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< Theme 1 : The Soul >

Animula vagula blandula

 Emperor Hadrian

Marble bust of the Emperor Hadrian from the first half of the first century CE
currently in the British Museum, London

Most people know that Hadrian (76-138), Roman Emperor from 117 to 138, was responsible for the completion of the project to build the wall in the North of England now called Hadrian's Wall. It is also well known that he became infatuated with a Greek youth, Antinoüs, from Bithynia (now North West Turkey), and caused 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
currently in the Louvre, Paris

Less well known is the fact that the Emperor composed the poem the first line of which is quoted in the title above, a poem which has ever since proved fascinating to translators and poets alike, and not without reason.

Nietzsche gives us a very good idea of the virtues of Roman poetry, often hidden in translation, in his eulogy of the Horatian ode:

'To this day, no other poet has given me the same artistic delight that a Horatian ode gave me from the first. In certain languages that which Horace has achieved could not even be attempted. This mosaic of words, in which every word - as sound, as place, as concept - pours out its strength right and left and over the whole, this minimum in the extent and number of the signs, and the maximum thereby attained in the energy of the signs - all that is Roman and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence. All the rest of poetry becomes, in contrast, something too popular - mere sentimental blather.'

To these Roman qualities, the little poem by Hadrian adds charm and an unusual perspective, and probably hence its attraction to poets of the first rank.

Translation #1 : Molle, 1625

Minion soul, poor wanton thing
The body’s guest, my dearest darling,
To what places art thou going,
Naked miserable trembling,
Reaving me of all the joy
Which by thee I did enjoy.

Minion : darling, favourite, select (cf French, mignon). Wanton : carefree, light-hearted, mischievous. Reaving : robbing.

Translation #2 : Henry Vaughan, 1652

My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The ghest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor Jests wilt thou afford me more.

Consort : companion.

Translation #3: Matthew Prior, 1709

My little, pretty, fluttering thing,
Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling Wing,
To take thy Flight thou know'st not whither?
Thy humorous Vein, thy pleasing Folly
Lyes all neglected, all forgot;
And pensive, wav'ring, melancholy,
Thou dread'st and hop'st thou know not what.

Though there is some variation in the translations, certain things are common to all: Hadrian addresses his soul with some affection and as a separate entity; this entity appears to be about to leave the body; where it is going is not known to Hadrian; and the parting signals the end of an animated and enjoyable association, probably for both Hadrian and 'his' soul.

The Bishop of Peterborough writes:

I have never seen a translation of Hadrian's lines that presents their tender, delicate grace, half playful, half despairing as it is.'

The Honourable George C. Brodrick (1831-1903) regards the lines as

'a mournful jeu d'esprit, chiefly remarkable for the way in which Hadrian identifies himself with his body, treating his soul as a familiar spirit.'

Professor Edwin Palmer (1824-1895) writes :

'I have not attempted to preserve the iambic rhythm because so wonderful a lightness is given to it by the use of many short syllables in the first and fourth lines that I despaired of approaching its effect. The trochaic rhythm in English tends in the right direction. The sentiment of Adrian's lines seems to me as light and airy as their sounds. He contrasts life with death with a language which (as regards the phenomena of death) is borrowed from the body only, though applied to the soul, and ends with the thought that mirth is over. I have tried to bring out his meaning as nakedly as he has expressed it himself.'

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.'

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. He went on to provide a more finished translation:


Translation #4: Alexander Pope, 1712

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!


and then elaborated on the theme to supply a variant which points out the supposed superiority of the Christian worldview:

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?


Here, 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.

More interesting, perhaps, is 

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.

Pope is clearly indebted to Flatman also for some of his ideas, and Flatman has surely written a poem of much superior logical consistency, with premises supporting conclusions, and reasoning that needs no 'leap of faith' to convince. 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. Look no further than Shakespeare for similar sentiments which, I think, owe nothing to anyone except his own observation of life around him:

William Shakespeare (c1610) : Cymbeline, Act IV, Scene II.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Fear no more the frown o' the great;
Thou art past the tyrant's stroke:
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.

