Mr. Eliot’s Sunday Evening Service: A Song for Simeon and the Book of Common Prayer

by Bruce Redford

The liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, which shares with the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes what T. S. Eliot describes as qualities of “ordonnance, or arrangement and structure, precision in the use of words, and relevant intensity,” played a key role in converting the poet to Christianity and in cementing his allegiance to the Anglo-Catholic movement within the Church of England.  Eliot’s path to conversion was marked by intensive reading in both the Catholic and the Anglican liturgical traditions.  Lyndall Gordon has pointed out, for example, that Eliot’s library included the Right Reverend Dom F. Cabrol’s Liturgical prayer book: mass, vespers, ritual, and principal Catholic devotions. The poems that follow swiftly upon Eliot’s conversion bear the imprint of such reading.  None of these Ariel Poems is more deeply rooted in liturgical structure and language than A Song for Simeon.

As has long been understood, Eliot’s poem reworks the last of the four canticles that Luke includes in the opening chapters of his gospel.  This song—called, following Jerome’s translation of its first words, the Nunc dimittis—is sung by Simeon, whom Luke describes as “a man . . . just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25, KJV).  Luke makes no mention of Simeon’s age, but from the early medieval period onward he was depicted as an old man—his age representing the long wait for “consolation.”  Paying close attention as he did to the Old Masters in the National Gallery, London, Eliot may well have envisioned Simeon as he appears in the Gallery’s Presentation in the Temple (1460-75).

“Master of the Life of the Virgin,” CC BY 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

The anonymous painter of this altarpiece represents Simeon as an aged priest, whose embroidered cope illustrates the Emperor Augustus’ vision of Virgin and Child.  At the center of the composition, Simeon extends his arms to receive the Child from his mother.  Just as Giorgione’s The Adoration  of the Kings (1506-07) in the National Gallery appears to have influenced Journey of the Magi, so too the Gallery’s Presentation may well have served as a visual source for Eliot’s Song.

The Song begins with vivid word-painting: “Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and  / The winter sun creeps by the snow hills” (ll. 1-2).  A striking visual detail, in the form of a simile, intensifies the impact of this still-life: “My life is light, waiting for the death wind, / Like a feather on the back of my hand” (ll. 4-5).  Such precise and evocative brushwork pays implicit homage to a textual source of comparable visual power, one that also supplies the poem’s fundamental groundwork: the Order for Evening Prayer, also known as Evensong, in the Book of Common Prayer.  In the Evensong he devises for Simeon, Eliot both subtly honors and boldly overturns this liturgical masterpiece.

Thomas Cranmer took as his template for Evening Prayer two of the monastic Hours of the medieval church, Vespers and Compline— liturgies to be chanted at day’s end, Vespers as darkness fell and Compline at night.  Conflating and distilling these two, Cranmer devised a service both contemplative and dramatic, one that moves in stages from confession to absolution, sickness to health, fear to peace, darkness to light.   A pair of Lucan canticles defines the center of Cranmer’s sequence: the Magnificat (otherwise known as The Song of Mary) and the Nunc dimittis (also called The Song of Simeon).  Simeon, Luke recounts, “came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27), where he encountered the holy family, took Jesus into his arms, blessed God, and sang his song of praise, rejoicing, and fulfillment:

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.

From this moment onward, light and peace illuminate the service.  The Psalm that follows  begins: “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and shew us the light of his countenance, and be merciful unto us.” During the ensuing Responses, the priest chants: “Give peace in our time, O Lord.” The penultimate collect asks God to “give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give.” And the final collect synthesizes the service’s themes and images in one incandescent sentence: “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.”

From its title to its concluding lines, Eliot’s poem disorders this Order: the change in article and preposition signals a shift from public to private, resolute to tentative, prophetic to elegiac.  Beginning with the second verse paragraph, the speaker shores fragments of Cranmer’s service against his ruins.  This Simeon’s inward-turning song includes a faltering prayer, a desolate forecast, and a disjointed recollection of the scene in the Temple, all three marked by bleak departures from their biblical and liturgical origins. The  faltering final lines drive home these contrasts: “Let thy servant depart, / Having seen thy salvation” removes the “peace” of the Nunc dimittis, and replaces its bang with a whimper.  This diminished sense of an ending is best captured by Launcelot Andrewes, in a sermon that Eliot would quote at the beginning of Burnt Norton: “When all is done, we shall have somewhat to do, to bring this to a Nunc.”

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