English Literature » Alfred Tennyson » St Simeon Stylites

St Simeon Stylites by

First published in 1842, reprinted in all the subsequent editions of the poems but with no alterations in the text, except that in eighth line from the end "my" was substituted for "mine" in 1846. Tennyson informed a friend that it was not from the 'Acta Sanctorum', but from Hone's 'Every-Day Book', vol. i., pp. 35-36, that he got the material for this poem, and a comparison with the narrative in Hone and the poem seems to show that this was the case.

It is not easy to identify the St. Simeon Stylites of Hone's narrative and Tennyson's poem, whether he is to be identified with St. Simeon the Elder, of whom there are three memoirs given in the 'Acta Sanctorum', tom. i., 5th January, 261-286, or with St. Simeon Stylites, Junior, of whom there is an elaborate biography in Greek by Nicephorus printed with a Latin translation and notes in the 'Acta Sanctorum', tom. v., 24th May, 298-401. It seems clear that whoever compiled the account popularised by Hone had read both and amalgamated them. The main lines in the story of both saints are exactly the same. Both stood on columns, both tortured themselves in the same ways, both wrought miracles, and both died at their posts of penance. St. Simeon the Elder was born at Sisan in Syria about A.D. 390, and was buried at Antioch in A.D. 459 or 460. The Simeon the Younger was born at Antioch A. D. 521 and died in A.D. 592. His life, which is of singular interest, is much more elaborately related.

This poem is not simply a dramatic study. It bears very directly on Tennyson's philosophy of life. In these early poems he has given us four studies in the morbid anatomy of character: 'The Palace of Art', which illustrates the abuse of aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment of self; 'The Vision of Sin', which illustrates the effects of similar indulgence in the grosser pleasures of the senses; 'The Two Voices', which illustrates the mischief of despondent self-absorption, while the present poem illustrates the equally pernicious indulgence in an opposite extreme, asceticism affected for the mere gratification of personal vanity.


  Altho' I be the basest of mankind,
  From scalp to sole one slough and crust of sin,
  Unfit for earth, unfit for heaven, scarce meet
  For troops of devils, mad with blasphemy,
  I will not cease to grasp the hope I hold
  Of saintdom, and to clamour, morn and sob,
  Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer,
  Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin.
  Let this avail, just, dreadful, mighty God,
  This not be all in vain that thrice ten years,
  Thrice multiplied by superhuman pangs,
  In hungers and in thirsts, fevers and cold,
  In coughs, aches, stitches, ulcerous throes and cramps,
  A sign betwixt the meadow and the cloud,
  Patient on this tall pillar I have borne
  Rain, wind, frost, heat, hail, damp, and sleet, and snow;
  And I had hoped that ere this period closed
  Thou wouldst have caught me up into Thy rest,
  Denying not these weather-beaten limbs
  The meed of saints, the white robe and the palm.
  O take the meaning, Lord: I do not breathe,
  Not whisper, any murmur of complaint.
  Pain heap'd ten-hundred-fold to this, were still
  Less burthen, by ten-hundred-fold, to bear,
  Than were those lead-like tons of sin, that crush'd
  My spirit flat before thee. O Lord, Lord,
  Thou knowest I bore this better at the first,
  For I was strong and hale of body then;
  And tho' my teeth, which now are dropt away,
  Would chatter with the cold, and all my beard
  Was tagg'd with icy fringes in the moon,
  I drown'd the whoopings of the owl with sound
  Of pious hymns and psalms, and sometimes saw
  An angel stand and watch me, as I sang.
  Now am I feeble grown; my end draws nigh;
  I hope my end draws nigh: half deaf I am,
  So that I scarce can hear the people hum
  About the column's base, and almost blind,
  And scarce can recognise the fields I know;
  And both my thighs are rotted with the dew;
  Yet cease I not to clamour and to cry,
  While my stiff spine can hold my weary head,
  Till all my limbs drop piecemeal from the stone,
  Have mercy, mercy: take away my sin.
  O Jesus, if thou wilt not save my soul,
  Who may be saved? who is it may be saved?
  Who may be made a saint, if I fail here?
  Show me the man hath suffered more than I.
  For did not all thy martyrs die one death?
  For either they were stoned, or crucified,
  Or burn'd in fire, or boil'd in oil, or sawn
  In twain beneath the ribs; but I die here
  To-day, and whole years long, a life of death.
  Bear witness, if I could have found a way
  (And heedfully I sifted all my thought)
  More slowly-painful to subdue this home
  Of sin, my flesh, which I despise and hate,
  I had not stinted practice, O my God.
  For not alone this pillar-punishment, [1]
  Not this alone I bore: but while I lived
  In the white convent down the valley there,
  For many weeks about my loins I wore
  The rope that haled the buckets from the well,
  Twisted as tight as I could knot the noose;
  And spake not of it to a single soul,
  Until the ulcer, eating thro' my skin,
  Betray'd my secret penance, so that all
  My brethren marvell'd greatly. More than this
  I bore, whereof, O God, thou knowest all.[2]
  Three winters, that my soul might grow to thee,
  I lived up there on yonder mountain side.
  My right leg chain'd into the crag, I lay
  Pent in a roofless close of ragged stones;
  Inswathed sometimes in wandering mist, and twice
  Black'd with thy branding thunder, and sometimes
  Sucking the damps for drink, and eating not,
  Except the spare chance-gift of those that came
  To touch my body and be heal'd, and live:
  And they say then that I work'd miracles,
  Whereof my fame is loud amongst mankind,
  Cured lameness, palsies, cancers. Thou, O God,
  Knowest alone whether this was or no.
  Have mercy, mercy; cover all my sin.

