In my introduction to literature class, I teach a wide range of poets and poetry. From Margaret Atwood to Shakespeare, from Elizabeth Bishop to Alexander Pope. We do sonnets. We do a villanelle. We do some free verse.
Now, I'm not what I'd call a "poetry person." I do not tend to work on poetry in my own scholarship, and I am not one of those people who can quote lines of poetry perfectly with little to no effort. But I love the music of poetry, and I love the way that poetry makes me feel. And so in Intro to Lit, I try to choose poems that make students feel in a range of ways.
The last poem that we read in the semester is Pope's "Eloisa to Abelard." We read this poem for a variety of reasons - not the least of which is that I pair it with the one film that we watch in the course, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. My whole course is built around the idea that there are connections between literary texts - and that getting the references is a huge part of reading, enjoying, and understanding literature. I also like to show the connections between texts of different genres and different historical periods to show not a tradition of influence at work but rather the ways in which literary production and reception depends on things like canon formation and publicity and power. The course is not a course that I design in chronological order, and I choose the texts based loosely on personal preference. For a while I taught Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair and Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" to conclude the course, but that was back before I decided to include film as a literary genre that we study in the course. Still, my aim at the end is to let them see how much they've learned about reading texts and to let them have some fun with those skills. All of the texts in the course consider issues of memory, love, identity. By ending with Pope's 18th century poem and by pairing it with a 21st century movie, we get to see all of those things in play, and, well, it's awesome.
Now, "Eloisa to Abelard" is a long poem, and so I'm not going to quote the whole thing here. Here, instead, are some lines that I particularly like:
"How oft, when press'd to marriage, have I said,
Curse on all laws but those which love has made!
Love, free as air, at sight of human ties,
Spreads his light wings, and in a moment flies,
Let wealth, let honour, wait the wedded dame,
August her deed, and sacred be her fame;
Before true passion all those views remove,
Fame, wealth, and honour! what are you to Love?
The jealous God, when we profane his fires,
Those restless passions in revenge inspires;
And bids them make mistaken mortals groan,
Who seek in love for aught but love alone.
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. "
4 years ago