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Abelard and Eloïsa flourished in the twelfth century; they were
two of the most distinguished persons of their age in learning and beauty, but for nothing more famous than for their unfortunate passion. After a long course of calamities, they retired each to a several convent, and consecrated the remainder of their days to religion. It was many years after this separation, that a letter of Abelard's to a friend, which contained the history of his misfortune, fell into the hands of Eloisa. This awakening all her tenderness, occasioned those celebrated letters (out of which the following is partly extracted) which gives so lively a
picture of the struggles of grace and nature, virtue and passion.
In these deep solitudes and awful cells,
Where heav'nly-pensive contemplation dwells,
And ever-musing melancholy reigns,
What means this tumult in a vestal's veins ?
Why rove my thoughts beyond this last retreat?
Why feels my heart its long-forgotten heat?
Yet, yet I love!—From Abelard it came,
And Eloïsa yet must kiss the name.
Dear fatal name ! rest ever unrevealed,
Nor pass these lips in holy silence sealed:
Hide it, my heart, within that close disguise,
Where mixed with God's, his loved idea lies:
O write it not, my hand-the name appears
Already written-wash it out, my tears!
In vain lost Eloïsa weeps and prays,
Her heart still dictates, and her hand obeys.
Relentless walls! whose darksome round contains
Repentant sighs, and voluntary pains:
Ye rugged rocks! which holy knees have worn;
Ye grots and caverns shagged with horrid thorn!
Shrines where their vigils pale-eyed virgins keep,
And pitying saints, whose statues learn to weep!
Though cold like you, unmoved and silent grown,
I have not yet forgot myself to stone.
All is not Heaven's while Abelard has part,
Still rebel nature holds out half my heart:
Nor pray’rs nor fasts its stubborn pulse restrain,
Nor tears for ages taught to flow in vain.
Soon as thy letters trembling I unclose,
That well-known name awakens all my woes.
Oh name for ever sad! for ever dear!
Still breathed in sighs, still ushered with a tear,
I tremble too, where'er my own I find,
Some dire misfortune follows close behind.
Line after line my gushing eyes o’erflow,
Led through a sad variety of woe:
Now warm in love, now with’ring in my bloom,
Lost in a convent's solitary gloom !
There stern religion quenched th' unwilling flame,
There died the best of passions, love and fame.
Yet write, oh write me all, that I may join Griefs to thy griefs, and echo sighs to thine. Nor foes nor fortune take this pow'r away; And is my Abelard less kind than they? Tears still are mine, and those I need not spare, Love but demands what else were shed in pray'r; No happier task these faded eyes pursue; To read and weep is all they now can do.
Then share thy pain allow that sad relief; Ah, more than share it, give me all thy grief. Heav'n first taught letters for some wretch's aid, Some banished lover, or some captive maid; They live, they speak, they breathe what love inspires, Warm from the soul, and faithful to its fires, The virgin's wish without her fears impart, Excuse the blush, and pour out all the heart, Speed the soft intercourse from soul to soul, And waft a sigh from Indus to the Pole.
Thou knowest how guiltless first I met thy flame, When loves approached me under friendship's name: My fancy formed thee of angelic kind, Some emanation of th' all-beauteous Mind. Those smiling eyes, attemp ring ev'ry ray, Shone sweetly lambent with celestial day. Guiltless I gazed; heav'n listened while you sung; And truths divine came mended from that tongu. From lips like those, what precept failed to movo ? Too soon they taught me 'twas no sin to love:
Back through the paths of pleasing sense I ran,
Nor wished an angel whom I loved a man.
Dim and remote the joys of saints I see;
Nor envy them that heav'n I lose for thee.
How oft, when pressed 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 them all:
Not Cæsar'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 possessed,
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.
Alas, how changed! what sudden horrors rise!
A naked lover bound and bleeding lies!
Where, where was Eloïse? her voice, her hand,
Her poniard, had opposed the dire command.
Barbarian, stay! that bloody stroke restrain;
The crime was common, common be the pain.
