Abelard and Heloise
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Abelard and Heloise (1844 painting by Edmund Leighton)
Peter Abelard was one of the leading logicians and theologians of medieval France, and Heloïse d'Argenteuil was an extraordinarily gifted scholar at a time when an educated woman was a rarity. The story of their tragic love, told through their letters, has inspired countless poets, playwrights, musicians and film-makers as well as the multitudes who, even now, visit their joint monument in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
ABELARD to his friend PHILINTUS
The last time we were together, Philintus, you gave me a melancholy account of your misfortunes. What did I not say to stop your tears? But, attend to me a moment; hear the story of my misfortunes, and yours, Philintus, will be nothing, if you compare them with those of the loving and unhappy Abelard.
My father was a gentleman who took equal care to form his children to the study of polite learning as to their military exercises. I was his eldest, and consequently his favourite son, so he took more than ordinary care of my education. I had a natural genius to study, I was smitten with the love of books, so to my brothers I left the glory of battles, and the pomp of triumphs.
The ambition I had to become formidable in logic led me to Paris, where I put myself under the direction of one Champeaux a professor, who had acquired the character of the most skilful philosopher of his age. But I often confuted his notions:, and it is sometimes dangerous to have too much merit.
My enemies endeavoured to interrupt my progress, but their malice only provoked my courage. I took a place at Melun, where my lectures were always crouded, and I entirely obscured the renown of my famous master. Flushed with these happy conquests, I removed to Corbeil to attack the masters there, and so establish my character of the ablest Logician, the violence of travelling threw me into a dangerous distemper, and not being able to recover my strength, my physician, who perhaps were in a league with Champeaux, advised me to retire to my native air. Thus I voluntarily banished myself for some years.
At length I recovered my health, when I received news that my greatest adversary had taken the habit of a monk. You may think was an act of penitence for having persecuted me; quite contrary, it was ambition; for this is the easiest and and shortest way to the highest ecclesiastical dignities.
About this time my father retired from the world and shut himself up in a cloister, where he offered up to Heaven the languid remains of a life he could make no farther use of. My mother, who was yet young, took the same resolution. She turned a Religious, but did not entirely abandon the satisfactions of life. Her friends were continually at the grate; and the monastery, when one has an inclination to make it so, is exceeding charming and pleasant.
At my return I studied under one Anselm, the very oracle of his time; but to give you my own opinion, one more venerable for his age and wrinkles than for his genius or learning. If you consulted him upon any difficulty, the sure consequence was to be much more uncertain in the point. His discourse was a fire, which, instead of enlightening, obscured every thing with its smoke.
In a short time I made such a progress, that others chose me for their director, I found myself safe in the harbour; but when the mind is most easy, it is most exposed to love. And now, my friend, I am going to expose to you all my weaknesses.
There was in Paris a young creature, (ah! Philintus!) formed in a prodigality of Nature, to show mankind a finished composition; dear Heloise! the reputed niece of one Fulbert a canon. Her wit and her beauty would have fired the dullest and most insensible heart; and her education was equally admirable. I saw her; I loved her. I thought of nothing but the means to speak to her and so arranged it that Fulbert engaged me to instruct her in philosophy.
As I was with her one day, alone, Charming Heloise, said I, blushing, if you know yourself, you will not be surprised with what passion you have inspired me with;-I love you, adorable Heloise! Till now I thought philosophy made us masters, of all our passions, and that it was a refuge from the storms in which weak mortals are tossed and shipwrecked; but you have destroyed my security, and broken this philosophic courage. Ah, divine Heloise, said I, flinging myself at her feet, I swear by yourself-I was going on to convince her of the truth of my passion, but heard a noise, and it was Fulbert.
Thus there was a most happy understanding between us. The same house, the same love, united our persons and our desires. How many soft moments did we pass together! In the dead of night, when Fulbert and his domestics were in a sound sleep, we improved the time proper to the sweets of love.
I quitted Aristotle and his dry maxims, to practise the precepts of the more ingenious Ovid. No day passed in which I did not compose amorous verses. My songs were spread abroad, and gained me frequent applauses, so that the loves of Heloise and Abelard were the subject of all conversations
The town-talk at last reached Fulbert's ears. He surprised us in one of our more soft conversations and expelled me. But this separation of our persons the more firmly united our minds.
The next day I provided myself of a private lodging near the loved house, it being impossible that I could live without seeing Heloise. I endeavoured to engage her servant, whose name was Agaton, in my interest, but she, to my surprise, only declared her own love for me. But with the help of Heloise singing-master, I made her presently quit the Canon's house, and at break of day depart for Britany; where, she like another goddess, gave the world another Apollo, which my sister took care of.
