Heloise (and her Abelard)

The best account of the story of Heloise and Abelard, the inspiration behind this poem, remains Helen’s Waddell’s Peter Abelard.

Heloise and Abelard

Unhappy Heloise, as long as though breathest
It is decreed thou must love Abelard.


So to her confines there comes a horseman,
Riding by night and in haste,
To leave for the cloistered girl
Irredeemable tidings – that her beloved,
Her eagle lover, is no more man.

She longs to run to him, to comfort him –
But how can she find comfort for this?
She waits for no word, no solace now;
Her only recourse and his command
To stay sequestered here for ever,
Refuse to love again now love is torn away.


She could scream against the heavens
But is restrained, covering herself
With the coarse black cloth
Of anguish and celibacy.
She stands outside the dark chapel
But will not enter for very bitterness:

God, who turn from Your servant Abelard,
Do not expect me to turn to You;
Indeed I left You many months ago
When I gave my soul, my mind and body,
A living sacrifice to Abelard;
I burn now in the flame of my desire for him,
A dry fire never to be quenched:
I have no desire for You.

When I gaze at that tortured body on the cross
It is the blood of Abelard
Soaking into the loin cloth;
When I lift my eyes to Christ in glory
It is Abelard I see
Drawing all men to himself.
As David was to his Absalom
Am I to my Abelard:
Mother father lover husband wife –
All in all to him, my grief, my glory,
My everlasting torment, my most sweet reward –
It is to him I sacrifice
These remnants of transitory beauty,
These widowed nights and tedious days.


When he used to come to me at night
In the days of our happy innocence,
When love seemed a private bliss
Before we learnt its power to hurt
And curiously enrage,
I knew him as no other woman had –
The mighty Abelard,
Casting off his learning with his clothes –

I touched his soft skin,
My tongue sought his …
I stroked the smoothness of his naked flesh,
Felt his hand explore my crevice …
But I must not think like this! – I dare not –
Such thoughts only feed my desperation:
My body yearns for him,
Can never now be satisfied.

No others loved like us
To whom love was a holy thing,
Our bodily union a sacrament:
The Church has called that blasphemy,
But I would shout it from the rooftops!
His kisses the breath of life to me,
His thrusting the rhythm of the universe.


When I had your body
I had no need of pictures;
Now my eyes caress you,
I press my lips against you every day,
Dear image of Abelard.

Sometimes you come to me in dreams –
But I open my eyes and see no Abelard;
I stretch out my arms to hold him –
He is not there;
I call him – he does not hear.

Interred in cold damp stone,
With dead obedience
I perform my vows,
Devoted to Abelard alone.


What darkness has been wrought by hatred
On one who would bring light to the mind,
Who in the creaking hull of Notre Dame
Strove to pierce the mists above the sea of faith –
Perhaps too soon to stop your shipwreck, Abelard.

Only months ago – such years it seems –
Hand in hand we stood in a meadow
While in the house your sister held our child;
Henceforth he will not see his parents –
Nuns and eunuchs have no sons –
Astrolabius, pray for your mother
Now, and at the hour of her death.


They say you have attained
Some resignation – even peace –
Perhaps they say the same of me to you;
I say only initiates to despair
Can taste this deadly peace.

They say you speak of the suffering God,
Rejoice to suffer for His sake:
But Abelard, I cannot see it –
If there is a God
He has put out the eyes of my faith.

To my love I stay true,
To the remembrance of my earthly joy;
I desire no empty heaven:
Our love was our salvation, our eternal life,
Heaven was having you, my Abelard.


Heloise, Heloise, Heloise …
Your voice in the whisper
Of running waters, your name
Breathed by the wind in the leaves …
Your Abelard is a broken vessel
For the love of God:
None stays for his comfort.

Now and then an image slips into my mind,
Unquiet in the midst of silence …
Heloise slipping from her clothes …
But memory drives me mad!
Shame presses me on every side.
I bear even to the altar
The burden of our guilty loves.


Is this the Abelard I loved? –
Trapped by a flesh-despising age?
Have you lost your mind through grief
So to torment yourself with blame?
You have no need to hide from God.

Abelard, if love is vice
I have no time for virtue:
If I believed the flames of hell awaited me
For having loved you, I would love you still.


Write no more to me, Heloise, write no more …
Do not add to my miseries by your constancy.

