“God being with thee when we know not”

May 2, 2006 | 26 comments
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Sunday afternoon I found myself reading the Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch edition in honor of a great advocate of the Inner Temple), and I read the following:

Evening on Calais Beach

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free,
The holy time is quiet as a Nun
Breathless with adoration; the broad sun
Is sinking down in its tranquility;
The gentleness of heaven broods o’er the sea:
Listen! the mighty Being is awake,
And doth with his eternal motion make
A sound like thunder — everlastingly.
Dear Child! dear Girl! that walkest with me here,
If thou appear untouch’d by solemn thought,
Thy nature is not therefore less divine:
Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year;
And worshipp’st at the Temple’s inner shrine
God being with thee when we know not.

–William Wordsworth

The poem is divided by theme, sentence structure, and rhyme structure into two parts. The first is the enraptured glimpse of the divine in the setting sun over the sea. The second is the address to the “Dear Child” who is “untouch’d by solemn thought.” It is fun because Wordsworth seems to be playing off of precisely the sort of Romantic sensibility that he captures so well in the first half of the poem, the second half suggesting that even those not moved to rapture are touched by God. In this sense, the poem seems humble, admitting the limited significance of the poet’s experience. Yet I am suspicious of the humility. Is the address to the “Dear Child” perhaps meant simply to emphasize the subjectivity of the rapture of the first half of the poem, as if the poet wished to cordon off the experience as an epiphany vouched safe to his unique genius? There is certainly a patronizing tone in the address to the “Dear Child! dear girl!” and here I don’t believe that the patronizing is artifice, but rather something that has crept in unbidden to the poem, a clue for the suspicious reader. Yet both the rapture and the affection for the companion are real enough.

A poem about us?

26 Responses to “God being with thee when we know not”

  1. J. Stapley on May 2, 2006 at 12:40 pm

    Great poem. I identify with this poem a lot, mostly because I have spent a considerable amount of time strolling along the beach at Calais and at a time when my life was very much in change.

  2. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    This poem encapsulates W’s aesthetic vision: If Wordsworth’s subjective raptures pales the seemingly unsolemn ones allowed to those possessed of innocence, it is indeed Wordworth’s remembering to see with the eyes of such innocence that allows him to see such visions.

  3. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Or . . . pales NEXT to . . ..

  4. Keith on May 2, 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Nate,

    I’ve thought about this all day, but can’t see my way clear to understanding the point you’re making.

    I’m not sure how the “Dear Child, dear Girl” is patronizing. If it’s addressed to a child how does it become patronizing? He sees a difference between him and the child and speaks of that difference as one who is able to see it.

    So how do you see this being a poem about us? Help me out here.

  5. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    I think the line “If thou appear untouched by solemn thought” is ironic about adult solemnity (/adult patronizing), as Wordsworth clues in its rejoinder “Thy nature is not therefor less divine,” et cetera.

  6. DKL on May 2, 2006 at 9:33 pm

    Well, I think that Wordsworth intended the poem in complete sincerity, reflecting on the contrast between the way that adults and children see God. For my part, I find the poem to be a bit saccharin when read this way. I prefer to read it in a way that is out of character for Wordsworth, but that suits my own late-20th-century outlook:

    It is commonly said that children meet the world with enthusiasm and excitement, but this is silly. Children take the world as it comes. It’s we adults who are busy grinding our way through life that experience these moments of release that punctuate our otherwise jaded outlook. But it’s more like a melodramatic deep-breath than like any real inspiration, and in the meantime we toy with the idea that we really appreciated it when things were simpler–as though any self-respecting adult would want to be known to believe in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy.

    When I read this poem, it occurs to me how silly this man in it must feel, who fancies that his rapturous vision of nature brings him closer to god, while the innocent who accompanies him takes it with aplomb. This is the moment that he clearly sees how far adulthood has taken him from divinity. And this brings to mind Christ’s admonition to be as little children.

