Friday, 16 October 2009

'The Letters of Abelard and Heloise'...the poetic influence of an 11th-century narcissist?

I've threatened before to start adding other things that interest me to this blog, aside from my resultant poetry, as I think it might start to explain some of my influences and inspirations (to myself as well as anyone else who decides this is worth a read!). I'm aware that a lot of what I write stems from things I've seen, done, studied or read; that a lot of it relates to experience. However, having said that, much of what I've read, studied, and continue to read on a poetic level, is late medieval or early modern, with the occassional dip into the 19th-century. I love Mallory, Chaucer and Donne, Shakespeare, Marlow and Rossetti, so it seems strange even to me, that I should begin an insight into my poetic psyche with a post about Peter Abelard and Heloise!

For those as yet unfamiliar with Abelard (you have no idea what gems of hilarity you've been missing in his autobiography!), he was born in 1079, in the village of Pallet, in Brittany. His father being a manorial lord and minor noble, Abelard, as eldest son, was intended for a career in knighthood. However, as a boy, he found book learning favourable to the lure of violent conflict, just killing, honour, and chivalry:

'I prefered the weapons of dialectic to all the other teachings of philosphy, and armed with these I chose the conflicts on disputation instead of the trophies of war...' 
(Thought a translation might be appreciated rather than the original medieval Latin! - The letters of Abelard and Heloise,  Peter Abelard, Héloïse, Betty Radice, M. T. Clanchy, 2003.)

When a little older, Abelard became a wandering scholar, which during this period, also made you a monk of sorts, as all scholarly persuits and teaching were theological in nature and under church control. Abelard spent some time at Locmenach before heading to the Cathedral School of Notre Dame, Paris, where he promptly decided (on somewhat shaky grounds!) that his intellect and powers of theological interpretation were far superior to that of his peers and teachers. As a result, he resolved to set up his own school in Melun, around 1101, where he royally irritated his contemporaries with a condescending attitude and a fondness for being right!.

Abelard returned to Paris in 1113, becoming a teacher there. Yet he was clearly not cut out for a life of piety! He began a torrid and forbidden affair with the niece of Canon Fulbert; the apparently beautiful and alluring young abbess, Heloise. The pair fell madly in love, and exchanged various amorous, pained and guilt-ridden letters describing their passions, admirations, separations and inability to resist their basest temptations. Various trysts ensued in the abbeys and convents of Europe, eventually resulting in a son and a secret marriage...all prior to the complications of vengeful castration and accusations of heresy!

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (as should by now be obvious to even the most previously ignorant reader!) are neither late medieval to early modern or, largely poetic. However, they do, in much the same manner as Shakespeare's sonnets and tragedies or Mallory's tales of knighthood in Morte d'Arthur, tell a vivid and engaging tale of gripping desire, an impassioned and destructive affair, and the conflict between duty and love, providing a peek at the results of unchecked human emotion and weakness that is as relevant today as ever. The letters are also soaked with that over-blown and fervent language of high medieval piety, devotion, love, sorrow and guilt that fires the artist in me!

'God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.'

'I desired to keep you whom I loved beyond measure for myself alone.'

So, after having more free time this week than usual to over-indulge in all things artistic, and finding myself once again retrieving The Letters of Abelard and Heloise from a dusty shelf in the spare bedroom to thumb its well-worn pages, I think I must face the truth. I frequently write in a style very similar to that of Abelard and Heloise, utilising themes of guilt, passion, love, pain, Heaven, Hell, damnation, and futility...and I'm fascinated by the ever-surprising strengths, weaknesses, and inexplicable, unavoidable agonies of people. Somewhere along the line, Abelard and Heloise have influenced my writing.

'How can it be called repentance for sins, however great the mortification of the flesh, if the mind still retains the will to sin and is on fire with its old desires?'

The man himself, I'm certain, would have rebuffed this 'mighty revealation' with a sniffy "but of course," ...and thus, I must also admit to myself, that my inspirer was a self-indulgent narcissist, who enjoyed pedalling his own intellect and creativity for gains of fame and admiration (who me?!). However, he, and his lover Heloise, were also passionate human beings, great forward thinkers not afraid to speak their minds, and above all else, engaging writers that keep me taking that book down from its dusty shelf over and over in this context, Abelard (and Heloise), my self-appreciating friend(s), I'm more than grateful for your contribution to my muse!   


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