A Song for Simeon is a 37-line poem written in 1928 by American-English poet T. S. Eliot (1888–1965). It is one of five poems that Eliot contributed to the Ariel poems series of 38 pamphlets by several authors published by Faber and Gwyer. "A Song for Simeon" was the sixteenth in the series and included an illustration by avant garde artist Edward McKnight Kauffer. The poems, including "A Song for Simeon", were later published in both the 1936 and 1963 editions of Eliot's collected poems.
In 1927, Eliot had converted to Anglo-Catholicism and his poetry, starting with the Ariel Poems (1927–31) and Ash Wednesday (1930), took on a decidedly religious character. "A Song for Simeon" is seen by many critics and scholars as a discussion of the conversion experience. In the poem, Eliot retells the story of Simeon from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a just and devout Jew who encounters Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus entering the Temple of Jerusalem. Promised by the Holy Ghost that he would not die until he had seen the Saviour, Simeon sees in the infant Jesus the Messiah promised by the Lord and asks God to permit him to "depart in peace" (Luke 2:25–35).
The poem's narrative echoes the text of the Nunc dimittis, a liturgical prayer for Compline derived from the Gospel passage. Eliot introduces literary allusions to earlier writers Lancelot Andrewes, Dante Alighieri and St. John of the Cross. Several critics have debated whether Eliot's depiction of Simeon is a negative portrayal of a Jewish figure and evidence of anti-Semitism on Eliot's part.In 1925, Eliot became a poetry editor at the London publishing firm of Faber and Gwyer, Ltd.,:pp.50–51 after a career in banking, and subsequent to the success of his earlier poems, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1915), "Gerontion" (1920) and "The Waste Land" (1922). In these years, Eliot gravitated away from his Unitarian upbringing and began to embrace the Church of England. He was baptised into the Anglican faith on 29 June 1927 at Finstock, in Oxfordshire, and was confirmed the following day in the private chapel of Thomas Banks Strong, Bishop of Oxford.:pp.18:pp.20,212,223 Eliot converted in private, but subsequently declared in his 1927 preface to a collection of essays titled For Lancelot Andrewes that he considered himself a classicist in literature, a royalist in politics, and an Anglo-Catholic in religion.:p.223 When his conversion became known, it was "an understandable choice to those around him" given his intellectual convictions, and that "he could not have done anything less than seek what he regarded as the most ancient, most sacramental, and highest expression of the Christian faith that forms the indisputable basis for the culture and civilization of modern Europe".:pp.18 Eliot's conversion and his adherence to Anglo-Catholicism informed and influenced his later poetry.
Critical reviews of Eliot's poems shifted as well, with some critics asserting that Eliot's work suffered with the addition of Christian themes. One critic, Morton Zabel said that this "deprived his art of its once incomparable distinction in style and tone". Other critics thought Eliot's exploration of Christian themes was a positive development in his poetry, including Gordon Symes, who recognised it as "an evaluation of old age, an elucidation of its special grace, and an appreciation of its special function in the progress of the soul".
In 1927, Eliot was asked by his employer, Geoffrey Faber, to write one poem each year for a series of illustrated pamphlets with holiday themes to be sent to the firm's clients and business acquaintances as Christmas greetings.:pp.19,50,376 This series, called the "Ariel Series", consisted of 38 pamphlets published between 1927 and 1931 featuring poems and brief prose from a selection of English writers and poets. The first poem that Eliot wrote, "The Journey of the Magi", was printed as the eighth in the series in August 1927. For the second, "A Song for Simeon", Eliot turned to an event at the end of Nativity narrative in the Gospel of Luke. The printing of the poem, the sixteenth in the series, was completed on 24 September 1928.:p.36 Eliot would follow these with three more poems: "Animula" in October 1929, "Marina" in September 1930, and "Triumphal March" in October 1931. Four of Eliot's five Ariel poems, including "A Song for Simeon", were accompanied by illustrations by American-born avant garde artist, E. McKnight Kauffer.:passim.