  Then, that I might be more alone with thee, [3]
  Three years I lived upon a pillar, high
  Six cubits, and three years on one of twelve;
  And twice three years I crouch'd on one that rose
  Twenty by measure; last of all, I grew
  Twice ten long weary weary years to this,
  That numbers forty cubits from the soil.
  I think that I have borne as much as this–
  Or else I dream–and for so long a time,
  If I may measure time by yon slow light,
  And this high dial, which my sorrow crowns–
  So much–even so. And yet I know not well,
  For that the evil ones comes here, and say,
  "Fall down, O Simeon: thou hast suffer'd long
  For ages and for ages!" then they prate
  Of penances I cannot have gone thro',
  Perplexing me with lies; and oft I fall,
  Maybe for months, in such blind lethargies,
  That Heaven, and Earth, and Time are choked. But yet
  Bethink thee, Lord, while thou and all the saints
  Enjoy themselves in Heaven, and men on earth
  House in the shade of comfortable roofs,
  Sit with their wives by fires, eat wholesome food,
  And wear warm clothes, and even beasts have stalls,
  I, 'tween the spring and downfall of the light,
  Bow down one thousand and two hundred times,
  To Christ, the Virgin Mother, and the Saints;
  Or in the night, after a little sleep,
  I wake: the chill stars sparkle; I am wet
  With drenching dews, or stiff with crackling frost.
  I wear an undress'd goatskin on my back;
  A grazing iron collar grinds my neck;
  And in my weak, lean arms I lift the cross,
  And strive and wrestle with thee till I die:
  O mercy, mercy! wash away my sin.
  O Lord, thou knowest what a man I am;
  A sinful man, conceived and born in sin:
  'Tis their own doing; this is none of mine;
  Lay it not to me. Am I to blame for this,
  That here come those that worship me? Ha! ha!
  They think that I am somewhat. What am I?
  The silly people take me for a saint,
  And bring me offerings of fruit and flowers:
  And I, in truth (thou wilt bear witness here)
  Have all in all endured as much, and more
  Than many just and holy men, whose names
  Are register'd and calendar'd for saints.
  Good people, you do ill to kneel to me.
  What is it I can have done to merit this?
  I am a sinner viler than you all.
  It may be I have wrought some miracles, [4]
  And cured some halt and maim'd; but what of that?
  It may be, no one, even among the saints,
  May match his pains with mine; but what of that?
  Yet do not rise: for you may look on me,
  And in your looking you may kneel to God.
  Speak! is there any of you halt or maim'd?
  I think you know I have some power with Heaven
  From my long penance: let him speak his wish.
  Yes, I can heal. Power goes forth from me.
  They say that they are heal'd. Ah, hark! they shout
  "St. Simeon Stylites". Why, if so,
  God reaps a harvest in me. O my soul,
  God reaps a harvest in thee. If this be,
  Can I work miracles and not be saved?
  This is not told of any. They were saints.
  It cannot be but that I shall be saved;
  Yea, crown'd a saint. They shout, "Behold a saint!"
  And lower voices saint me from above.
  Courage, St. Simeon! This dull chrysalis
  Cracks into shining wings, and hope ere death
  Spreads more and more and more, that God hath now
  Sponged and made blank of crimeful record all
  My mortal archives. O my sons, my sons,
  I, Simeon of the pillar, by surname Stylites, among men;
  I, Simeon, The watcher on the column till the end;
  I, Simeon, whose brain the sunshine bakes;
  I, whose bald brows in silent hours become
  Unnaturally hoar with rime, do now
  From my high nest of penance here proclaim
  That Pontius and Iscariot by my side
  Show'd like fair seraphs. On the coals I lay,
  A vessel full of sin: all hell beneath
  Made me boil over. Devils pluck'd my sleeve; [5]
  Abaddon and Asmodeus caught at me.
  I smote them with the cross; they swarm'd again.
  In bed like monstrous apes they crush'd my chest:
  They flapp'd my light out as I read: I saw
  Their faces grow between me and my book:
  With colt-like whinny and with hoggish whine
  They burst my prayer. Yet this way was left,
  And by this way I'scaped them. Mortify
  Your flesh, like me, with scourges and with thorns;
  Smite, shrink not, spare not. If it may be, fast
  Whole Lents, and pray. I hardly, with slow steps,
  With slow, faint steps, and much exceeding pain,
  Have scrambled past those pits of fire, that still
  Sing in mine ears. But yield not me the praise:
  God only thro' his bounty hath thought fit,
  Among the powers and princes of this world,
  To make me an example to mankind,
  Which few can reach to. Yet I do not say
  But that a time may come–yea, even now,
  Now, now, his footsteps smite the threshold stairs
  Of life–I say, that time is at the doors
  When you may worship me without reproach;
  For I will leave my relics in your land,
  And you may carve a shrine about my dust,
  And burn a fragrant lamp before my bones,
  When I am gather'd to the glorious saints.
  While I spake then, a sting of shrewdest pain
  Ran shrivelling thro' me, and a cloudlike change,
  In passing, with a grosser film made thick
  These heavy, horny eyes. The end! the end!
  Surely the end! What's here? a shape, a shade,
  A flash of light. Is that the angel there
  That holds a crown? Come, blessed brother, come,
  I know thy glittering face. I waited long;
  My brows are ready. What! deny it now?
  Nay, draw, draw, draw nigh. So I clutch it. Christ!
  'Tis gone: 'tis here again; the crown! the crown! [6]
  So now 'tis fitted on and grows to me,
  And from it melt the dews of Paradise,
  Sweet! sweet! spikenard, and balm, and frankincense.
  Ah! let me not be fool'd, sweet saints: I trust
  That I am whole, and clean, and meet for Heaven.
  Speak, if there be a priest, a man of God,
  Among you there, and let him presently
  Approach, and lean a ladder on the shaft,
  And climbing up into my airy home,
  Deliver me the blessed sacrament;
  For by the warning of the Holy Ghost,
  I prophesy that I shall die to-night,
  A quarter before twelve. [7] But thou, O Lord,
  Aid all this foolish people; let them take
  Example, pattern: lead them to thy light.

