Making Translations

view from porch.JPG

I am writing on a little wooden porch, at the back of a little wooden house, which is perched on a little wooded hillside in Tyreso, south of Stockholm, where I have come for a  holiday now that the work in Uppsala is done. It’s cold, and lots of birds are singing. Nearby, occasionally  I can hear a horse whinnying, a rooster crowing. I’m wrapped up, wearing my coat and Swedish felt slippers and two blankets. I have hot coffee. I’ll only last so long out here, even so.

For the last week or so I have been reading daily portions of Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’, which you can read in full here. Yesterday I read the section, ‘Behold the child…’ and tried to integrate some of the thoughts I’d had while Phil was speaking about CRILS research at a Medical Humanities seminar at the University of Uppsala.

In today’s stanza Wordsworth gives room to the thought which had opened, or re-opened, at the end of the last : ‘as if his whole vocation/were endless imitation’. The child, as we understood in the earlier parts of the  poem, while practising (through play, through imitation) becoming a ‘common day’  adult, is yet trailing clouds of glory. This new stanza, a new run at it, opens in a changed tone of voice.

The previous stanza seemed, for the most part, utterly ordinary and domestic – two doting parents and a child on the floor with all his play-stuff spread about,  a scene from any home.  But now, with this new opening, that memory of heaven lying about us in our infancy comes back hard and changes the lights. Wordsworth is moved to something like awe, to reverence, and he speaks directly to the child (‘Thou’), who is no longer the ordinary individual child on the carpet at our feet, but a kind of summation of all children, all childhood;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;
Thou, over whom thy Immortality
Broods like the Day, a Master o’er a Slave,
A Presence which is not to be put by;
Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might
Of heaven-born freedom on thy being’s height,
Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke
The years to bring the inevitable yoke,
Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?
Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,
And custom lie upon thee with a weight,

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

I’m going to go slowly here and look first at the opening 10 lines;

Thou, whose exterior semblance doth belie
Thy Soul’s immensity;
Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!
On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find,
In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave;

In this moment of clarification,  Wordsworth sees both the  external ‘semblance’ (is the semblance  the look, the as it were, imitation?) of the  small playing child and the ‘Soul’s immensity’, and sees, too, how the external appearance of the child  can ‘belie’ the soul. It is as if the truest reality is the  hardest one to see – the reality of soul. The outer ‘semblance’ covers it. Worth a quick look at ‘belie’ in the dictionary – to lie about, to fail to give a true impression. Semblance too –  outward appearance, especially when the reality is different.  In that one line, there are three words about the  falseness of an exterior appearance all pointing to what is going to come in the next line, ‘thy soul’s immensity.’

I want to stop here and ask myself what I make of this. All the time I am reading I am conscious of this difference between Wordsworth and myself…he believes the soul is or may be immortal. I don’t know.

So before I can read on, I need to make my own translation because the word ‘soul’ has come back in such a grand light, and I want to make sure I am in tune with the flow of the poem. So I must think about  children and ask myself what I have seen in them that might correspond to what Wordsworth calls ‘soul’. Reading a poem in this way is like experiencing someone else’s mind. To do that well, I have to try to follow the  movements of Wordsworth’s thoughts, but also to match them against my own.  This is a little like my struggle with the language here in Sweden, where almost everyone speaks very good English. But someone tells me their name, or a placename, and when I need to use it, I cannot remember at all, because the sounds of Swedish are so different to the sounds of English. I have had to write a few such names down phonetically, to help me remember, and I have to think in my own language and try to connect looks of sound to the Swedish sound. Thus for Tyresö, this area of Sweden, I remembered by remembering the word ‘Tiramisu’. (If you leave the ‘m’ out they sound a bit similar.) I’m working with new stuff, but I have to understand it on the basis of what my mind already contains. (That’s meant as  minor analogy to the problem of trying to understand Wordsworth).

So for ‘soul’ here, I think to the time when each of my children were born. I remember looking in to their eyes and feeling contact. I do not know what modern psychology would make of that – in my youth the scientific belief seemed to be that sense of intelligence in the newborn child, ‘contact’, smiling etc, were all figments of the mother’s imagination. That  has changed, with the coming of women, and specifically mothers, into the discipline of Child Psychology. The advent of video cameras has allowed lab scientists to ‘prove’ what once only mothers saw.  (It’s worth reading Alison Gopnik, look her up here.)

The fact that babies are new here, come with a mind which must assemble a sense of reality, must create their understanding of the world (rather than like us adults, be pressed upon by the heavy and weary weight of custom) is partly what lies behind that word ‘immensity’. The child seems dominated by that immense soul, as if  that is mainly what it is – and  I think that is partly why we love children so much, they are not worn down as we are, by worldly realities, but carry their fresh questions, their solemn gazing with them in ways we long for but can no longer, or rarely, achieve. This child-thinking, if we can even call it thinking, this way of being, makes the child, for Wordsworth, un-wordly-wise.

Thou best Philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,

Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—

The  child is the best philosopher because he is still connected to his ‘heritage’ – that state or place which, earlier in the poem, Wordsworth has called ‘the imperial palace whence we came’.  Heaven still lies about him. He is still trailing clouds of glory. The child is  able to see, among our adult blindness, and yet is both ‘deaf and silent’. Why? If I think back to my own babies, I remember them looking out of their eyes, large, alien, not-yet-worldly eyes but eyes none the less seeking to look out from inside. What was within? the child , Wordsworth says is ‘deaf and silent’ – and is neither, in common reality, but in terms of the human language we employ to try to make sense of our consciousness? Yes, in terms of our language, which the new born baby does not yet have, and even the six year old has in rudimentary form – both deaf and silent. Yet this child ‘read’st the eternal deep’ and is ‘haunted for ever by the eternal mind.’ ‘Read’st’ is a sight action performed by the eye, but it is also about processing information – reading isn’t just looking, gazing. It is a verb of comprehension, it is about understanding meaning. It is a connection between inside and out.

Now this morning’s time is nearly up – is up, I’m freezing – but I can’t stop until I’ve finished this part. Why is the child ‘haunted forever by the eternal mind’? Why ‘forever’?  Why ‘haunted’?

thou Eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—

The line ends, we turn the corner of the line-ending and ‘haunted’ comes right after ‘read’st the eternal deep’. Is it time that is changing the situation? Is it that, as we get older – more worldly-experienced –  we get further and  further from that which Wordsworth has earlier called  ‘home’ – yet those ghostly memories, echoes, continue to reverberate? We are haunted by what is lost (but we don’t know what it was) and  by things which call to us from another state of being (of which we have only  the slightest of intimations). In ‘haunted’ there is something about not being able to make contact, not being able to cross over  from  one state to another. Yet the haunted being knows, senses, something. In this case, ‘the  eternal mind’.

Agh – what is that? ‘God, who is our home?’ But what is it?

My first response here is : Is there an eternal mind? But that is not a helpful question. Better to attempt translation! What might be meant by ‘the eternal mind’?

But that is a good place to stop for today.

The sun is rising but still this porch on the back of our little wooden house is very cold, despite my blankets. Time for breakfast.

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