Eloisa Eternal


When reading Micheal O”Siadhiall’s poem “Secrets of Assisi” I came across the following lines

“Think of wounded Abelard meeting Heloise:

Sweet disciplines, the long haul of a soul,

Codes of one quick kiss, a hand squeeze,

Swift greetings at once fugitive and whole”

I realized fairly quickly these lines would make little sense without knowledge of the characters of Abelard and Heloise in both history and literature. I have therefore attempted to throw light upon both areas, starting by outlining the details of their romance. I shall then turn to Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” as a means to understand the complex viewpoint on separation and love O’Siadhiall has given his reader through this allusion.

Peter Abelard was born in Pallet, Brittany, in 1079 BCE. His father Berengar was lord of the village, and his mother a well-bred woman. As the eldest son of a noble, he was originally intended for a career in the military. Instead, he trained as a scholar and eventually became a highly acclaimed philosopher (though, I feel I must mention he broke quite a few eggs in the process, as every couple of years he would attmept to set himself up as a rival lecturer to his professors, a move that understandably made him few friends but many enemies through the years of his career. He was thus quite often in a sort of exile to the countryside near Paris during his time as a lecturer of rhetoric). In 1108, however, he settled in Paris more fully and was able to draw pupils from all over Europe.

One of these pupils was a young woman called Heloise d’Argenteuil who was renowned for her brilliant rhetoric and intelligence. She was raised in the convent of Argenteuil, where she learned to read and write Latin, Greek. After her training there, she moved in with her uncle Fulbert, the canon of Notre Dame Cathedral, putting her in the city just as Abelard was hitting the peak of his career.

According to Abelard’s own account, upon first meeting her in 1114 or 1115, he set out to seduce her. It was through his own machinations that he became her private live-at-home tutor. The two quickly started a romantic relationship, one that, as far as the scant evidence we have from a few letters of Heloises’s that survived shows, seems to have been built on mutual respect of intellect as well as on physical passion. Eventually rumors of the relationship reached her Uncle, and Abelard was thrown out. However, the two continued their relationship, which eventually lead to Heloise’s pregnancy. Abelard arranged for her to flee Paris to one of his relatives. She gave birth to a son, who she called Astrolabe after the scientific instrument.

Meanwhile in Paris Abelard attempted to rectify the situation by proposing marriage to Heloise. Though her family agreed for the sake of honour, she was firmly against the idea. She was unable to put them off, however, and was eventually forced into a secret marriage with him. This did not, however, stop the rumours (nor did her public claim that she was not married to him), and Abelard was obliged to remove her from Paris once more, this time to the nunnery of Argenteuil. Her family saw this as an attempt to get out of his marriage vows. After all as other literature of medieval France shows, such as Marie de France’s lay “Eliduc”, a man whose wife entered a convent was released from his marriage vows to her and was free to take another wife if he so chose.

Fulbert responded to this perceived attempt at medieval divorce by ambushing Abelard while he was sleeping and castrating him. Abelard was stripped of his positions in Paris and retreated in disgrace to the Abbey of St. Dennis, where he later took orders. He convinced his wife to do the same. The ill-fated lovers spent the remainder of their days as people of the cloth. Upon Heloises’ discovery he had published an account of their love twelve years after it’s disastrous end, an exchange of letters started between them that lasted until his death, in which she confessed her still ardent love for him, a love he professed not to share.

Let us now return to the stanza from “Secrets of Assisi” that begins:

“Think of wounded Abelard meeting Heloise:

Sweet disciplines, the long haul of a soul,

Codes of one quick kiss, a hand squeeze,

Swift greetings at once fugitive and whole”

O’Siadhiall is not only ask us to think of the legendary love story here- he is asking us to imagine the two meeting after Heloise’s family has castrated him, after each lover took vows and entered the Church, just as Alexander Pope imagined Eloisa (an Anglicized version of Heloise which made his rhyme an easier feat) reacting to Abelard’s letters after both had sworn off the world. Indeed, he is setting us inside the world of the poem. He does, after all include a prayer that Heloise and Abelard “Watch over us [He and his lover] in our clay, brittle as we are.” This, though sensible in the context of the story, is made more meaningful when we turn to Pope’s version and see that Eloisa herself says that “

“If ever chance two wand’ring lovers brings

To Paraclete’s white walls and silver springs,

O’er the pale marble shall they join their heads,

And drink the falling tears each other sheds;

Then sadly say, with mutual pity mov’d,

“Oh may we never love as these have lov’d!” (Pope)

She invites lovers in, invites them to think upon her love and wish it was not theirs.


Unlike Pope, however, O’Siadhiall’s lovers are not estranged. His lovers still have “secrets shared in a garden before they parted”, still have “keep faith” in each other, whereas Pope’s Eloisa cries

“Rise Alps between us! and whole oceans roll!

Ah, come not, write not, think not once of me,

Nor share one pang of all I felt for thee.

Thy oaths I quit, thy memory resign;

Forget, renounce me, hate whate’er was mine” (Pope)

She has lost her love entirely, sworn it off in the agony of realization Abelard will never return it again. The “glow of absence” that perfects O’Siadhiall’s speaker’s relationship with his lover has destroyed the love of Eloisa and Abelard. This seems to show his love to be the stronger. The love of our speaker is stronger than myth, stronger than the legends spun by the English poets.


Yet, Pope’s poem ends with Eloisa’s certainty that

“if fate some future bard shall join

In sad similitude of griefs to mine,

Condemn’d whole years in absence to deplore,

And image charms he must behold no more;

Such if there be, who loves so long, so well;

Let him our sad, our tender story tell;

The well-sung woes will soothe my pensive ghost;

He best can paint ’em, who shall feel ’em most.” (Pope).


Perhaps, then, the fate of O’Siadhiall’s love is not as rosy as he paints it. It is a “broken yearning”, after all, “voices of the gone… somehow in their wholeness [throwing] a shape on ours”. His ability to paint the “long range patience” of Eloisa and Abelard only confirms this. Like Eloisa, he is doomed to die loving one who has already thrown his love away. He can only hear her voice, “across the chills of the night” because he, like Eloisa, is left with only the memories of the secret time in the garden.  He even experiences her conflation of lover and God. In the darkest of his despairs, he calls on both God “O Lord” and “O Chiara” , just as Eloisa made her vow in Pope’s poem, not to the Cross, but to Abelard. There is no happy ending for O-Siadhiall’s speaker- simply the memory of his love, the same laughter playing in his head from a place he cannot reach.





And of course, “Secrets of Assisi”