‘The Poet’s Testament’ by George Santayana is a five stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a structured rhyming pattern of aabb ccdd, and so on, exploring different end sounds as the poet saw fit. This work was published posthumously in The Poet’s Testament: Poems and Two Plays in August of 1953.
Throughout the lines of this piece the mood remains optimistic and serene. The speaker is consistently and completely at ease with the life he lived and the works he created. Additionally a reader should take note of the pattern of rhythm. The lines conform to the common meter of iambic pentameter. In this form the lines are made out of five sets of beats, or iambs. The iambs contain one unstressed and one stressed syllable. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Poet’s Testament
‘The Poet’s Testament’ by George Santayana explores a speaker’s learned peace in death. He is content with the life he lived and his final contribution to the planet.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating that he is dead. He has left the earth– but not without contributing. His death allowed him to return the energy he was given back to the planet. It went straight into a “furrow,” or ditch dug for agricultural planting.
He continues to explain that the only thing he really leaves behind for those still living is his music. This is a reference to written works, poetry or prose. He spent his days involved in the art of writing. This fact separated him from his contemporaries in one way or another—but he didn’t mind. His life, he explains, was quite good. He was blessed by the “fates” and never touched by the “furies.’
In the final two stanzas he explains that he spent a great deal of his life utilizing the emotions of his relationships in his writing. He found great happiness while alive and this was enough to form his “imperfect prayers.” In the last lines he asks that all the beauty of the earth, that his body is now contributing to, finishes his “prayers.”
Analysis of The Poet’s Testament
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by addressing his own contribution to the earth. He has comes to the realization that with his life he has returned to the earth that which it gave him. The energy and promise that was imbued in him upon his birth did not go to waste. In the second line he expands on this, making clear the life-force he used was not taken “to the grave.” It was sent “All to the furrow.” This is a reference to a trench made in the ground by a plow. His life is revitalizing the soil. He continues on to state,
The candle’s out, the spirit’s vigil spent;
Sight may not follow where the vision went.
In the second set of lines he speaks on the fact that the “candle” representing his life on earth has gone out. There is nothing left for him, or his spirit, to do. The “vigil” he lived through is over. This is not something that appears to scare the speaker. He is okay with his own death and prepared to face whatever comes next. The final line explains that he does not fear death even though “Sight may not follow” wherever his spirit ends up. No one is going to know exactly where his soul ended up and that’s okay.
In the second quatrain the speaker, who is becoming more connected to Santayana himself, explains that he only left behind one thing on earth. Everything else that he was returned without fanfare to the dirt. His lifetime is marked by the “sound of many a word.” This is a reference to poetry, or any written work. Santayana’s writings are the bits of himself he knows are eternal. A fact that brings him comfort.
Those who lived alongside the speaker were able to hear him as he sang. They will remember what they heard and know that he sang his words “to heaven.” There was something else about this speaker that was different. He saw himself as an “exile.” This could be due to the nature of his practice. His art could have set him apart from those around him. Whatever the case may be he did not mind being alone. His exile gave him the opportunity to travel,
from world to world, from all worlds carried me.
The passages he wrote whether prose or verse, had the power to transport him. The other worlds never left him. They remained within him as he moved through his life. This way, he was never alone. He was always connected to a larger world.
Throughout his life, the speaker states, he was,
Spared by the furies, for the Fates were kind.
During his years on earth nothing too terrible happened to him. In fact, the “Fates were kind” to him. It seems that he had good luck and was generally happy with his position. The speaker was content to continue to paste the “pillared cloisters” of his mind.
He outlines his inner life as being quite complex. The speaker had something of a palace he was able to live within inside his mind. It was filled with pillars. This fact, along with his ability to create other worlds, allowed him peace.
The speaker was “present” everywhere he wanted to be. Every place he sought became his own. In the final line of this section he explains that he was so contended with his life that he never gave into “fear,” “hope” or “envy.” He had no need of them.
In the fourth stanza the speaker continue to discuss what his life was like. The peace he was able to find during his early days kept him from being bothered by any strange or dark happenings. Whatever the “winds would” blow into his life, nothing could move him. There were no exterior influences that could upset his mental and emotional state. This was all due to the fact that an “ancient truth” was his.
In addition to an understanding that his life was going to end, his days were filled with friendship. His relationships were full, exciting and satisfying. There were moments of drinking alongside companions and ecstatic happiness through “heavenly laughter.”
These times of his life were not brief. They filled up his every waking moment. His happiness was so overwhelming that it felt as if “Atoms of light” were coming from his experiences. There were “tears for mortal things” but not sad ones. He did not mourn his own mortality.
In the final four lines the speaker moves to to discuss the impact he made on the earth. While alive he was able to tap into the “harmonies” of the planet. He felt the beauty of “field and cloud” and worshiped these features. As mentioned previously, it did not matter to him that one day he would lose his life. The fact that he knew this world at all was enough.
In the final lines he asks that what he made, his “imperfect prayer,” is enhanced. He desires the beautiful forces that inspired him while he was alive come together. Perhaps they will “fulfill in beauty” the parts of his prayer that were not fully resolved.