To forget Heloise, to see her no more,
Is what heaven demands of Abelard.

Weep, my child, for your salvation –
No longer for your lover.


For twenty-one years have I lived after Abelard;
Rising each morning to watch by his tomb,
Praying each evening for death –
Now at last the time is near.

But can desire be fulfilled in heaven?
(My lover will not be in hell.)
Will he run to meet me, take me in his arms?
Or must my loneliness endure throughout eternity?

Will there come a time when our love, no more
Condemned, shines in glory? or will the name
Of Abelard never be spoken without tears? –

They shall be tears of shame
For what men did to him
And to his Heloise.


©Virginia Rounding, 1991


I would be my touchstone,
Unearth my waiting heart
Which is my own still centre,
The source where springs the soul.

False starts, mistakes, rebuffs
Erode, as waves against a rock,
To make my surface smooth
And mould me to my shape.

Come lap against me, waves,
Refine but don’t destroy me,
For I would be my touchstone
Against myself to measure me.


©Virginia Rounding, 1990

The Night

When I came to say good-bye that night,
Already you were drifting off
Beyond the realms of speech and sight
Or any common sight. Your cough
At last was silent; eyes half-closed,
Unseeing, yet I knew you heard,
Felt my kiss, without a word
Consented to let go. I dozed,

And slept for half an hour or so –
Awoke to words my sister said:
Come on – Mum died a few minutes ago.
And so we sat beside your bed
To say our last goodnight, and saw
Your thin neck taut and stretched with strain –
But all that gone now, and the pain
Was past, so you would cry no more.

Then while we had a cup of tea
The nurses wrapped you up, so small
And shrivelled, save the swollen knee
Where cancer broke the bone. And all
At once my flesh began to creep:
For in place of my comfortable mother
Was a sharp-nosed shape in white, quite other,
Which frightened me and took away my sleep.


©Virginia Rounding, 1989

First published in  The Eclectic Muse, Vol.4, No.3, Christmas 1994

St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling

We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion.
(East Coker, T.S. Eliot)

You wake to hear a chuckling stream
Below a timbered house, and bird song
Through the latticed windows; then cross
The dewy garden to the light-soaked
Silence, where time passes and is still.
The sun, glinting on polished tiles,
Rebounds off a three-handled chalice
And dapples the attendant circle.

Here you will find no false holiness –
The kind that sits around in chapel
Feeling pious, or reaches back
Into the last half-hour to try to
Rescue some residue of meaning –
Missed before, through dreaming of breakfast
Or staring at a postulant;
But here an ordered walking out

To work declares that all is holy
For the holy people of God.
A mind immersed in London keeps on
Flitting, bat-like, to garner future
Moments beneath a leaky roof –
So losing the present through neglect
And taking the shine off time to come,
Like pulling the cherries out of a cake

To render the whole thing tasteless,
Or skimming the back page of a book
And ruining the unfolding story.
But time is treasured here and used well,
In neither hurry nor in idleness;
And so the mind may stop its spinning,
Finding a balance in the stillness
At the heart of the spin, where dwells

A deep pool of silence into which
You can sink, a silence to float in.
And while you rest, you help to make
A ‘point of intersection’ between
This place and the world for which it prays,
Bringing the world of time into
The eternal, bearing the eternal
Back into the troubled world of time.


©Virginia Rounding, 1989

First published in Symphony, 1994, No.3

How to get a literary agent (or not)

I’ve just responded to an aspiring author on this topic, and thought it was worth sharing my advice (such as it is) more widely. Here’s what I told him:

Here are a few thoughts based on my own experience of getting publishers/agents to be interested in my work.

It’s always a struggle, as you have clearly already found out! What we as writers find fascinating – and it’s generally obvious to us why we wrote, or are writing, a particular book – often seems to leave the potential publisher or agent cold.

What they are always looking for is what they call a ‘hook’ – by which I suppose they mean both: what will reach out and ‘grab’ the reader, and what can they ‘hang it on’ when they’re describing the book to others? While we, the authors, are wondering what will engage a publisher, they are in turn thinking what will booksellers (i.e. the buyers in book stores etc.) respond to. And unfortunately, our expectations often differ, in that authors tend to think in terms of being original, doing something no one has ever done before, whereas the booksellers (at least as perceived by publishers’ marketing departments) want the tried and tested, something familiar, something ‘like’ something else, so that they know where to put it on the shelves. Sounds stupid, but I’ve had that kind of response so many times.

