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Saturday 21 March 2009


or the Lucid Ardors of Recreating the Past

Bronze head of Emperor Hadrian, found in the Thames, London (British Museum)

for Nora Sawyer

There came this comment on Vistas of Limbo from a younger classicist friend:

"This reminds me of the Emperor Hadrian's 'animula vagula blandula' (please
pardon my clumsy translation):

Pale little vagrant soul,
my body's guest and friend,
where are you off to now,
pale, cold, and naked,
bereft the jokes we used to share?

Though Charlotte Corday might be more likely to ask after her corpulus vagulus blandulus, from the sound of it."


What an honor! An accomplished classicist arriving in one's humble private Limbo.

Can it be the touchstone dying verse of Hadrian, who, deprived the sudden mercy of a Charlotte Corday and thus forced to endure a "natural death," so providing succeeding millennia of poets this moving challenge, has finally met its English match in your lovely effort?

For those who are interested in the original, preserved as a fragment mentioned by an author of Hadrian's time (and one of the few documentary evidences of his inner or "personal" life):



Till now I believe the version of 'animula vagula, blandula' I've found most affecting was a prose attempt, in French, that of Marguerite Yourcenar in the overwhelming final passage of her novel Memoirs of Hadrian. Here Hadrian, dying, has been brought to Baiae to be near the sea, where it is hoped his breathing will be improved; but the journey in the July heat has been an ordeal, and now the end is at hand. A small group of intimates surrounds him; gradually losing consciousness, he is however able to feel upon his fingers a friend's tender tears, reminding him through his pain that he "will have been loved in human wise." It is at this point in the magisterial fictional autobiography that M.Y. has Hadrian murmur, as if to himself, the bit that has become famous as 'animula vagula, blandula.' The English here is provided by M.Y. herself in collaboration with Grace Frick:

"Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again... let us try, if we can, to enter death with open eyes."

Yourcenar was more than three decades at work on her Hadrian novel, beginning it as a young woman of twenty in 1924, destroying many early drafts as well as not a few later ones, abandoning it and returning and still returning as late as 1958 to add late reflections that are as much a part of the story of this very impersonal writer's work as Hadrian's lines are a part of his virtually unknown personal life--all we really have of it, in fact.

She notes, as of her first inklings that this Roman life might lead her into her own life as a writer, that "It did not take me very long to realize that I had embarked upon the life of a very great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention, and, on my part, ever more silence."

In a wonderful essay called "Tone and Language in the Historical Novel," Yourcenar talks about the difficulty of fathoming intonations and inflections of speech across the darkness of lost centuries. Her remarks on building a "voice" for Hadrian are fascinating; they stress the enormous work--and risk--of invention and speculation that are every conscientious translator's burden. Documentary fragments remain to us, as she points out, but "Nothing, or virtually nothing, is left to us of those inflections, those quarter tones, those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything."

Therefore, she says, she chose, in her novel, "to make Hadrian use a dignified form of speech...[a] sustained style, half narrative, half meditative, but always essentially written..."

There have been many of the best English-speaking poets called to, and not a few probably also mysteriously chosen by, the Hadrian bit. The thing has a way of seeming to belong to everybody, young or old; we'll all be there one day.

John Donne, a compact version, 1611:

My little wandring sportful Soule,
Ghest, and companion of my body.

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.

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.

Pope was talking about this little poem in public as early as the age of 23, in 1712, when he wrote a piece in The Spectator discussing "the famous Verses which the Emperor Adrian spoke on his death-bed," and offered a prose paraphrase. A year later he quoted the Hadrian lines in a letter to his friend Caryll, accompanied them with Prior's version, a translation of his own, and a "Christian" adaptation, and asked his friend which he thought the best. Not till eighteen years later did Pope publish the two poems he had done. Here is his translation:

Translated: 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: George Gordon, Lord Byron, 1806:

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

And finally--three hundred years after Donne, two hundred after Keats, and a hundred and five after Byron--Ezra Pound, at the Hotel Eden in Sirmione, on the Lago di Garda (a site of "the original world of the gods," where, as Pound was delighted to know, Catullus had written his poetry), adding a nonce-word ("TENULLA") to the title, 1911:


What hast thou, O my soul, with paradise?
Will we not rather, when our freedom's won,
Get us to some clear place where the sun
Lets drift in on us through the olive leaves
A liquid glory? If at Sirmio,
My soul, I meet thee, when this life's outrun...

And so on...rather hopefully on Pound's part of course, but that was still before the first Great War... down through the new Dark Ages to us, here and now. Where, Nora, it seems, from your marvelous version of Hadrian's poem, the breathing is better already.

And saying that, I am reminded of the brilliant compressed intensities a love of the classics like yours and Yourcenar's can kindle, warming the scene of the mind within the cold eternal night of the soul. Yourcenar left this astonishing account of her compositional attitude, during the writing of her novel -- which, she said, she completed in a state of "controlled delirium" that possessed her especially during a rail voyage across America:

"Closed inside my compartment as if in a cubicle of some Egyptian tomb, I worked late into the night between New York and Chicago; then all the next day, in the restaurant of a Chicago station where I awaited a train blocked by storms and snow; then again until dawn, alone in the observation car of a Santa Fe limited, surrounded by black spurs of the Colorado mountains, and by the eternal patterns of the stars. Thus were written at a single impulsion the passages on food, love, sleep, and the knowledge of men. I can hardly recall a day spent with more ardor, or more lucid nights."

The Bay of Baiae, with Apollo and Sibyl: Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1823 (Tate Gallery)


Anonymous said...