This carrying off Heloise was sufficient revenge upon Fulbert. I endeavoured to appease his anger by a sincere confession of all that was past, and by hearty engagements to marry Heloise secretly. He gave me his consent and with many protestations and embraces confirmed our reconciliation, but he was only plotting a cruel revenge, as you will see.
I took a journey into Britany, in order to bring back my dear Heloise as my wife. Yet she urged all that was possible to divert me from marriage: that it was a bond always fatal to a philosopher. My sister, too, warned me that marriage may be the tomb of love. But, so, we departed together from Britany, and came to Paris, where I completed my project. It was my intent my marriage should be kept secret, and therefore Heloise retired among the nuns of Argenteuil.
I now thought Fulbert's anger disarmed: but, alas! Observe, Philintus, to what a barbarity he pursued it! He bribed my servants; an assassin came into my bed chamber by night with a razor in his hand, and found me in a deep sleep. I suffered the most shameful punishment that the revenge of an enemy could invent; in short without losing my life, I lost my manhood. I was punished indeed in the offending part. So cruel an action escaped not unpunished; the villain suffered the same infliction; poor comfort for so irretrievable an evil; I confess to you, shame, more than any sincere penitence; made me resolve to hide myself from my Heloise.
Jealousy took possession of my mind; at the very expence of her happiness I decreed to disappoint all rivals. Before I put myself in a cloister, I obliged her to take the habit, and retire into the nunnery of Argenteuil
I remember somebody would have opposed her making such a cruel sacrifice of herself, but she answered in the words of Cornelia, after the death of Pompey the Great;
O my lov'd lord! our fatal marriage draws.
On thee this doom, and I the guilty cause!.
Then whilst thou go'st th' extremes of Fate to prove,
I'll share that fate, and expiate thus my love."
Speaking these verses, she marched up to the altar, and took the veil with a constancy which I could not have expected in a woman who had so high a taste of pleasure which she might still enjoy. I blushed at my own weakness; and without deliberating a moment longer, I buried myself in a cloister, resolving to vanquish a fruitless passion.
In the mean while, the enemies which my fame had raised up began to attack me. They loaded me with the falsest imputations, and, notwithstanding all my defence, I had the mortification to see my books condemned by a council and burnt. I banished myself to Nogent, then to a retreat in a desart, where I flattered myself I should avoid fame. Yet the desire of being taught by me drew crowds of auditors even thither. With the considerable gratuities I received I built a chapel, and dedicated it to the Holy Ghost, by the name of the Paraclete
The Bishop of Troies gave me leave to establish there a nunnery, which I did, and committed the care of it to my dear Heloise. When I had settled her here, can you believe it, Philintus? I left her without taking any leave.
I did not wander long without settled habitation; for the Duke of Britany, informed of my misfortunes, named me to the Abbey of Guildas, where I now am, and where I now suffer every day fresh persecutions. I live in a barbarous country, the language of which I do not understand. My walks are on the inaccessible shore of a sea which is perpetually stormy. My monks are known by their dissoluteness, and pass their whole days in hunting.
Sometimes I grieve for the house of the Paraclete, and wish to see it again. In the midst of my retirement I sigh, I weep, I pine, I speak the dear name of Heloise, pleased to hear the sound, I complain of the severity of Heaven. I have not yet torn from my heart deep roots which vice has planted in it. I am thoroughly wretched.
Could I not turn to my advantage those words of God himself; if the world hate you, ye know that it hated me also? Come Philintus, let us make a strong effort, turn our misfortunes to our advantage, make them meritorious, or at least wipe out our offences; let us receive, without murmuring, what comes from the hand of God, and let us not oppose our will to his.
I give you advice, which could I myself follow, I should be happy.
LETTER II - Héloïse to Abélard
A consolatory letter of yours to a friend happened some days since to fall into my hands. My knowledge of the character, and my love of the hand, soon gave me the curiosity to open it
But how dear did my curiosity cost me! What disturbance did it occasion! How surprised I was to find the whole letter filled with a particular and melancholy account of our misfortunes! Surely all the misfortunes of lovers are conveyed to them through the eyes. Upon reading your letter I feel all mine renewed. Observe, I beseech you, to what a wretched condition you have reduced me; sad, afflicted, without any possible comfort unless it proceed from you. If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? In spite of all our misfortunes, you may be what you please in your letter. Having lost the substantial pleasures of seeing and possessing you, I shall in some measure compensate this loss by the satisfaction I shall find in your writing. There I shall read your most sacred thoughts; I shall carry them always about with me; I shall kiss them every moment. I cannot live if you will not tell me that you still love me.
