‘The Choir Invisible’ by George Eliot is a forty-four line poem which does not conform to one particular rhyme scheme. Instead, the poet has chosen to distribute end rhymes throughout the text so that a reader will be able to independently make connections between the lines.
In regards to the historical background of this piece, George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Anne Evans, struggled with religion throughout her life. She eventually came to understand Christianity and what heaven can be, through an independently constructed lens. This vision is presented within the text of the poem.
Summary of The Choir Invisible
The poem begins with the speaker asking that she might be given the honour of joining those in heaven who “live again” through the minds of the living. Her ideal vision of the afterlife stems from a place of genuine goodness. She wants to be a positive influence on those who think of her and inspire those who are in need.
In the next sections, the speaker describes what heaven she is seeking is like. While there, one is not dragged down by the sorrows of one’s past life. Everything one wept for or struggled over is washed away.
She hopes that she will be able to, alongside those in the “choir invisible” help to improve the earth. They will oversee the construction of a better world and soothe the minds of those who are distressed.
Analysis of The Choir Invisible
O May I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirr’d to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.
In the first stanza of ‘The Choir Invisible’ the speaker begins by asking the reader, or the intended listener of her poem, if she can “join” in with the “choir invisible.” Membership in this group of people, who are felt rather than observed, is the ultimate accomplishment for the speaker.
The group is made up of “those immortal dead” who “live again” within the minds of those who respect them. She is seeking out a legacy.
In the following lines she describes the positive impact she sees the “choir” having on those who keep them in mind. They will “stir” one’s pulse to “generosity” and “dare” one to “rectitude,” or to make amends for the “miserable aims” which have driven the world. These are “aims” which end with “self.”
The “choir” will exist within the thoughts that “pierce the night like stars.” They will inspire and drive one to make a change in the world.
So to live is heaven:
To make undying music in the world,
Breathing as beauteous order that controls
With growing sway the growing life of man.
So we inherit that sweet purity
For which we struggled, fail’d, and agoniz’d
With widening retrospect that bred despair.
In the next set of lines of ‘The Choir Invisible’, the speaker describes how this way of being, existing positively within one’s mind, is like living in “heaven.” This would be the speaker’s ideal outcome for her life. She will be able to help make “undying music in the world.”
The speaker and those within the choir will have a “sway” over the lives of humankind. With this position, she will be able to see the development of the world and indulge in the “purity” that she struggled her whole life for. She knows what it is to despair for one’s life or the state of the world and now she will be able to live in an environment which is the exact opposite.
Rebellious flesh that would not be subdued,
A vicious parent shaming still its child,
Poor anxious penitence, is quick dissolv’d;
Its discords, quench’d by meeting harmonies,
Die in the large and charitable air.
In the following lines, the speaker goes through a number of elements of life that take one away from their intended path. One might be tempted by their own “Rebellious flesh” or influenced by “A vicious parent.” The intense emotions which accompany these experiences are dissolved in the heaven that Eliot has crafted.
One will no longer have to worry about “discords” or meetings that are un-harmonious. These elements of one’s past “Die in the…charitable air.” The atmosphere of the speaker’s heaven dissolves everything negative automatically.
And all our rarer, better, truer self,
That sobb’d religiously in yearning song,
That watch’d to ease the burthen of the world,
Laboriously tracing what must be,
And what may yet be better,—saw within
A worthier image for the sanctuary,
And shap’d it forth before the multitude,
Divinely human, raising worship so
To higher reverence more mix’d with love,—
The following lines of ‘The Choir Invisible’ further emphasize what one’s state of existence will be when they enter heaven and escape the discomforts, tragedies, and struggles of human life. One will be their “rarer, better, truer self.” There will be no separation between the penitent side and the tempted side. One’s self, which watched the world and sobbed over its state, wishing they could improve it, will be soothed.
Now that the speaker will have moved on to a better life she will be able to help shape the world “before the multitude.” The new world will “rais[e] worship” so that it is “more mix’d with love” than being dependent on stringent religious doctrine.
That better self shall live till human Time
Shall fold its eyelids, and the human sky
Be gather’d like a scroll within the tomb Unread forever.
This is life to come,
Which martyr’d men have made more glorious
For us who strive to follow. May I reach
This version of herself, and of all those who make up the “choir” will live on forever. They will never have to return to a world in which they worried about temptation or “sobb’d religiously in yearning” for something.
The world they will create will exist so that others can “live till human Time / Shall fold its eyelids.” Peace will come to exist on earth due in part to the “martyr’d men” who have helped to make it more “glorious.”
That purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smiles that have no cruelty,
Be the sweet presence of a good diffus’d,
And in diffusion ever more intense!
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world
In the final section of ‘The Choir Invisible’, the speaker returns to her initial request that she be allowed to reach the “purest heaven” and be to “other souls / The cup of strength.” She wants her memory to provide future generations with inspiration and strength which they can rely on in times of “great agony.”
The speaker hopes her memory will “Enkindle generous ardor” as well as “Beget” or engender “smiles that have no cruelty.”