Best known for “The Rape of the Lock,” Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was a scathing satirist and one of the few poets of his age who were able to support himself with his writing.
“Eloisa to Abelard” is no satire. Inspired by the correspondence of Heloise to her teacher/lover/husband Abelard, this poem is a long sad testament to romantic ideals
Thou knowst how guiltless first I met thy flame,
When Love approached me under Friendship’s name;
My fancy formed thee of angelic kind,
Some emanation of the’ all-beauteous Mind. . . .
From lips like those what precept failed to move?
Too soon they taught me ‘twas no sin to love:
Back through the paths of pleasing sense I ran,
Nor wished an Angel whom I loved a Man.
Dim and remote the joys of saints I see;
Nor envy them that heaven I lose for thee.
If there be yet another name more free,
More fond than mistress, make me that to thee!
Oh! happy state! When souls each other draw,
When love is liberty, and nature, law:
–and the specific tragedy of these lovers’ fate.
Alas, how changed! What sudden horrors rise!
A naked Lover bound and bleeding lies!
For those who don’t know, “Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was a French philosopher, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century.” (Esther Lombardi) His student, Heloise (1101-1164), was the well-educated niece of Canon Fulbert. Twenty years her senior, Peter taught her, fell in love with her, had a son with her (Astrolabe), married her in secret, and then left her at a convent (I think at her insistence, to preserve his reputation as an educator). Thinking Heloise had been abandoned by the man who ruined her, her uncle and other relatives vowed revenge. Together they tracked Peter down and castrated him. He survived, and both Peter and Heloise entered religious orders.
Their only contact thereafter was an extensive correspondence which inspired Pope’s poem.
Despite writing romance myself, I found the research I did about the historical figures more interesting than Pope’s emotional drama. (Although it was interesting to note that this is where the line, “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind,” comes from.) In his youth Peter Abelard was an arrogant prick and, I suspect, that’s part of what got him into trouble.
This story certainly provides grist for the mill of plot and character development.