Hadrian (76-138) was the fourteenth Emperor of Rome (10 August 117 to 10 July 138). Born Publius Aelius Hadrianus, probably in Hispania, Hadrian is best known for his substantial building projects throughout the Roman Empire. He established cities throughout the Balkan Peninsula, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Greece. Among his most celebrated legacies was Hadrian’s Wall. Construction of the wall, known in antiquity as Vallum Hadriani, was begun around 122 and corresponded to Hadrian’s visit to the province. It marked the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in Britain but the length and breadth of the project (stretching, as it did, from coast to coast) suggests that the more important purpose of the wall was a show of Rome’s power.
Professor D. Brendan Nagle writes that Hadrian spent most of his reign (twelve out of twenty-one years) traveling all over the Empire visiting the provinces, overseeing the administration, and checking the discipline of the army. He was a brilliant administrator who concerned himself with all aspects of government and the administration of justice.
His health failing, Hadrian returned to Rome and occupied himself with poetry and tending to administrative affairs. He died in 138, presumably of a heart attack, at the age of 62. The historian Gibbon writes that Hadrian’s rule was the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous…when the vast extent of the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power under the guidance of virtue and wisdom.
HADRIAN’S DEATH AND DEATHBED POEM
According to Dio Cassius, Hadrian became ill in 136 when he was 60 years old. The nosebleeds, from which he had long suffered, intensified, and he began to despair of his life. He now began to be sick; for he had been subject even before this to a flow of blood from the nostrils, and at this time it became distinctly more copious. He therefore despaired of his life. In 138, his clinical condition had worsened and he often desired to kill himself …he was constantly growing worse and might be said to be dying day by day, he began to long for death; and often he would ask for poison or a sword, but no one would give them to him. Cassius Dio reported that the cause of Hadrian’s death was a heart failure. He spent the last moments of his life dictating verses addressed to his soul. According to the Historia Augusta, Hadrian composed the following poem shortly before his death:-
ANIMULA VAGULA, BLANDULA,
HOSPES COMESQUE CORPORIS,
QUAE NUNC ABIBIS IN LOCA
PALLIDULA, RIGIDA, NUDULA,
NEC, UT SOLES. DABES IOCOS. . . .
In the final passages of her novel, Memoirs of Hadrian, composed over her lifetime, the French writer Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian murmur, as if to himself, the bit that has become famous as ‘animula vagula, blandula.’ The English here is provided by M.Y. herself in collaboration with Grace Frick: Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again… let us try, if we can, to enter death with open eyes.
This brief poem, short enough to tweet, has been the subject of various translations in English throughout the centuries. A selection of these is printed below. My own favourites include the versions of Henry Vaughan, Basil Bunting and W. S. Merwin who has written …it has always seemed surprising to me that a poem so assured in its art, so flawless and so haunting, could have been the only one he ever wrote. Perhaps he wrote poems all his life and this was the only one that was saved, or this one alone was unforgettable. Few of the versions below match the tweet-like brevity of the original. I have not included, here, but have elsewhere, the humorous set of variations written by David Malouf, Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, a sequence of imitations of the emperor’s last words, each of which raises the stakes a little higher.
If you would like to contribute other translations or if you would like to nominate one of those selected below as your favourite, please fill in the comment box below this post.
Translations of Hadrian’s Deathbed Poem
My little wandring sportful Soule,
Ghest, and companion of my body.
Minion soul, poor wanton thing
The body’s guest, my dearest darling,
To what places art thou going?
Naked miserable trembling,
Reaving me of all the joy
Which by thee I did enjoy.
My soul, my pleasant soul and witty,
The ghest and consort of my body,
Into what place now all alone
Naked and sad wilt thou be gone?
No mirth, no wit, as heretofore,
Nor Jests wilt thou afford me more.
My little, pretty, fluttering thing,
Must we no longer live together?
And dost thou prune thy trembling Wing,
To take thy Flight thou know’st not whither?
Thy humorous Vein, thy pleasing Folly
Lyes all neglected, all forgot;
And pensive, wav’ring, melancholy,
Thou dread’st and hop’st thou know not what.
The Heathen to His departing Soul
Adriani morientis ad Animam
Ah! Fleeting Spirit! wand’ring Fire,
That long hast warm’d my tender Breast,
Must thou no more this Frame inspire?
No more a pleasing, chearful Guest?
Whither, ah whither art thou flying!
To what dark, undiscover’d Shore?
Thou seem’st all trembling, shiv’ring, dying,
And Wit and Humour are no more!
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
No more, with wonted humour gay,
But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.
George Gordon, Lord Byron
Thou little, wandering, witching thing,
My guest, companion, on the wing!
