Friday, October 22, 2010

To a Departing Soul

On his deathbed in 138 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian is said to have composed the following verses (known as "Animula, Vagula, Blandula") addressed to a departing soul (Historia Augusta, "Life of Hadrian" 25.9):

O blithe little soul, thou, flitting away,
Guest and comrade of this my clay,
Whither now goest thou, to what place
Bare and ghastly and without grace?
Nor, as thy wont was, joke and play.

Centuries later, Alexander Pope, upon the request of his friend Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729), composed the following translation of Hadrian's poem, with a Christian supplement (said to have been written in 1712, published in 1736) (Pope's Works, Vol. 5, p. 196):

Ah fleeting Spirit! wand'ring fire,
That long hast warm'd my tender breast,
Must thou no more this frame inspire?
No more a pleasing cheerful guest?
Whither, ah whither art thou flying?
To what dark, undiscover'd shore?
Thou seem'st all trembling, shiv'ring, dying,
And Wit and Humour are no more.

The Dying Christian to His Soul


Vital spark of heav'nly flame!
Quit, oh quit this mortal frame:
Trembling, hoping, ling'ring, flying,
Oh the pain, the bliss of dying!
Cease, fond nature, cease thy strife,
And let me languish into life.


Hark! they whisper; angels say,
Sister spirit, come away!
What is this absorbs me quite,
Steals my senses, shuts my sight,
Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
Tell me, my soul, can this be death?


The world recedes; it disappears!
Heav'n opens on my eyes! my ears
With sounds seraphic ring:
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly:
O Grave! where is thy victory?
O Death! where is thy sting?

Samuel Davies was later inspired to write a poem modeled after Pope's, which he published in 1752 among his Miscellaneous Poems (Richard Beale Davis, ed., Collected Poems of Samuel Davis 1723-1761, pp. 27-29).

X. The Soul releas'd by Death.


Active Spark of heav'nly Fire,
In a Clod of Earth confin'd,
Ever fluttering to aspire
Struggling still with upward Aim
To mingle with thy native Flame!

Death soon will break this Pris'n of Clay,
And give thee Leave to spring away;
Then to thy native Regions go,
There with th' Etherial Flames to glow.


Come, thou shining Hour, appear!
Happy Moment, Oh draw near!
'Tis come! -- I feel the purple Stream
Stagnate; in misty Darkness swim
My dizzy Eyes confus'd and dim;
Bedew'd with cold and clammy Sweat;
The dancing Pulses cease to beat;
In vain I gasp for Breath --
Strange! Can this be Death?


Hark! Th' Angelic Envoy say,
"Sister Spirit, come away,
Drop the Cumber of the Clay,
And with thy Kindred join" --
Angels, I come; conduct me on:
Instruct me in a World unknown,
In Mysteries Divine:
Instruct me unexperienc'd Stranger how
To act as the Immortals do;
To think, and speak, and move like you:
Teach me the Senses to supply,
To see without the Optics of an Eye;
To Music of your Songs to Hear
Without the Organ of an Ear.


Yes! now Blest Angels, now I find
The Pow'rs of an unfetter'd Mind!
How active and how Strange!
O happy Place! O blissful State!
Welcome Felicity compleat!
Welcome amazing, happy Change!


And is this then Eternity!
And am I safely landed here!
No more to Sin, no more to die,
No more to sigh, or shed a Tear! --
My Soul! can this be I?
I, who just now imprison'd dwelt
In yonder World of Woe and Guilt!
Just now shudd'ring, trembling, sighin,
Startled at the Thought of dying!
Am I indeed the same?
Or is it all a pleasing Dream? --
The very same! -- Ye heav'nly Choirs!
Cherubic and Seraphic Fires!
Come, assist my labouring Tongue;
Sound aloud the grateful Song;
Assist a Stranger to express
His Thanks to rich unbounded Grace --
JESUS! th' unbounded Grace was thine,
Who bled and languished on the Tree,
And bore infinite Pains for me,
To raise me thus to Joys Divine.
And do I see Thy Face at last,
O my Dear, incarnate GOD!
And has Thy Love Thy Servant plac'd
In this Thy shining, blest Abode!
Enough! -- Thy Bounty gives me mor[e]
Than I could think or wish before.

In 1929, T.S. Eliot published his contribution to the chain.


Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul,
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
To light, dark, dry, damp, chilly or warm,
Moving between the legs of tables and of chairs
Rising or falling,
Grasping at kisses and toys,
Advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
Retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea'
Studies the sunlit pattern on the floor.
And running stays around a silver tag:
Confounds the actual and the fanciful,
Content with playing cards and kings and queens,
What the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day,
Week by week, offends and perplexes more.
With the imperatives of "so it seems"
And may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time, the simple soul,
Irresolute and sefish, misshapen, lame
Unable to fare forward or retreat,
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
Denying the importunity of the blot,
Shadow of its own shadow, spectre of its own gloom,
Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
Living first in silence after the viaticum,
Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power
For Boudin, blown to pieces,
For this one, who made a great fortune
And that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret by the boorhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

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