Part 2 out of 3
interests were bounded by her family, the old servant Tabby, the dogs,
and the moors. For the greater part of her thirty years of life she did
the work of a servant in the little parsonage house on the edge of the
graveyard. She can have read little of philosophy or metaphysics, and
probably had never heard of the mystics; she was brought up in a narrow,
crude, and harshly material creed; yet her own inner experience, her
touch with the secret of life, enabled her to write the remarkable
series of poems the peculiar and haunting quality of which has as yet
scarcely been recognised. They are strong and free and certain, hampered
by no dogma, weighted by no explanation, but containing--in the simplest
language--the record of the experience and the vision of a soul. Emily
Bronte lived remote, unapproachable, self-sufficing and entirely
detached, yet consumed with a fierce, unquenchable love of life and of
nature, of the life which withheld from her all the gifts most prized of
men, love, friendship, experience, recognition, fame; and of the nature
which she knew only on a circumscribed space of the wild Yorkshire
In her poems her mysticism is seen principally in two ways: in her
unerring apprehension of values, of the illusory quality of material
things, even of the nature she so loved, together with the certain
vision of the one Reality behind all forms. This, and her description of
ecstasy, of the all-sufficing joy of the inner life of one who has
tasted this experience, mark her out as being among those who have seen,
and who know. In _The Prisoner_, the speaker, a woman, is "confined in
triple walls," yet in spite of bolts and bars and dungeon gloom she
holds within herself an inextinguishable joy and unmeasured freedom
brought to her every night by a "messenger."
He comes with western winds, with evening's wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars.
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.
* * * * *
But, first, a hush of peace--a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast--unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.
Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free--its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulf, it stoops and dares the final bound.
Oh! dreadful is the check--intense the agony--
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
This is the description--always unmistakable--of the supreme mystic
experience, the joy of the outward flight, the pain of the return, and
it could only have been written by one who in some measure had knowledge
of it. This, together with the exquisite little poem _The Visionary_,
which describes a similar experience, and _The Philosopher_, stand apart
as expressions of spiritual vision, and are among the most perfect
mystic poems in English.
Her realisation of the meaning of common things, her knowledge that they
hold the secret of the universe, and her crystallisation of this in
verse, place her with Blake and Wordsworth.
What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?
More glory and more grief than I can tell:
The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling
Can centre both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.
And finally, the sense of continuous life--one central, all-sustaining
Life--of the oneness of God and man, has never been more nobly expressed
than in what is her best-known poem, the last lines she ever wrote:--
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life--that in me has rest,
As I--undying Life--have power in Thee!
* * * * *
With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
Tennyson differs widely from the other poets whom we are considering in
this connection. He was not born with the mystical temperament, but, on
the contrary, he had a long and bitter struggle with his own doubts and
questionings before he wrested from them peace. There is nothing of
mystic calm or strength in the lines--
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill.
He has no mystic rapture in Nature like Wordsworth,
I found Him not in world or sun
Or eagle's wing, or insect's eye;
no mystic interpretation of life as had Browning, no yearning for union
with the spirit of love and beauty as had Shelley. Tennyson's mysticism
came, as it were, rather in spite of himself, and is based on one thing
only--experience. He states his position quite clearly in _In Memoriam_,
cxxiv. As is well known, he had from time to time a certain peculiar
experience, which he describes fully both in prose and verse, a touch at
intervals throughout his life of "ecstasy," and it was on this he based
his deepest belief. He has left several prose accounts of this mental
state, which often came to him through repeating his own name silently,
till all at once, as it wore, out of the intensity of the
consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to
resolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused
state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest,
utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable
impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no
extinction, but the only true life
It is a somewhat similar experience which is described in _In Memoriam_,
And all at once it seem'd at last
The living soul was flash'd on mine,
And mine in this was wound, and whirl'd
About empyreal heights of thought,
And came on that which is, and caught
The deep pulsations of the world.
And again in the conclusion of the _Holy Grail_--
Let visions of the night or of the day
Come, as they will; and many a time they come,
Until this earth he walks on seems not earth,
This light that strikes his eyeball is not light,
This air that strikes his forehead is not air
But vision--yea, his very hand and foot--
In moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a A vision, nor that One
Who rose again.
"These three lines," said Tennyson, speaking of the last three quoted,
"are the (spiritually) central lines in the Idylls." They are also the
central lines in his own philosophy, for it was the experience of this
"vision" that inspired all his deepest convictions with regard to the
unity of all things, the reality of the unseen, and the persistence of
The belief in the impotence of intellectual knowledge is very closely
connected, it is indeed based, upon these "gleams" of ecstasy. The
prologue to _In Memoriam_ (written when the poem was completed) seems to
sum up his faith after many years of struggle and doubt; but it is in
the most philosophical as well as one of the latest, of his poems, _The
Ancient Sage_, that we find this attitude most fully expressed. Tennyson
wrote of it: "The whole poem is very personal. The passages about
'Faith' and 'the Passion of the Past' were more especially my own
personal feelings." Through the mouth of the Sage, the poet declares in
impassioned words the position of the mystic, and points out the
impotence of sense-knowledge in dealing with that which is beyond either
the senses or the reason:
For Knowledge is the swallow on the lake
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there
But never yet hath dipt into the abysm.
