“A Song for Simeon” by T.S. Eliot


(“Het loflied van Simeon” by Aert de Gelder, ca. 1700-1710)

[Posting a day late.]

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple, commonly called Candlemas.

This day commemorates a dual-event described in St Luke’s Gospel (2:22-39): Mary’s purification and Jesus’ presentation at the Temple in Jerusalem. While in the holy city to fulfill the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12:1-8 for purification; Exodus 13:12-13 for presentation), the Holy Family receives prophetic pronouncements from the aged Simeon and Anna. Both of these holy people have been watching and waiting long for God’s Messiah. Luke even tells us that Simeon had been given a promise that this glorious day would come: “And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” After taking the infant Jesus in his arms, Simeon sings out the song we now know as the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of thy people, Israel.” This hymn is repeated daily at Evening Prayer. 

T.S. Eliot’s poem tells the story from Simeon’s point-of-view. He’s a tired old man who has seen much of life and who desires to see no more. It is a dark poem–Simeon’s prophetic sight is clouded with gloom and the threat of future suffering. The suffering will be for his descendants in Jerusalem and for the child he holds in his arms. It is the pain and tumult that attends the overturning of a whole world. And yet Simeon’s weary prayer is for peace: “Grant Israel’s consolation / To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.”

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

Grant us thy peace.
I have walked many years in this city,
Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor,
Have taken and given honour and ease.
There went never any rejected from my door.
Who shall remember my house, where shall live my children’s children
When the time of sorrow is come?
They will take to the goat’s path, and the fox’s home,
Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords.

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation
Grant us thy peace.
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.

According to thy word,
They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation
With glory and derision,
Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.
Not for me the martyrdom, the ecstasy of thought and prayer,
Not for me the ultimate vision.
Grant me thy peace.
(And a sword shall pierce thy heart,
Thine also).
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.
Let thy servant depart,
Having seen thy salvation.