Monday, 4 March 2013

Consolation and desolation in the poetry of TS Eliot

The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple ... a window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

We heard in chapel this morning about the use of imagination in Ignatian spirituality, and of the understanding of both “consolation” and “desolation” in the writings of Saint Ignatius of Loyola.

And, it seemed appropriate that instead of us reading or singing Nunc Dimittis at Evening Prayer in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute this evening [4 March 2013], I should read TS Eliot’s poem conversion, A Song for Simeon, based on the Canticle Nunc Dimittis.

The canticle Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2: 29-32) stands alongside Magnificat as one of the best-loved canticles in the Anglican tradition of Choral Evensong:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace;
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.


The poem I read this evening is one of two poems written by Eliot at the time of his conversion, and one of four poems known as the Ariel Poems, published between 1927 and 1930.

However, Eliot titles this poem A Song for Simeon, rather than A Song of Simeon, which is the English sub-title of the canticle in The Book of Common Prayer.

A Song for Simeon (TS Eliot)

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

According to thy word.
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me,
I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.

The Presentation of the Christ Child in the Temple ... a stained glass window in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

TS Eliot (1888-1965), right is one of the great poets of Anglican spirituality, and one of the major poets of the 20th century. In lent, I am also reminded that his Ash Wednesday (1930) was written to mark his baptism and confirmation as an Anglican three years earlier in 1927.

In Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon, Eliot shows how he persisted on his spiritual pilgrimage. He was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England on 29 June 1927. Journey of the Magi was published two months later, in August 1927, and a few months later Faber, for whom he worked, published A Song for Simeon as part of a series of Christmas booklets. In all, Eliot wrote four poems for the series.

Both Journey of The Magi and A Song for Simeon draw on the journeys of Biblical characters concerned with the arrival of the Christ-child. Both poems deal with the past, with a significant epiphany event, with the future – as seen from the time of that event, and with a time beyond time – death. The narrator in Journey of the Magi is an old man, with the first two stanzas recalling the journey from the East to Bethlehem through “cities hostile and towns unfriendly” – perhaps reflecting a difficult period of Eliot’s own journey.

In that poem, Eliot draws on a sermon from Christmas 1622 preached by the Caroline Divine, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626): “A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the year; just the worst time of the year, to take a journey, and specially a long journey, in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off in solistitio brumali, the very dead of winter.”

Eliot wrote:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.


A Song for Simeon is also put in the mouth of an old man, the prophet Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem. Here too, Eliot draws on a Christmas sermon by Andrewes: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word.” In Eliot’s words, the old man sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word.”

In both poems, Eliot uses images that are significant for those exploring the Christian faith, images that are also prophetic, telling of things to happen to the Christ Child in the future. For example, in Journey of the Magi, we are told of “three trees on the low sky” – the three crosses that will erected on Calvary, and of “hands dicing” and “pieces of silver” – the Roman soldiers throwing dice for Christ’s clothes and the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas.

So too, there are several examples of prophetic imagery in A Song for Simeon:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation …
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow …


These refer to the scourging of Christ at his crucifixion and his mother weeping as he was crucified.

This poem starts with a winter scene:

Lord, the Roman’s hyacinths are blooming in the bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season had made stand.


In this poem, Eliot confines his comments on things of the past to four lines in the second stanza. In contrast to Journey of the Magi, which concentrates more on a physical journey, Eliot here places his emphasis on the time that has been spent making an inner journey of faith:

I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have given and taken honour and ease.


We are aware too, that Simeon is very old. He is hanging on, waiting for God’s promise, so that he can die:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.


Just as Eliot had his inner searches and wanderings, in which he moved about from one place to another. The difficulties with his wife Vivien’s illness contributed to a separation and the complete breakdown of their marriage, adding to Eliot’s sense of disillusion with life. In both these poems, Eliot focuses on an event that brings about the end of an old order and the beginning of a new one.

Eliot structures A Song for Simeon around lines from the prayer spoken by the priest Simeon as recorded in Luke 2: 29-32:

Master, now you are dismissing
Your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation …


Simeon too was a witness. Although he was not present at Christ’s birth, he witnessed the presentation of the Christ-child when he was brought by his parents to the Temple as an eight-day-old. Yet Simeon did more than just witness the child, “Simeon took him in his arms” (Luke 2: 28) as he prayed. In his blind faith, he comes to hold the Body of Christ, and to see the child for who he really is. As Joseph and Nicodemus do when they take him down from the Cross, and as we do at the Eucharist, he becomes a bearer of Christ as he holds the Body of Christ in his hands and so becomes too part of the Body of Christ at one and the same time.

Three times in the poem, Simeon asks for peace. Is he referring to the peace that will come with his own death? Or the peace of Christ that passes all understanding? As Christians, we don’t believe that death is the end of our journey. Even before death, Eliot marks his baptism and confirmation as, if not the end of, then a triumph on, his spiritual journey. He has come to a place of faith, and now he is encouraged to continue on his spiritual journey.

The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. We can imagine ourselves listening to Simeon’s prophetic voice, or imagine the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour at a later age, from a viewpoint and with insights denied to Simeon himself.

In the Canticle Nunc Dimittis, the old Simeon in prayer in the Temple in Jerusalem prays: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” By contrast, Eliot’s speaker sings: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all. Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, protected from the winter cold, are Roman, the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the youth killed by mistake by Apollo when his rival, Zephyrus, turned the flight of a discus.

The winter sun creeps by the snow hills as the speaker waits for the death wind. Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man’s death flourish in the world of Eliot’s speaker and provide the language for speaking of life and death and life beyond.

Voices are heard from the Christian future, which the blind Simeon will not see. He is still waiting for the wind to blow, imagines only the death wind that will bear him away.

“Grant us thy peace” – the speaker evokes the Agnus Dei from the liturgy. Here we have a prayer for the peace that the Eucharist will offer, although Simeon will never share in the Eucharist.

In the first stanza, he tells of his own death.

In the second stanza, he speaks of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. We are pointed towards New Testament images of the foxes that have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; of the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem from foreign faces and swords, and who will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.

In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. The Christ will tie cords to drive the traders from the Temple, will be whipped and scourged, and hear the lamentation of the weeping women of Jerusalem on the way to his death on a hill, above the “abomination of desolation,” and to his mother’s sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.

Simeon’s death is imminent, but far more is to come, for with the birth of this child a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.

In Nunc Dimittis, Simeon pleads: “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and in an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy.

Eliot capitalises “Thee” for the one and only time, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church: “They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation …”.

Simeon warns Mary: “A sword will pierce your own soul also.” But we might ask whether the heart, Eliot’s speaker says will be pierced is God’s own heart.

The weary speaker concludes by praying:

Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.


At the very end of the poem, we seem to have arrived at the start of Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is now seen in a new light, as a prelude to the canticle. The poet, now baptised, has the hope of a greater hope, having seen his salvation. He is tired of his former life, there is consolation as derision turns to glory. Baptised into the death of Christ, he has been born into new life.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin..

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