Friday, 21 October 2011

On Transience, III: This world fareth as a fantasy

This is an awesome poem about making sense of the world - about the pettiness of human disputes, and the vastness of the world; about how fleeting are both happiness and sorrow; about the role of reason and the limits of theology; and some other things as well. It was written probably towards the end of the fourteenth century, and preserved in a huge, lavishly-decorated manuscript of English verse and prose from the West Midlands, known as the Vernon Manuscript (or as Bodl. MS. (Vernon) Eng. Poet. a.1 (3938), if you prefer). Without this manuscript, our knowledge of English literature would be immeasurably poorer.

Verse 7 is my favourite (and was the most fun to translate!). But it's all wonderful.

1. I wolde witen of sum wys wiht
Witterly what þis world were:
Hit fareþ as a foules fliht,
Now is hit henne, now is hit here,
Ne be we neuer so muche of miht,
Now be we on benche, nou be we on bere;
And be we neuer so war and wiht,
Now be we sek, now beo we fere,
Now is on proud wiþ-outen peere,
Now is þe selue I-set not by;
And whos wol alle þing hertly here,
Þis world fareþ as a Fantasy.

I wish to know from a wise man, truly, what this world is. It passes as a bird's flight; now it is hence, now is it here. Be we never so great in strength, now are we on the hall-bench, now on the bier; and be we never so watchful and wise, now are we sick, now are we well. Now is there one who is proud without peer; now the same one is of no account. And whoso will all things truly know, hear: this world passes like a dream.

2. Þe sonnes cours, we may wel kenne,
Aryseþ Est and geþ doun west;
Þe Ryuers in-to þe see þei renne,
And hit is neuer þe more al-mest;
Wyndes Rosscheþ her and henne,
In snouȝ and reyn is non arest;
Whon þis wol stunte, ho wot or whenne,
But only god on grounde grest?
Þe eorþe in on is euer prest,
Now bi-dropped, now al druyȝe;
But vche gome glit forþ as a gest,
Þis world fareþ as a Fantasye.

The sun's course, we may well know, rises in the east and sets in the west; the rivers run into the sea, and yet it never grows any greater. Winds rush hither and thither, of snow and rain there is no end; how this will stop, who knows, or when? Only God, the greatest in the world. The earth is ever alike beset, now drenched, now dry; but every man glides away like a guest. This world passes like a dream.

[For this verse, cf. Ecclesiastes i.5-7: The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.]

3. Kunredes come, & kunredes gon,
As Ioyneþ generacions;
But alle hee passeþ euerichon,
For al heor preparacions;
Sum are for-ȝete clene as bon
A-mong alle maner nacions;
So schul men þenken vs no-þing on
Þat nou han þe ocupacions;
And alle þeos disputacions
Idelyche all vs ocupye,
For crist makeþ þe creacions,
And þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Families come, and families go, as generations pass; but all go by, every one, for all their preparations. Some are forgotten, clean as a bone, among every nation; so shall men think not of us, who have this place now, and of these disputations which pointlessly obsess us. For Christ made all created things, and this world passes as a dream.

[Again, cf. Ecclesiastes i.4: One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.]

4. Whuch is Mon, ho wot, and what,
Wheþer þat he be ouȝt or nouht?
Of Erþe & Eyr groweþ vp a gnat,
And so doþ Mon whon al his souht;
Þauȝ mon be waxen gret and fat,
Mon melteþ a-wey so deþ a mouht.
Monnes miht nis worþ a Mat,
But nuyȝeþ him-self and turneþ to nouȝt.
Ho wot, saue he þat al haþ wrouȝt,
Wher mon bi-comeþ whon he schal dye?
Ho knoweþ bi dede ouȝt bote bi þouȝt?
For þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Of what nature is man, who knows? and what? is he anything, or nothing? From earth and air grows up a gnat - and so does man, in truth; though he grows strong and fat, man melts away like a moth. A man's might is not worth a thing; he vexes himself and turns all to nought. Who knows - save He who all hath wrought - what becomes of man, when he must die? Who knows anything by experience, except by thought? For this world passes as a dream.

5. Dyeþ mon, and beestes dye,
And al is on Ocasion;
And alle o deþ, hos boþe drye,
And han on Incarnacion;
Saue þat men beoþ more sleyȝe,
Al is o comparison.
Ho wot ȝif monnes soule styȝe,
And bestes soules synkeþ doun?
Who knoweþ Beestes entencioun,
On heor creatour how þei crie,
Saue only god þat knoweþ heore soun?
For þis world fareþ as a fantasye.

Men die, and beasts die, and all have one condition; and all share one death and one birth. Except that men are more cunning, there is no distinction. Who knows if the souls of men ascend, and the souls of beasts sink down? Who knows the thoughts of animals, how they cry out to their creator - except God alone, who knows their voices? For this world passes as a dream.

