The Poem

“Animula” is written in irregularly rhyming iambic pentameter, with only one stanza break that separates the last six lines of the piece from the rest—almost as a brief litany. The title may have been suggested by a prayer of Hadrian to his soul, but T. S. Eliot began with his own adaptation of a line in Dante’s Purgatario XVI, “There comes from his hand, like a wayfarerthe simple soul.” Dante’s “anima” is compared to a seeker of God who is deflected by daily trifles and follies.

Almost like the questing hero described by mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, the anima—or, here, the animula—moves in a world of wonders, now faring forward boldly, now retreating to some safe haven. It enjoys the Christmas tree, the natural world, and stags on a tray—it cannot tell fact from fantasy. The early venturesome innocence of the animula becomes daily more confused by the world of adult control, by perplexity between what “is” and what “seems.” Awake and in pain caused by a conflict between desire and control, it seeks escape in dreams, in hiding behind books in a secret spot.

It grows; becoming selfish and misshapen as it learns, it is torn between desire, “the importunity of the blood,” and the propriety of “may and may not.” It is caught by its shadows and an awareness of death, and its end is in fragments of papers, dust, silence, and last rites.

In the major part of the poem, Eliot has a...

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Forms and Devices

Eliot presents the reader with images of physical things—table legs, toys, playing cards—mingled with feelings—chill, warmth, pleasure, and fear. All figure in the complex world of the small, growing soul.

The opening quoted line is echoed in line 24: “Issues from the hand of time the simple soul.” Although God has sent the animula forth, time has perplexed and offended it. Where it was first bold, eager, rejoicing in wind or sunlight, it is now irresolute, selfish, and unable to move forward on its quest or backward to the innocence of fairies and fancy.

Eliot makes effective use of internal, oblique rhymes that are based on the concept of the poem’s opening phrase. In the first seven lines, one finds “moving,” “rising,” and “advancing.” These words are balanced, in the long stanza’s last five lines, by “fearing,” “denying,” “leaving,” and “living.” The result is a sound pattern that suggests the continuity of life. Punctuation also creates emphasis on the movement of the soul. The first period, after “what the servants say,” makes the break between childhood and the change of pace, the “heavy burden” which drives the soul to take refuge in second-hand learning. The soul, changed, hesitant amid shadow and specters, lives again only in the silence after “last rites.”

The sudden change of tone in the last six lines is startling. One could well ask whether these lines have any connection with the preceding part of the poem. No single interpretation is possible, but the relationship between “livingafter the viaticum” and “pray for usat the hour of our birth” can be seen as implying continuity.

Eliot’s poetry often includes such puzzling, apparently irrelevant references to unidentifiable persons and events; “A Cooking Egg,” “Gerontion,” and “Sweeney Agonistes,” for example, have such inserts. One assumes good reason, yet one cannot find an entirely acceptable explanation. For those who enjoy Eliot, this is one of the persistent delights the poet offers.


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