Survival Till Seventeen

I began this book with my first sound. I shall end it with my first silence. Now that I am nearly through with my story, let me tell its secret. It is really time for a nap anyhow, if you have been reading me continuously, so do not mind if this chapter lulls you into silence. Do not even mind if it rocks you to sleep.

When you are really asleep but think you are awake, you are in a nightmare. When you are really awake but think you are asleep, you are in a dream. Sleep may be said to define itself in terms of a nightmare. Sleep may be said to desire itself in terms of a dream. But true sleep is neither a nightmare nor a dream. It simply is, and is sleep.

When you are always asleep but think you are awake, you are a simpleton. When you are always awake but think you are asleep, you are a loon. But a child is neither a simpleton nor a loon. I learned the first lesson from a noisy adult in the city. I learned the second lesson from a quiet adolescent in the country. Poetry was my preservative in the one case, silence my preservative in the other.

When the simpleton and the loon are united in one person, you have the childhood of the madhouse, the most monstrous example of happiness in the world. If you are undergoing this double experience in terms of genius, you are some people’s definition of a poet. You are William Blake, unraveling the metaphysics of a nightmare, reveling in the mysticism of a dream. If you are enjoying the experience in terms of innocence, you are Little Boy Blue. If you possess it in the form of ingenuity, you are The Wild Man of Borneo. This is the best distinction I can make among Little Boy Blue, William Blake and The Wild Man of Borneo, for those who conceive childhood, poetry and madness to be merely different phases of the same reality.

Thought was made for the head. Love was made for the heart. A sentimentalist is one who tries to love with his head. An emotionalist is one who tries to think with his heart.

Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot,
Nine days old.

Sentiment and emotion are really pease porridge in the wrong pots, and a child is a stickler for getting games right, especially when the rules are put rhythmically. Hence you will find the child to be neither a sentimentalist nor an emotionalist. Sentiment fires his head with fever, as it did mine in the case of a little winged mosquito on vacation. Emotion chills his heart to ice, as it did mine in the case of a little hair-ribboned girl at school. The thinker must be cautious, but a child is the boldest of all thinkers. The lover must be bold, but a child is the shyest of all lovers. Can it be that hair-ribbons are the wings of a girl, and wings the hair-ribbons of a gnat? No one would think so, really. No one would want them to be, really. But a poet would say they were, to the single applause of the child.

I have balanced the child with the philosopher and found him to be the poet who soared into Heaven. I have balanced the poet with the mystic and found him to be the child who fell back to Earth. I have balanced the child with the artist and found him to be lost in the labyrinth of his own ubiquity. What is this earthliness of heavenly things and heavenliness of earthly things, which is constantly being lost and found, and in which poetry and childhood unite? We all know what childhood and poetry are in terms of performance. But what are they in terms of essence and idea? The answer is: “Nobody knows, and nobody cares,” least of all poetry and childhood. Neither knows what it is nor why it is, but simply that it is, and it is enough.

The perfect recollection of self in remembrance is silence. The perfect recollection of self in forgetfulness is sleep. In this sense poetry is silence. And in this sense childhood is sleep.

You never have childhood completely, even when you hold it in your arms. You never lose it completely, even when you send it abroad to play. The same is true of poetry. Poetry will come to you when you least expect it, and will go from you when you want it most. The same is true of childhood. Both are impervious to analysis and synthesis, the analysis of ratiocination and the synthesis of rapture.

They draw no conclusions,

And make no resolutions.

How then can you get them to behave — I mean in the sphere of their clear and especial duties. It cannot be done by petting them. Parents try petting their children and patrons try petting their poets, but there is in both childhood and poetry an essential chastity that resists all excess in affection. Neither can it be done by scolding them, as preceptors do with children and critics with poets. For both childhood and poetry have a charity that forgives and disregards all excess in correction. Frankly, childhood and poetry are both imps, amenable to no motives except reward and punishment. Frankly, you must either bribe or scare them. Ultimately you will need both Heaven and Hell to be effective. For Heaven is the poetry of bribe, and Hell the childhood of scare.