6. Vche secte hopeþ to be saue,
Baldely bi heore bi-leeue;
And vchon vppon God heo craue—
Whi schulde God wiþ hem him greue?
Vchon trouweþ þat oþur Raue,
But alle heo cheoseþ God for cheue,
And hope in God vchone þei haue,
And bi heore wit heore worching preue.
Þus mony maters men don meue,
Sechen heor wittes hou and why;
But Godes Merci vs alle bi-heue,
For þis world fareþ as a fantasy.

Each sect boldly expects to be saved because of their faith, and each one cries out to God. Why should God trouble himself with them? Each one believes the others are mad, but all choose God as their Lord, and all have hope in God, and justify their actions by their clever reasoning. In this way men debate many topics, and search their wits to understand how and why - but God's mercy is necessary for us all, for this world passes as a dream.

7. For þus men stumble & sere heore witte,
And meueþ maters mony and fele;
Summe leeueþ on him, sum leueþ on hit,
As children leorneþ for to spele.
But non seoþ non þat a-bit,
Whon stilly deþ wol on hym stele.
For he þat hext in heuene sit,
He is þe help and hope of hele;
For wo is ende of worldes wele,—
Vche lyf loke wher þat I lye—
Þis world is fals, fikel and frele,
And fareþ but as a fantasye.

For thus men stumble and shatter their wits, and debate many and various matters; some believe in this, some in that, like children just learning to speak. But no one clings to anything that will last when silent death steals upon him. For He that sits highest in heaven, he is the help and hope of health; woe is the end of worldly wealth - tell me that I tell a lie! This world is false and fickle and frail, and passes like a dream.

8. Whar-to wilne we forte knowe
Þe poyntes of Godes priuete?
More þen him lustes forte schowe,
We schulde not knowe in no degre;
And Idel bost is forte blowe
A Mayster of diuinite.
Þenk we lyue in eorþe her lowe,
And God an heiȝ in Mageste;
Of Material Mortualite
Medle we & of no more Maistrie.
Þe more we trace þe Trinite,
Þe more we falle in fantasye.

Why do we seek to know the intricacies of God's secrets? We should not know more than it pleases him to show; a Master of Divinity only brags an idle boast. Remember that we live low upon the earth, and God dwells on high in majesty; we share in the mortality of material things, and have no mastery. The more we trace out the Trinity, the more we fall into fantasy.

9. But leue we vre disputisoun,
And leeue on him þat al haþ wrouȝt;
We mowe no[t] preue bi no resoun
Hou he was born þat al vs bouȝt;
But hol in vre entencioun,
Worschipe we him in herte & þouȝt,
For he may turne kuyndes vpsedoun,
Þat alle kuyndes made of nouȝt.
When al vr bokes ben forþ brouht,
And al vr craft of clergye,
And al vr wittes ben þorw-out souȝt,
ȝit we fareþ as a fantasye.

But let us leave our disputes and believe in Him who made all things; we cannot prove by any reason how He who saved us all was born. But wholly in our minds let us worship him in heart and thought - for He who made all out of nothing can turn all things upside down. When our books are brought forth, and all our clerkly knowledge, and all our wits are searched all through - we yet pass as a dream.

10. Of fantasye is al vr fare,
Olde & ȝonge and alle I-fere;
But make we murie & sle care,
And worschipe we god whil we ben here;
Spende vr good and luytel spare,
And vche mon cheries oþures cheere.
Þenk hou we comen hider al bare,—
Vr wey wendyng is in a were—
Prey we þe prince þat haþ no pere,
Tac vs hol to his Merci
And kepe vr Concience clere,
For þis world is but fantasy.

All our life is a dream, old and young and all together; but make we merry and put by care, and worship we God while we are here; spend our wealth and spare little, and let each man encourage another to be cheerful. Let us think how we came here with nothing, and where we go is a mystery; let us pray to the Prince without peer, entrust ourselves to His mercy, and keep our conscience pure - for this world is only a dream.

11. Bi ensaumple men may se,
A gret treo grouweþ out of þe grounde;
No þing a-bated þe eorþe wol be
Þauȝ hit be huge, gret, and rounde.
Riht þer wol Rooten þe selue tre,
Whon elde haþ maad his kuynde aswounde;
Þauȝ þer weore rote suche þre,
Þe eorþe wol not encrece a pounde.
Þus waxeþ & wanieþ Mon, hors, & hounde,
From nouȝt to nouȝt þus henne we hiȝe;
And her we stunteþ but a stounde,
For þis world is but fantasye.

By this example you may understand: a great tree grows out of the ground, but the earth is in no way diminished though the tree be huge, tall and round. The tree will still be rooted there when old age has brought down his kindred; though there were three such trees rooted there, the earth will not be enlarged by any degree. Thus man, horse and hound wax and wane, from nothing to nothing, from hence we go; and here we stay but for a short time, for this world is but a dream.

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