“As for the soul, I tell you what: it’s there, but it’s the mortal part”

From THE PETTY TESTAMENT OF PETER THE CLERK
~ by John Holloway

First, for my body: my will
(Which I now formally declare)
Is, it be stripped of clothes and leather
And, with no fuss, be laid quite bare
Less than a foot below the soil:
To which by action of the weather
It may revert; for it’s no harm
To put things back where they come from.

Item, for my immortal part,
Being unsure of its size and feature,
I leave this question in abeyance,
Till I can better grasp its nature.
But some time after I depart,
Why, go ask at any seance:
If I find I cannot go
To tell you– cadit quaestio.

But I suspect that all this kind
Of talk is upside-down; and when
We die, the immortal body fuses
Into a worm, into a hen,
A root, leaf, blossom– this I find
Likelier than metempsychosis.
As for the soul, I tell you what:
It’s there, but it’s the mortal part.

Item, I now bequeath my wife
All the things no one else will want:
Bits from my pocket, souvenirs, scraps
Of paper, first drafts, things that don’t
Make sense unless you know the life
They fitted in to. Then perhaps,
When you do know, can make the most
Sense, and re-make the meaning best.

And to my children I bequeath
My name; and bid them keep it clean:
Not one half lacquered, one half rust,
Which is, I fear, what I have done,
But keep it trim and tidy with
A modest, half-indifferent trust
In down-to-earth things, common sense,
Just as I hoped I might do, once.

Item, my money, let it go
To those who’ll spend it in one day,
Or those who’ll let the pittance lie,
Thirsting for interest. Either way
It’ll do no harm at all, I know.
Or have it foisted lavishly
On those I hate; and let them fret
All night what they’ll get out of it.

Item, whatever friends I can
Still muster, I leave lonely folk:
Yet doubt that this will serve their ends;
For the blind groping of the root
To find its soil, strikes everyone
At first for lack of, then through friends.
And mine (though I’m glad to call
Them friends) aren’t more than typical.

To poets I leave every work
I have of learning: for the pure
Blaze of the flower, up from the earth
Makes verse. But let them use manure.
Gossip, plain women, drink and smoke,
Will breed, they’ll find, a monstrous birth.
I leave all verse to men of letters:
That they may plainly tell their betters.

To my employers– viz., the State,
I leave this list of the mistakes
That I committed while their clerk:
Only by observing that it makes
A longer list by far than that
Of slips they noticed in my work.
Whence I infer, nosce teipsum …
Of which I think the point escapes ’em.

Now for the sins I must confess:
Fearing infection, I once kept
My clean cat from a filthy child
Who suddenly read my thought, and wept.
Twice, I made love turn lust: as less
Arduous to please, and easier to jilt.
And three times (or maybe oftener still)
Made a good plain man seem a fool.

But I owe a stricter penitence
(Or the trim garden’s rank, unweeded)
That once, for prim convention’s sake,
Like a rat, I slunk from all I needed
Offered in one grave gentle glance:
Although I thought my heart would break.
It didn’t though. And kind Time has
Slobbed it to rights, the way it does.

And now, alas, what is there left
Of all things that once were mine?
For every book and every friend
And every vice and virtue’s gone
Like things left on the beach, that drift
With the blind tide away from land:
Only, I think that it will be
Some little time before I die.

For in my thirtieth year of age,
A boaster and a loud-voiced man
Often enough, I Peter, clerk,
Being none too sound or healthy in
The mind or body, on this page
Thus write my will; and just remark
That when this bitter winter’s gone,
I shall, next year, be thirty-one.

##

Cadit quaestio (literally “The question falls”) means essentially “The matter is resolved” in legal parlance. Nosce te ipsum is translated as “Know thyself” in philosophic literature. Viz. means “Namely” and is an abbreviation used by scholars. Clerk in this poem is pronounced “Clark” in the English way and it rhymes with remark. Clerk here means “Scholar,” in the old medieval sense.

Metempsychosis is the legend that the soul is imprisoned in the body, it is freed after death to commune with immortality for some time, but then it is ultimately transmigrated into a future newborn babe.

John Holloway proposes the opposite. The body is eternal, as it becomes part of the earth. The soul is temporal, and it dies with the brain.

Holloway, a Cambridge scholar, consciously emulates the classic testament poems of Francois Villon in the 1400s, and he uses Villon’s ballade stanzas of eight tetrameter lines. Here they rhyme in an abc-bac-dd pattern.