    But Wordsworth’s attempt to capture this moment in which a man sees his lost self in a child also brings to my mind this Roger Waters lyric:

    I look around,
    I search the sky,
    I shade my eyes, so nearly blind,
    and I see signs of half remembered days–
    I hear bells that chime in strange familiar ways.
    I recognize the hope that kindles in your eyes.

  7. Robert C. on May 2, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    Beautiful poem, thanks Nate. I agree that there’s evidence of humility in the poet’s recognizing that God’s presence may be unknowingly in the simplicity in the child, not just in the solemn contemplation of the tranquility of the sunset or the brooding of the sea. And I agree that there seems to be an ironic bit of condescension unbeknownst to the author’s concsious mind.

    But I don’t what to make of the line “Thou liest in Abraham’s bosom all the year.” Can anyone help me in understanding this?

  8. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 10:16 pm

    To our once unjaded eyes, everything was once new and marvelous — it’s also being the poet’s gift to continue to see them that way? Also the sentiment (for me an UNSULLIED term) got when reading the translations of Chuang Tzu?– !)

  9. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 10:21 pm

    Abraham’s bosom sounds like a Mormonesquely “not touched by Adams transgression” to me.

  10. Kimball L. Hunt on May 2, 2006 at 10:24 pm

    DKL: Waters poem, though less metered, to me’s even more lyrical.

  11. Edje on May 2, 2006 at 11:21 pm

    Robert C (7): As I understand it, “the Bosom of Abraham” is a Hebrew metaphor for paradise, which later became generalized by Christians to mean all of heaven. We (and Wordsworth) know the phrase from the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:22-23. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an article on it here.

    I take Wordsworth to mean that since the girl is unestranged from emotion by intellect she is able to “take the world as it comes” (DKL, 6) and thus lives in God’s (Nature’s) presence all the time and not just on occasion when there is a spectacular sunset. I think Kimball’s idea of pre-lapsarian purity works well, though I don’t see how it’s a peculiarly Mormonesque idea.

  12. Robert C. on May 2, 2006 at 11:43 pm

    Edje (#11): Thanks for the explanation and reference. Apparently, it’s a common enough expression to make it into this dictionary, I’m just too illiterate (or too Mormon, in the sense of not knowing my New Testament well enough!) to have caught the meaning….

  13. Kimball L. Hunt on May 3, 2006 at 12:11 am

    Edje: Anyway, hmm — the girl probably would’ve been supposed to have been christened — however much this fact would have carried much truck “truck” in Will’s use of scripture in his allegorical rhapsodying(?)

  14. annegb on May 3, 2006 at 1:07 am

    Thanks for sharing that poem, Nate. I love that line.

    Last week I went through a tough time and I just didn’t feel God. Oddly, I did feel my dad, who really wasn’t a good person, but he felt nice this time. I wasn’t imagining it, because my imagination isn’t that good.

    I thought maybe God couldn’t let me know He was there because I couldn’t feel it because I was in too bad a place. So He sent my dad. Odd choice, but oh well.

  15. slm on May 3, 2006 at 2:31 am

    “I take Wordsworth to mean that since the girl is unestranged from emotion by intellect she is able to “take the world as it comesâ€? (DKL, 6) and thus lives in God’s (Nature’s) presence all the time and not just on occasion when there is a spectacular sunset. I think Kimball’s idea of pre-lapsarian purity works well, though I don’t see how it’s a peculiarly Mormonesque idea.”

    This interpretation implies that the speaker in the poem regards the girl’s connection to God as superior to his own. But that understanding is faulty because there is nothing in the poem to suggest that the speaker feels God’s presence only occasionally. The point, instead, is that he is capable of consciously contemplating God’s glory, while the child is not. He then goes on to suggest that a child’s incapacity to meditate on God the way an adult does in no way diminishes her connection with Him or hinder her ability to wonder at His creation. She is “no less divine,” not “more divine,” than the speaker.

