I have been thinking about what a baby might make of being here in the world, and what we tend to want them to make of it.
It is curious that we each have this beginning, a beginning that is entirely our own and yet at the same time constantly replicated the world over, many times a second. It is curious that each of us has this experience firsthand, and yet none of us can fully know or describe what it is like.
Instead, Thomas Traherne attempts to recall what I don’t think any of us can ever truly remember:
How like an angel came I down!
How bright are all things here!
When first among his works I did appear
O how their glory me did crown!
The world resembled his eternity,
In which my soul did walk;
And ev’ry thing that I did see
Did with me talk.
A native health and innocence
Within my bones did grow,
And while my God did all his glories show,
I felt a vigour in my sense
That was all spirit. I within did flow
With seas of life, like wine;
I nothing in the world did know
But ’twas divine.
Harsh ragged objects were conceal’d,
Oppressions tears and cries,
Sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes
Were hid, and only things reveal’d
Which heav’nly spirits, and the angels prize.
The state of innocence
And bliss, not trades and poverties,
Did fill my sense.
The streets were pav’d with golden stones,
The boys and girls were mine,
Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!
The sons of men were holy ones,
In joy and beauty they appear’d to me,
And every thing which here I found,
While like an angel I did see,
Adorn’d the ground.
The use of the word ‘things’ would seem to be rather a loose generalisation. But this keeps recurring in the verses above and it makes me think of how exciting the most basic of ‘things’ can be to a baby. Just the existence of a new ‘thing’ – at this stage nameless, of course, and therefore most thing-like – can be a source of engrossing fascination. A hair is suspended from the others and hangs in mid-air. A cushion has corners which jut out, blaring colour. Zips come in different shapes and sizes, and have a complex appeal that is quite unrelated to their function.
But ‘things’ are also no less wondrous than people, in the poem. The child does not have to make that category distinction between inanimate and animate, stone cold and alive. The lines move seamlessly between ‘the boys and girls’ and the ground or streets on which they appear; beauty is everywhere.
And everything calls out to be touched, for contact to be made, and connection established. There are no barriers here either. In fact when I look at how a baby engages with the world it makes me realize how many barriers there are equivalently for me. Politeness; knowing and respecting the difference between ‘mine’ and ‘yours’; busyness and distraction; familiarity. Knowing the names and the categories for things means I don’t need to greet or encounter them afresh each time. I guess this means that so many of the things around me take on a functional value, whereas the baby sees things almost as the painter of a still life image: the glow of colour, the radiance of light, the play of shadow, and the allure of shape.
What I do see is what the baby has yet to learn about; that list which enters with a kind of cascade into the poem. ‘Harsh ragged objects’, ‘oppressions tears and cries’, ‘sins, griefs, complaints, dissensions, weeping eyes’. These are the things that make the news and call our attention. They exist as things that we cannot seem to solve, though people are crying out for help. But if things are wrong on an abstract level, their meaning is to the baby mercifully ‘hid’. She cannot see what is at a distance or round the corner, what is happening to others or even what worries and upsets those she loves. Her senses tell her something different about the world.
Looking into the faces of those she meets, our little daughter is expectant of a smile. She has learnt that she is quick to get one, and avidly seeks them from strangers and friends alike. ‘The boys and girls were mine, / Oh how did all their lovely faces shine!’ It is as though everyone is there for her delight, and the faces reflect that delight back to her. It is hard that she will have to learn later on that the world does not belong exclusively to her. Yet I cannot be other than glad that she has this experience of being greeted so in her first days and months on the earth.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay