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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 9. Eliosa to Abelard and Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady

Two poems, of uncertain date, appear first in the volume of 1717: Eloisa to Abelard and the Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady. In these, Pope made a sustained attempt to present pathos and passion. To modern taste, his emotion is too rhetorical. The lady’s personality and fate are vague. Pope’s puzzling note darkened the mystery. Research has shown that, while the death and details were imaginary, his warm sympathy for Mrs. Weston was the basis on which the poem was built. But, the gleaning of phrases, the dexterous piecing together of parts of a poem, are hardly suited for the expression of deep and spontaneous feeling. It is possible that a poet may brood for long over a cruel bereavement and yet not destroy the impression of sincerity by the elaborate treatment of his grief. Such genuine emotion, however, as is embodied in Pope’s poem seems hardly deep or definite enough to give warmth to the whole. The feeling has been fondled for a literary purpose.

The material for Eloisa was taken from John Hughes’s translation of a French paraphrase of the Latin epistles that passed under the names of Abelard and Eloisa. The motive is the struggle in her heart between her human passion for Abelard and her dedication to the service of God. In the background of the poem, the convent of the Paraclete and its surroundings, there are touches which anticipate the romantic feeling for natural scenery and architecture. A writer of our own time can still say of the poem, Ce n’ est pas seulement une des expressions les plus fortes de la passion qui aient été données, c’ est la seule qui existe de l’ amour absolu. But it may be doubted whether, in Pope’s fervid tones, we are listening to the voice of nature and passion and not rather to a piece of superb declamation.