  16. DKL on May 3, 2006 at 7:43 am

    slm, you’re absolutely right. I tried to make my comment is perfectly clear on the fact that “Wordsworth intended the poem in complete sincerity, reflecting on the contrast between the way that adults and children see God… I prefer to read it in a way that is out of character for Wordsworth, but that suits my own late-20th-century outlook.”

  17. Robert C. on May 3, 2006 at 7:58 am

    slm (#15): Good point, though I’m not completely convinced. To play devil’s advocate, I that “all the year” could suggest a constancy for the child that is lacking with the poet’s less constant interaction with God suggested by “a quiet evening” and “the Mighty Being is awake.” What about other evenings? What about when the Mighty Being is asleep?

    Also, I think the “inner shrine” phrase could be intimating superiority.

  18. Nate Oman on May 3, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    Interesting. I assumed that the “Dear Child! dear girl!” was not in fact a child, but rather was a young woman — a sister, wife, lover, or friend. I am not quite sure why I thought this, perhaps because I finished reading “Lucy” before reading this poem. In other words, I didn’t take it to be a poem about the distinction between adult and child spirituality, but rather to be about the distinction that occurs in the moment when one person has a rapturous insight and another does not. In this sense I thought that it was about us, in the sense that Mormons (including — and perhaps especially — those of us who self-identify as intellectuals) frequently have ephinanies that are unshared by others and we have to make sense of the fact that the other person does not have the epiphany. The poet does this by saying, “Hey! It is alright because you have your own kind of sprituality that I just don’t see.” However by calling the adult “Dear child” there is a certain patting-on-the-head-don’t-you-worry-your-little-noggin about higher things tone. Of course, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the “Dear child” is in fact an adult, although it just never occurred to me that a poet from the Lake District would actually be traveling around Calais with a child. Wouldn’t she have been left at home with the governess or something?

  19. Kimball L. Hunt on May 3, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Whether the love of adult perception’s a patronizing of W’s love child or an ingenue, the poem still works. However, no matter how intense and true W’s feelings, Wordsworth is still vibing on fairly “conventional” of good things in it — which is the type of thing to be imparted to our child and not the nuances we put on things later when communicating sophisticated nuances of things (the poem also serving as sort of a critiqe of such sophistication?)

    I personally found Edje’s prosody above better than W’s — laughs — sonnetry. Oh, and re DLK & slm’s not wanting to put words in W’s mouth: Good lesson. Thanks.

  20. slm on May 3, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    Robert C. (17), I think you may be right. Immediately after submitting my post, I re-read the poem and was struck by the “Temple’s inner shrine.” I found it difficult to reconcile the image with the interpretation I offered in number 15. Certainly the image suggests a specialness not shared by the speaker. However, I am not going to recant my comments (just yet) because I think much of my interpretation holds.

    One the one hand, the speaker’s connection to God is superior to the child’s because the maturity of the speaker’s intellect, spirit etc. allows him to be struck by God’s magnificence in a way the child is not. When he looks at a sunset he is not just awed by the beauty, he is awed by God Himself and is conscious of that fact… which would then presumably lead him to contemplate his own beauty as a child of God and his connection with the rest of God’s creation. With his amazement, he experiences awareness. The child just experiences amazement.

    On the other hand, the child, while “untouched by solemn thought,” is also untouched by ego, cynicism, and worldly concerns. So though her moments of wonder are less profound than those of the speaker, they are much more frequent. Adult and child both lie in Abraham’s bosom (and maybe both worship at the inner shrine?) but the child’s simple innocence puts her there “all the year” while the diminished wonder and imagination of the adult put him there just occasionally. The world distracts an adult from God’s beauty while God’s beauty distracts a child from the world (at least typically).

    So is the child’s connection to God superior? In a way… Or is the man’s connection to God superior? In a way. I think the poem intentionally covers both sides of this. I don’t read “Dear Child!” as patronizing because I’m not sure it’s possible to patronize a child (and yes, I absolutely believe it is a child, with or without a governess). Instead, I see the speaker as having solemn respect for the child’s special kind of spirituality while not at all grieving the loss of that kind of spirit in himself. As one matures, some capacities are heightened while others are diminished. So each person has a connection to God that is unique and not fully understood by anyone else.

