23 pages 46 minutes read

Alexander Pope

Eloisa to Abelard

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1717

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


“Eloisa to Abelard” is a poem published in 1717 by Alexander Pope. The poem discusses the ill-fated love affair of a real-life couple from 12th-century France: Heloïse d’Argenteuil, a gifted 18-year-old student, and Peter Abelard, a renowned French scholar, philosopher, and poet of the Medieval era who was 20 years older than Heloïse. The poem is a heroic verse epistle, which is a genre first made famous in Ovid’s Heroides. Pope adopts Eloisa’s persona and writes a letter to Abelard from her perspective. In this letter, Pope explores Eloisa’s conflict between spiritual love and romantic love, considering the fundamental incompatibility between her love for God and her love for Abelard. After being forced into a convent by her disapproving family after she and Abelard have a child together, Eloisa writes a letter expressing her longing for Abelard even years later. Convent life has brought her little relief from her heartbreak, and Pope shows Eloisa’s inability to commit herself either to the path of romantic love or that of repentance and piety. This poem is one of Pope’s earlier works and was inspired by a translation of the story from French into English by his friend John Hughes.

Poet Biography

Alexander Pope was born in 1688 in London, England. Though his family was wealthy, they were Catholic at a time when the Church of England was extremely anti-Catholic. His family could not live within 10 miles of London. In addition, Pope was denied access to formal education. He grew up near Windsor Forest and was self-taught and tutored, showing remarkable verbal giftedness at a young age. At age 12, however, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which resulted in life-long debilitating pain. He grew only to four-foot-five and had caretakers for the rest of his life. Despite his physical disability and low status, Pope’s talent led him into high society. By the age of 16, he achieved notoriety for his poems. He sold his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Shakespeare for a subscription fee. This gave Pope the means to buy a mansion in Twickenham in 1719.

Pope is the first poet who was able to sustain himself financially on his writing alone. He had friendships with some of the most recognized intellectuals of his time, including Jonathan Swift, satirist and author of A Modest Proposal. Pope also had many enemies due to his biting wit and talent for satire. He was known as “The Wasp of Twickenham” for his critiques of society. His “Essay on Criticism” (1711) and satirical mock-epic poem “The Rape of the Lock” (1714) established his reputation as a satirist. In “The Dunciad” (1728), Pope provoked the ire of his enemies. In 1744, he passed away from edema and asthma at the age of 56 without ever having married and leaving no children. He left his considerable fortune to Martha Blount, a lifelong friend that he pined for but who did not reciprocate his romantic advances. Considered one of the greatest English poets of the 18th century, Pope’s style defined the Augustan Age of poetry, most notably with his focus on satire, irony, societal critiques, and critiques of his rivals. Pope is the second most-quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, following only Shakespeare.

Poem Text

Pope, Alexander. “Eloisa to Abelard.” 1717. Poetry Foundation.


Eloisa sits in a convent, feeling a “tumult” in her veins (Line 3). Her heart longs for her lost love, Abelard. His name is a “fatal name” (Line 9), as she is a nun and has taken a vow of silence. The image of her beloved Abelard interrupts her prayers to God. While writing, she scrawls Abelard’s name, then begins weeping and praying. She hopes that by writing his name over and over and weeping over it, she can wash away the memory of him.

Eloisa describes “pale-eyed virgins” (Line 21) keeping vigil. They are filled with pity but cold and silent like statues. Eloisa says that she has not become “stone,” with half of her heart rebelling against the other half (Line 24). As she reads a letter from Abelard to someone else that she intercepted, she feels warmth and love for Abelard. She dreams of receiving a letter from him.

The poem next explores the couple’s relationship. When they met, Eloisa was “guiltless,” meaning a virgin (Line 59). They were friends at first, but feelings of love gradually grew during their platonic relationship. She was attracted to Abelard’s “all-beautous Mind” (Line 62), his happy eyes, and his voice.

She refuses to marry Abelard because she believes that love disappears once one tries to confine it by marriage. Eloisa believes that love should be sought “for aught but love alone” (Line 84), belittling the honor, wealth, and societal respect afforded married women. She would prefer to be Abelard’s mistress instead of his wife, as she views this as an ideal arrangement for their love to last forever.