You cannot but remember (for lovers cannot forget) with what pleasure I have passed whole days in hearing your discourse; how, when you were absent, I shut myself from everyone to write to you; how uneasy I was till my letter had come to your hands; what artful management it required to engage messengers. I have hated myself that I might love you; I came hither to ruin myself in a perpetual imprisonment that I might make you live quietly and at ease. Nothing but virtue, joined to a love perfectly disengaged from the senses, could have produced such effects. Vice never inspires anything like this; it is too much enslaved to the body. This was my cruel uncle's notion; he measured my virtue by the frailty of my sex, and thought it was the man and not the person I loved. But he has been guilty to no purpose. I love you more than ever, and so revenge myself on him. I will still love you with all the tenderness of my soul till the last moment of my life.
You must be persuaded of this by the extreme unwillingness I showed to marry you, though I knew that the name of wife was honourable in the world and holy in religion; yet the name of your mistress had greater charms because it was more free. The bonds of matrimony, however honourable, still bear with them a necessary engagement, and I was very unwilling to be necessitated to love always a man who would perhaps not always love me. I despised the name of wife that I might live happy with that of mistress.
My misfortune was to have cruel relatives whose malice destroyed the calm we enjoyed; had they been reasonable, I had now been happy in the enjoyment of my dear husband. Oh, how cruel were they when their blind fury urged a villain to surprise you in your sleep! Where was I - where was your Heloise then? What joy should I have had in defending my lover! I would have guarded you from violence at the expense of my life. Oh, whither does this excess of passion hurry me? Here love is shocked, and modesty deprives me of words.
Among those who are wedded to God I am wedded to a man; among the heroic supporters of the Cross I am the slave of a human desire; at the head of a religious community I am devoted to Abelard alone. Even here I love you as much as ever I did in the world. If I had loved pleasures could I not have found means to gratify myself? It is to you I sacrifice these remains of a transitory beauty, these widowed nights and tedious days.
Oh, think of me - do not forget me - remember my love, and fidelity, and constancy: love me as your mistress, cherish me as your child, your sister, your wife! Remember I still love you, and yet strive to avoid loving you. I shake with horror, and my very heart revolts against what I say. I shall blot all my paper with tears. I end my long letter wishing you, if you desire it (would to Heaven I could!), for ever adieu!
LETTER III - Abélard to Héloïse
If by this well meaning artifice I have disturbed you, I purpose here to dry up those tears which the sad description occasioned you to shed.
I promise myself that I will forget you, and yet cannot think of it without loving you; and am pleased with that thought
I remove to a distance from your person with an intention of avoiding you as an enemy; and yet I incessantly seek for you in my mind; I recall your image in my memory, and in different disquietudes I betray and contradict myself. I love you! I saw you, I was earnest to teach you; it cost you your innocence and me my liberty. If now, having lost the power of satisfying my passion, I had also lost that of loving you, I should have some consolation. I continually think of you; I continually call to mind your tenderness.
Forget, if you can, your favours and that right which they claim over me; allow me to be indifferent. What great advantages would philosophy give us over other men if, by studying it, we could learn to govern our passions? What a troublesome employment is love!
Those charms, that beauty, that air, which I yet behold at this instant, occasioned my fall. Your looks were the beginning of my guilt; your eyes, your discourse, pierced my heart; and, in spite of that ambition and glory which tried to make a defence, love was soon the master. Even now my love burns fiercer amidst the happy indifference of those who surround me. The Gospel is a language I do not understand when it opposes my passion.
Make yourself amends by so glorious a choice; make your virtue a spectacle worthy of men and angels. Drink of the chalice of saints, even to the bottom, without turning your eyes with uncertainty upon me. To forget Heloise, to see her no more, is what Heaven demands of Abelard; and to expect nothing from Abelard, to forget him even as an idea, is what Heaven enjoins on Heloise.
God rejected my offering and my prayer, and continued my punishment by suffering me to continue my love. Thus I bear alike the guilt of your vows and of the passion that preceded them, and must be tormented all the days of my life.
To love Heloise truly is to leave her to that quiet which retirement and virtue afford. I have resolved it: this letter shall be my last fault. Adieu! I hope you will be willing, when you have finished this mortal life, to be buried near me. Your cold ashes need then fear nothing, and my tomb shall be more rich and renowned.
LETTER IV - Héloïse to Abélard
To Abelard, her well beloved in Christ Jesus, from Heloise, his well-beloved, in the same Christ Jesus
I read the letter I received from you with abundance of impatience. In spite of all my misfortunes, I hoped to find nothing in it besides arguments of comfort; but how ingenious are lovers in tormenting themselves! The fear of this stabs my heart.
You desire that after your death I should take care of your ashes, and pay them the last duties. Alas! in what temper did you conceive these mournful ideas? Life without Abelard were an insupportable punishment, and death a most exquisite happiness if by that means I could be united to him. If Heaven but hearken to my continual cry, your days will be prolonged and you will bury me.
