To believe or not, Part 1
‘Wit’ is a word that tends, now, to have rather light connotations: a person can be witty and impressive, or lose their wits and be foggy-headed. But its origins offer a reminder of the hold that ‘wit’ has on every individual, because of what it attempts to do. The word comes from the Old English wit(t), denoting the mind as the seat of consciousness. This is what keeps us awake and alert to the world around us. It strives to know and understand; to use the mind to sort out the things that it observes.
The poem below takes on one of wit’s investigations, as though this is a kind of mathematical problem. But I find it charmingly beautiful that the poem manages to present this with such simplicity:
A God and yet a man,
A maid and yet a mother;
Wit wonders what wit can
Conceive, this or the other
A God, and can he die?
A dead man, can he live?
What wit can well reply?
What reason reason give?
God, Truth itself, doth teach it;
Man’s wit sinks too far under
By reason’s power to reach it.
Believe and leave to wonder.
Anonymous (fifteenth century)
I am struck by the effect of that indefinite article, ‘a’, in the first two lines. These are unnamed characters in a story that had not yet become overly familiar. It reminds me of those fairy stories in which we are asked to visualise figures who populate our own earth, but who do not fit our ordinary conceptions of human beings. In a fairy story, strange things become possible, and it is the characters who are most like us who realise this, since they themselves encounter such happenings and are transformed in the process. In Sleeping Beauty, the young prince stumbles across a palace harbouring a woman whom he finds to be the perfect fit – ideally primed to evoke his desire. He hadn’t been looking for it – he had been out hunting when he saw the towers of the palace rising above the wood – but when he hears the tale of the sleeping princess he cannot help but investigate. The girl who looks as if she had just fallen asleep wakes up, unchanged, after a hundred years.
‘A God and yet a man, / A maid and yet a mother.’ You and I know to extrapolate from this the label ‘Christianity’, but the poem asks us to suspend this knowledge of the framework and simply to consider the possibility of the thing, as if it didn’t matter what we were finally to make of it. The proposition is that the law of either/or has been put to one side, in this single instance: big is married with small (God / man), and suddenly there is no difference between before (maid) and after (mother). Together, these two lines challenge the criteria with which we are able to discriminate ‘man’ and ‘woman’.
But my favourite part of the poem is the line that follows, which feels to me the most complex: ‘Wit wonders what wit can / Conceive’. The alliteration simply underscores the sense of the mental gymnastics here. ‘Wit’ doesn’t wonder first and foremost about the problem itself; wit wonders whether it is up to the job of thinking about it. I think maybe ‘wit’ is even a bit unaccustomed to wondering. Certainly wit is more used to conceiving than wondering. Wonder is open-ended. It allows for things other than itself: for the ‘what’ that is yet to be defined.
Yet for wit this is a struggle; it is difficult to see beyond the categories upon which we rely to organise existence – ‘this or the other’. Hence the questions of the middle verse – all four of them – form the centre of this poem, and are allowed to stand without any immediate answer being given. What I like is the tone of these questions. They seem to say: is the impossible possible? Can it be? (And surely not?) ‘A God, and can he die? / A dead man, can he live?’
What I would like to think is that the questions can feed the wonder. The third verse feels a little too easy; attempting a resolution where there cannot really be one, and yet the poem does end for me on the right note. It is as if wonder is the only place to go.
Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay