations between them are now impossible, she advises him to distance himself from her memory and looks forward to the release of death when “one kind grave” will reunite them (line 343).

Pope was born a Roman Catholic and so might be assumed to have an insight into, and a special interest in, the story. He had, however, a recently published source to inspire him and guide his readers. This was The Letters of Abelard and Heloise: with a particular account of their lives, amours, and misfortune by the poet John Hughes, which was first published in 1713 and was to go through many editions in the following century and more.[3] There are several instances of Pope’s direct dependence on Hughes’ version of the letters.[4] As one example, where Heloise exclaims “Among those who are wedded to God I serve a man; among the heroic supporters of the cross I am a poor slave to a human passion; at the head of a religious community I am devoted to Abelard only”,[5] Pope’s Eloisa condenses this to the lines

Ah, wretch! believed the spouse of God in vain,
Confessed within the slave of love and man. (lines 177-78) [6]

Imitations and responses[edit]

The final lines of Pope's poem almost seem to invite a response from others:

Such if there be, who love so long, so well,
Let him our sad, our tender story tell;
The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;
He best can paint them who can feel them most.

Whether this was deliberate or not, some fifteen imitations and parodies of his poem had been written by the end of the century, all but two of them cast as Abelard's reply to Eloisa and written in heroic couplets. Although Pope's poem provided the main inspiration, and was frequently mentioned by the authors in their prefaces, there was always Hughes' volume with its historical account in the background. In its later editions the dependency between the two was further underlined by the inclusion first of Pope's poem (from 1755) and then some of the principal responses in following editions.

The poems in question are as follows:

The Abelard and Heloise monument in Père Lachaise cemetery, a coloured print from 1831
  • Abelard to Eloisa (1720) by Judith Madan, published anonymously and for a while misattributed to William Pattison.[7] Judith (Cowper) Madan was a disciple of Pope and published her poem before she was 20. Writing there from a male point of view, she matched Pope, who had adopted a female identity in his poem.[8]
  • Fragment of an Epistle from Abelard to Eloisa (1721) by Charles Beckingham, a rebuke that recalls Eloisa to propriety.[9]
  • Abelard to Eloisa (1725) by Petrus Abelardus [Richard Barford], “wherein we may observe how high we may raise the sentiments of our heart, when possessed of a great deal of wit and learning, with a most violent love”.
  • Abelard to Eloisa, in answer to Mr Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard (1725) by James Delacour(t).[10]
  • Abelard to Eloisa (1747) by James Cawthorne (1719-1761).[11]
  • Abelard to Eloisa by an unknown hand.[12]
  • Abelard to Eloisa by Oliver Jaques[13] in The London Chronicle (October 19-22, 1765); Abelard is there depicted as having almost conquered his passion.[14]
  • Abelard to Eloisa (1777) by St. John Drelincourt Seymour.[15]
  • Abelard to Eloisa (1778) by Samuel Birch (1757-1841).[16]
  • Abelard to Eloisa: an epistle, with a new account of their lives and references to their original correspondence (1785) by Thomas Warwick. This was an enlarged and corrected version of a work first published in 1782.
  • Abelard to Eloisa by Edward Jerningham (1792). Also a Catholic, Jerningham gives a greater sense of the historical setting, especially the quarrel with Bernard of Clairvaux and what Jerningham calls his 'sentence of excommunication', details available in Hughes but taken up by no other poet.
  • A Struggle between Religion and Love, in an epistle from Abelard to Eloisa by Sarah Farrell (1792).[17]
  • Abelard to Eloisa, in an early collection of poems by Walter Savage Landor (1795). In his preface, Landor discusses the difficulty of following Pope, but a commentator has suggested that he was also familiar with Hughes letters.[18]

To these may be added two parodies, both of which were often reprinted. The first was Richard Owen Cambridge’s clever "Elegy Written in an Empty Assembly-Room" (1756).[19] Although its preface describes the poem as “being a Parody on the most remarkable Passages in the well-known Epistle of Eloisa to Abelard", its title also places it among the contemporary parodies of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard whose object was to give them an unlikely setting. Imitation of lines from Pope’s epistle in this context adds a new level of subtlety.

There was a later parody in Eloisa en deshabille, being a new version of that lady’s celebrated epistle to Abelard (1780),[20] described at the time as "a profligate parody of Mr Pope’s Epistle".[21] In this a burlesque and witty version matched Pope's original line for line and in later editions appeared opposite his poem. It was written in anapaestic measure with frequent disyllabic and trisyllabic rhymes, of which one of the most notorious was

Angelic I thought thee – some spirit ethereal!
Nor dream’d that the transports I felt were venereal.[22]

The poem has been ascribed to several authors, of whom Richard Porson was once considered the most likely, although a strong case has also been made for John Matthews.

Where the parodies made fun of the passages they aped, the epistolary imitations echoed Pope’s themes and language in order to demonstrate their kinship. Thus Richard Barford ends his poem with a similar sentiment to Pope’s, that true lovers will express their kinship with Eloisa and Abelard in similar words:

Each sorrowing lover worn with anguish pale,
Trembling shall trace the much-lamented tale,
Grieve to our sorrows, render groan for groan,
And by our boundless passion speak their own. (Page 26)

And the third and fourth lines of St-John Seymour's opening, "If cold my blood, my pulse inactive grown, I am indeed allied to stupid stone", is heavily dependent on Pope's "Tho’ cold like you, unmoved and silent grown, I have not yet forgot myself to stone" (lines 23-4).

