the simple sloth

the simple sloth

The title of Eliot’s poem Animula comes from the first line of the Emperor Hadrian’s short poem which in Latin goes:

Animula vagula blanda

which, as readers of my last post will have gathered, does not mean “vague and bland animal”, but something like “gentle, fleeting… sprite” as Byron would have it (though there are other interpretations). This was a paean to his soul, and perhaps we can read Eliot’s poem as a paean to his own, or to the soul of modern man.

The poem can be divided into three parts, the first details the growth of the soul from birth and through childhood, and the second describes the non-growth, the retardation of that soul in adulthood. The last section, in a stanza of its own, is a sort of prayer, whose purposes we will discuss later.

The first line of the poem is from the Divine Comedy, ‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’ (anima semplicetta in Dante’s Italian). What follows is – surprisingly, from the author of The Wasteland and the Hollow Men– one of the most evocative renderings of childhood in poetry.

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 stags around a silver tray;

From the child’s point of view, simple household items are invested with significance, and these very images, mysteriously, are forming the soul of the young child. I guess we all have these domestic images from childhood that stick in our mind and seem to form part of who we are – for me, the tree at the bottom of our garden that the cat would climb up and be afraid to climb down, an oil painting that hung in our living room, of a Siberian tiger walking over the ice (my dad cringes with embarrassment when I remind him, but for me it was grand and full of awe, rather than just awful). What is noticeably lacking from Eliot’s vision of childhood is company, either of adults or other children. The only people specifically referred to in the childhood section are the servants, whose talk is classed a trivial diversion alongside cards and fairy stories. What do we make of this lack of human influence on the young soul? Is this implicitly critical of nineteenth century child rearing, or are we to imagine human relationships unimportant in the formation of the soul?
Human relationships aside, at this point in the poem, in the life of the child, we can surmise, there is a healthy balance between what is natural – ‘the wind, the sunlight and the sea’, and the man-made, those stags on the silver plate; but a bit further on the child ‘confounds the actual and the fanciful’ and, in response to ‘the heavy burden of the growing soul’, retreats further into the ‘drug of dreams’. Somehow, this childhood – the childhood in the modern age – is an inadequate preparation for adulthood; it teaches the growing soul all the wrong lessons, leaving him incapable of making decisions, of facing up to the challenge of life. Abruptly, Two thirds of the way down the stanza, adulthood is reached, with a negative rephrasing of Dante’s line:
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame

While this is an obvious point of progression in the poem, Eliot left this as part of the same stanza, I think because he wanted to make it clear that the misshapen soul results from the mis-shaping of childhood, that the fearful child is rather to the irresolute man, that he not taught to put childish things aside, becomes a weak, childish man, and so on.

At this point, after those beautiful lines about childhood, we are back in what feels like very familiar ground: ‘We are the hollow men, die letzen mensch, in the ruins of our civilisation, measuring our time with coffee spoons, and not being able to bear very much reality, writing extended footnotes to Homer and Dante, in an aura of vaguely Platonic high-Anglican spiritual gloom… oh woe, oh woe etc. etc.’

But then there’s the last stanza, which goes as so…

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 boarhound slain between the yew trees,
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

Critics have argued over the significance of the names here. The general sense seems to be, pray for these fancy-sounding continental chaps whose lives have been so much more fulfilling than ours, even though – or perhaps because – they met nasty ends. Some think Boudin is a misspelling of Bourdin, an anarchist who tried to blow up Greenwich Observatory, and instead blew himself up, and inspired a novel of Joseph Conrad’s. I find it quite hard to believe Eliot would either neglect his spelling or condone terrorism. More likely the names are generic, heroic sounding names – and for some reason Latin names often sound a little more romantic and heroic than Anglo-saxon ones. The last line throws me again. It is a rephrasing of the last line of the Ave Maria, which goes ‘Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death’, a Roman Catholic prayer addressed, of course, to the mother of mercy… He seems to be saying, we shouldn’t be so worried about our death (like those RC’s are), so much as our lives. But how sincere is he about this? Why does he make this point with oblique references to foreign adventurers and misquoted Catholic poems?

It is the kind of poem that makes you want to throw your hands up, and write a slightly unhinged letter to the poet in the style of Saul Bellow’s Herzog (or the blogger Imnotherzog)… Oh, go on then:

Dear Mr Eliot,

Just to say: great poem. Love the whole sound of it, and there are lines I just can’t get out of my head: seriously, ‘the pain of living and the drug of dreams’, ‘the heavy burden of the growing soul’ – where do you get this stuff? You’re up there with Yeats as the defining poet of your age- I mean it. But Animula is one of the harder of your poems to understand, and that’s saying something- could I ask you to elucidate the following? First, do you really think modern man is such a resounding failure? Have you been reading Nietzsche? Bertrand Russell had a good line on Nietzsche, to the effect that when you boil it down to the essentials, all this business of the last men and the supermen really means, ‘I wish I were a noble warrior of the likes of which were only known in the great Greek Golden age’ – do you harbour desires along similar lines, as in, ‘Rather than spending my life working in Lloyds Bank and writing splendid modernist poetry, I wish I had been a Latin revolutionary chucking bombs around, or a troubadour killed by a boar or what-have-you’? If so, was this a sort of secret converse side to your well-documented Tory traditionalism? Not to come over all Donald Rumsfeld on you, but, do you or do you not condemn terror in all its forms? Second, more generally, look, sorry to sound a little critical, but this business of the innocence of the soul at birth, and its corruption through life, this business- isn’t it, at bottom, a bit of conventional wisdom -sentimentality about children, cynicism about adults – wrapped up in fancy theology and, admittedly, beautiful poetry? Kind of the opposite of Blake, when you look at it that way, eh – who wrote simple lines that concealed such complexity? But – third- have I got you wrong after all, and this is a kind of subtle repudiation of, in your view (slightly surprisingly), rather antiquated notions of child-rearing? Were you after all on the side of the likes of Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley, who thought we might reconsider the whole basis of parenting, schooling and so on, and try something a bit new (or, old, considering the Spartans and what-not)? Have you read Huxley’s Island? Silly utopian nonsense, eh? Or not? Or are you, rather, a sort of democratic medieval revivalist, along the lines of Chesterton and Belloc, only too embarrassed to admit it because they were Roman Catholics, and you were High Church Anglican? Oh the vanity of small differences, eh? But more generally on the topic of religion, fourth: I’ve noticed your theology is just a little lacking in joy and mirth – ‘we who were living are now dying’, ‘the silence after the viaticum’, and your gloomy Magi who would be ‘glad of another death.’ Was cheerfulness just not your bag, or were you saving it all for the book about cats?
Best Wishes,



Filed under Literature, Poetry

7 responses to “Animula

  1. Other humans are, to a small child, mere objects–sources of gratification or obstacles thereto. So I think “human relationships” are correctly absent from this early part of the poem. It’s when human relationships enter the picture as imperatives, “may and may not”, “desire and control,” (and the Encyclopaedia Brittanica) that problems arise. Then the simple soul has a battle, internalizes it, denies the “importunity of blood”, fears “warm reality”, and mistrusts the “offered good”. It’s no longer simple, but misshapen, and lame.
    The most puzzling line in the poem, for me, is “Living first in the viaticum.”
    Is he saying that only as one receives the Communion rite of the dying is one truly born? I guess that fits with “now and at the hour of our birth.” So maybe Eliot is saying something not new, but very old, here: death will be more rewarding than life. The Taliban would agree, though I can’t quite wrap my head around the notion that Eliot was looking forward to the seventy-two virgins.
    Ah, well, I do think when poetry gets too heavy, one can always change the subject to cats.

    • Your point about ‘Living first in silence after the viaticum’ and its relationship to the last line of the poem is quite illuminating. I think he is saying something like, as John puts it, prayers at death are not enough – we should be praying for a fulfilling life from birth onwards.
      I also liked your comments about the relationship between the earlier troubles in the poem, and the later misshapenness of soul, or indeed character. You put it well – the lack of reference to human relationships in the poem does trouble me slightly though. This idea that other people are mere sources of pleasure or obstacles to the very small child may be right, but the soul in the poem reaches adulthood without personal influence leaving a trace beyond those imperatives, and ‘desires and control’.
      Am I being too negative about Eliot now? Already having implied he had terrorist sympathies, I seem to be calling him a sociopath too. Well, whatever else he was, he was a bloody good poet. And he was good to his cats too.

  2. To me it’s a beautiful poem: the cadences are musical, the growing child lives and breathes, and the whole thing is sweetly gloomy.
    That final line seems right, given the pessimism. Praying for us at the hour of our death wouldn’t be sufficient: the prayers are needed from the outset.
    I read with interest your thoughts (and Cynthia’s) on the apparent absence of companions. For me what is missing is laughter, the natural concomitant of childhood. So, bring on the cats!
    And Jobin on cats is highly enlightening I might add.

    • ‘Sweetly gloomy’ is a nice summary of the poem’s mood. It is musical, as you say – I think it has a trace of the music that Pound trimmed from ‘What the Thunder Said’. As for laughter, I’m with you on that. But ‘Bring on the cats’? I admit It crossed my mind to follow this up with one of Eliot’s cat poems, which would I am sure attract a greater readership, at least for a while, especially if I attach a bunch of cute pictures… The question is, would the cat-lovers stick around for non-cat-related poetry posts? I think not. On the other hand, I am slightly – only slightly – intrigued by this Mr Mistoffelees character, so it could happen after all…

  3. Your concern with sociability vis à vis Eliot has me revisiting a question I have always mused upon, I.e. why do critics think he speaks for “modern man?” I think he speaks for the ennui of a small, ingrown cadre of the human race—poets (Auden says the only readers of poets are other poets), privileged, intellectual, disappointed idealists, who know little of other people outside their own circle. As we all tend to do, they project the world as being like themselves, in this case, a wasteland of hollow men. Still, I agree with you and John that he has written some beautiful and especially memorable lines of poetry.

  4. I suspect Eliot reckoned he spoke for modern man, or the modern men he thought mattered, anyway. I do enjoy his poetry, even when his philosophy, or theology is a bit creaky. I hope that Auden is wrong about poetry’s readership, though there seems to be something in it… Since the poetry’s been a bit heavy going recently, I shall try and post on some poems by poets from outside that cadre you speak of (after the next post, whose poet is probably a member).

  5. Pingback: The Child on the Cliffs | sweettenorbull

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s