Before she joined the convent, she and Abelard were in in a “happy state,” both “possessing, and possess’d” (Lines 91-93). They reciprocated each other’s love. At one point, there was a violent attack against Abelard. Eloisa is too ashamed to describe the details of the attack, but her “burning blushes” (Line 106) imply that the attack was caused by their love. Pope depicts the solemn day when Eloisa joined the convent, calling it a terrible day when both she and Abelard were “victims” at the altar (Line 108). She joins the convent and becomes a nun, determined to forget about Abelard and love God instead. Even when she gazes at the Cross, however, she thinks of Abelard. Spirituality is no replacement for passionate love (Line 117). Though they can no longer exchange physical love due to Abelard’s injuries, she would like to share words, gazes, and physical affection with Abelard to find “relief” from her “woe” (Line 119).

Eloisa thinks of Abelard’s flock, referencing the believers at the convent that he founded. Unlike the orphan or the dying miser who pays money to enter Heaven, she sees no paradise for herself. She describes being stuck inside of the convent, considering a lonely, long life ahead of her. She calls Abelard her “father, brother, husband, friend” (Line 152) because he was her teacher, he is now her brother in the religious order, and he was her lover and friend. When she gazes at the pines, grottos, and lakes, the whole world appears sad.

Suddenly feeling determined, she argues that she is proving how much she loves Abelard by putting herself through this punishment. Calling herself wretched, Eloisa feels her commitment to God is false, as she is still enslaved by love. She calls for Heaven’s help. Her love for Abelard is the “forbidden fire” (Line 182) for which she tries to repent, but she cannot regret. She wishes to commit the sin of loving him again. Vacillating between guilt over the relationship and her inability to move on, Eloisa searches for a way to “lose the sin, yet keep the sense” (Line 191), or the feeling of love for him. She can love, hate, and feel a variety of conflicting emotions towards Abelard, but the one thing that she cannot do is forget him.

Eloisa next describes the peaceful life of the nun that does not feel torn between God and the earthly world. The “bridal ring” that this nun will wear after death is being prepared by her “Spouse,” meaning God (Line 219), and hymeneals, or wedding hymns, are being sung by angels in her glorious dreams.

In contrast, Eloisa has restless nights. Her soul becomes “loose” and “unbounded” (Line 228) when she sleeps, so she feels the entirety of her passion for Abelard. During her dreams, the phantom of Abelard’s body haunts her, and she tries to hold him. She tries to fall asleep again to dream of Abelard once more, but all she dreams of is her sadness over their separation.

Referencing Abelard’s castration by her uncle, she states that Abelard’s life will be a “dead calm of fix’d repose” (Line 251), as he no longer feels the temptation to engage in sexual relations. Despite his castration, she still loves him, her passion like “hopeless, lasting flames…To light the dead, and warm th’ unfruitful urn” (Lines 261-62).

Eloisa’s guilt over living the religious life outwardly while being pulled toward Abelard continues to consume her. She spends prayer time thinking of Abelard rather than God, and her tears are not out of piety but sorrow for her beloved one. She pictures herself penitent at the altar, repenting her sins with humility. She is beginning to feel she can move on and embrace the spiritual side of life. Suddenly, however, she wishes for Abelard to return and “assist the fiends” (Line 288), meaning demons or evil spirits, and take her from God.

Pulled between love for God and love for Abelard, Eloisa feels strung “far as pole from pole” (Line 289). She wishes for Abelard to forget about her, to not visit her or write back to her. She hopes instead for “Grace serene” (Line 297) to bring her peace from her tormented emotions.

Eloisa hears the wind, and it sounds like voice of a passed nun comforting her. She dreams she will be released from anguish in the place “where sinners may have rest” (Line 319). She imagines Abelard at her funeral wearing his “sacred vestments” (Line 325), because he is a monk. She is saddened that Abelard will die one day but finds hope that they may be reunited then. Eloisa predicts that some “future bard” (Line 359) will one day write a poem about her doomed love. She hopes that the “well-sung woes” (Line 365) will soothe her ghost.