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The Lovesong of Alexander Pope

The Lovesong of Alexander Pope

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August 17, 2010

May 2004 -- When one thinks of Enlightenment literature (other than the newly emerging novel), what comes to mind are once-vibrant forms sunk to dry, didactic, or stilted levels. As the great Enlightenment historian Alan Charles Kors told Navigator (November 1997):

In [the field of] drama, what is so interesting in the 18th century, on the Continent, at least, is the rejection of Shakespeare as wild and uncontrolled. There is a great admiration of more classical drama, and there were great successes that rarely are played today. No one reads Voltaire's theater now, but he was considered the Corneille, the Racine of the 18th century. If you had put Voltaire on truth serum, I think he would have told you that it was going to be his theater that would live forever, and almost no one watches that theater. I think that's because in both drama and poetry the 18th century wanted didactic art in which the purely aesthetic aspects very much took a back seat to moral dialogues, debates, and lessons.

THE POET AS MORALIST

Alexander Pope (who was born on May 21, 1688, in London and died on May 30, 1744, in Twickenham, near London) is a poet of the early Enlightenment who has certainly left us many bits of moralistic verse. But in contrast to so many of his contemporaries, he typically phrases these bits with such skill that they are poignant and quotable rather than dry and didactic. For instance, in our increasingly depraved culture, people might well recite the following memorable quatrain to themselves several times a day, as a reminder not to "get used to it."

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien [pronounced "mean"]
As to be hated needs but to be seen.
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
      (An Essay on Man, Epistle II)

Equally sound in its philosophical spirit, and equally well wrought in its form, was Pope's famous paean to Isaac Newton and the Age of Reason.

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:
God said, "Let Newton be!" and all was light.

Despite such celebrations of reason, Pope was undoubtedly a Christian (in fact, a Catholic, but perhaps mostly not to pain his old-fashioned parents). And though he was an "enlightened" believer, with a tendency to Deism, many of his moral pronouncements sit so ill with a truly secular outlook that we have forgotten the uncongenial parts. We quote him as saying: "Hope springs eternal in the human breast." But we forget his reason—it is because man is not made for Earth.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest.
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

THE POET AS ROMANTIC

In his own day, Pope was famous and honored for his epigrams, his satires, and his translations of Homer. But his best-loved poem—perhaps the best-loved poem of the whole Enlightenment era—was quite untypical of him. In it, he managed to describe a passionate, earthly love with an intensity that makes us think of the 19th-century Romantic poets, yet he did this without abandoning the perfectly regular rhythms and rhymes that remind us we are still in the 18th century. In that sense, the poem resembles Mozart's operas, which combined the lyricism of Italy with the musical rigor of Germany. I am speaking, of course, of Pope's heroic epistle, "Eloisa to Abelard," an excerpt of which appears below. Rightly did Samuel Johnson say: "'Eloisa to Abelard' is one of the most happy productions of human wit." I hope it will become as much a favorite with Navigator's readers as it is with me.

Eloisa to Abelard

Should at my feet the world's great master fall,
Himself, his throne, his world, I'd scorn 'em all:
Not Caesar's empress would I deign to prove;
No, make me mistress to the man I love;
If there be yet another name more free,
More fond than mistress, make me that to thee!
Oh happy state! when souls each other draw,
When love is liberty, and nature, law:
All then is full, possessing, and possess'd,
No craving void left aching in the breast:
Ev'n thought meets thought, ere from the lips it part,
And each warm wish springs mutual from the heart.
This sure is bliss (if bliss on earth there be)
And once the lot of Abelard and me.

Alas, how chang'd! what sudden horrors rise!
A naked lover bound and bleeding lies!
Where, where was Eloise? her voice, her hand,
Her poniard, had oppos'd the dire command.
Barbarian, stay! that bloody stroke restrain;
The crime was common, common be the pain.
I can no more; by shame, by rage suppress'd,
Let tears, and burning blushes speak the rest.

Canst thou forget that sad, that solemn day,
When victims at yon altar's foot we lay?
Canst thou forget what tears that moment fell,
When, warm in youth, I bade the world farewell?
As with cold lips I kiss'd the sacred veil,
The shrines all trembl'd, and the lamps grew pale:
Heav'n scarce believ'd the conquest it survey'd,
And saints with wonder heard the vows I made.
Yet then, to those dread altars as I drew,
Not on the Cross my eyes were fix'd, but you:
Not grace, or zeal, love only was my call,
And if I lose thy love, I lose my all.
Come! with thy looks, thy words, relieve my woe;
Those still at least are left thee to bestow.
Still on that breast enamour'd let me lie,
Still drink delicious poison from thy eye,
Pant on thy lip, and to thy heart be press'd;
Give all thou canst—and let me dream the rest.

— Alexander Pope

The entire poem may be found here .

This article was originally published in the May 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.