Saturday, August 31, 2013

`Something Not to Be Understood'

David Ferry uses this passage from The Diary of Samuel Ward as the epigraph to his 1983 collection Strangers: A Book of Poems: “Think thou how that this is not our home in this world, in which we are strangers, one not knowing another’s speech and language.” Ward (1572-1643) taught at the University of Cambridge, served as chaplain to James I and was a delegate from the Church of England to the Synod of Dort. He was among the scholars who translated the King James Bible, which alludes more than 120 times to strangers – usually those from other cultures and religions – often with the admonition to make them welcome. Surely the best-known reference is in Exodus 2:22: “And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” 

I read Ward’s the diary in the volume cited by Ferry, Two Elizabethan Puritan Diaries, edited by Marshall M. Kruppen (American Society of Church History, 1933). Here is the complete entry for May 13, 1595, retaining the original spelling: 

“My little pity of the boy who was whipt in the hall. My desire of preferment over much. My adulterous dream. Think thow how that this is not our home in this world, in which we are straungers, one not knowing anotheres speech and language. Think how bad a thing it is to goo to bed without prayer, and remember to call on God at goyng to our prayers in the Chappell.” 

Ward’s diary takes the form not of a daily tally of events but of a systematic moral inventory, a scrupulous accounting of sinfulness in thought and deed. As is the Puritan practice, many entries contain references to “prid[e].” Ward seems afflicted with what we might diagnose as an “eating disorder.” He liked to eat and refers to his “liberall dyet.” On Sept 15, 1595, he notes: 

“My crapula [ed. note: “surfeit”] in eating peares in a morning and other things which might have diminished my health. As also my to much gluttony at dinner tyme. My unfitness to do any thing after dinner. My anger in disputing with Sir Huchinson. Also my not giving of my last thought to God.” 

Ward seems to use “strangers” in a specific religious sense – our state of homelessness in this life. Ferry’s interest in strangers is more metaphorical and connected to our condition of “not knowing another’s speech and language.” The phrase suggests the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In verse 7, God says, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.” Throughout Strangers, Ferry refers to the inadequacy of speech and writing, our failure to connect through language. In “The Waiting” he writes: “He speaks in a secret tongue understood by no other.” In “Out at Lanesville”: 

“The voices of some people out in a boat somewhere
Are carried in over the water with surprising
Force and clarity, though saying I don’t know what.” 

“Graveyard” begins with “A writing I can’t read myself” and concludes: “ a manuscript / Written in a language only the dead speak.” The book’s final poem, “Rereading Old Writing,” contains the marvelous line “writing / Is a way of being happy,” but concludes: 

Writing a formula on a blackboard.
Something not to be understood.”

1 comment:

George said...

The word barbarian comes to us from the Greek onomatopoeia for somebody speaking gibberish. And the name for Germans in much of eastern Europe is a variant of "nemets", originally "he doesn't speak (our language)". Such different Americans as Admiral Nimitz and Joe Namath have a last name that traces back to that.