Fare Forward

In the January/February 2009 edition of Books and Culture I read a review of Thomas Howard’s Dove Descending: A Journey into T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. (I would link to the review but it isn’t on the B&C web site yet. UPDATE: The article has been posted: Rest for the Weary.) This motivated me to dust off (literally) my copy of Eliot’s Selected Poems, which doesn’t contain “Four Quartets” but has the Ariel Poems, his first published as a Christian. One of these, “Animula,” stimulated enough thought to be worth writing down.

“Animula” is Latin for “little soul” and apparently references a poem the Roman emperor Hadrian uttered near death:

Little soul, roamer and charmer
Body’s guest and companion
Who soon will depart to places
Darkish, chilly and misty
An end to all your jokes…

The opening line, “‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’” is based on Dante’s Purgatorio XVI, lines 85-88. Here a soul discusses free will and states that the wrongs of the world are caused by man ignoring God’s law and failing to guide the young, “simple souls” with it. The first fifteen lines describe the narrow concerns of childhood, a decent, reasonably happy one with perhaps a touch more reticence:

Eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
In the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
Pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;

But the “perplexities” and responsibilities of adulthood are too burdensome, which “Curl up the small soul in the window seat / Behind the Encyclopedia Britannica.” This gave me pause: in elementary school I preferred to read the World Book Encyclopedia rather than do whatever homework was assigned. Homework was tedious, but I could always find something interesting in the encyclopedia. The web holds a similar attraction now.

I wish I could find more of a reason in the poem for the subject’s inability to mature. Children are naturally self-centered: why should this one end up “Irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame, / Unable to fare forward or retreat?” Maybe the encyclopedia and the “studies” in line 11 imply intellectuals are inclined to this particular doom. The sin, I think, is called acedia although Eliot has a word he uses elsewhere, “hebetude.” The soul does not finally live until the “silence after the viaticum” (the Eurcharist given to the dying), which I hope equals deathbed repentance.

The final stanza begs prayers for dashing characters who, as far as I can tell, are imaginary, but lived and died as this soul has only fantasized about. Maybe that’s why Guiterriez, Boudin, and Floret are given names, but this soul isn’t. The poem concludes “Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth” tying together the references to the newborn soul of Purgatorio and Hadrian’s dying little soul.

Morose, yes, but that’s Eliot. The “fare forward” here excited me enough to write this post, as those words form an admonition in Four Quartets: “Not fare well, / but fare forward, voyagers.” The lesson, if you’re looking for one, is that we must act on our free will to actively create our lives, not expect God to just plop us in a rollercoaster where all we have to do is hang on. Existing is not the same as living. Do something!