Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady
"Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady" is a poem in heroic couplet
Heroic couplet
A heroic couplet is a traditional form for English poetry, commonly used for epic and narrative poetry; it refers to poems constructed from a sequence of rhyming pairs of iambic pentameter lines. The rhyme is always masculine. Use of the heroic couplet was first pioneered by Geoffrey Chaucer in...

s by Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope
Alexander Pope was an 18th-century English poet, best known for his satirical verse and for his translation of Homer. He is the third-most frequently quoted writer in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, after Shakespeare and Tennyson...

, first published in his Works of 1717. Though only 82 lines long, it has become one of Pope's most celebrated pieces.

The work begins with the poet asking what ghost beckons him onward with its "bleeding bosom gor'd"; it is the spirit of an unnamed woman (the "lady" of the title) who acted "a Roman's part" (i.e., committed suicide
Suicide is the act of intentionally causing one's own death. Suicide is often committed out of despair or attributed to some underlying mental disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, or drug abuse...

) due to loving "too well." The speaker eulogizes her sacrifice and then for several lines berates and curses her uncle (who is also her guardian) for being a "mean deserter of [his] brother's blood" and having no compassion on the lady. There follows a description of her foreign burial in a "humble grave" unattended by friends and relatives, which Pope sums up in the striking couplet:
"A heap of dust alone remains of thee;
'Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be!"

The concluding lines contain the speaker's application of this lesson of mortality to himself: someday he too will die and the last thought of the lady will be torn from him as he passes away.

And then he loved her.

Frederic Harrison
Frederic Harrison
Frederic Harrison was a British jurist and historian.Born at 17 Euston Square, London, he was the son of Frederick Harrison, a stockbroker and his wife Jane, daughter of Alexander Brice, a Belfast granite merchant. He was baptised at St...

 believed the subject of the work to be Elizabeth Gage(d.1724), wife of John Weston(d.1730) of Sutton Place, Surrey
Sutton Place, Surrey
Sutton Place, 3 miles NE of Guildford in Surrey is a Grade I listed Tudor manor house built c.1525 by Sir Richard Weston, courtier of Henry VIII. It is of great importance to art history in showing some of the earliest traces of Italianate renaissance design elements in English architecture. In...

. She was the sister of Thomas Gage, 1st Viscount Gage
Thomas Gage, 1st Viscount Gage
Thomas Gage, 1st Viscount Gage Bt was the son of Joseph Gage of Sherborne Castle and Elizabeth Penruddock.He married Benedicta Maria Theresa Hall in 1717. Gage's first son was born in 1718...

(d.1754). Harrison derives his opinion from a note of Pope's appended to a letter of his to Mrs Weston, and states the story of the poem to be pure imagination: "Mrs Weston was separated from her husband, but she returned and lived in peace. She did not die abroad, friendless and by suicide, but in the bosom of her family, by natural causes, and in her own home. She was in fact buried in the (Weston) family vault in Guildford in 1724, eleven years after Pope's outburst".

Readers' reactions to this work have been varied, and some have offered severe criticisms. John Wesley
John Wesley
John Wesley was a Church of England cleric and Christian theologian. Wesley is largely credited, along with his brother Charles Wesley, as founding the Methodist movement which began when he took to open-air preaching in a similar manner to George Whitefield...

 in "Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior" (1782) compared the poet Matthew Prior
Matthew Prior
Matthew Prior was an English poet and diplomat.Prior was the son of a Nonconformist joiner at Wimborne Minster, East Dorset. His father moved to London, and sent him to Westminster School, under Dr. Busby. On his father's death, he left school, and was cared for by his uncle, a vintner in Channel...

 with Pope, mostly to the detriment of the latter; in this essay, Wesley says of Pope:
"As elegant a piece as he ever wrote was, 'Verses to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady.' But was ever anything more exquisitely injudicious? First, what a subject! An eulogium on a self-murderer! And the execution is as bad as the design: It is a commendation not only of the person, but the act!"

Most of Wesley's grounds for criticism are moral: since--as he would consider self-evident--suicide is an evil act that affronts God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 and causes the doer to go to hell
In many religious traditions, a hell is a place of suffering and punishment in the afterlife. Religions with a linear divine history often depict hells as endless. Religions with a cyclic history often depict a hell as an intermediary period between incarnations...

, the glorification of the lady's act in this poem is seriously objectionable. (This did not, however, prevent him from quoting the couplet given above in his Journal on more than one occasion [see December 5, 1750 and July 4, 1786].) Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson , often referred to as Dr. Johnson, was an English author who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer...

 in his Lives of the Poets also faulted the "Elegy" on similar grounds, referring to "the illaudable singularity of treating suicide with respect."

A different kind of criticism, one on artistic grounds, is made by Maynard Mack in his important biography Alexander Pope: A Life. Mack acknowledges that there are beautiful passages in the poem, but also finds that it is marked by a certain incoherence between elements and attitudes which are not fully reconciled, such as the idea of Roman suicide vs. that of Christian burial, or the strange curse on the uncle and all his posterity for his unspecified crimes. Johnson also anticipates some of this artistic censure in judging that "the tale [in the poem] is not skilfully told."

Though Mack's critique is effective and arguably well justified, most critics would not deny the emotional impact of Pope's "Elegy," and even Johnson acknowledges that the poem "must be allowed to be written in some parts with vigorous animation, and in others with gentle tenderness." It is frequently included in anthologies that include Pope's best-known poems or those of his era, and the "Elegy's" effective phrasing is often remembered and quoted.


  • John Butt, ed., The Poems of Alexander Pope: A Reduced Version of the Twickenham Text. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973, pp. 262-4. ISBN 0-300-00030-8. (Used for poem text and date originally published.)
  • John Wesley, "Thoughts on the Character and Writings of Mr. Prior" and "Journals" in Wesley's Works as given in "The Master Christian Library" v. 8 (by Ages Software).
  • Maynard Mack, Alexander Pope: A Life. NY: Norton, 1985, pp. 312-19. ISBN 0-393-30529-5.
  • Samuel Johnson, "Pope" [partial excerpt from Lives of the Poets], in Donald Greene
    Donald Greene
    Donald Johnson Greene was a literary critic, English professor, and scholar of British literature, particularly the eighteenth-century period. Known especially for his work on Samuel Johnson, he also wrote on later authors such as Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Donald Davie.Greene...

    , ed., Samuel Johnson: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984, p. 739. ISBN 0-19-284042-8.

External links

  • Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg
    Project Gutenberg is a volunteer effort to digitize and archive cultural works, to "encourage the creation and distribution of eBooks". Founded in 1971 by Michael S. Hart, it is the oldest digital library. Most of the items in its collection are the full texts of public domain books...

    e-text of The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope, Volume 1 (includes the "Elegy").
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