The worthless ancient collection of Imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta contains the following poem said to have been composed by the Emperor Hadrian as his last moments approached:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos.
This is generally misconstrued, with “quae” in line three being taken as a relative pronoun (in which case the poem has no main clause and is presumably the opening of some massive work in iambic octonarians cooked up by the dying ruler). In fact, it’s an interrogative adjective, modifying “loca”:
Poor little wandering, enticing soul,
Guest and companion of the body,
What place will you go to now,
You poor little thing,
naked and pale and stiff,
no longer making your usual jokes?
The poem thus contains the standard Platonic dichotomy between mortal physical body and immortal soul, with the emperor ruminating on the question of what happens next. The underlying premise here is that the soul is a congenial companion of the body for the period when the two are united, and the emperor isn’t sure what becomes of the soul after death (though presumably he assumes it continues to exist).
Interestingly enough, the basic ideas is the same as that in the famous (to some people, at any rate) story told in Bede’s History of the Angles. As part of the Catholic effort to convert the heathen Germanic settlers in Britain, St. Paulinus shows up at the court of the king of Kent and gives a speech outlining the virtues of the Christian faith. The kings has his councilors what they think, and Coifi says that he’d been the best priest of the pagan gods, yet the king honored a lot of deadbeats more than he did Coifi. What the hell kind of gods were these ingrates? Then, on a somewhat more theoretical note, he makes the following observation:
Talis mihi uidetur, rex, uita hominum praesens in terris, ad conparationem eius, quod nobis incertum est, temporis, quale cum te residente ad caenam cum ducibus ac ministris tuis tempore brumali, accenso quidem foco in medio, et calido effecto caenaculo, furentibus autem foris per omnia turbinibus hiemalium pluuiarum uel niuium, adueniens unus passerum domum citissime peruolauerit; qui cum per unum ostium ingrediens, mox per aliud exierit. Ipso quidem tempore, quo intus est, hiemis tempestate non tangitur, sed tamen paruissimo spatio serenitatis ad momentum excurso, mox de hieme in hiemem regrediens, tuis oculis elabitur. Ita haec uita hominum ad modicum apparet; quid autem sequatur, quidue praecesserit, prorsus ignoramus. Unde si haec noua doctrina certius aliquid attulit, merito esse sequenda uidetur.
Your majesty, the life of men here on earth seems to me to be like this compared to the time that’s unknown to us. You’re sitting at a feast with your commanders and servants in winter time, with a fire lit in the middle and the platter made warm. Gusts of wintry rain or snow are raging everywhere outside, when some sparrow shows up and flies swiftly through the house. Entering through one door, it’s quickly gone through the other. During that time while it’s inside, it’s not touched by the winter’s storm, but once that tiny period of calm is rushed through in a moment, it returns from winter to winter, slipping from your sight. In this way, the life of men is visible for a short time. What follows and what precedes, we have absolutely no idea. So if this new doctrine can bring any news about this, it would seem to be a good idea to follow it.
Now, whether the new doctrine of
fairy tales from the Semitic Near East Christianity does in fact shed any light on the issue at hand is rather dubious in my mind (YMMV). Still, the sentiment is the same as that of the dying emperor.
Oddly enough, somebody on the writing staff of The Tudors was familiar with this affecting simile, and stuck it in the mouth of Henry VIII. Annoyingly, nobody (as far as I can tell) has uploaded the scene to YouTube. It was important enough to the writers of the show that they had a tune of its own written for it by the guy who composed the music for the show (a Canadian named Trevor Morris). Here’s the tune:
And for those who care about such things, there’s actually a visual reference to this in the final scene of the series. Henry looks at a painting Holbein has made of him, and while he’s doing that a bird chirps in the background and flutters around (in the following clip, it appears just after the 2:00 mark). I wonder how many people noticed that?
I bet Hadrian would have!