But know’st thou where? once fled from me,
Lone, pallid, naked, cold thou’lt be,
And jest no more with sprightly glee.
Dr. Barclay of Edinburgh
Oh, little spirit, playful, fluttering, gay,
Guest hitherto of this my body frail,
How soon, in silence, wilt thou flit away?
All mirth forsaking, naked, cold, and pale.
Dear little fleeting pleasing soul
the guest and comrade of my body
into what regions must you go now–
pale little, cold little, naked little soul
without your old power of jesting?
Little wild and winsome sprite,
The body’s guest and close ally;
To what new regions wilt thou fly?
A pale and cold and naked blight,
With all thy wonted jokes gone by.
Charles Tennyson Turner
Thou us’d with me to dwell,
To roam, to sport, so bright!
But now, why stiff? why pale?
Why cast me off, for flight?
Wee wanderin’ winsome elf, my saul,
Thou’s made this clay lang house an’ hall,
But whar, oh whar art thou to dwall,
Thy bield now bare?
Gaun flichterin’, feckless, shiverin’ caul,
Nae cantrips mair.
Soul, rudderless, unbraced
The body’s friend and guest,
Whither away today,
Unsuppl’d, pale, discas’d
Dumb to thy wonted jest.
Wandering, gentle little sprite,
Guest of my body and its friend,
Pale, and stiff, and naked quite,
All thy jests are at an end.
W. A. S. Benson
Little soul so sleek and smiling
Flesh’s guest and friend also
Where departing will you wander
Growing paler now and languid
And not joking as you used to?
My little soul, my vagrant charmer.
The friend and house-guest of this matter,
Where will you now be visitor
In naked pallor, little soul,
And not so witty as you were?
J. V. Cunningham
Poor soul! Softy, whisperer,
hanger-on, pesterer, sponge!
Where are you off to now?
Pale and stiff and bare-bummed,
It’s not much fun in the end.
I know where you are now. But do you know?
Are you here in this word? I have not heard
you whistling in the dark. Do not allow
the noun or pronoun or the verb to disturb you.
Sometimes, I think that death is really no joke
but then I have died only two or three such times.
Perhaps there is always someone to attend the
absconding mountebank. But you, farewelling ghost, poor
imperial little thing, go you alone?
Go you alone to the altering? Or am I with you?
Oh, loving Soul, my own so tenderly,
My life’s companion and my body’s guest,
To what new realms, poor flutterer, wilt thou fly?
Cheerless, disrobed, and cold in thy lone quest,
Hushed thy sweet fancies, mute thy wonted jest.
Pale little vagrant soul,
my body’s guest and friend,
where are you off to now,
pale, cold, and naked,
bereft the joke.
Little soul little stray
now where will you stay
all pale and all alone
after the way
you used to make fun of things.
W. S. Merwin
Two Versions of the Emperor’s Epigram
(P. Aelius Hadrianus Imp.)
My little charmer, wayward little soul,
Guest and companion of this flesh and bone,
Where are you off to, irretrievably,
Pale naked little thing, mute and alone,
And not so merry as you used to be?
Little charmer, wandering little soul,
House guest and companion of this body,
Where are you off to now, and at whose call,
Poor naked little creature, stiff and pale,
You who were once so witty, life of the party?
My little soul, my wandering charm,
My body’s guest and friend:
Wherever are you off to now?
A bleak and naked end.
And I’ll not have those wonted jokes
You always used to lend.
[To his Soul]
where will you go now,
knackered and naked
unless to a sunless
Little soul, drifting, gentle,
my body’s guest and companion,
what places do you now go to live in,
without color, unyielding, naked,
never again to share our old jokes.
My sweet little soul,
now aimlessly fluttering … drifting …
former guest and consort of my failing corpse …
Where are we going?
Where do we wander—naked, pale and frail?
To some place devoid of jests, mirth, happiness?
Is the joke on us?
Michael R. Burch
to see you who were
part of my furniture,
turned out of your bolthole ––
Wee soul, my body’s darling guest
Are you about to flee the nest?
Where on earth now will you go,
Naked and trembling, to and fro,
To flit in sorrow through the night
With the sad swag of my delight.
My truant soul, adrift, alone,
Untethered from this mortal flesh,
Where will you find a new address
To take you in, naked and grave,
And all my shady jests suppress?
To His Soul
Old ghost, my one guest,
heckler, cajoler, soft-soaper
drifting like smoke down
the windowless corridor,
the jailer is shaking his keys out,
and you will soon depart for
lodgings that lack colour
and where no one will know
how to take your jokes.
Tom Clark’s blog on the poem with translations and comments
Translations, literal and free, of the poem
Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian, a poem by David Malouf
Seven poems inspired by the poem in Jane Hirshfield’s Ledger (99-105)