There are some famous lines from Alexander Pope's Eloisa to Abelard which go:

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray'r accepted, and each wish resign'd?

It seems that a common interpretation of the second line is to read it as:

[She is] forgetting the world, [and she is] forgotten by the world.

Shouldn't the correct puntuation be:

The world, forgetting; by the world, forgot.

Is it even Pope's original punctuation that we read today? How can the common punctuation as seen in the first case above be justified?

  • 4
    If the common interpretation is what Pope intended then his punctuation must be correct - even without popel infalibility
    – mgb
    Nov 25, 2016 at 5:09
  • 1
    There are no official punctuation rules, especially not in poetry! Dec 25, 2016 at 7:33

1 Answer 1


No, Pope has it right. If you go sharpening pencils, then you’ve gone pencils a-sharpening, if you would. Here the vestal’s lot is to be the world forgetting — to be forgetting the world.

Pope is placing the object before the verb, using a word order still used in his day, especially in that register. It is still seen in our neighbor languages but little used in English today. Think of the old-time SOV ordering of:

And with this ring, I thee wed (“I wed you”)

...till death us do part. (“till death parts us”)

You would not put a comma after the objects thee or us there and split them off from their verbs.

With clauses using finite verbs, we don’t use this any longer, but we do still use this ordering when we make compound nouns using a gerund and its object:

  • apple-bobbing = bobbing for apples
  • axe-grinding = grinding axes
  • ballot-stuffing = stuffing ballots
  • blood-letting = letting (freeing) blood
  • cattle-rustling = rustling cattle
  • earth-shaking = shaking (the) earth
  • life-changing = changing (one’s) life
  • man-eating = eating men

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