T. S. ELIOT’S POEM A Song for Simeon first appeared in a series of Christmas booklets from Faber. Each booklet had one or two illustrations and a poem. Eliot wrote four poems for the series. Journey of the Magi, the first, appeared in August 1927 (Comment, 6 January 2006); the next was A Song for Simeon.
Eliot came from distinguished Unitarian stock. His grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School who moved as a missionary minister to St Louis, Mississippi, and stayed there. He was steadily fearless in the face of cholera, slavery, and the Civil War. In St Louis, he founded schools and, most famously, Washington University.
He died the year before T. S. Eliot was born, but his faith and ethos pervaded the family’s life for years to come. “As a child,” wrote T. S. Eliot, “I thought of him as still the head of the family. . . The standard of conduct was that which my grandfather had set . . . as if, like Moses, he had brought down the table of the Law, any deviation from which would be sinful.”
As a young man, T. S. Eliot grew away from all religion. He finally returned, and was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England in June 1927.
He wrote A Song for Simeon, not of Simeon. The poem can be read as a song for Simeon to sing, or as a song to be sung for Simeon. Two possibilities are left open: we may imagine ourselves to be hearing either Simeon’s prophetic voice, or the voice of a poet singing on Simeon’s behalf or in his honour from a later age and with a viewpoint and insights denied to Simeon himself.
“LORD,” said Luke’s Simeon, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.” The old man was at prayer in Jerusalem’s Temple. By contrast, “Lord,” sings Eliot’s speaker, “the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls.” This is not prayer at all.
Instead, it sets an unexpected scene. The flowers, cosseted and protected from the cold, are Roman; they are the property and pride of the pagans. Hyacinths were named after Hyacinthus, the beautiful youth whom Apollo killed by mistake when his rival, Zephyrus of the West Wind, turned the flight of a discus.
No wonder the winter sun creeps, and the speaker waits for the death wind. What is flourishing in the world of Eliot’s speaker and providing the language in which to speak of life and death and a life beyond? Pagan flowers and the pagan myth of a young man killed and lamented by the god who loves him.
Voices can already be heard from the Christian future, which Simeon will not see. Hildegard of Bingen compared herself to “a feather which lacks all weight and strength and flies through the wind”; so she was borne up by God. But Eliot’s speaker, 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 Christian liturgy. Here is a prayer for the peace that the eucharist will offer — a ritual in which Simeon will never share.
Our speaker is a prophet. In the first stanza, he tells of his own death; in the second, of the destruction of Jerusalem, decades later, by Rome’s armies. A pinprick of light now points us to the New Testament: the foxes have holes, while the Son of Man has nowhere to rest; the speaker’s descendants, in flight from Jerusalem, will have to occupy the foxes’ homes.
In the third stanza, that flicker of light becomes a blaze of allusions. Jesus will knot cords to drive the traders from the Temple; Jesus himself will be whipped with scourges; and he will hear the lamentation of the women of Jerusalem as he walks to his death. The reader will think of the liturgical Stations of the Cross raised on a hill; of the “abomination of desolation” decried by Jesus; and of his mother’s certain sorrow: Stabat mater dolorosa.
Eliot’s speaker draws on a Christmas sermon of a preacher whom Eliot admired deeply, Lancelot Andrewes: “Verbum infans, the Word without a word, the eternal Word not able to speak a word”. The speaker sees a faith that he cannot inhabit in “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word”. Whose decease is imminent? Simeon’s, yes; but far more than just his. With the birth of this child, a whole world is passing away, ages old and with no tomorrow.
“Lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” said Luke’s Simeon, “according to thy word.” But the word will be fulfilled in a faith and an age that Eliot’s speaker can see only in prophecy. For the first and last time, Eliot capitalises “Thee”, as his speaker looks forward to the praise offered by the Church. John of the Cross will describe the discipline of contemplation as a ladder of ten steps to spiritual joy. As the vast landscape of the future opens before the speaker, he turns back to himself alone: “Grant me” — not us — “thy peace.”
Luke’s Simeon warns Mary, “(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.)” But whose heart, according to Eliot’s speaker, will be pierced? We have hardly heard of Mary in the poem; and “thou”, “thy”, and “thee” have referred throughout to God. We wonder whether God’s own heart will be pierced at the climax to this birth season of decease.
The speaker embodies far more than himself: he carries in himself the life and the death of all his heirs. Wearily he prays, “Let thy servant depart, having seen thy salvation.” So, right at the poem’s end, we seem to reach the start of the Nunc Dimittis. All that we have read so far is suddenly seen in a new light: as a prelude to the canticle that Eliot’s Simeon is now ready to utter. But, in Eliot’s new Nunc Dimittis, there is a plea (“Let”), not a statement (“Lettest thou”). There is no mention of peace; and it is a dark salvation that the speaker has seen.
ELIOT WRITES as a poet still able to see the pain and confusion of those who look inwards on to Christian faith from somewhere very close but insurmountably apart. Eliot’s speaker plays the part played elsewhere in his poetry by Dante’s Virgil: the seer who can see only so far; the precursor who cannot enter the world that he makes possible.
Eliot wrote passionately about Virgil, “who, as it was his function to lead Dante towards a vision which he could never himself enjoy, led Europe towards the Christian culture which he could never know; and who, speaking his final words in the new Italian speech, said in farewell, ‘Son, the temporal fire and the eternal, hast thou seen, and art come to a place where I, of myself, discern no further.’” Eliot’s speaker is a Virgil who sees ahead, and senses in himself the birth-pangs of a world that he will never occupy.
There is for Eliot’s speaker no hint of the triumph — of the consolation enjoyed in prospect — that we read nowadays into Simeon’s elegy. Eliot is paying a tacit tribute to his grandfather, who had written a poem on his 76th birthday, in 1886:
Fain would I breathe that gracious word,
Now lettest thou thy servant, Lord,
Depart in peace.
When may I humbly claim that kind award,
And cares and labors cease?
With anxious heart I watch at heaven’s gate —
Answer to hear;
With failing strength I feel the increasing weight
Of every passing year.
Hath not the time yet fully come, dear Lord,
Thy servant to release?
As we read A Song for Simeon, we are reading as well “A Song for Virgil”, and for all those who see a world of faith that they will never inhabit or quite understand. It is also “A Song for William Greenleaf Eliot” — for the last years of a grandfather whose faith his grandson has at last taken up for himself.
The poet, now baptised, can hope to see as far as his grandfather had seen; and he knows how poignant the sight can be. Baptised into the death of Christ, Eliot has undergone for himself the birth season of decease. But, like his speaker from an earlier age, he has seen no end to the agonies through which the world’s new life will be born.
The Revd Robin Griffith-Jones is Master of the Temple Church, London.
A Song for Simeon T. S. 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,
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.
From The Complete Poems of T. S. Eliot (Faber, 1962). Used by permission.