I can no more; by shame, by rage suppressed,
Let tears, and burning blushes speak the rest.
Canst thou forget that sad, that solemn day,
When victims at yon altar's foot we lay?
Canst thou forget what tears that moment fell,
When, warm in youth, I bade the world farewell ?
As with cold lips I kissed the sacred veil,
The shrines all trembled, and the lamps grew pale:
Heav'n scarce believed the conquest it surveyed,
And saints with wonder heard the vows I made.
Yet then, to those dread altars as I drew,
Not on the cross my eyes were fixed, but you;
Not grace, or zeal, love only was my call,
And if I lose thy love, I lose my all.
Come! with thy looks, thy words, relieve my woe;
Those still at least are left thee to bestow.
Still on that breast enamoured let me lie,
Still drink delicious poison from thy eye,
Pant on thy lip, and to that heart be pressed;
Give all thou canst—and let me dream the rest.
Ah, no! instruct me other joys to prize,
With other beauties charm my partial eyes,
Full in my view set all the bright abode,
And make my soul quit Abelard for God.
Ah, think at least thy flock deserves thy care,
Plants of thy hand, and children of thy pray’r.
From the false world in early youth they fled,
By thee to mountains, wilds, and deserts led.
You raised these hallowed walls;' the desert smiled,
And paradise was opened in the wild..
No weeping orphan saw his father's stores
Our shrines irradiate, or emblaze the floors;
No silver saints, by dying miser's giv'n,
Here bribed the rage of ill-requited heav'n;
But such plain roofs as piety could raise,
And only vocal with the Maker's praise.
In these lone walls (their days' eternal bound)
These moss-grown domes with spiry turrets crowned,
Where awful arches make a noonday night,
And the dim windows shed a solemn light;
Thy eyes diffused a reconciling ray,
And gleams of glory brightened all the day.
But now no face divine contentment wears,
'Tis all blank sadness, or continual tears.
See how the force of others' pray’rs I try,
(O pious fraud of am'rous charity!)
But why should I on others' pray’rs depend ?
Come thou, my father, brother, husband, friend!
Ah, let thy handmaid, sister, daughter move,
And all those tender names in one, thy love!
The darksome pines that o'er yon rocks reclined
Wave high, and murmur to the hollow wind,
The wand'ring streams that shine between the lilie,
The grots that echo to the the tinkling rills,
The dying gales that pant upon the trees,
The lakes that quiver to the curling breeze;
No more these scenes my meditation aid,
Or lull to rest the visionary maid.
But o'er the twilight groves and dusky caves,
Long-sounding aisles, and intermingled graves,
Black Melancholy sits, and round her throws
A death-like silence, and a dread repose:
Her gloomy presence saddens all the scene,
Shades ev'ry flow'r, and darkens ev'ry green,
Deepens the murmur of the falling floods,
And breathes a browner horror on the woods.
Yet here for ever, ever must I stay;
Sad proof how well a lover can obey !
Death, only death, can break the lasting chain:
And here, ev’n then, shall my cold dust remain,
Here all its frailties, all its flames resign,
And wait till 'tis no sin to mix with thine.
Ah, wretch! believed the spouse of God in vain.
Confessed within the slave of love and man.
Assist me, heav'n! but whence arose that pray'r ?
Sprung it from piety, or from despair ?
Ev'n here, where frozen chastity retires,
Love finds an altar for forbidden fires.
I ought to grieve, but cannot what I ought:
I mourn the lover not lament the fault;
I view my crime, but kindle at the view,
Repent old pleasures, and solicit new;
Now turned to heav'n, I weep my past offence,
Now think of thee and curse my innocence.
Of all affliction taught a lover yet,
Tis sure the hardest science to forget!
How shall I lose the sin, yet keep the sense,
And love the offender, yet detest th' offence?
How the dear object from the crime remove,
Or how distinguish penitence from love ?
Unequal task! a passion to resign,
For hearts so touched, so pierced, so lost as mine.
Ere such a soul regains its peaceful state,
How often must it love, how often hate!