This week, by way of a warm up for the last in a series of posts about T.S. Eliot, is a short poem by the Emperor Hadrian, a paean to his own soul near the time of death. Quite odd that, when you stop and think about it: a paean to your own soul. In the West, we have a tendency to think of the body and the spirit (or mind) as two distinct entities, a tendency that some philosophers call ‘dualism’. It is, though, a dualism with a stronger bias towards the spirit than the body. Those who believe in immortality tend to think the person lives on in the spirit, bidding farewell to the body and the material world.
Hadrian’s poem betrays a similar dualism, but it is the body here bidding farewell to its enlivening spirit, the soul. I think we would place it the other way around, thinking of the real ‘me’, the spirit, as the one who would bid farewell to the soul. To our way of thinking, Hadrian’s idea of immortality is rather chilly – we saw this before in the refined Platonism of A Toccata of Gallupi‘s – the part of us that is immortal, is not really ‘us’, does not even really belong to us at all…
There is a diverting webpage here that shows forty-three translations of the poem… but one will suffice for us. Let’s go with Byron’s:
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.
There is another difference here between Roman conceptions and those of the modern Western imagination: we like to imagine that the afterlife is a place of peace and happiness, at least if you’ve lived a good life, but Hadrian’s view is influenced by the gloomier, pagan view of life after death – uncertain and melancholic – “pallid, cheerless, and forlorn”, the sprite wings its way to the beyond. But when you think about it, this makes sense. After all, it is the body, not the soul, that is the source of our small joys and pleasures – and the source of much laughter, of a not very spiritual kind. That most humane of ascetics, Saint Francis of Assisi, understood this, calling his body ‘Brother Ass’ (as in crossbred donkey/horse, not American English for your derriere!)…
Here is a poem that he may well have written on his deathbed…
My lumb’ring, half-wit, brother ass,
source of shame, of many a plight
of joy tho’ too, of song and mirth:
this final barrier, thou needs not pass,
no longer bound to host this sprite.
Rest thee well friend, ‘neath the earth.
Picture credit: http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/english-heritage-withdraws-hadrians-wall-6873928