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In point of poetical excellence, the Epistle from Eloisa to Abelard has been more applauded than any of the works of Pope. Dr. Warton "conceives it to be the most highly finished, and certainly the most interesting, of the pieces of our author;" and Mr. Bowles declares his conviction, that " it is infinitely superior to every thing of the kind, ancient or modern." This commendation has not however been suffered to pass without deductions of such a nature, as not only detract from its value, but, if justly founded, would render the poem undeserving a place in the works of Pope. "We must candidly own," says Warton, "that the principal circumstance of distress is of so indelicate a nature, that it is with difficulty disguised by the exquisite art and address of the poet." Mr. Bowles has ventured to advance a step further, and to represent the poem as being of an immoral tendency. "The inherent indelicacy of the subject," says he, " is one objection to it; and who but must lament its immoral effect?" On this head it may be observed, that different opinions will be formed, according to the light in which it is viewed, and the different characters of those who decide. Such persons as are susceptible of those impressions which works of genius are intended to communicate, who comprehend the whole of the subject, and can enter into the feelings, and perceive the intentions of the poet or the artist, will view it as a true connoisseur views, an ancient statue, and will find no disposition to attend to remarks that can only interfere with or destroy such impressions; whilst they who are disposed to consider a subject in parts, rather than in the whole, and to look for causes of objection, may doubtless discover in the Epistle of Eloisa, passages which will be considered by them as licentious or immoral. It must however be observed, that if this construction be put upon the poem, it is what the author never intended. On the contrary, his object is to shew the fatal consequences of an ungovernable passion; and if he has done this in natural and even glowing language, it must be remembered that such are not his own sentiments, but those of the person he has undertaken to represent, and are in general given in nearly her own words. That many expressions and passages may be pointed out, which are inconsistent with the established order and just regulations of society, may be fully admitted. Such for instance as the lines
How oft when press'd to marriage have I said,
Curse on all laws but those which love has made.
But surely it is not likely that such sentiments can impose upon the weakest and most inexperienced minds. It is indeed highly probable that Pope has in some few instances intentionally exaggerated the sentiments and expressions of Eloisa, in order to render it impossible for any person of common capacity to be misled by such statements. Those whose morals are likely to be corrupted by this poem, will have little chance of escaping the much more pernicious productions, as well in prose as in verse, which are daily poured out before the public.
It is remarkable that Dr. Johnson, instead of charging the subject of this poem with either indecency or immorality, has expressly declared it to be his opinion that "it is so judiciously chosen, that it would be difficult, in turning over the annals of the world, to find another, which so many circumstances concur to recommend."
The fact is, that the story of Eloisa exhibits some of the most striking circumstances, and most important lessons that are to be found in the records of mankind. With every endowment of nature, and every accomplishment of education, with a superior understanding, and a deeply sensible and affectionate heart, Eloisa fell a sacrifice to the scholastic pedantry of the age in which she lived, and became the victim of the noblest of feelings-the admiration and love of talents and of virtue. The philosophy of the times was employed to exalt the powers of the intellect only, and the object of her adoration had the abilities of a sage with the feelings of a barbarian. By such an instructor she was seduced, but not degraded. In the conflict that ensued, the virtues of Eloisa overcame the depravity of Abelard. Instead of sinking to his level, she raised him to her own. By her unexampled magnanimity and unalterable affection, she created in him a new heart, and he hastened to obliterate, by every compensation in his power, the injury he had done to her. Their passion was ennobled by every thing that could throw lustre on their domestic life, by a coincidence of temper and disposition-a belief in the same religious tenets, and a union of occupations, studies, and pursuits. The tragical events that afterwards occurred, and which have given celebrity to their mournful story, add to its interest without changing its character. Disciplined by circumstances, and exalted by sufferings, their affections united in the pursuit of higher objects. The pious exertions of Abelard in raising the Paraclete, were seconded by the
devotion of Eloisa, its first Abbess; and after a course of conduct
Hoc tumulo Abbatissa jacet prudens Heloissa;
The Parisian Academy of Belles Lettres, in the year 1766, prepared, at the request of Madame de Rochefoucault, the late Abbess of Paraclete, an inscription more worthy of the characters of persons deposited there; which was afterwards inscribed on a marble tablet, by the directions of her successor, Madame de Roucy.