I have renounced without difficulty all the charms of life, preserving only my love, and the secret pleasure of thinking incessantly of you and hearing that you live. Dear Abelard, pity my despair! The higher you raised me above other women, who envied me your love, the more sensible am I now of the loss of your heart. I was exalted to the top of happiness only that I might have the more terrible fall. I, wretched I, have ruined you, and have been the cause of all your misfortunes. How dangerous it is for a great man to suffer himself to be moved by our sex! He ought from his infancy to be inured to insensibility of heart against all our charms. I have long examined things, and have found that death is less dangerous than beauty. It is the shipwreck of liberty, a fatal snare, from which it is impossible ever to get free.
Even into holy places before the altar I carry the memory of our love; and, far from lamenting for having been seduced by pleasures, I sigh for having lost them.
I doat on the danger which threatens. How, then, can I avoid yielding? I seek not to conquer for fear I should be overcome; happiness enough for me to escape shipwreck and at last reach port. Heaven commands me to renounce my fatal passion for you; but, oh! my heart will never be able to consent to it. Adieu.
LETTER V - Héloïse to Abelard
Dear Abelard, you expect, perhaps, that I should accuse you of negligence. You have not answered my last letter; and thanks to Heaven, in the condition I now am, it is a happiness to me that you show so much insensibility for the fatal passion which had engaged me to you
At last Abelard, you have lost Heloise for ever. Thou charming idea of a lover I once adored, thou wilt be no more my happiness! Dear image of Abelard! thou wilt no longer follow me, no longer shall I remember thee. Oh, enchanting pleasures to which Heloise resigned herself - you, you have been my tormentors! I confess my inconstancy, Abelard, without a blush; let my infidelity teach the world that there is no depending on the promises of women - we are all subject to change. When I tell you what Rival hath ravished my heart from you, you will praise my inconstancy, and pray this Rival to fix it. You are to me no longer the loving Abelard who constantly sought private conversations with me by deceiving the vigilance of our observers. No more endeavour, by the relation of those pleasures our passion gave us, to awaken any guilty fondness you may yet feel for me. I demand nothing of you but spiritual advice and wholesome discipline. My dear husband (for the last time I use that title!), shall I never see you again? Shall I never have the pleasure of embracing you before death? What dost thou say, wretched Heloise? Dost thou know what thou desirest? Couldst thou behold those brilliant eyes without recalling the tender glances which have been so fatal to thee? Couldst thou see that majestic air of Abelard without being jealous of everyone who beholds so attractive a man? That mouth cannot be looked upon without desire; in short, no woman can view the person of Abelard without danger. Ask no more to see Abelard; if the memory of him has caused thee so much trouble, Heloise, what would not his presence do? What desires will it not excite in thy soul? What a fool am I to tell you my dreams, who are sensible of these pleasures? But do you, Abelard, never see Heloise in your sleep?
Ah, Abelard! I begin to perceive that I take too much pleasure in writing to you; I ought to burn this letter. I am sensible of waves both of grace and passion, and by turns yield to each.
LETTER VI - Abélard to Héloïse
Write no more to me, Heloise, write no more to me; 'tis time to end communications which make our penances of no avail,
Let us no more deceive ourselves with remembrance of our past pleasures; we but make our lives troubled and spoil the sweets of solitude. Let us make good use of our austerities, and no longer preserve the memories of our crimes amongst the severities of penance. Let a mortification of body and mind, a strict fasting, continual solitude, profound and holy meditations, and a sincere love of God succeed our former irregularities.
Your heart still burns with that fatal fire you cannot extinguish, and mine is full of trouble and unrest. Think not, Heloise, that I here enjoy a perfect peace; I will for the last time open my heart to you; I am not yet disengaged from you, and though I fight against my excessive tenderness for you, in spite of all my endeavours I remain but too sensible of your sorrows, and long to share in them. The world, which is generally wrong in its notions, thinks I am at peace, and imagining that I loved you only for the gratification of the senses, have now forgot you. Bbreak those shameful chains which bind you to the flesh.
I question not, Heloise, but you will hereafter apply yourself in good earnest to the business of your salvation; this ought to be your whole concern. When you have extirpated your unhappy inclination towards me, the practice of every virtue will become easy; and when at last your life is conformable to that of Christ, death will be desirable to you. Your soul will joyfully leave this body, and direct its flight to heaven. Then you will appear with confidence before your Saviour; you will not read your reprobation in the Judgement Book, but you will hear your Saviour say: 'Come, partake of My glory, and enjoy the eternal reward I have appointed for those virtues you have practised.'
Farewell, Heloise, this is the last advice of your dear Abelard; for the last time let me persuade you to follow the rules of the Gospel. Heaven grant that your heart, once so sensible of my love, may now yield to be directed by my zeal. May the idea of your loving Abelard, always present to your mind, be now changed into the image of Abelard truly and sincerely penitent; and may you shed as many tears for your salvation as you have done for our misfortunes.
[The translator adds: "Then the silence falls for ever."]
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