St. Simeon Stylites: by Alfred Tennyson - Summary & Analysis

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INTRODUCTION

      This superb dramatic monologue was written in 1833, when Tennyson was twenty-three or twenty-four. Its satiric force and savage humour, although characteristic of a man, only rarely appears in his poetry. The dramatic monologue is a nineteenth and twentieth century mode in which the speaker tells us something about himself, and often unconsciously tells us more about himself than he realises, as here. The Love Songs of J. Alfred Prufrock of T. S. Eliot (1888 — 1965) is a modern example. Tennyson's contemporary, Robert Browning (1812—89) is generally considered to be the great master of the form, although St. Simeon Stylites was written a little before any of Browning's monologues. Ulyssess and Tithonus were written in the same year. Demeter and Persephone (1889) is a fine late example. St. Simeon spent many years on a column in Syria, mortifying himself to obtain a closer knowledge of God. Tennyson had little sympathy with asceticism of this sort, and presents Simeon as a neurotic and indeed half crazy hypocrite, whose one desire is to be made a saint.

CRITICAL SUMMARY

      Although (he says) he is the basest of mankind, Simeon still hopes to be a saint and will not cease to assault heaven with prayers. He prays for forgiveness, but in reality he does not think of himself as base. In support of his claim' he reminds God that he has spent thirty years on his pillar in spite of illness and bad weather, and speaks of his disappointment at not yet having been received into sainthood. He says he does not want to complain: the weight of sin was much worse than these pains. When young, he was better able to bear them; now feeble, he hopes for death and though half-deaf, almost blind, and rotting, he will continue to cry to God. Surely he deserves sainthood. Other holy martyrs died once, but his sufferings have been a life of death. If he could have suffered more, he would have done so. He lists his other sufferings: in the convent, where the rope of penance gave him an ulcer; on the mountain, naked to the elements, chained to the rock, where he worked miracles, and cured the sick; three years crouched on a pillar, three years on a higher pillar, and twenty years on this one, the highest. His mind is confused, but he thinks this is an accurate record. Yet sometimes evil spirits perplex him. Nevertheless God should remember that while He and the saints are in heaven, and men live happily on earth, Simeon, weak and wretched, performs his ceaseless devotions. Again (as in lines 8, 44, 83, 118) he prays for forgiveness. Sinful as he is, God will understand he is not to blame if the foolish people worship him, 'I am nothing — they think I am a saint—and indeed I have suffered more than many saints'. The people round the column ought not to kneel to him, a sinner. Perhaps he has performed some miracles, and suffered more than any saint; it hardly matters. But they may remain kneeling. If any of them is crippled, he can heal him. (Presumably at this point someone accepts his offer, and something resembling an act of healing takes place.) Simeon triumphs in his supposed power. Since he works miracles, he must be a saint, hearing the crowd's voice, and other mysterious voices, which may be produced by his diseased state. His hope is now strong, that God has forgiven his sins. He addresses the people again on the subject of his sins, paid for by a long penance by which surely he has also bought sanctity. He describes how devils tormented him, and could be subdued only by penance. This is the path the people must follow. But God is to be praised, not Simeon, God who has made Simeon an outstanding example. Yet perhaps even now they may worship him, now he is surely a saint. Even as he speaks, pain afflicts him, and his eyes darken. The angel with the crown: he clutches, loses and clutches it again, the sweet-smelling crown: surely this is the moment of his great transition. He asks for a priest to climb up to him, and give him the last sacrament before his death and prays that the people may follow his example.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS AND APPRECIATION

      Sr. Simeon Stylites is a dramatic monologue, a study of the type of ascetic in its extreme. Its theme, like that of many other poems of Tennyson, the wish to die. As the ascetic speaks of his pains and ascetic qualities, we get the impression that the suffering is really a source of sensual pleasure to Simeon. The pride of asceticism is here presented in its basest form. "To be sure we can condemn Simeon, but as in Browning's My Last Duchess, condemnation is not the most interesting response. Sympathy for Simeon is generated by the device of the dramatic monologue, which causes a tension between intellectual and emotional meaning." The denial of flesh is apparently acceptable to God.

      Tennyson himself apparently did not approve of such extreme asceticism. There is a ridiculing tone, though subtle and fine in the poem, especially in such passages as — "Coughs, aches, stitches etc." In true tradition of the dramatic monologue, Simeon Sty lite s reveals more than what the mere words convey.

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