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

Yes to life

It was my birthday last week and, in one way of looking at it, too many years have gone by, without enough achieved, and it’s all downhill from here. A few books written – but not enough, and not successful enough – and too much time spent in ‘the whole corroding business of administration’, as Peter Abelard calls it in Helen Waddell’s still unsurpassed retelling of the story of Heloise and Abelard. Nothing turns out quite as expected; indeed, expectation may be best avoided altogether.

And yet, and yet – I still believe that all that really matters is fully to appreciate the world and the life I have been given to live in it. Worldly success is ultimately neither here nor there. Enough – but not too much – money would be useful, since financial anxiety is possibly even more corrosive than earning one’s living from administration. And to create is a good thing, particularly if what one creates adds something to the sum of human joy or understanding. But appreciating what is already around us may be even better than, or at least as good as, creating something new. To taste, hear, see – really see – absorb, experience, and love. To say ‘yes’ to life, whatever it brings, to stay as fully as possible in the present moment, and to be grateful – immensely grateful – for all the blessings of this life.