Samuel Birch compares the felicity of the blameless youth to the jealous perturbation of one who has experienced passion.[23] And, as Eloisa had experienced “twilight groves and dusky caves”, so Barford’s Abelard reports “Thro awful glooms and solemn caves I rove”,

Where pensive silence and her meagre train
Breathe their brown horrors o’er the extended Plain. (Page 3)

James Cawthorne too speaks of “dark, cheerless solitary caves, deep breathing woods and daily-op’ning graves” (which also figure in Pope) subject to “imbrowning glooms” (p.143). Then, as a final example, Pope’s passage beginning “Thy voice I seem in ev’ry hymn to hear” (line 269), in which the progress of the religious service is invaded by thoughts of the loved object, has its parallel in Edward Jerningham's similar description of sacred rites, from which “My guilty thoughts to other altars rov’d” (page 4).

Imitation in these cases, as one commentator points out, is far from being plagiarism, but is a valid constituent of the genre. Furthermore, "since an author of an Abelard to Eloisa would presuppose for his readers a thorough knowledge of Pope’s poem, the many replies are evidence of the popularity of Eloisa to Abelard and are evidence, also, of its importance as a literary force.”[24]

Later thematic parallels[edit]

Four more male writers took up the subject in the first half of the 19th century, two of them American. The poem by Joseph Rodman Drake, written before 1820, is a short lyric in octosyllabics with the message that shared suffering will lead to shared redemption beyond the grave. Though it carries the title "Abelard to Eloise" in a holographic copy,[25] it was also published without it after his death.[26] John Witt Randall's “Abelard and Eloisa”, published in 1856, is a sequence of six poems, written in various forms and fashioned more as poetical addresses than letters. They follow the story of the lovers from courtship to death, and sections 2, 3 and 6 are spoken by Eloisa.[27] The other two poems were more traditional. J. Treuwhard's Abelard to Eloisa, a moral and sentimental epistle was privately printed in 1830.[28] The Epistle from Abelard to Eloise, originally published in 1828 by Thomas Stewart (of Naples), was in heroic couplets and prefaced by a poem to Pope.[29]

Two women also took up the subject later. Christina Rossetti's "The Convent Threshold" (written in 1858) is, according to one source, “a thinly disguised retelling of Alexander Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard”,[30] although others are more cautious in seeing an influence. The poem is a surging monologue of enlaced rhymes in octosyllables, driving along its theme of leaving earthly passion behind and transmuting it to heavenly love. It is also a rare example of a woman being allowed her own voice without male intervention.[31] The Australian writer Gwen Harwood went on to use the situation as a weapon in the gender war. Writing under the assumed name of Walter Lehmann in 1961, she placed two modernistic sonnets, "Eloisa to Abelard" and "Abelard to Eloisa", in a magazine without its male editors realising that the letters of their first lines spelt an offensive message.[32]


  1. ^ National library of Australia
  2. ^ The Letters of Peter Abelard and Heloise, Augusta State University.
  3. ^ Google Books
  4. ^ Wright, p.519
  5. ^ Hughes, p.91
  6. ^ Robert Pohl Kalmey, The Christian vision of Pope’s Eloisa to Abelard, University of Florida 1970
  7. ^ Hughes, p.172ff
  8. ^ The Routledge Anthology of Cross-Gendered Verse, (2005)p.154
  9. ^ Fairer, pp.74-5
  10. ^ Publishing information
  11. ^ Hughes, p.178ff
  12. ^ Hughes, p.189ff
  13. ^ The fictitious name of 'a newspaper poet'
  14. ^ Wright, p.524
  15. ^ Hughes p.205ff
  16. ^ Hughes, p.193ff
  17. ^ In Charlotte and other poems, pp.29-38
  18. ^ William Bradley, The early poems of Walter Savage Landor, pp.20-23
  19. ^ UNZ.org
  20. ^ Google Books
  21. ^ The Monthly Review, 1781, vol.64, p.153
  22. ^ Internet Archive
  23. ^ Hughes, p.195-6
  24. ^ Wright p.533
  25. ^ Abe Books
  26. ^ The American Monthly Magazine, Volume 6
  27. ^ Poems of Nature and Life (Boston 1899) pp. 527- 539
  28. ^ Samuel Halkett, Dictionary of Anonymous and Pseudonymous English Literature, New York 1926-34, Volume 6, p.3
  29. ^ Napoleon's dying solioquy, and other poems (1834), pp.21-38
  30. ^ John Powell (ed), Biographical Dictionary of Literary Influences: The Nineteenth Century, Greenwood Publishing 2001, p.348
  31. ^ Etext
  32. ^ Peter L. Shillingsburg, Resisting Texts: Authority and Submission in Constructions of Meaning, University of Michigan 1997, p.160, sonnets on p.161


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