  21. DKL on May 5, 2006 at 10:43 pm

    Kimball, the song that the lyrics are from is called, “Every Stranger’s Eyes.” It’s originally from the album The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking, but the best version, howevor, is the live performance on In the Flesh.

    Incidentally, the theme that I touch upon in my comment #6 is one that I’ve written a post about before on the bloggernacle. It was a short post, and it was unfortunately a bit syrupy. It was entitled, As Little Children, and I wrote it as Miranda on Banner of Heaven.

    The girl who I describe singing was the daughter of a member of the bishopric in my ward, the oldest of a large family, and she’s won voice contests. I do not, of course, have a son named Park. But I do have a daughter named Jordan, and she did graduate from preschool the day I wrote the post. I don’t have a daughter name Emily either, but everything that I say about her (including the swimming story) is true of my oldest daughter Madison.

    Not to be missed in the comments are Rosalynde’s story (in comment #2) about peeing in her pants in the second graade. My comment #3 as DKL is also a true story, and the insulting rejoinder I offer as Miranda in comment #7 still makes me chuckle.

  22. Kimball L. Hunt on May 6, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    You’re a trip brother Landruth(?sp)! and I completely take your having taken internet literary license as completely benign. But I ask you, David, have you done so in um felicitous — my buzz word of the moment — emulation of that taken within any foundational canon and any effective motivational speaking? Or is it an indication you possess otherwise unspoken/ “ulterior” motives as well? — Shrugs and laughs. In either case: Bravo! — &. kudos for your subsequently having come clean, too!
    - – -
    The structure of sonnetry is one that allows a poet’s ideas to come out DESPITE all of its impositions of order and structure instead of BECAUSE of em somehow, if ya kin understand me here. And such forms true power truly reveals itself in being memorized and recited to an audience instead of its merely glanced at on a page. Also the sonnetizer must communicate in language and forms that communicate to a vast audience on different levels according to their felicitousness and felicities t’ understand. However, I still like mister Waters’ lics caus its artistry is more immediate in time ‘n’ place to my OWN felicity of understandin, I guess, yo?

    But every viewer reacts to a work of art differently — much as they do any work of foundational canon such as Scripture, too, huh! So it ultimately doesn’t matter whether or not Wordsworth’s “child” has um historicitous — laughs — provenance in W’s daughter Caroline by the euphemistic “Widow William,” madamoiselle Annette Vallon — as this type of factoid makes for a study of history more than of poetry! (& there’s no doubt correlations to be made here between this and the appreciation of holy writ as well huh!)

  23. annegb on May 7, 2006 at 11:12 am

    Kimball, it reads like you’re channeling Nate.

  24. Kimball L. Hunt on May 7, 2006 at 11:49 am

    Well, Anne, your comment makes me happy. Tho I doubt it’s r-really true! Unless, when I swirl my brush strokes a bit, it makes me “channel” Van Gogh

  25. Adam Greenwood on May 7, 2006 at 11:01 pm

    “Of course, there is nothing in the text to suggest that the “Dear childâ€? is in fact an adult, although it just never occurred to me that a poet from the Lake District would actually be traveling around Calais with a child. Wouldn’t she have been left at home with the governess or something?”

    If you have a governess, all the more reason to take your children with you while you travel. Also, Victorians were a lot freer with their children than we are. It would not be unusual at all for someone to be walking around a lake with an English child they had just befriended.

  26. slm on May 7, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Some quick research reveals this: Wordsworth fathered a child, out of wedlock, with a French woman named Annette Vallon (mentioned in #22). War and differing poltical ideas kept the two from marriage and Wordsworth did not see this child (a daughter) until 1802 when he made a trip to Calais and met her when she was about ten years old.

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