Fear no more the lightning-flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan;
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.

No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;
And renownèd be thy grave!

The reed and the oak : fable, the moral of which is to point out the superior strength of the reed, which bends, as opposed to the oak, which breaks. It is of no concern to the dying man.

In the first three verses, there is no sense of anything other than the body and its associated dust. Death is presented both as a release from the hopes and fears of everyday life, and as a great leveller. The last verse, in the form of an incantation, deals with the spirit world. It is concerned to use the magic power of words to ward off evil spirits, leaving the dying man in peace, with hope of enjoying continuing respect from the living. But the question of the soul has disappeared, except to the extent that the incantation implies the existence of forces beyond this world from which the dying (or dead) man needs to be protected.

Shakespeare's verse is, of course, embedded in a play which has many absurdities and superstitions interwoven, and the speaker, or speakers as is the case here, are not themselves dying.

William Shakespeare : Sonnet 146 (c1592)

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Thrall to
these rebel powers that thee array;
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? is this thy body's end?
Then soul, live thou upon thy servant's loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
      So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
      And Death once dead, there's no more dying then.

Thrall to: these words are uncertain, but bear little on the sense overall; they are inserted over a printer's error, and complete the sense of line 2, that the soul is being held captive by rebel powers which are laying siege to it. Thy charge : what you have been responsible for, or the expense. End : purpose and conclusion. Aggravate : increase. Terms : periods (three months) and clauses (as in terms of an agreement).

Here, the poet once again directly addresses the soul. What seems to be proposed is that by starving the body (perhaps both literally and metaphorically), the soul is fed, and vice versa. There is a moral imperative right at the centre of this thinking, strongly articulated already in the first line, and the sonnet as a whole forms an elaborate exhortation to pay attention to the well-being of the soul, not the body. In this way, the poet suggests, Death may be defeated: 'Death once dead, there's no more dying then'.

The argument is carried forward through the use of various humdrum metaphors: an army investing a town, the decoration of a house, the lease, an inheritance, and concludes with a typically Shakespearian juxtaposition of irreconcilable concepts, reconciled in a neat little couplet, giving the reader a word puzzle to unravel as best he can, and make the poem his own. Whether a dying man would ever be convinced by such clever wordplay, however, has to remain doubtful.

Shakespeare's sonnet is really something produced for the pleasure of a small, aristocratic, educated audience, though the delight in apparent paradox also relates to something deeply inherent in the nature of the relationship between the soul and the body, as conceived here. That said, it is more likely that the central argument, 'feed the body, starve the soul', will be admired by this audience, like the passing chimera on the stage, and left as so many abandoned rags when the next banquet presents itself.

At all events, the scenario presented here with regard to the soul is peopled with a full cast of players, props, and theatrical paraphernalia, which is completely absent in the bare little poem by Hadrian, in which the soul prepares to confront the vast unknown, with neither theatrical nor religious props.

Further attempts at translation come from Lord Byron and Christina Rossetti:

Translation #5: 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

Translation #6 : Christina Rossetti 

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

The poem 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?

Great poetry speaks to everybody, and this is surely a question which everybody, sooner or later, has to ask of the soul. Curious that such a question should come from a Roman Emperor (if indeed it did), and that it should be asked with such apparent humility.


The Works of Alexander Pope Esq with Notes and Explanations by Himself and Others, to which is added a New Life of the Author by William Roscoe in ten volumes (London 1824)

Alexander Pope, Leslie Stephen. MacMillan, London 1880

Translations Literal and Free of the Dying Hadrian's Address to his Soul collected and arranged by David Johnston. Bath, 1876

Twilight of the Idols, What I owe to the Ancients, Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale. Penguin Books, 1968

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