Are poetry and childhood the same thing? I do not know, neither does anyone. If they are one, then they will never know how to divide, for their essence is in simplicity. If they are two, then they will never know how to unite, for their uniqueness is in distinction. But this much I do know: there are no two things about which it is possible to say so many same things as about poetry and childhood — unless they be silence and sleep. And the importance of silence to sleep is the importance of poetry to childhood.

Every little boy is enough of a poet to imagine he is the general of his soldiers. Every little girl is enough of a poet to fancy she is the mother of her dolls. Now a shortage of soldiers and a shortage of babies might be responsible for a world collapse. And wouldn’t it be awful if the soldiers started killing off the babies in an effort to put things right again?

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

And who is Humpty Dumpty? He is an egg on a wall: poetry’s symbol for all things unborn.

A child turns his playthings into thoughts. It is the only way he can learn. A poet turns his thoughts into playthings. It is the only way he can teach. The education of the child is in the playthings of the world, and the instruction of the world is in the playthings of the poets. So, the nursery never ceases and life is forever a game.

Armed with such wisdom, one might conquer the world. Armed with such wisdom, one does. All things fall swiftly into place when you are playing a game.

Rock-a-bye baby, on the tree top —
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all!

Incidentally, I might mention that the “all” in the impending catastrophe of the last line in the above ditty includes not only childhood, but also poetry, silence and sleep.

Now as far as there can be a definition, Rock-a-bye Baby is a perfect definition of both poetry and childhood. Of course no philosopher will accept it, for he wants it in terms of a syllogism which he can share with others. Of course no mystic will accept it, for he wants it in terms of a hieroglyphic which only he can decipher. M. Maritain in his Art et Scolastique tries to turn poetry into prudence, so it can be passed around among the metaphysicians. Abbé Bremond in his Prière et Poésie attempts to turn poetry into prayer, so it can be whispered to a few mystics. But poetry will not be laicized or clericalized by these easy snares. I cannot think of a more imprudent place to put Rock-a-bye Baby than on a tree top, yet that is where poetry puts him and the child likes it. I cannot think of a more unprayerful thing to say to Rock-a-bye Baby than to remind him of the pleasures of infanticide. Yet poetry does and the child thinks it is grand. Prudence is an excellent thing, and so is prayer. But whatever else poets and children are, they are not pious prudes.

I am willing to sway with Rock-a-bye Baby on the tree top in a perfect statement of what poetry is. If the bough breaks and the cradle falls, then down will come baby, cradle, and the author of this book. But they will not, and I shall show why.

The to-and-fro of sound is a lullaby. The to-and-fro of motion is a rock-a-bye. The to-and-fro of music is a melody. The to-and-fro of words is a poem. The to-and-fro of thought is beauty. The to-and-fro of expression is art. The to-and-fro of silence is sleep.

The vanity of water is a fountain,
The vanity of land is a mountain;
The modesty of wet is a well,
The modesty of dry is a dell.

And what are vanity and modesty but the to-and-fro of some lovely thing that deserves to be admired? But let us go back to Rock-a-bye Baby.

The to-and-fro of water is a wave. The to-and-fro of air is a breeze. The to-and-fro of sky is a cloud. The to-and-fro of light is a star. Look out! We are rocking too hard! The bough is about to break and the cradle fall, not downwards, but upwards, into the infinite spaces! . . . The to-and-fro of God is a Child!

Far beyond the tree top . . . far beyond the stars, those occasional clarities of the philosophers . . . far beyond the background of the sky into which the mystics perpetually stare . . . tucked in the nursery of The Divinity — in the great silence of God, in an eternal sleep which is neither a nightmare nor a dream, but the living ecstasy of The Blessed Trinity — there is a Filius Unigenitus: an Only Begotten Child, who is the to-and-fro of The Father and The Holy Ghost, everlastingly rock-a-byed and lullabied in the sacred processions of The Godhead.