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Eloisa to Abelard Summary
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“Eloisa to Abelard” is a heroic verse epistle by Alexander Pope. Published in 1717, the poem retells the tragic twelfth-century love story between a naïve student and her teacher. One of Pope’s most popular works, the poem inspired further heroic epistles featuring other star-crossed lovers. “Eloisa to Abelard” has been retold many times. Pope was an eighteenth-century poet most commonly associated with satire. He attracted controversy by criticizing political and literary figures. Suffering from chronic ill health, he never married.
Eloisa writes to her beloved Abelard. She recalls what life was like before circumstances tore them apart. As in the original tragic love story, Eloisa fell in love with Abelard, a philosophy teacher. Abelard is twenty years older than Eloisa, and she knows that her parents would never approve of the match.
Eloisa secretly marries Abelard, and they live happily together for some time. However, when her family discovers she is married and living with this older man, they disown her. Blaming Abelard for corrupting their young daughter, they castrate him. Abelard sinks into despair and enters a monastery. Eloisa’s family forces her into a nunnery.
Now, years after becoming a nun, Eloisa thinks of Abelard again. She reads a letter written by him, and she feels it is directed at her. She is torn between her spiritual dedication to God and her physical love for this man she cannot have. She knows that it is a sin to lust after Abelard, but she cannot stop thinking about him. In the poem, she describes what this recent letter makes her feel.
Living as a nun, Eloisa often feels lonely and brooding. She wishes that she could be more like the miserable walls and the hollow stone she is surrounded by. Then, she would not feel anything. She envies the virgins in the convent, because they don’t know what it is like to sleep with a man they love. Eloisa admits that convent life gives her too much time to think, and her memories sometimes drive her to distraction.
Eloisa plans to forget Abelard’s name. She decides that, if she writes his name enough, her tears will wash it away completely. However, the more she writes his name, the clearer it becomes that she cannot wash memories away. She knows she will suffer from a broken heart for the rest of her life. No amount of divine obedience and worship will fix her, because God cannot heal all wounds.
Although Eloisa desperately wants to forget Abelard, she wants to hear from him again just as badly. She wants to know that he is miserable and heartsick, too. If they write to each other, perhaps they can share their grief and pain. Eloisa then muses on the purpose of letter writing. She believes that lovers invented letter writing because it brings people together. Furthermore, Eloisa notes that lovers can write illicit messages hidden behind codes that only they understand. Naturally, she wants Abelard to write coded messages to her.
Midway through the poem, Eloisa describes her first encounter with Abelard. She didn’t fall in love with his outer beauty. She fell for his brilliant mind, kind demeanor, and charming manner. She wasn’t just his lover. She was his friend. Losing Abelard’s friendship is just as painful as losing him romantically.
Eloisa wonders if God is punishing her by keeping Abelard away. She knows that she lived in sin with Abelard, and she is convinced that God hates her for it. Although she is a good nun, she feels that she is living a false life. She is not built for a cloistered life—she is built for lust and romance. She doesn’t even want God’s love anymore. All she wants is Abelard.
Eloisa talks at length about her disconnection from God. She blames herself for Abelard’s castration, and she desperately misses sleeping with him. She had no choice but to join a convent, even if she doesn’t believe in God the way a Catholic nun should. She feels like an interloper in her own convent, and she knows that the other nuns will never understand her. She is sure that God is punishing her by isolating her from her own sisters.
By the end of the poem, Eloisa wishes she hated Abelard. She wishes that she loved God with her whole heart. She begs God to show mercy and to show her the way to His love. When God doesn’t respond, she complains that God doesn’t love anyone and convents are pointless because God doesn’t care whether we worship Him or not.
Eloisa knows, realistically, she won’t see Abelard again. Even if her family frees her from the convent, Abelard lives in a monastery, separated from the world. By the end of the poem, all she wants is to see Abelard in Heaven, and for Abelard to administer the last rites before she dies. She prays that, when she dies, readers will remember her pain and understand the plight of all star-crossed lovers.