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A Song for Simeon

Lord, the Roman hyacinths are blooming in bowls and
The winter sun creeps by the snow hills;
The stubborn season has made stand.
My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.
Dust in sunlight and memory in corners
Wait for the wind that chills towards the dead land.

was construed by Computer Science Prof. Shai Simonson, and Math Prof. Fernando Gouvea, in "How to Read Mathematics".

Elliot assumes that the reader will read slowly and pay attention to the images: he juxtaposes dust and memory, relates old age to winter, compares waiting for death with a feather on the back of the hand, etc. He assumes that the reader will recognize this as poetry; in a way, he's assuming that the reader is familiar with a whole poetic tradition. The reader is supposed to notice that alternate lines rhyme, but that the others do not, and so on.

I am unversed in poetry. I have never read anything by T.S. Eliot before!

How is "waiting for the death wind, Like a feather on the back of my hand"? To wit, how on earth is "waiting for the death" related to "a feather on the back of my hand" at all?

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    The feather is not like the death wind, it's like the lightness of his life.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 16:58
  • He did not, unless you insist 'death' is the same as 'the death wind'? Do you, please? Commented Sep 29, 2022 at 19:04

1 Answer 1

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The couplet in question is:

My life is light, waiting for the death wind,
Like a feather on the back of my hand.

And the poem describes Simeon, a biblical character. He is an elderly Jew who was told by the Holy Ghost that he would not die until he'd seen Christ. He is, therefore, waiting for death.

This couplet is a poetic way to try and describe his feelings. His life is "light", playing on the multiple meanings of the word. In the first instance, he feels he has led a good life, filled with light - the light of having done good in the world and light as in moments of joy. So he does not fear death. But because he is old and sick his life is "light" as in weightless: it has become an ephemeral thing, ready to flit away at a moment's notice.

He then describes death as a "wind", which clearly would be able to catch the "light" life that remains within him and blow it away. This is the meaning of the "feather": it's a metaphor for a light object that is easily swept away by the merest gust. The wind of death will sweep his life away in a similar manner.

It is interesting how Eliot invokes the sensation of a feather on the hand. It brings a physicality to the couplet that is otherwise absent, a sensation we can all relate to. This makes the metaphor all the more real for the reader: we can almost feel the lightness he describes as a placeholder for old age. The line can also be read as meaning that the "wind" is tickling the back of the hand like a feather might. Simeon can feel its presence, its imminence at all times.

It's also worth noting that "light" and "feather" are very placid images. This is a man at peace. This contrasts heavily with later verses of the poem that deal with Christ's suffering, and Eliot uses the juxtaposition to bring home the torments that Christ endured.

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    Great answer. Additionally, "on the back of my hand" rather than, say, in the palm or held between thumb and finger conveys the sense of having no intention to grasp at it to retain it when the wind comes.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 16:57

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