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< Theme 5. Death (ii) >

Alexander Pope

< The Dying Christian to His Soul 

Marble bust of the Emperor Hadrian

Miscellany (1730, 42)
composed 1711 (23)

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?

 You have it, as Cowley calls it, 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 verses of Hadrian, but the fine fragment of Sappho.

The original poem referred to above, attributed to the Emperor Hadrian (reportedly composed when on his deathbed) is as follows:

Animula vagula blandula,
 hospes comesque corporis,
 quae nunc abibis in loca,
pallidula, rigida, nudula,
nec, ut soles, dabis iocos?

Translated by George Gordon, Lord Byron (1806): 

Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknowèn region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn

Translated by Christina Rosetti:

Soul, rudderless, unbraced
The body's friend and guest,
Whither away today,
Unsuppl'd, pale, discas'd
Dumb to thy wonted jest.

Translated by Alexander Pope:

Adriani 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!

Pope elaborated on the theme to supply the variant quoted above which points out the supposed superiority of the Christian worldview. 

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 gives a paraphrase of the poem:

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.'

He 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.

In Pope's adaptation at the head, Hadrian's enlightened questioning has been entirely replaced by Christian dogma. But Pope's efforts to portray the triumph over death achieved by Christian faith ring false, as he offers no evidence for what he is claiming, and his presentation of death as a sort of orgasmic apotheosis seems more ridiculous than sublime. 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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