Innocence and Imagination: Joseph Addison’s “Pleasures of the Imagination” and Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”

By: Rebecca Beyer and Victoria Battaglia

Innocence and Imagination: Joseph Addison’s “Pleasures of the Imagination” and Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”

Joseph Addison’s philosophical essay “Pleasures of the Imagination,” published in The Spectator (1712), takes a wary approach to the imagination. According to Addison, if employed properly, the imagination can be a means for one to avoid falling into slothful or illicit ways. Addison goes so far as to claim that if one fails to widen “the sphere of his innocent pleasures,” one may forfeit virtue (482). Alexander Pope’s poem “Eloisa to Abelard” (1717) also considers the role of the imagination in maintaining or threatening one’s moral righteousness and peace of mind. In the case of Eloisa, her surrender to the imagination ultimately becomes a paradoxical form of self-enslavement which temporarily frees her from her miserable reality. While Addison’s essay is promotional or instructive, it is finally theoretical. Addison hopes to encourage the “correct” use of the imagination and warn against its misuse. In Pope’s epistolary poem, readers follow the imagination at work in a lovelorn subject and find it to be no innocent diversion. Rather than strengthening Eloisa’s virtue, her imagination feeds her passion, trapping her in an unbearable fantasy. Reading these two works side by side poses the question of whether Pope’s poem serves as an example of why Addison’s advice is necessary or as proof that his counsel is misguided.

 Addison’s central goal in “Pleasures of the Imagination” is to harness the imagination to improve society. He defines the imagination as a sort of effortless contemplation, an immediate “assent to the beauty of an object” (482). Such pleasures do not require wealth or education to access, he points out. Great contentment of mind, he asserts, can be reached by any “man of a polite imagination,” meaning one whose imagination has been refined, making him capable of enjoying pleasures that the “vulgar” of mind are unable to reach (482). This vulgarity of mind has no correlation to status, as Addison presents the “man in a dungeon” as one who uses his imagination’s “power of retaining, altering, and compounding… scenes and landscapes” which he has seen in order to find virtuous pleasure despite his situation (481).

Addison emphasizes the rarity of such a mind: “There are indeed but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a relish of any pleasures that are not criminal; every diversion they take is at the expense of some one virtue or another, and their very first step out of business is into vice or folly” (428). Addison points out that most people fail to remain virtuous when inactive. Perhaps more alarming, Addison observes that many find that their “diversions” overlap with criminality. According to Addison, this should not be so. The pursuit or maintenance of virtue can and should cohere with the imagination. He encourages his readers to turn to “pleasures that are not criminal,” meaning fancies that are not enjoyed at the necessary expense of any virtue. Addison defines the morally compromising diversion to be one focused on “our more sensual delights” that allow the mind to sink into “negligence and remissness” (482). In contrast, those virtuous imaginations that are derived from sight, the “most perfect and most delightful of all our senses,” effortlessly recall the peaceful and pure joy experienced when witnessing a beautiful landscape (481). Addison presents this proper use of the imagination as a means of improving one’s mind, having similar effects to academic pursuits. In this way, the fancy (or, the “agreeable visions of things that are either absent or fictitious”) is experienced not only as pleasurable but also “as great and as transporting” as the achievement of knowledge and understanding (482).

A vital claim of Addison’s essay is that achieving the innocent and pleasant benefits of the imagination requires cultivation. A man must choose “to make the sphere of his innocent pleasures as wide as possible, that he may retire into them with safety” (482). Addison argues that one must strive for an imagination which recalls the simple and virtuous joy of “fields and meadows” or of “a description in Homer” (482). Addison asserts that the profane, vulgar imaginings of “our more sensual delights” that men so often fall prey to (482).

In “Eloisa to Abelard,” Eloisa’s imagination explores the agonizing struggle between human and divine love. Her mind serves as a delirious distraction from her tragic separation from her lover, allowing her to escape “beyond this last retreat” (225). Triggered by the receipt of Abelard’s letter, Eloisa resurrects her thoughts of being with Abelard once again. She imagines a “phantom” embrace: “round thy phantom glue my clasping arms” (234). The circumstances of her religious vows along with Abelard’s castration, however, restrict any ideas of love to Eloisa’s erotic imagination. “When at the close of each sad, sorrowing day, / Fancy restores what vengeance snatched away, / Then conscience sleeps, and leaving nature free, / All my loose soul unbounded springs to thee. / O curst, dear horrors of all-conscious night! / How glowing guilt exalts the keen delight!” (225-230). In Eloisa’s dreams, her “fancy”, which is to say, the natural wanderings of her mind unhindered by her conscience, Abelard’s castration is undone. It is in the conscience-free, “all-conscious night” that Eloisa’s most natural feelings take hold. Her love for Abelard is not hindered but increased by the guilt she feels each morning. These “dear horrors”–dear because longed for and horrible because forbidden–present a paradox. In the darkness, she is at once most free to feel the love from which she has been torn and to experience the desperate and addictive fantasy by which she is most enslaved.

