Shadows in the Water


fennel shivering.JPG
Fennel shivering in front garden, August 4

This morning I have used up some of my hour looking for what to read next. I’ve been reading more Coventry Patmore and then drifted over towards Wordsworth, but neither seemed to be what I wanted to  think and write about this morning.  I plan to write about some more Denise Levertov poems, but must get organised to get  permissions sorted first. I glanced through  All The Days of My Life, thinking, is there anything in there that I haven’t already read? And here, there was this poem by Thomas Traherne, whose work I love, that I don’t think I’ve ever read. It’ll take more than  one post  to read it.

I’ve glanced at the poem, I’ve scanned it. I’ve realised ‘I don’t know it.’ Now I’m going to read it slowly and try to get the lie of the land – not understanding or even trying to understand most of it, but  getting the feel of its shape and outlines, areas of  difficulty, the words or clauses or lines that seem most important.  If not writing on-screen, I’d be doing this reading with a pencil –  marking bits even when I didn’t really know why I was marking them. I’m going to use a different colour to mark  those points here – but read it yourself at The Poetry Foundation, with none of my marks, first.

Shadows in the water

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

Thus did I by the water’s brink
Another world beneath me think;
And while the lofty spacious skies
Reversèd there, abused mine eyes,
I fancied other feet
Came mine to touch or meet;
As by some puddle I did play
Another world within it lay.

Beneath the water people drowned,
Yet with another heaven crowned,
In spacious regions seemed to go
As freely moving to and fro:
In bright and open space
I saw their very face;
Eyes, hands, and feet they had like mine;
Another sun did with them shine.

’Twas strange that people there should walk,
And yet I could not hear them talk;
That through a little watery chink,
Which one dry ox or horse might drink,
We other worlds should see,
Yet not admitted be;
And other confines there behold
Of light and darkness, heat and cold.

I called them oft, but called in vain;
No speeches we could entertain:
Yet did I there expect to find
Some other world, to please my mind.
I plainly saw by these
A new antipodes,
Whom, though they were so plainly seen,
A film kept off that stood between.

By walking men’s reversèd feet
I chanced another world to meet;
Though it did not to view exceed
A phantom, ’tis a world indeed,
Where skies beneath us shine,
And earth by art divine
Another face presents below,
Where people’s feet against ours go.

Within the regions of the air,
Compassed about with heavens fair,
Great tracts of land there may be found
Enriched with fields and fertile ground;
Where many numerous hosts
In those far distant coasts,
For other great and glorious ends
Inhabit, my yet unknown friends.

O ye that stand upon the brink,
Whom I so near me through the chink
With wonder see: what faces there,
Whose feet, whose bodies, do ye wear?
I my companions see
In you, another me.
They seemèd others, but are we;
Our second selves these shadows be.

Look how far off those lower skies
Extend themselves! scarce with mine eyes
I can them reach. O ye my friends,
What secret borders on those ends?
Are lofty heavens hurled
’Bout your inferior world?
Are yet the representatives
Of other peoples’ distant lives?

Of all the playmates which I knew
That here I do the image view
In other selves, what can it mean?
But that below the purling stream
Some unknown joys there be
Laid up in store for me;
To which I shall, when that thin skin
Is broken, be admitted in.

By stanza 8, I was lost, couldn’t work out what was being said. I marked it all, and thought I’ll stop reading here, mind overload. Start again more slowly.

Did I get a  glance at the shape of the poem, a rough outline?  Yes – something about the sense of  other worlds, other modes of being perhaps,  which Traherne gained from seeing reflections in a puddle. That this leads him to think something about … hmm, but  I’ve lost it. Need to start again and get it bit by bit.  Odd feeling, because much of the poem is very simple but then you have the suddenly down a rabbit-hole feeling.

In unexperienced infancy
Many a sweet mistake doth lie:
Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind
In things that lie behind,
And many secrets to us show
Which afterwards we come to know.

I felt at first, I’ll understand this better when I know more about the rest of the poem. But I’ve read through the rest of the poem and am still not very clear, so going to start making a stab at understanding it, knowing that I’ll have to come back later with more understanding… But now I read the opener… I see that may be what he is talking about – that learning process I’ve just described.

As I read this stanza again, I’m thinking of two things: (i) how babies learn and (ii) how I learn.  ‘Inexperienced infancy’ might apply to a child learning something for the first time but it also applies to me  now – with regards to  this poem, I am in ‘inexperienced infancy’, it’s all new to me. I might make a mistake – and as Owl said to Winnie the Pooh, ‘no blame can be attached’, it is a ‘sweet mistake because it comes from ‘inexperience’.

It’s a mistake but it was ‘intending true’, so the intention behind was good – was in itself true – though what you did with it wasn’t quite right. Thomas Traherne  explains this with that series of clauses – look at the punctuation – colon, semi colon, semi colon – as if one thought leads on to another and comes from or winds up inside another.

I look again at the line ‘a seeming somewhat more than view’ – not sure whether it is coming out of the line that preceded it;

Mistake though false, intending true;
A seeming somewhat more than view;

or leading to the line that follows;

A seeming somewhat more than view;
That doth instruct the mind

Now I’ve split them out like that I can it is both, it’s a transitional line – you make a mistake out of ignorance because you had a slightly false/unclear idea of  something rather than a clear view. That  ignorant, unmeant, misapprehension, ‘doth instruct the mind’. It’s not your fault! It is a fault of not knowing.

At the beginning of learning to understand something, the something – let’s say someone else’s state of mind – it is cloudy: you often can’t see it clearly because you have don’t have the mental sight lines, coordinates to  get the perspective.

Ok – that’s all about me, me thinking about how I make mistakes and the effect of not knowing… but when I look again at the stanza, and an hour into my reading of this poem, I can see that Traherne is talking about how kids misunderstand things and sometimes that  creates something beautiful. A silly example:

My mum told me that when she was a child they called the cupboard under the stairs  ‘The Glory Hole’ or The Glory for short. At the end of the Lord’s Prayer, Anglicans say or said in her day, ‘For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory…’ Mum, in her child ignorance made the ‘sweet mistake’ as Traherne would call it, of  assuming that meant that God somehow owned ‘The Glory’ under their stairs, that it was a  His place. Lovely mistake, does no harm, is sweet. Based on a ‘seeming’ rather than on clear sight.

Thomas Traherne is now going to tell us such a story of his own. But that’s for tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “Shadows in the Water

  1. A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. August 4, 2017 / 10:32 am

    Hi Jane, welcome back.

    Like this poem, simple yet powerfully insight full.

    It asks a lot of the big questions about existence, miss understanding,

    Sorry got to go. On way to hospital.
    I’ll try to get back to this later.

    Currently reading Nothing.

Leave a Reply to A C.M.H.P., H.V., V.H.A., R.A. Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s