1. Read the explanatory notes. The line numbers in red in the online version have footnotes, which you can go to by clicking on the line number (the footnotes will appear at the end of your printout, if you want to print it out before reading). The first footnote (to line one) is particularly useful as it explains who Eloisa and Abelard are and gives some useful background.
2. Forget that it's a poem. Read it as if it were a story or an essay, sentence by sentence. Don't try to focus on those poetic things like imagery, rhythm, and inflection that we are usually taught to look for in poems--concentrate instead on following the story it tells, the feelings Eloisa describes, and the progression of her reasoning.
3. If you get lost or confused, slow down and take it one sentence at a time. Make sure you are reading each sentence as a complete whole--from the period that ends one sentence to the period that ends the next. Try to identify the main subject and verb of the sentence, and then figure out how the other clauses and phrases modify it. You won't have to read the whole poem this way--if you take the time to make sense of one or two sentences this way, the next ones will come more easily.
4. Look for ways to divide up the poem. What are some of the big transitions in the poem? If you were going to divide it into sections for the ease of other readers, where would you show the major shifts in the direction of Eloisa's thoughts?
For credit you can do any one of the following:
- Identify a sentence that you find particularly baffling: supply a line number, and then quote enough of it to illustrate your brief explanation of what about it confuses you.
- Suggest some ways of dividing the poem into more manageable segments, as in suggestion #4 above (indicate one or two places where it seems to you like the poem is making a significant transition from one idea to another).
- Offer an explanation to clear up someone else's bafflement (or kindly and collegially improve upon someone else's explanation, if you think that person has missed the mark).