Eloisa’s lament highlights a conscience that is in conflict with nature. We may think of the former as aligned with her reality and the latter, her imagination. Her prayers are fancies and her fancies are prayers; it is Abelard’s voice that she seems “in every hymn to hear” (269). It is only in her mind that Eloisa can find the love that has become inaccessible to her––only in her imagination that she is able to “restore what vengeance snatched away,” in Abelard’s mutilation. The sleep of Eloisa’s conscience is presented as an opportunity for her more natural self to emerge than her waking state. This is reflected in the stark contrast between her cell and the natural world outside of the convent walls. Nature’s beauty has been shielded from Eloisa’s admiration by the “plain roofs” and “awful arches” of the convent (139, 143). It is only now in the night, when in her mind Eloisa can see the “wandering streams that shine between the hills,” that she is able to return to the loving embrace of Abelard (157).

Pope’s epistle provides no judgement as to whether Eloisa’s imaginings are virtuous or not. Rather it is Eloisa herself who expresses that she is torn between the innocence of a chaste nun and the erotic memories of Abelard’s love, crying, “Now turned to heaven, I weep my past offense / Now think of thee, and curse my innocence” (187-188). She is tormented by both the unattainable love of Abelard and the guilt she finds in prayer. The poem concludes with no instructive moral for the reader and no end to the turmoil that Eloisa endures, other than her eventual death. The primary culprit of Eloisa’s anguish is not the strength of her love for Abelard but the separation from her lover and the resulting feelings of guilt.

Addison and Pope’s divergent representations of the imagination offer varying considerations and conclusions. Addison provides instructions by which one may pursue imaginative diversions in a virtuous fashion. Such diversions, in turn, provide boundaries, calling readers to a proper, controlled imagination, which in turn “not only serve to clear and brighten the imagination, but are able to disperse grief and melancholy” (482). Pope’s epistle explores a subject, a lover, who simply cannot heed Addison’s warnings and boundaries because her imagination is driven by the love that she once had. Eloisa’s mind turns constantly and frantically from prayers to memories–thoughts of her lover which are at once her solace and torture. Though Pope clearly connects Eloisa’s imagination to her natural self, it is uncertain whether or not her surrender to her fantasies implies moral rectitude. 

Eloisa seems to be antithetical to Addison’s “man of polite imagination,” the man who, though in a dungeon, “is capable of entertaining himself with scenes and landscapes more beautiful than any that can be found in the whole compass of nature” (481). While the memories of Abelard to which Eloisa’s mind inevitably returns are also more inviting than the convent walls which surround her, they consume her thoughts entirely, affecting her every moment and every prayer. Addison would surely condemn Eloisa’s imagination for its sensuality; her fancies are based on sexual feelings instead of beautiful sights of the natural world. This distraught nun’s mind might be an example of those whom Addison decries as besieged by vulgar and untamed imaginations. Her bedtime fantasies are far from those which Addison would present as “idle and innocent” due to their erotic nature (482). It is clear that Eloisa is herself unable to unite her sexualized love for Abelard and her devotion to God for the entirety of the poem, unable to “distinguish penitence from love” (194).

The goal of each writer differs greatly. Addison’s intention is to promote self-improvement in society. The “polite imagination”, Addison believes, can be used to illuminate a “multitude of charms” in one’s surroundings (482). Addison’s moralistic bent is clear­––he wants to encourage his readers touse their imagination, but to do so by reining in wild, uncontrolled thoughts. Addison has not written a provoking narrative but an argumentative essay that presents the imagination as a form of pleasure that all can partake in. Pope’s work, in contrast, examines a mind in turmoil following a traumatic event. Eloisa’s addictive fantasy is a result of the conflict between the pleasant memories of Abelard’s love and the oppressive reality of their separation. Whereas Addison’s essay is a more clinical analysis of the imagination, Pope’s poem takes us inside the afflicted mind of Eloisa. This may explain why Pope leaves the moral question of whether the imagination is good because natural or dangerous because untamed unanswered. Unlike Addison, Pope allows his own opinion on the matter to remain unclear, surrendering the moral conclusion to the reader.

            Addison presents the imagination as an “innocent” means of self-improvement when correctly used and a “criminal” hindrance to virtue when used without restraint (482). Pope explores an imagination devoid of control and refinement, torn between religious devotion and human love. Addison’s essay is ultimately a rejection of nature before it takes hold, whereas Pope’s poem delves into a nature that has already transgressed beyond control into obsession.

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