Right Up Yonder

‘La Roue de Fortune’, from the Payen Tarot of Marseille

Throughout human history, in art and religion, we find a longing for deliverance, the view of a promised land just out of our current reach, whether somewhere else on some part of (mythologised) Earth, or in a world beyond. Such a longing is in one way easy to understand if we look at human psychology. Faced with dire adversity, our minds sometimes have the strength to maintain a powerful vision of a brighter future, a profound emotion that we call hope. Often, we hope that things will turn to the better somewhere in our lifetime, as the Wheel of Fortune revolves. Strengthened by this promise of future happiness, we can endure more hardship than we might have been able to otherwise.

Sometimes, if things are looking particularly bleak, we may start pushing our expectations for deliverance further into the future, even beyond this life. A very familiar example will be the belief in heaven as expressed in christian faith. True deliverance takes place after we die, and we are released from the woes of earthly life.

I was reminded of this powerful feeling recently when listening to “I’m Going Home”, a song from the Sacred Harp tradition of choral singing from the southern US. Two of my musical friends, David Colohan and Casey Edward Denman, recorded a duet version of this song, in what is part of a growing Sacred Harp revival in Ireland and the UK. You’ll find it here, along with the lyrics:

Farewell, vain world! I’m going home!
My Savior smiles and bids me come,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

Sweet angels beckon me away,
To sing God’s praise in endless day,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

Chorus:

Right up yonder, Christians, away up yonder;
Oh, yes, my Lord, for I don’t care to stay here long.

I’m glad that I am born to die,
From grief and woe my soul shall fly,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

Bright angels shall convey me home,
Away to New Jerusalem,
And I don’t care to stay here long!

(Chorus)

One of Södergran’s self-portraits.

Going back further in my memory, my mind quickly latches onto the beautiful writings of Finnish-born Swedish poetess Edith Södergran. In her short life, destroyed by tuberculosis, she wrote quite a number of poems in which a longing for a carefree existence is expressed; not hard to imagine for someone whose young life was constantly overshadowed by the fatal illness that would claim her life at age 31.

One of my favourite poems in this category is “Landet some icke är”, which was published in Södergran’s (final) collection of the same name from 1925. I give it here in the original Swedish, and my attempt at a translation:

“Landet some icke är”

Jag längtar till landet som icke är,
ty allting som är, är jag trött att begära.
Månen berättar mig i silverne runor
om landet som icke är.
Landet, där all vår önskan blir underbart uppfylld,
landet, där alla våra kedjor falla,
landet, där vi svalka vår sargade panna
i månens dagg.
Mitt liv var en het villa.
Men ett har jag funnit och ett har jag verkligen vunnit -
vägen till landet som icke är.

I landet som icke är
där går min älskade med gnistrande krona.
Vem är min älskade? Natten är mörk
och stjärnorna dallra till svar.
Vem är min älskade? Vad är hans namn?
Himlarna välva sig högre och högre,
och ett människobarn drunknar i ändlösa dimmor
och vet intet svar.
Men ett människobarn är ingenting annat än visshet.
Och det sträcker ut sina armar högre än alla himlar.
Och det kommer ett svar: Jag är den du älskar och alltid skall älska.

“The Land That Is Not”

I long for the land that is not,
for everything that is I am tired of longing for.
The moon tells in runes of silver
about the land that is not.
The land where all our wishes will be wondrously fulfilled,
the land where all our chains will fall,
the land where we cool our cut brow
in the moon’s dew.
My life was a hot illusion.
But one thing I have found and one thing I have truly gained -
the way to the land that is not.

In the land that is not
my lover is walking with sparkling crown.
Who is my lover? The night is dark
and the stars quiver in answer.
Who is my lover? What is his name?
The heavens whirl higher and higher,
and a man-child drowns in endless mist
and knows no answer.
But a man-child is nothing but certainty.
And it stretches out its arms higher than all heavens.
And there comes an answer: I am the one you love and will always love.

In my relatively careless life, I have little need for burning hopes like these, that cut through our entire being. But I feel them all the same, and they are capable up sharing a bit of their essence with me at times, so that I too may draw upon them when times are rough.