Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Precious to Grace: Necessary Desolation in Pope's Eloisa to Abelard

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

Precious to Grace: Necessary Desolation in Pope's Eloisa to Abelard

Article excerpt

   Walk in faith even though Heaven seems out of reach. Think how good it
   would be if you could write that. --Mark Salzman, Lying Awake 175

MOTHER Mary Joseph's words to Sister John of the Cross near the conclusion of Mark Salzman's recent novel, Lying Awake, capture the central impulse of Alexander Pope's 1717 poem, Eloisa to Abelard. Like Sister John who faces a devastating choice between living with a small brain tumor that provides moments of spiritual ecstasy and surgery that could potentially lead her back to the aridity of her prior monastic existence, Eloisa too faces a crisis of faith, here described as a choice between her unruly passion for Abelard and her spiritual love for God. Just as Mother Mary Joseph understands the power of language to console the fainthearted on their journeys to Heaven, so too does Pope realize that his poem creates both a painful dissonance and a compelling resolution that encourages and heartens others on their sometimes wayward walks to God.

Traditionally, much of the criticism that touches upon Eloisa's spiritual crisis--a crisis that seems to put "Heaven just out of reach" centers on the extensive interpretive debate about the struggle between "grace and nature, virtue and passion" that Alexander Pope articulates in "The Argument" to Eloisa to Abelard:

   It was many years after this separation, that a letter of Abelard's to a
   Friend which contain'd the history of his misfortune, fell into the hands
   of Eloisa. This awakening all her tenderness, occasion'd those celebrated
   letters (out of which the following is partly extracted) which give so
   lively a picture of the struggles of grace and nature, virtue and
   passion.(1)

As this debate is typically formulated, it raises opposing questions concerning Eloisa's spiritual status in the poem. According to the dialectic Pope seems to have established in "The Argument," critics either emphasize her redemption through the saving power of God's grace, or they alert readers to her failure as a religious woman because of her inability to free herself from her idolatry of Abelard.(2) Instead of taking sides in this debate, which grounds its arguments in the dialectic that Pope's "Argument" seems to suggest, I propose that we focus on another key concept presented in "The Argument"; that is, the idea of struggle. Pope's Eloisa rejects an easy conventional conversion narrative, seeking instead, as Linda Georgianna has written, "a new spiritual model that can adequately describe and account for her complex spiritual state" (190). Eloisa wishes to account for the gap between her unruly inner life and a static monastic life that she professes in order to help herself and others "do good and avoid evil, for the love of God, requirements that entail an ongoing interior struggle with one's motives, memories and desires" (205).

If we focus on Eloisa's ongoing interior struggle rather than on the irreconcilable tension between "grace and nature, virtue and passion," we can more fully appreciate the poem's deeply complex spiritual, monastic and Catholic dimensions. My aim in this essay is to historicize Pope's poem in several ways, first by closely analyzing Pope's representation of Eloisa in light of his own Catholicity and contemporary depictions of her, and then by showing how some understanding of the Benedictine monastic context which underwrites the poem serves to deepen the poem's pathos and increase our appreciation of Eloisa's sacrifice and pain. Further, within this fuller historical account, I will suggest that Eloisa remains an exemplary religious woman because she participates wholeheartedly in the ongoing interior struggle between desolation and consolation. These movements, which Pope painstakingly delineates in his poem, effectively mirror the sometimes slow and painful spiritual process whose success is always in question. Finally, I will consider how Pope's introduction of the creator-poet at the poem's conclusion, just at the moment when Eloisa seems to recognize the futility of seeking spiritual perfection, points to a compelling paradox. …

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