What we somehow have to try to do is achieve both those things – be different, and the same, simultaneously.

So, in a covering letter and synopsis, what ideally should come across is that your book just had to be written, that you are the person to write it, that, yes, it is original but at the same time it can be ‘placed’. Which successful authors/books is it in line with, which existing audiences will it appeal to? Does it have some particular relevance to world events now? To ‘entertain and educate’ is too vague. There are millions of books already doing that – or trying to – so why is yours especially worth reading? Why wasn’t it enough for you to read other people’s books, come to that? If you can give convincing answers to those kinds of questions, you may be on the way to being heard.

Then, once you’ve got something you’re happy with and believe ought to convince others, the only other thing to do is not to give up. Pick an agent that deals with your kind of topic and, when they reject you, try the next on the list and keep going!

Good luck…

Herzog on abuse

HerzogHerzog by Saul Bellow

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bellow wrote things in the 1960s one couldn’t write now, without howls of protest, more’s the pity. Here’s an example:

‘”My childhood was a grotesque nightmare,” [Madeleine] went on. “I was bullied, assaulted, ab-ab-ab … ” she stammered.


‘She nodded. She had told [Herzog] this before. He could not bring this sexual secret of hers to light.

‘”It was a grown man,” she said. “He paid me to keep it quiet.”

‘”Who was he?”

‘Her eyes were sullenly full and her pretty mouth desperately vengeful but silent.

‘”It happens to many, many people,” he said. “Can’t base a whole life on that. It doesn’t mean that much.”‘

View all my reviews

Poem: A baptism

Brompton Oratory, a hot lunch-time in July,

a baby being received into the Catholic Church

and Catholic upper-crust society;

dressed-up, a group stands round the font.

Otherwise the building’s almost empty, save a

scattering of oddballs dotted round the nave,

the occasional stray tourist fleeing from the sun.


A little girl in blue and white-striped dress

escapes the cluster of family and friends.

She patters down the aisle towards the wardrobe-like

confessionals – archaic Wendy-houses –

which lure her to explore their dark insides;

drunk with happiness, she crawls along a pew;

ecstatic – the Oratory one unimagined playground.


Behind her plods the solemn uncle.

Determined not to make a sideshow of himself,

he doesn’t chase – but holds himself on guard

till the moment she stands still. She totters,

absorbing wonder, dizzies herself with space…

He scoops her up, bears her back towards propriety –

the serious expectations of family and Church.


Virginia Rounding


[Published in Ironing the hankies: a selection of 20 poems, Pikestaff Press, 1999]

Time management for a new year: the benefits of AutoFocus

The start of a new year is always a good time to consider one’s time management techniques.  I’m a bit of an addict when it comes to lists and discovering new systems, but in recent years I have repeatedly come back to Mark Forster and his AutoFocus series – see Mark’s blog for details.

The joining of ‘auto’ and ‘focus’ is at the heart of Mark’s concept.  You focus on the task in hand – one thing at a time – but you are led to which task to work on by a sort of gut-feeling (the ‘auto’ part of the process).  You write down all your tasks (in a similar, though simpler, process to David Allen’s Getting Things Done method), and select which one to work on by whichever ‘stands out’ as you read through the list (or part of the list).  So you learn to trust yourself to know what should be done next, while also having the security of knowing that nothing will be forgotten, as it’s all been written down.

Another important aspect of the Autofocus system is the process of ‘dismissal’ – knowing when it’s time to let go of a task, when it is no longer relevant to your main goals, or it’s just not the right time to be devoting attention to it.

Mark is constantly experimenting with new and improved versions of his system, but I find I tend to come back to his original – AutoFocus 1 – sometimes with the SuperFocus variant.  The reason I return to these versions of the system is that one only has to deal with a page at a time, in choosing which task to undertake next.  I find this contributes an element of surprise and interest to what I have to do (as every time you turn the page you don’t know what will be there, and a page of tasks from which to choose doesn’t feel too daunting) whereas reading my whole list of all possible tasks every day would only be dispiriting and demotivating.

So many thanks to Mark Forster for being a constant source of inspiration in the game of trying to cram too many things into too short a span of life – and a Happy New Year to everyone!