Pope, Petrarch, and Shakespeare: Renaissance Influences in 'Eloisa to Abelard.'

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Many critics acknowledge Pope's indebtedness in Eloisa to Abelard (1717) to the Ovidian heroic epistle, and indeed the poem does owe much to the earlier poet's style and imagery.(1) However, as others have not, I see in Eloisa to Abelard a poem that imitates certain Renaissance sonnet conventions. Pope incorporates into his poem both the self-reflective language of Petrarch and the Shakespearean reinterpretation of Petrarch's language in order to express the erotic, ultimately impossible desire of his heroine. I shall argue that this inventive synthesis largely account for the disjunctive attitude of the poem that readers often note when Popes moves Eloisa back and forth between reality and illusion, a disjunction that Pope attempts to mediate in the poem's conclusion.

Pope's uneven narrative initiates a Petrarchan ideal, then undercuts this ideal with a suspicion of language reminiscent of Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnet cycle. In doing so, Pope not only complicates the associations among poet, persona, and the object of poetic desire,but transforms writing, itself into a mechanism for reconstructing reality and thus into an object of desire as well. As he adapt and conflates the conventions of praise poetry, Pope privileges writing over speech, a convention typical of the heroic. epistle. In establishing a hierarchy between the two forms of language, he adds a dimension to his poem that neither of the earlier poets contemplate. Ultimately, out of Pope's erotic epideictic poem emerges an epistle on the nature of language.

I agree with James Winn that it is "mindless" to compare Eloisa in any literal sense to Pope.(2) However, certain similarities between the two, evoked by the language of the poem itself, suggest Pope's empathy with Eloisa, especially in sexual terms.(3) Pope's empathy with the historic Heloise seems to stem from a coincidence of circumstances: both were intellectuals and writers, in some aspects secluded from the world -- Heloise in her convent, Pope in his garden. Their sexual dilemma invites further comparison; both were sexually functional yet were hindered in their attempts to engage in normal sexual relationships. Heloise cannot stop Abelard's castration, and she ultimately agrees to join a nunnery; Pope's dwarfish physique made marriage and sexual relationships unlikely. The most significant difference between them lies in consummation; Heloise and Abelard did, and Pope apparently did not, speculation to the contrary notwithstanding.(4)

The sexual imagination at play in Pope's letter to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and to the Blounts no doubt helped him vocalize Eloisa's dilemma in the poem.(5) By seeing language as a metonymy for sexual love, Pope imagined his writings as items of barter for -- and thus in some manner equivalent to -- the sexual favors of ladies, as he confesses in a 1711 letter to Henry Cromwell: "How gladly wou'd I give all I am worth, that is to say, my Pastorals for one of their [the Blounts'] Maidenheads, & my Essay for the other?"(6) And although he wrote to Martha Blount in 1716 that "the Epistle of Eloise grows warm and begins to have some Breathings of the Heart in it, which may make posterity think I was in love" [Mar 1716]; 1:338), it was to Lady Mary that he practiced his most overtly erotic correspondence:

I must be content to show my taste in Life as I do my taste in Painting, by loving to have as little Drapery as possible. Not that I think every body naked, altogether so fine a sight as your self and a few more would be: but because 'tis good to use people to what they must be acquainted with; and there will certainly come some Day of judgment to uncover every Soul of us. (18 August [17161; 1:353).

In substituting language for action to express desire, Pope was able to distance himself from real sexual contact, which his physique made problematic, while pretending familiarity with such contact. Pope seemed to find security in distance, for the further Lady Mary travelled from England, the more emotionally intimate Pope's letters became. …