Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Ye Soft Illusions, Dear Deceits, Arise!": Apostrophe as Suture in "Eloisa to Abelard"

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Ye Soft Illusions, Dear Deceits, Arise!": Apostrophe as Suture in "Eloisa to Abelard"

Article excerpt

In the oeuvre of Alexander Pope, poet of irony, wit, and allusion, "Eloisa to Abelard" (1717) occupies a conspicuous position as a strange and starkly emotional poem.1 Pope's loose adaptation of the correspondence between the infamously thwarted twelfth-century lovers highlights all of the melancholy passion of the letters while passing over much of their religious and intellectual content. In doing so, Pope transforms the historical correspondence-most compelling in the complexity of its exchanges-into a fervent 366-line plea from Eloisa, alone.2 Even as Pope condenses this dialogic exchange into a single, unanswered verse epistle, "Eloisa" nevertheless maintains a desire for connection and reciprocity as she calls out to Abelard, the prison-like convent, and even her own body.3 Though its genre renders the poem technically incapable of responding to this desire, the very cries that emblematize Eloisa's isolation have intriguing formal consequences. Apostrophe provides Eloisa with a way of escaping her solitude by forcing the objects she calls to assume subject positions capable of calling back. It is important, therefore, to attend to the function of apostrophe in "Eloisa to Abelard" not only to come to a clearer understanding of one of the poem's most prominent formal features, but also to come to a clearer understanding of the device's ability to make silent objects echo back in answer to the imploring poetic voice.

According to Jonathan Culler, apostrophe is unique among poetic devices because "it makes its point by troping not on the meaning of a word but on the circuit or situation of communication itself."4 The circuit of communication between the poet and "empirical listeners" is broken as the poet "turns away" from the implied audience and "address[es] natural objects, artifacts, or abstractions."5 Barbara Johnson also includes "the absent, the lost and the dead" as possible addressees of apostrophic invocation.6 In turning away from the audience and directly addressing an object, the poet not only disrupts the initial circuit of communication, but also alters the relationship between the self and the object-be it a silent stone or a lost love-by infusing it with "voice, life, and human form."7 In other words, Johnson explains, apostrophe "enables the poet to transform an 'I-it' relationship into an 'I-thou' relationship" with "the same power, if not the same institutional backing, as Althusser 's concept of ideology; l'interpellation."8 Through its interpellating call, apostrophe-the "figure of address"-is able to turn an object "into an interlocutor or at least a listener."9 Eloisa's apostrophes do precisely this, creating the possibility for relationship within the isolating confines of the cloister and the parameters of the poem. She uses the apostrophizing call to subjectivize objects and then proceeds to interact with their subjectivity.10

Though apostrophe ostensibly privileges the imaginary relationship between the poet and the newly animated object, Culler points out that this relationship is in fact performative.11 Poetry is first and foremost "a verbal composition which will be read by an audience."12 As such, the circuit of communication between poet and audience, though interrupted by apostrophe, remains primary. When the speaker apostrophizes to an object, animating it with the force of the poetic voice, she may not be directly addressing the audience, but she is performing for it. Apostrophe, therefore, "emphasizes that voice calls in order to be calling, to dramatize its calling, to summon images of its power so as to establish its identity as poetical and prophetic voice."13 In other words, the device bluntly asserts an atavistic belief in the power of poetic incantation.14 Nonetheless, it is this fact that makes apostrophe so fascinating to Culler: apostrophe attests to "the power of poetry to make something happen."15

The invocative power of apostrophe is frequently associated with the lyric, but Gillian Beer provides compelling, though indirect, insight into the role of the device in the heroic epistle as well. …

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