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Prayer for Tradition
In the poem “A Song for Simeon,” T.S. Eliot uses ambiguity and religious allusion to convey decay and death of the old order to make room for modernity. Examining the imagery in the poem and the tone used allows for a better idea of what the speaker’s attitude is toward these changes, and perhaps a hint of how the author himself feels. The view the speaker takes toward the changes he believes are to come is one of fear. He feels threatened by the thought of the way of life he knows ending and seems to prefer that his life, which he feels to be complete already, end before he can witness that end.
Looking at the poem as a whole, two main themes stand out. First, the focus of it changes from beginning to end. The first stanza of the poem gives a broad view of the world itself with little focus on the speaker, while the last stanza’s focus is almost entirely on the speaker and what he does or does not want. This change toward egocentrism may be an attempt to convey that people in the future will be more concerned with themselves than the world as a whole. The second theme is the change away from traditional ways that occupies the speaker’s mind. It is as though the traditional ways are a rope that the speaker feels is beginning to fray. As the rope of tradition frays, a new rope will be created (modernity) that provides a different route to climb through life. People will continue to climb the rope of tradition until only one strand of the rope is left to support the very few people left clinging to the old ways while the new rope continues to be strengthened allowing more people to climb it.
In Song for Simeon T.S. Eliot uses many images to represent the change from the traditional to the modern. In the first stanza the speaker presents an image of hyacinths blooming, but then speaks of the winter sun rising. This at first seems contradictory, flowers do not bloom in the winter, but upon looking closer we see the hyacinths are blooming in bowls. Where the speaker says, “The stubborn season has made stand” (3), the stubborn season (winter) represents the old ways, and the hyacinths blooming represents the beginning of what is to come. Like the hyacinths, these new ways have not yet taken root, they are still in bowls, but the ideas are present enough that the speaker has an idea of what is going to happen. Another image presented is that of dust and memory waiting for the wind (6-7). This suggests that the wind, like the hyacinths, may represent the changes to come because the wind will sweep away the dust and the memories of old. The use of images allow the reader to interpret the meaning of the poem in a variety of ways as opposed to forcing them to see it in the same way as the author or speaker.
The poem also uses allusions to religion to create images for the reader. Beginning in the second stanza the speaker says “Who shall remember my house, where shall live my / children’s children / When the time of sorrow is come” (13-15). Here he is showing concern about the future. In the present, when the traditional ways are still predominant, the speaker feels his good deeds are appreciated, in the future he is not so sure people will remember what a good person he was. Another religious allusion, as well as another example of a time of change, occurs when the speaker refers to “the Infant” (23) with a capital letter I. This is most likely a reference to Jesus Christ. The second part of line 23, “the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,” further leads us to believe the Infant is Christ, but he has yet to perform the actions and give the speeches that changed the face of religion forever. As those changes were on the horizon at the time of his birth, the change toward modernity is on the horizon at the time “A Song for Simeon” was written. The image of asking God to console the people of Israel (the Jewish people) before the birth of Christianity, is a metaphor for the way the speaker would like to be consoled before the changes in his future. The fourth stanza also begins with a biblical reference. “According to thy word / They shall praise Thee and suffer in every generation / With glory and derision, / Light upon light, mounting the saints’ stair.” (26-29). Here the speaker attempts to convey to God that he does not want martyrdom, he does not want to mount “the saints’ stair” (29). He simply wants God to grant him peace. Religious allusion in the poem gives it a feeling of a want for peace, at the same time as a feeling of tumult.
The speaker leaves a lot of room for interpretation in the poem by using ambiguous language.
The line “My life is light, waiting for the death wind,” (4) could be interpreted in two ways. Light may refer to light we see, as in a candle, in which case the death wind would cause darkness by blowing out the light. When read with “Like a feather on the back of my hand” (5), light could also be interpreted as weight. There may be so little of the speaker’s life left, that a “death wind” would simply blow it away as it would a feather. This interpretation of the death wind is supported later in the poem as well where the speaker says he has “no tomorrow,” implying he is on the brink of death (25). “Fleeing from the foreign faces and the foreign swords” (17) also is ambiguous to leave room for interpretation. What are the foreign faces and the foreign swords? They first create an image of war, but swords were no longer used in war at the time the poem was written. The foreign faces are more likely referring to the modern ideas that are foreign to the speaker. The foreign swords would then represent those modern ideas attempting to fight their way into the traditional world. The fact that the people are fleeing from the faces and swords show that the world was not ready for what is to come. Lines 34 refers once again to a sword, but unlike in line 17 it is not a sword people are fleeing from, but a sword that pierces God’s heart. If looked at in the context of lines 20 – 24, the sword here could represent the Judeo-Christian split after the death of Christ. Perhaps the speaker is conveying that he believes the changes in the future are likely to have an impact as large as the birth of Christianity. It also may represent that the speaker believes the people in the era to come will not believe in God, and religion will die or become much less common. The lack of concrete statements in the poem allows for many different interpretations of what it may mean.
The interpretation of “A Song for Simeon” presented here is only one of the many possible. The tone could be seen as one of fear toward the future, frustration with the present, or discontentment with religion. The ambiguity of language allows the poem to take on almost any meaning the reader wishes to give it, and because T.S. Eliot uses imagery to convey his ideas there is not one concrete interpretation everyone will see. For these reasons, the poem says as much, if not more, about the reader as it does about both the speaker and the author.
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