[Footnote 1: For this incident 'cf. Acta', v., 317:

"Petit aliquando ab aliquo ad se invisente funem, acceptumque circa corpus convolvit constringitque tarn arete ut, exesâ carne, quæ istuc mollis admodum ac tenera est, nudæ costæ exstarent".

The same is told also of the younger Stylites, where the incident of concealing the torture is added, 'Acta', i., 265.]

[Footnote 2: For this retirement to a mountain see 'Acta', i., 270, and it is referred to in the other lives:

"Post hæc egressus occulte perrexit in montem non longe a monasterio, ibique sibi clausulam de siccâ petrâ fecit, et stetit sic annos tres."]

[Footnote 3: In accurate accordance with the third life, 'Acta', i., 277:

"Primum quidem columna ad sex erecta cubitos est, deinde ad duodecim, post ad vigenti extensa est";

but for the thirty-six cubits which is assigned as the height of the last column Tennyson's authority, drawing on another account ('Id'., 271), substitutes forty:

"Fecerunt illi columnam habentem cubitos quadraginta".]

[Footnote 4: For the miracles wrought by him see all the lives.]

[Footnote 5: These details seem taken from the well-known stories about Luther and Bunyan. All that the 'Acta' say about St. Simeon is that he was pestered by devils.]

[Footnote 6: The 'Acta' say nothing about the crown, but dwell on the supernatural fragrance which exhaled from the saint.]

[Footnote 7: Tennyson has given a very poor substitute for the beautifully pathetic account given of the death of St. Simeon in 'Acta', i., 168, and again in the ninth chapter of the second Life, 'Ibid'., 273. But this is to be explained perhaps by the moral purpose of the poem.]

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