Adnax Publications

Alexander Pope Commentary


1. The Dying Christian to his Soul

Hadrian (76-138), Roman Emperor from 117 to 138, was responsible, of course, for the completion of the project to build Hadrian's wall in the North of England. It is also well known that he became infatuated with a youth, Antinoüs, from Bithynia (now North West Turkey), and commanded statues of the boy to be erected all over the Roman Empire. On Antinoüs' apparently accidental death by drowning in the Nile in 130 at the age of about eighteen, the Emperor is said to have 'wept like a woman'. He subsequently had the boy deified. 

Antinoüs Mondragone
The Louvre, Paris

Less well known is the fact that the Emperor composed the poem known as animula blandula vagula, a poem which has ever since proved fascinating to translators and poets alike, and not without reason.

Alexander Pope wrote in a letter to the Spectator (November 1712):

‘I was the other day in Company with five or six Men of some Learning; where chancing to mention the famous Verses which the Emperor Adrian spoke on his Death-bed, they were all agreed that ’twas a Piece of Gayety unworthy that Prince in those Circumstances. I could not but dissent from this Opinion: Methinks it was by no means a gay, but a very serious Soliloquy to his Soul at the Point of his Departure: in which Sense I naturally took the Verses at my first reading them when I was very young, and before I knew what Interpretation the World generally put upon them.'

He goes on to give a paraphrase of the 'famous Verses':

‘Alas, my Soul! thou pleasing Companion of this Body, thou fleeting thing that art now deserting it! whither art thou flying? to what unknown Region? Thou art all trembling, fearful, and pensive. Now what is become of thy former Wit and Humour? thou shall jest and be gay no more.'

And further comments:

‘I confess I cannot apprehend where lies the Trifling in all this; ’tis the most natural and obvious Reflection imaginable to a dying Man: and if we consider the Emperor was a Heathen, that Doubt concerning the Future Fate of his Soul will seem so far from being the Effect of Want of Thought, that ’twas scarce reasonable he should think otherwise; not to mention that here is a plain Confession included of his Belief in its Immortality. The diminutive Epithets of Vagula, Blandula, and the rest, appear not to me as Expressions of Levity, but rather of Endearment and Concern; such as we find in Catullus, and the Authors of Hendeca-syllabi after him, where they are used to express the utmost Love and Tenderness for their Mistresses.'

No doubt Pope was here setting up a man of straw ('five or six men of some Learning') to knock him down again, but, in general, his comments are accurate. He went on to provide a more finished translation:

Translation by Alexander Pope, 1712
A
driani morientis ad Animam,
 
OR, The Heathen to His departing Soul.

Ah! Fleeting Spirit! wand'ring Fire,
That long hast warm'd my tender Breast,
Must thou no more this Frame inspire?
No more a pleasing, chearful Guest?

Whither, ah whither art thou flying!
To what dark, undiscover'd Shore?
Thou seem'st all trembling, shiv'ring, dying,
And Wit and Humour are no more!

and then elaborated on the theme to supply a variant which points out the supposed superiority of the Christian worldview. Commenting on the verse in a letter to Steele, he writes: 'You have it, as Cowley calls it, just warm from the brain; it came to me the first moment I waked this morning; yet you'll see it was not so absolutely inspiration, but that I had in my head not only the poem of Hadrian, but the fine fragment of Sappho.'

Alexander Pope, 1712
The Dying Christian to His Soul

Vital spark of heav’nly flame, 
Quit, oh, quit, this mortal frame! 
Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying, 
Oh, the pain, the bliss of dying! 
Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife, 
And let me languish into life! 

Hark! they whisper; Angels say, 
Sister Spirit, come away. 
What is this absorbs me quite, 
Steals my senses, shuts my sight, 
Drowns my spirits, draws my breath? 
Tell me, my Soul! can this be Death? 

The world recedes; it disappears; 
Heav’n opens on my eyes; my ears 
With sounds seraphic ring: 
Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly! 
O Grave! where is thy Victory? 
O Death! where is thy Sting?

'This Ode was written in imitation of the famous Sonnet of Hadrian to his departing soul; but as much superior in its sense and sublimity to its Original, as the Christian religion is to the pagan,' William Warburton (1698 - 1779), Bishop of Gloucester (1759 - 1779), confidently asserts in his notes to Pope's works. He is, perhaps, not the proper judge of such a matter, and the final couplet is, of course, not Pope at all but comes from 1 Corinthians 15:55 of the King James Bible. 

Aside from that, it seems that Pope had, as Roscoe points out, perhaps unknowingly, regurgitated some of his reading:

Thomas Flatman (1637 - 1688)

When on my sick bed I languish,
Full of sorrow, full of anguish,
Fainting, gasping, trembling, crying,
Panting, groaning, speechless, dying,
My soul just now about to take her flight
Into the region of eternal night;
O tell me, you
That have been long below,
What shall I do?
What shall I think, when cruel Death appears
That may extenuate my fears?
Methinks I hear some gentle spirit say:
Be not fearful, come away!
Think with thyself that now thou shalt be free
And find thy long-expected liberty;
Better thou may'st, but worse thou can'st not be
Than in this vale of tears and misery.
Like Caesar, with assurance then come on,
And unamaz'd attempt the laurel crown,
That lies on t'other side Death’s Rubicon.

We are left asking what of the original poem actually belonged to Pope. Flatman has surely written a poem of much superior logical consistency, and the idea of death as a release from the stresses and strains, the tears and the misery of this life lends credibility to his final words of encouragement.

Pope's presentation of death as a sort of orgasmic apotheosis seems ridiculous. All that can be said is that, cobbled together as it is of several different sources, with doubtful premises and absurd conclusions, it nevertheless reads well.


 

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