Wednesday, January 26, 2011

For Credit: How to Read a Really Long Poem (DEADLINE EXTENDED)

Alexander Pope's Eloisa to Abelard may look daunting.  Here are some things to help you make sense of it:

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).
Deadline: Friday (1/28), start of class Saturday (1/29), midnight.

10 comments:

Dema said...

One transition that offers insight into the poem’s meaning occurs when Eloisa begins contemplating death. Although not explicitly marked, this occurs around line 289. This line in the poem indicates a change in Eloisa's attitude toward love and her revision of the original opposition between love and virtue.

The first part of the poem according to my division (lines 1-288) describes Eloisa's attempt to separate and choose the love she feels for Abelard and her religious devotion. She describes her nature as a "rebel" (26) with a "stubborn pulse" (27) and an impediment for virtuous behavior. This part of the poem contains several shifts itself, but Eloisa consistently attempts to "lose the sin, yet keep the sense" (191). I interpret the "sin" as referring to her erotic love for Abelard, and the "sense" as an immaterial, spiritual love.

Line 289 introduces a shift in which Eloisa recognizes that passion and virtue are not necessarily antithetical. For her, contemplating death reveals that her love for Abelard transcends physicality. Her language indicates this shift: "graft my love immortal on thy fame!"(346). This poem contains many vacillations in content and tone, but we can observe a general change in the way that Eloisa assesses her conflict.

Demosthenes said...

Verse is my favorite writing style because I love how much freedom the writer has to create simply by changing the formatting. KW mentioned that we should look at transitions. Yes this poem is a story, yet the way the poem is structured it appears to be somewhat fractured. For example, the stanza of lines 99-106 is pretty logical in flow of thought from the previous stanza (73-98). But if you look at the next stanza (107-128), there is a definite jump from one place to another. The thought in 105-106 could be the end of a poem, and 107 onward could be "Eloisa to Abelard 2.0".

This same kind of leaping thought process happens more than once. The transition between stanzas at lines 206 and 207 is also not necessarily fluid. Eloisa (who I'm assuming is the speaker) is asking for some kind of abatement from all the pain of being in love but apart from Abelard. And that could end the poem too!

It seems as though, in both cases, the succeeding stanza is only written because the speaker is reminded of the idea by speaking the words of the closing lines of the first stanza. I don't know if Pope was as in-character when writing as this would imply, but it is interesting.

SteveL said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SteveL said...

I didn't think this poem was particularly hard to read. It seemed to flow pretty well, and the message was relatively clear.

There is some advice I would offer to people struggling with the poem. First off, read the footnote at the very bottom of the page. Some background into the story and genre of the poem will really clear things up for you. As for dividing up the poem, one thing that I've always found helpful with longer poems like this is to break it up into stanzas and review each one to see the message it conveys. Once you see the message that stanza puts across, you can relate it to other stanzas and see the patterns that arise in the poem.

One random thing I would like to add is the clearing up of a pop culture reference. I never knew where the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" got its name, but reading through the poem and spotting that line have shown me how enlightenment era literature is still influencing modern society.

Gary M said...

I think that this poem deals with Eloisa's confusion and inability to choose between her love for Abelard and or repentance for the sin that she has committed. The way that she speaks in line "Lost in a convent's solitary gloom! There stern religion quench'd th' unwilling flame, There died the best of passions, love and flame"(38-40). The convent that she has been placed in is to allow her to forget her love for Abelard and to be able to move passed the sin that she has committed. She has had a child with a 38 year old man, and they are not husband and wife. In line (289-294) "No fly me, (...) was mine." Eloisa expresses her desires to forget the man that she loves and to forget him, she wishes to get as far away as possible from Abelard because she feels that otherwise she will not be able to forget him. In the end it seems that Eloisa is not able to overcome her feelings for Abelard no matter the distance or the fact that she is not able to see him every day.

Celeste said...

I think KW’s suggestion about forgetting that “Eloisa to Abelard” is a poem but to instead read it like one would a story was a helpful way to comprehend the work.

From my perception of the work, I believe this piece is all about choice and passion. Abelard and Eloisa are faced with a major choice as a result of their affair out of wedlock. They must decide whether or not to honor their religious beliefs over their love for one another. Abelard has his career as a famous scholar and Eloisa becomes pregnant which adds to the complexity of their situation. The lovers chose their love for God over their passionate feelings for each other in the end. Therefore, Eloisa entered a convent, and Abelard entered a monastery. Eloisa wrote passionate letters to Abelard while isolated in the convent.

Moon said...

I agree with Celeste, that the poem is about choice and passion. However, I find that forgetfulness is plays a significant role in the poem. There are many parts in the poem that refer to forgetting. We first see the word forget in line 107, but I think the word becomes more powerful in line 200. "How often hope, despair, resent, regret,/Conceal, disdain--do all things but forget." I think he makes a valid point by saying a person can do many things to hide their past, but they can never forget, no matter what they attempt to do.

Haro said...

I disagree with Gary, I do not think that this poem deals with the lover's decision between love and the sins that he/she committed. I feel that it deals with the lovers once having a connection each other but somehow now they have to fight for their love. Abelard has left but Eloisa still loves him, it can be seen in the lines that state, "All is not Heav'n's while Abelard has part/Still rebel nature holds out half my heart"(25-26). From the entire piece, t seems as if there love for one another is forced apart by someone else, it didn't seem as if Abelard left on his own will. Someone or something is stopping them from being together. Lines 171 through 176 stresses the speakers feeling toward the location and situation that they are in. They feel that death will be the only thing that will break them free. I would say that the two are trying to get away from each other, yet they are upset that they can not get close to each, whether it being a religious reason or someone forbidding it.

Margaret said...

I think one of the most beneficial ways to read "Eloisa of Abelard" is to pause after each verse and paraphrase the main points. By doing this one can still take the structure of the piece into account but can also slow down and take time to make sure that one understands the basics of the events taking place in the poem. By dividing the poem into verses and paraphrasing, each one also gets a sense for major transitions in the work. Also, once one is finished with the work one can read over the paraphrase to get a sense of the overall plot line and refresh one's memory in class.

Vivian said...

I found it a lot easier to read slowly and pause every once and awhile so that I could write down some notes and summarize what I just read in the margins. This allows me to take my time to fully understand what is going on throughout the poem.