Soul’s Progress: First and Last Things in Animula

by Bruce Redford

By direction and indirection, the first three Ariel poems engage powerfully with the Anglo-Catholicism to which T. S. Eliot converted in 1927.  In this meditative sequence Eliot draws upon the liturgies and the homiletic traditions of his new-found faith, itself a rich blend of Anglican and Roman-Catholic practices.  As he wrote to Sister Mary James Power, author of Poets at Prayer, “I . . . believe in the Creeds, the invocation of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, the Sacrament of Penance, etc.”; as he told the editor of the Catholic Herald, he was convinced that “Anglican and Roman Orders and Sacraments are equally valid.”  In Journey of the Magi and A Song for Simeon, Eliot applies his individual talent to the Anglican tradition.  Animula, by contrast, centers on the “Orders and Sacraments” of the Church of Rome.

As in Journey of the Magi, Eliot begins Animula with a quotation explicitly marked as such: a line imported from Marco Lombardo’s account, in Purgatorio XVI.85-96, of l’anima semplicetta (“the simple soul”) on its journey from playful infancy to troubled maturity.  This account supplies one important template for the progress of Eliot’s l’anima semplicetta, a template emphasized by prosody that gestures toward terza rima and anticipates Eliot’s adaptation of Dantean poetic practice in Little Gidding.  However, the Divine Comedy as principal frame of reference is supplanted at the end of the first verse paragraph by a less insistent but equally significant model: the sacrament of Extreme Unction from the Rituale Romanum.  

 “Living first in the silence after the viaticum” (l. 31) signals this shift, which is prepared for by the imagery and rhyme scheme of the preceding lines: “Shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom, / Leaving disordered papers in a dusty room” (ll. 29-30).  The term viaticum describes the Eucharist administered to the seriously ill or those on the verge of death; its original meaning was “provision for a journey.” In the Roman Catholic Church it forms part of the Last Rites, which include the sacraments of Confession and Extreme Unction.  

The Rituale Romanum describes Extreme Unction as “unction with oil of the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips and hands.”  As he anoints the five parts of the body, the priest says: “Through this holy unction and His own most tender mercy, may the Lord pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed by sight, by hearing, by smell, by taste, by touch, by walking, and by carnal delectation.”  In the narrative section that describes the experiences of “the simple soul,” Eliot adheres to this sequence—the one exception being the sense of taste, which does not form part of his soul’s progress. 

“Living first in the silence after the viaticum” not only redirects the poem, it also highlights the title, which refers to a short lyric attributed to the dying emperor Hadrian: Animula, vagula, blandula, / Hospes, comesque, corporis, / Quae nunc abibis in loca? / Pallidula, rigida, nudula, / Nec, ut soles, dabis jocos: “Dear little soul, wayward, alluring, / My body’s guest and companion, / To what distant places will you go now? / Pale, stiff, and naked, / No more will you be jesting as before” (my translation).  This haunting farewell, a poetic viaticum, has been quoted, translated, and adapted across the centuries by writers of every conceivable religious persuasion.   A bridge to Roman Catholic theology and ritual is provided by an anonymous prayer, “Little White Guest,” which echoes the Hadrianic poem’s imagery and applies it to the Eucharistic transformation of the host, the consecrated wafer, into the body of Christ.  The musical setting of this prayer had entered the mainstream of Catholic worship by the 1920’s.

Eliot ends Animula, as he had ended its first section, by evoking Roman-Catholic ritual. “Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth” reworks a line from the Ave Maria or “Hail, Mary”:  

Hail, Mary, full of grace, 

the Lord is with thee.

Blessed art thou amongst women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.

Holy Mary, Mother of God,

pray for us sinners, 

now and at the hour of our death.


This prayer not only stands alone, but it also forms part of the Last Rites, the Rosary, and the Angelus.  The Angelus would become of particular importance to Eliot–witness the marine liturgy in Part IV of The Dry Salvages, where once again Dante is interwoven with prayers to the Virgin.

“Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth”: the substitution of “birth” for “death” in this final line introduces a version of the paradoxical question that also brings Journey of the Magi to a close  (“Birth or Death? . . . this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death”).  It also aligns itself with an iconographic tradition that combines Nativity with Pietà by showing Mary cradling the new-born Jesus as if he were a corpse (pallidula, rigida, nudula).  This tradition is best exemplified by Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck (1535-40) in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.  Finally, “Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth” completes the sequence of calls to prayer that begins with “Pray for Guiterriez” (l. 32).  This sequence brings Animula to a close by imitating the repetitive patterns of the standard Rosary and by adapting the intercessory aspects of its variant, the Rosary for the Dead.

“Poets in our civilization,” Eliot declares in “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), “must be difficult. . . . The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”  All four Ariel poems answer the  call for allusion, indirection, and dislocation.  However, it is Animula alone that exhibits both   forcefulness and forcedness.   A poem centrally concerned with paralysis, “unable to fare forward or retreat,” feels compelled to acknowledge and yet to refuse “the importunity of the blood”– words that, as the correspondence with Emily Hale makes clear, cut very close to the bone.  Animula also seeks to force a conversation among poets, religions, and liturgies by doing the police in different voices: l’anima semplicetta requires, in words that Eliot endorses, legge per fren porre (“law as a bridle,” Purg. XVI.94).  That disciplinary conversation may or may not be judged persuasive, but it testifies both to Eliot’s unswerving aesthetic convictions and to his troubled quest for a new kind of Christmas poem.

Parmigianino, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bruce Redford taught at the University of Chicago and at Boston University, where he directed the University Professors Program.  His interests include the Grand Tour, biography and bibliography, and the history of the classical tradition.  While studying with A. Walton Litz in graduate school, he lived in the house of Willard Thorp—a friend of both Eliot and Emily Hale, and the first scholar to include The Waste Land as part of the undergraduate literary curriculum.

By John Whittier-Ferguson

John Whittier-Ferguson is Professor of English at the University of Michigan and is the current president of the International T. S. Eliot Society