‘-ula’ is a diminutive in Latin, a suffix added to a word to express affection. So ‘Animula’ means ‘little soul’. The atmosphere and vocabulary of the poem are suggestive of Christmas, with ‘the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree’, but, like all of the Ariel series, not specifically anchored to it. There is something of the sense of the detachment of the soul from the body in the use of the word ‘viaticum’, which is the term for the Eucharist administered to a dying person in the Catholic Church. This sense of the word is related to another, which the Oxford English Dictionary gives as ‘A supply of money or necessaries of a journey … travelling expenses.’
More broadly, the poem sits in a rich frame of literary allusion. Eliot had recently quoted a section of Purgatory (Canto XVI, ll.85-93), the second part of the medieval Italian poet Dante’s Divine Comedy, in which the speaker is guided through hell, purgatory and then heaven by the Latin poet Virgil. In translation, this passage describes how
From the hands of Him who loves her before she is, there issues like a little child that plays, with weeping and laughter, the simple soul, that knows nothing except that, come from the hand of a glad creator, she turns willingly to everything that delights her.
The word ‘animula’ has been traced to the first line of a poem by the Emperor Hadrian called ‘Adrian’s Address to His Soul When Dying’, which the romantic poet Byron (1788–1824) translated in his collection Hours of Idleness (1807). The first part of this poem was also used by the Victorian critic Walter Pater (1839–1894) in his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885).
What was the Ariel series?
From 1925, Eliot worked for the publisher Faber and Faber as literary editor and member of the board of directors. In 1927, their autumn catalogue announced
This series of little booklets consists of single previously unpublished poems each suitably decorated in colours and dressed in the gayest wrappers. It has been designed to take the place of Christmas cards and other similar tokens that one sends for remembrance sake at certain seasons of the year. Some of the poems have Christmas for their subject: but a genuine poem is not a thing appropriate only to one season of the year, and any one of these poems with its attendant decorations would be a joy to read and see at any time, whatever the season might be…
Eliot contributed 6 poems in total, and later used the title ‘Ariel Poems’ when he incorporated them into his own collections. The other contributors included many other established and lesser-known poets, and artists including Eric Gill, Paul and John Nash, and Eric Ravilious.
The illustrations are wood engravings by the artist Gertrude Hermes (1901–83): patterns have been cut into wooden surfaces which have then been inked up and printed onto paper to produce an image. Eliot was initially unimpressed by the image for the inside of the booklet, and Richard de la Mare – the originator of the series – wrote to her explaining ‘if there is to be a figure at all, [Eliot] thinks it should be made to appear very much younger’. Yet when Eliot saw this second image, he decided he preferred the first. In 1932, copies of the book were prevented by Customs officers from entering the United States. Eliot was confused about the reasoning, until a friend speculated that it may have been the naked male genitalia in Hermes’s image.
- Full title:
- Animula by T. S. Eliot. Wood engravings by Gertrude Hermes
- 1929, Faber & Gwyer, 24 Russell Square, London
- Faber & Faber
- Pamphlet / Illustration / Image
- T S Eliot, Gertrude Hermes
- Usage terms
Getrude Hermes: © Estate of Gertrude Hermes. Illustration for 'The Animula', T S Eliot, 1929. This item can only be used for private study, or non-commercial education and teaching purposes. No adaptations can be made, including cropping, colouring in etc. Please respect the wishes of the artist and use the item 'as is'.
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- British Library
- Article by:
- Mark Ford
- Exploring identity, Literature 1950–2000, Gender and sexuality
Mark Ford describes how physical and emotional experience interact in Sylvia Plath’s 'Ariel'.