A song for Simeon

One of the pleasures of the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke is its wealth of what we might call “minor” characters — that is, those who appear briefly never to be seen again, such as the parents of John the Baptist; they are certainly not minor in significance. (As richly drawn as they are, the poetry they speak is another of Luke’s pleasures.) One of those figures is that of Simeon, an old man whom Joseph and Mary meet at the Jerusalem temple at which Christ is to be presented to the priests 40 days after his birth as part of the Mosaic law. Here’s the relevant passage, from Luke 2:26-35 in the King James version:

And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

Simeon’s song as he holds the infant Christ has come to be known as the Nunc dimittis (the first words of the canticle in Latin), and it’s been set to music a number of times, most recently by Arvo Pärt in 2001. “A Song for Simeon” (1928) is also the title of the second of T.S. Eliot’s “Ariel” poems, the series that includes “Journey of the Magi,” which appeared here yesterday. The most touching image in the gospel itself is that of the 80-year-old Simeon holding the Christ child in his arms; Eliot writes in the poem:

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,
Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
      To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.

The contrast of the newborn, utterly defenseless infant and the old man at the end of his life, waiting for death to deliver him from a corrupt world (“I am tired with my own life and the lives of those after me, / I am dying in my own death and the deaths of those after me”), is inordinately affecting and contributes to the tenderness of the Christian holiday. And it’s one of the reasons Luke is as rich as it is.

The title of the poem, “A Song for Simeon,” is ambiguous: the poem could be a dramatic monologue spoken by Simeon, or a monologue spoken about and dedicated to Simeon, and this ambiguity ultimately renders this a less powerful poem, I think, than others of the period. (That preposition “for” is the tricky bit. Not that I have any problem with ambiguity, but here it doesn’t contribute as much to the poem as Eliot perhaps hoped.) But either way, as in “Magi” the speaker is an old man: “My life is light, waiting for the death wind … I have walked many years in this city.” Whether this speaker is Simeon, or an anonymous individual familiar with the story, or even Eliot himself, is hard to say. But the poem’s contrast of infancy and decrepitude, of the new and the old, of the hopeful and the corrupt, is inescapable. Again, what joy there is may not necessarily be ours, but it’s there if we seek it; for some, it seems to suggest, it may be too late.

More about the poem here, and Eliot’s own reading of the poem can be heard below.