Faber and Gwyer printed "A Song for Simeon" in an 8½-inch × 5½-inch Demy Octavo (8vo) pamphlet in blue paper wraps with title in black ink.:p.36 The poem was printed on two pages, accompanied by a colour image by Kauffer, and included one page of advertisements. Faber and Gwyer contracted with the Curwen Press in Plaistow to print 3,500 copies.:p.36 The font of the cover and poem text was Walbaum, created by J. E. Walbaum of Goslar and Weimar in Germany in 1836. According to Gilmour, the edition was printed "in batches of eight".
In 1936, Faber and Faber, the successor firm to Faber and Gwyer, collected "A Song for Simeon" and the four other poems under the heading "Ariel Poems" for an edition of Eliot's collected poems. When Faber released the entire series in the 1950s, Eliot included a sixth poem, "The Cultivation of Christmas Trees",:p.19 which was added to Faber's 1963 edition of his collected poems. Both editions of collected poems were published in the United States by Harcourt, Brace & Company.Most scholars and critics addressing the poem focus on the Gospel narrative for a source of interpretation as Eliot's poem quotes several lines verbatim from the passage in Luke, from the Nunc dimittis. Scofield says that the poem is "characterized by deliberately Biblical language, interwoven with actual phrases from the Gospels".:p.147
The subject of Eliot's poem is drawn from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:25–35), and the early Christian canticle Nunc dimittis derived from it. In Luke's account, Simeon, an aged and devout Jew, stands in the Temple of Jerusalem at the time Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to be presented in the temple forty days after his birth in accordance with Jewish law and custom. Luke states that Simeon is "waiting for the consolation of Israel" after being promised that "he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ". (Luke 2:25–26) Simeon, upon seeing the child, takes him into his arms and prays, prophesizing the redemption of the world by Jesus and of suffering to come. This prayer would become known later as the Nunc dimittis from its Latin incipit.
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;
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles : and to be the glory of thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29–32)
The Nunc dimittis is the traditional "Gospel Canticle" of Night Prayer that is often called the Song of Simeon or Canticle of Simeon. In the Roman Catholic tradition, it was used during the Office for Compline, the last of the Canonical hours, in the Liturgy of the Hours. The Anglican tradition combined liturgy of the Catholic offices of Vespers (especially with the Magnificat canticle) and Compline (with the Nunc dimittis) into Evening Prayer when compiling the Book of Common Prayer during the English Reformation.
In 1886, Eliot's grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, an American educator and Unitarian minister, wrote a poem titled "Nunc dimittis". Written a few months before his death (and two years before T. S. Eliot's birth,) the elder Eliot's poem used the same gospel text and the poet asks, in his decline, "When may I humbly claim that kind award, / And cares and labors cease?" "A Song for Simeon" has been seen by the Reverend Robin Griffith-Jones, an Anglican cleric, as a tacit tribute by Eliot to his grandfather, "for the last years of a grandfather whose faith his grandson has at last taken up for himself".:pp.94–97
Scholars have identified allusions by Eliot to other biblical passages, including:
"Before the stations of the mountain of desolation" in line 19 and the reference to "the fox's home" in line 15 as a reference to Calvary (Golgotha), or to Lamentations 5:17–18 "the mountain of zion ... is desolate, the foxes walk upon it". The fox reference is also thought to be connected to Mark 13:14, and Mark 8:20.
The stations in line 19, and the time of cords, scourges and lamentation in line 17 refers to Christ's passion and crucifixion, in particular his scourging at the orders of Pontius Pilate and the lamenting of women along the Via Dolorosa described in Luke 33:27–29.
"The goat's path" of line 15 is a reference to the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:22.
"Fleeing from foreign faces and the foreign swords" is from prophesies of grief, hiding, and pursuit in Isaiah 51:3; and crucifixion events mentioned in Mark 13 and Matthew 24. Two scholars connect this to Ezekiel's prophesy of "death by the hands of strangers".:200
The influence of Psalm 104 on the language of the poem.