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?
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?