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:

Wit Wonders

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


What do you make of it?

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