By candlelight

I have recently found myself pondering the nursery rhyme:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three score miles and ten.
Can I get there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again –
If your heels are nimble and light!

In the absence of television let alone computer games, my childhood was filled with such rhymes. They were a rich source of poetry and wisdom, as the Opies have recorded in their wonderful collection, The Language and Lore of Children.

This particular rhyme teases the imagination. First, why Babylon? What does it mean? And what might it have meant to a child when first written?

Babylon was one of the great cities of the ancient world: a thriving centre of art and literature, and a culture that gave us the story of another great journey, The Epic of Gilgamesh. It was also a city famed for its gardens, and for being the place where all the kings of Assyria were crowned. So, to a child, Babylon might have seemed a rich and exotic destination – almost like the Heavenly City itself.

The next line provides a further element of mystery – for ‘three score and ten’ is the biblical span of a human life. So, might the rhyme really be wondering: ‘How long have I got to live?’

And then the questioner asks, ‘Can I get there by candlelight?’ For centuries candles would be lit against the encroaching darkness of nightfall. So is the deeper question here: ‘Can I make it to the end before the final darkness?’

The answer comes back: ‘Yes, if your heels are nimble and light, you can, and back again.’ which suggests that, if we are flexible and don’t carry too much baggage, we might live twice as long!

In China, during August, at the Festival of Bon, people create miniature boats made from banana leaves, bearing small offerings to the gods – a coin, a flower, some incense – as well as the names of the departed, and in each a small lit candle which is then set sailing across the lake as night falls. In the dark, thousands of these small vessels float upon the water.

On our journey to Babylon, to El Dorado, to the Land of the Rising Sun, to Paradise, each of us will from time to time wake in the dark of the night thinking about what lies ahead. We may even wonder: ‘Can I get there by candlelight?’

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