In Alexander Pope’s poem “Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady,” Pope uses a great amount of war-like imagery to enhance his vision of the suicide described. He creates allies and enemies, weapons and invasions, as well as the gruesome death that only seems to come from war. These pieces add to the overall meaning of the work and the vision of the event that has occurred, giving the reader an image of a battle occurring.
The first images of the war or battle are that of the victim of battle. Starting at line four and extending to line ten, I find that Pope is using a great amount of imagery to depict the woman’s wound and the fate upon which she has fallen. In line four he describes her wound in only three words “bleeding bosom gor’d,” but he then extends the depiction of her wound into how it was obtained. He describes the knife or the dagger that she must have used to kill herself with as a “sword”, which is something that would typically be found in battle rather than in the case of a suicide. He also brings in the theory of the ancient Roman justice system for not just war but any crime. It is much greater and braver to die by your own sword than by any other. She kills herself for the simple fact that in her eyes she must be punished for loving some one too much; however, her death is the start of the real war, between Pope and the society and family that abandoned her.
Pope sides with the ghost in the poem and criticizes her family and society for her death. In line thirty he states clearly his great dislike for the uncle who he labels as “Thou, mean deserter of thy brother’s blood!” This is an apparent line drawn between what Pope believed should have occurred and what did occur, creating the image of enemy and ally. It is even an echo of a challenge to the uncle on how to raise or treat his family. Pope blasts society in lines forty-eight and forty-nine when he states that “…rites unpaid? / No friend’s complaint, no kind domestic tear…” He seems to be stating that society abandoned her as much as her family did and that no one seems to even care that this young woman is gone. He once again has drawn a line saying, “you are the enemy and I am the ally.” Now that the sides have been chosen the battle can be looked at much more closely.
The image of a battle takes up much more of this poem than any other section. Not only is the suicide a battle within the woman as to whether or not to commit it, but the language lends itself to shape yet another battle of morality. Pope brings in the language of battle a great deal on page 115 of the poem. He speaks of “justice”, “vengeance”, and the “besiege”ing of “your gates ” in which case he is speaking to the family and society. These are images that are common with battle rather than suicide. He also brings up the fact that “foreign hands” are what took care of the young woman’s body once she died.
This also seems to illuminate the image of death on a battlefield. Pope captures this picture beautifully in lines fifty-two to fifty-four, when he writes:
By foreign hands thy dying eyes were clos’d,
By foreign hands thy decent limbs compos’d,
By foreign hands thy humble grave adorn’d,
By strangers honour’d, and by strangers mourn’d!
This passage is the essence of how men died in battle in those days and during the civil war. They were not buried by their family and friends, but rather buried in mass graves or where they lie, if buried at all. They were mourned and honored by strangers rather than their loved ones. Pope also brings up the fact that she has no tombstone marking her grave; “Nor polish’d marble emulate they face.” That is another common factor with the victims of war. There is often no marking of their graves but rather just the grass to cover where they lie.
Pope even brings this image in when he writes “And the green turf lie lightly on thy breast.” He also gives her the image of a fallen soldier when he proclaims in lines seventy to seventy-one; “What once had beauty, titles, wealth, and fame. / How lov’d, how honour’d once…” as well as when he states in lines seventy-three and seventy-four; “A heap of dust alone remains of thee; / ‘Tis all thou art, and all the proud shall be!” These four lines in completion create a strong image of a soldier who has been killed. The woman was fighting for love and died in battle. At one point before her death she probably held some point of honor or beauty. Depending on her class she even held titles, if through no one else, at least through her father or uncle, but once she died, all of her titles, wealth, beauty and honor meant nothing. They are things that could not be carried with her in her death. The lines about her becoming a pile of dust also fit with the image of a soldier who has fallen in battle because she is a pile of dust, which “all the proud shall be”. Every proud soldier who dies what they believe in becomes a pile of dust just like the lady in the poem.
The war imagery in Pope’s poem helps define and clarify the point of view Pope has on the even that has occurred. It also gives Pope a poetic platform on which to condemn the opposite side. He uses the imagery to describe the victim of war, the way death and battle are in war, and the opposing sides of this war and why they are battling; creating a new view of the woman’s suicide and her as a soldier for love.