When I was a Boy

June 3, 2008

When I was a Boy

When I was a boy
A god often saved me
From the shouts and the rod of men.
Safe and well, I then played
With the orchard flowers,
And the breezes of heaven
Would play with me.

And as you gladden
The hearts of plants
When they stretch their feeble
Arms towards you,

So you have delighted my heart,
Father Helios! and, like Endymion,
I was your beloved,
Holy Luna!

O all you faithful
Befriending gods!
If you knew how my soul loved you!

Although then I did not call
To you with names, nor did you
Name me either,
The way men name themselves
As if they knew one other,

But I knew you better
Than I have ever known men.
I understood the silence of Aether;
I never did understand the words of men.

The harmony of the rustling
Orchard raised me
And I learned to love
Among the flowers.

I grow up in the arms of the gods.

Friedrich Hölderlin
(Translated from German by Gwee Li Sui)

I can no longer trace the origin of the following story: a Greek sceptic mocked a religious man by describing how the sun was not Apollo but a mere ball of fire. The believer’s faith was barely shaken, for, as he understood it, if Apollo were indeed a god, would he not appear as a ball of fire? It is William Blake’s version that we know better today: rejecting the sun as a guinea-like disc, he sees in it a great host of angels singing praises to God.

Friedrich Hölderlin goes further to tie together not just the origins of subjective life and unclouded perception but also the early religious vision of Western civilisation. He combats the estrangement of adult life with a youthful organic unity both one and one’s culture knew and interacted with before. The forms of this physical nature are our friends and means for self-grounding, born anew in each young life even as humanity at large progresses towards violence and deep frustration. In the German, the famous last line has strong resonances: one does not just “grow up” but “grow great” in the “arms”, which are also “branches”, of the gods.

Gwee Li Sui

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