About a week ago, Alan Jacobs posted a short bit of one of his favorite Auden poems on his blog. I enjoy but am no great fan of Auden and began to skim, but then stopped short when Jacobs invoked Beowulf. It seems that in his poem “Horae Canonicae,” Auden borrowed from Beowulf what struck me as a beautiful image.
Here’s the relevant passage—some genealogical framing from near the beginning of the poem—in the translation of Beowulf I happen to be reading right now, that of R.M. Liuzza:
Four children, all counted up,
were born to that bold leader of hosts.
Liuzza’s translation is good—I want to emphasize that—but here it translates the meaning rather than the literal words of the text. Here’s the same passage in the original Old English:
ðæm feower bearn forðgerimed
in worold wocon weoroda ræswan
And to give my own roughly literal version:
to him four children counted forth
woke into the world…
Waking into the world.
Today is my birthday, the day I woke into the world thirty-five years ago (an age with plenty of its own significance). But that’s not what was on my mind when I ran across this beautiful phrase. Rather, a few days earlier, my wife and I had welcomed our third child, a healthy baby boy, our second son, into the world. That has a way of preoccupying you.
So after spending a few days in the hospital, attending the birth and holding this stunned, fearful, hungry, and not a little drowsy new life in my arms, waking into the world seemed exactly right. Who isn’t a little shocked to wake up, who doesn’t expect breakfast, and who doesn’t carry sleep with them like the warmth of their blankets for a little while after rising? Waking into the world is a metaphor that strikes closer to the truth than plain English, the way all good poetry does.
While being born has its own poetic weight—each and every one of us is carried into life, just as each of us will be carried out—I think waking gets at what makes being born such a shock and delight. Beyond the fun, simple parallels, when we wake we come slowly or instantly into a world we were totally unaware of a moment before. It went on without us—had been going on for some time—with its own cast of characters and interests. We aren’t necessary to its existence and continuation. And so waking up and joining it is a gift.
Because I can’t keep him out of this blog for long, here’s a favorite bit from Chesterton, in Heretics, on the same point:
The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made.
None of us has to wake into the world—indeed many never even get the chance. But my growing awareness of the gratuitousness of life, how totally unnecessary it all is, has made me more and more grateful to have received such a gift as waking. I don’t know how much time I have left in this world—I pray it’s many years, of course—but however long it is, I’m thankful for the grace of waking into it, and of being able to give that gift to my children.
Thanks to all who have passed along birthday wishes and greetings, and especially those who have helped us welcome our son. God bless, and thanks as always for reading.