Oh, my. Regrettably omitted by the imperfect memory of the Awful Elder in his Final Draft was the laudable Stevie Smith rendition of the Hadrian, done in 1966 and thus, by the theory that the passing of time yields sagesse, 55 years wiser than the Pound.

Here's the Stevie Smith, then:

Animula, vagula, blandula: The Emperor Hadrian to his soul

Little soul so sleek and smiling
Flesh's guest and friend also
Where departing will you wander
Growing paler now and languid
And not joking as you used to?

Dale said...

Tom, Smith's sagesse does, indeed, sag. But thanks for recalling the translation history of Hadrian's words. You turned me on to Yourcenar years ago, and I find her work brilliant because she somehow enters those spaces between worlds where the words get so wobbly. I like how the different translations show not so much a facility for language as a commitment to apprehending the delicate traces of worldly departure.

Anonymous said...


Know what you mean about those Yourcenar spaces. "The Abyss" is likewise a marvel. (And A., the reader in the firm, likes "Dear Departed," too.)

Nora said...


As usual, I'm amazed and humbled by all you've managed to bring forth from what little I've brought you. Your invocation of Limbo is appropriate -- I feel a little like Dante, a callow mortal courteously welcomed "sì ch'io fui sesto tra cotanto senno." (And now lightning is going to strike me for even jokingly placing myself among those noble shades.)

Anonymous said...


What's to say about Limbo?

("Well, it just feels like... home?")

Dante-wise, I know you are, and others could soon begin to be so by visiting this undiscovered little Tuscan retreat:

Nora said...

Ha! I've been ignoring my little Dante project so long that I didn't even recognize that address at first. Now that I know you're reading, I'll have to get back to that.

From the dept. of coincidences: I just started reading "Dear Departed" (I found it hidden away on top of a dusty bookcase in my favorite store, and nearly pulled the shelf down on myself clambering after it). And speaking of Yourcenar, I love the image of her, alone with Hadrian, writing through the night in the rattling observation car. It's amazing how these little candles, lit on night trains passing through dark mountain ranges, manage to illuminate so much.

Anonymous said...

Have you all discovered David Malouf's poem SEVEN LAST WORDS OF THE EMPEROR HADRIAN? It is magnificent and beautiful and moving and is published in DM's collection of poems TYPEWRITER MUSIC (Univ of Queensland, 2007) as well as in Nicholas Jose THE LITERATURE OF AUSTRALIA, USA,2009.

Anonymous said...

Ooops! I did not mean to be all that anonymous writing about David Malouf's poem. My name is Meta Ottosson, I am a translator, living in Sweden.

TC said...


Many thanks for the tip and also for introducing yourself. I will attempt to seek out Mr Malouf's poem. Meanwhile I am grateful to you for visiting and hope you will come again.

harryg said...

2 years on, and no-one's mentioned Basil Bunting's 'overdraft' of Hadrian:

Poor soul! Softy, whisperer,
hanger-on, pesterer, sponge!
Where are you off to now?
Pale and stiff and bare-bummed,
It's not much fun in the end.

TC said...

That's brilliant.

Nora said...

That is brilliant And when my phone buzzed on the train this morning to deliver it to me, a little like the cold hand of mortality sneaking in a quick goose.

TC said...

Cold mortality always seeks out the sensitive parts.

"... it's not much fun in the end."


Basil's version does indeed feel the chill that, upon evidence, proceeds upward from the nether regions.

(Fortunate Hadrian's nimble little soul had been allowed to escape some millennia shy of the present advanced medical indignities, which BB's version seems to eerily anticipate.)

Blueshen said...

I picked out a book from the shelf, IN DREAMS BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES. The dedication included the phrase. My Latin is only a memory. Entering the net led me to this place. A very interesting history. I wonder it could be Hadrian was also being objective in his poem. Thinking here also how our 20th C educated mind pictures and contemplates ther soul.

TC said...

I think he was being as objective as one can be in contemplating something one believes exists but cannot see.

Pirata Jenny said...

Dear Tom:

What an interesting post!! May I ask your permission to reproduce it (translated into Spanish and with due acknowledgement of your authorship -and link to your blog) in my own blog.

Thanks in advance.

TC said...

Pirate Jenny,

Por supuesto.

Can you send me the link to your post when it's up? I'll be sure to look.


Pirata Jenny said...

Of course I will! Be patient for about a week, though, for I would like to reproduce part of your readers' interesting comments, as well as the Spanish translations of the poems. Muchas gracias, amigo.

Pirata Jenny said...

Tom, I just uploaded the first part in Spanish. I have included Nora's translation into English (as well as my own in Spanish). You can read it here:

I'll be posting the second part of your original post (influences of 'Animula' in English literature; I might also include some Spanish 'debtor texts') this weekend. I hope I've been a loyal translator of your words.

All the best,

TC said...

Se dice que Pirate Jenny tiene el destino de los hombres en sus manos. Y esta es una buena cosa. Para ella les ofrece una especie de inmortalidad.


Pirata Jenny said...

The second part is already on my website. Gracias a ti, amigo.

P.S.: can you drop me an email? Have something I would prefer doesn't go public

Steve Bradbury said...

Like many others I too fell in love with Yourcenar's portrait of Hadrian, and consequently with her version of ANIMULA, VAGULA, BLANDULA, but, upon reflection, it strikes me odd that he would compose his "dying poem" in Latin rather than in the Greek he was so enamored of. Which makes me wonder if the poem might be an invention of one of his biographers or a translation by, say, Phlegon.

Anja Wieber said...

Dear all just a trifle thing about the quotation: It is "abibis" not "abidis". All the best, AW