Tennyson, like Wordsworth, emphasises the truth that the only way in
which man can gain real knowledge and hear the "Nameless" is by diving
or sinking into the centre of his own being. There is a great deal of
Eastern philosophy and mysticism in the _Ancient Sage_, as, for
instance, the feeling of the unity of all existence to the point of
merging the personality into the universal.
But that one ripple on the boundless deep
Feels that the deep is boundless, and itself
For ever changing form, but evermore
One with the boundless motion of the deep.
We know that Tennyson had been studying the philosophy of Lao-Tsze about
this time; yet, though this is, as it were, grafted on to the poet's
mind, still we may take it as being his genuine and deepest conviction.
The nearest approach to a definite statement of it to be found in his
poems is in the few stanzas called _The Higher Pantheism_, which he sent
to be read at the first meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869.
Speak to Him thou for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet--
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.
* * * * *
And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision--were it not He?
In William Law, Burke, Coleridge, and Carlyle, we have a succession of
great English prose-writers whose work and thought is permeated by a
mystical philosophy. Of these four, Law is, during his later life, by
far the most consistently and predominantly mystical.
As has been indicated, there were many strains of influence which in the
seventeenth century tended to foster mystical thought in England. The
group of Cambridge Platonists, to which Henry More belonged, gave new
expression to the great Neo-platonic ideas, but in addition to this a
strong vein of mysticism had been kept alive in Amsterdam, where the
exiled Separatists had gone in 1593. They flourished there and waxed
strong, and sent back to England during the next century a continual
stream of opinion and literature. To this source can be traced the ideas
which inspired alike the Quakers, the Seekers, the Behmenists, the
Familists, and numberless other sects who all embodied a reaction
against forms and ceremonies, which, in ceasing to be understood, had
become lifeless. These sects were, up to a certain point, mystical in
thought, for they all believed in the "inner light," in the immediate
revelation of God within the soul as the all-important experience.
The persecutions of the Quakers under Charles II. tended to withdraw
them from active philanthropy, and to throw them more in the direction
of a personal and contemplative religion. It was then that the writings
of Madame Bourignon, Madame Guyon, and Fenelon became popular, and were
much read among a certain section of thinkers, while the influence of
the teachings of Jacob Boehme, whose works had been translated into
English between the years 1644 and 1692, can be traced, in diverse ways.
They impressed themselves on the thought of the founders of the Society
of Friends, they produced a distinct "Behmenist" sect, and it would seem
that the idea of the three laws of motion first reached Newton through
his eager study of Boehme. But all this has nothing directly to do with
literature, and would not concern us here were it not that in the
eighteenth century William Law came into touch with many of these
mystical thinkers, and that he has embodied in some of the finest prose
in our language a portion of the "inspired cobbler's" vision of the
Law's character is one of considerable interest. Typically English, and
in intellect typically of the eighteenth century, logical, sane,
practical, he is not, at first sight, the man one would expect to find
in sympathy with the mystics. Sincerity is the keynote of his whole
nature, sincerity of thought, of belief, of speech, and of life.
Sincerity implies courage, and Law was a brave man, never shirking the
logical outcome of his convictions, from the day when he ruined his
prospects at Cambridge, to the later years when he suffered his really
considerable reputation to be eclipsed by his espousal of an
uncomprehended and unpopular mysticism. He had a keen rather than a
profound intellect, and his thought is lightened by brilliant flashes of
wit or of grim satire. We can tell, however, from his letters and his
later writings, that underneath a severe and slightly stiff exterior,
were hidden emotion, enthusiasm, and great tenderness of feeling.
By middle life Law was well known as a most able and brilliant writer on
most of the burning theological questions of the day, as well as the
author of one of the best loved and most widely read practical and
ethical treatises in the language, _A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy
Life_. These earlier writings are by far the best known of his works,
and it is with the _Serious Call_ that his name will always be
Until middle age he showed no marked mystical tendency, although we know
that from the time he was an undergraduate he was a "diligent reader"
of mystical books, and that he had studied, among others, Dionysius the
Areopagite, Ruysbroek, Tauler, Suso, and the seventeenth century
Quietists, Fenelon, Madame Guyon, and Antoinette Bourignon.
When, however, he was about forty-six (c. 1733), he came across the
writings of the seer who set his whole nature aglow with spiritual
fervour, so that when he first read his works they put him into "a
perfect sweat." Jacob Boehme--or Behmen, as he has usually been called
in England--(1575-1624), the illiterate and untrained peasant shoemaker
of Goerlitz, is one of the most amazing phenomena in the history of
mysticism, a history which does not lack wonders. His work has so much
influenced later mystical thought and philosophy that a little space
must be devoted to him here. He lived outwardly the quiet, hard-working
life of a simple German peasant, but inwardly--like his fellow-seer
Blake--he lived in a glory of illumination, which by flashes revealed to
him the mysteries and splendours he tries in broken and faltering words
to record. He saw with the eye of his mind into the heart of things, and
he wrote down as much of it as he could express.
The older mystics--eastern and western alike--had laid stress on unity
as seen in the nature of God and all things. No one more fully believed
in ultimate unity than did Boehme, but he lays peculiar stress on the
duality, or more accurately, the trinity in unity; and the central point
of his philosophy is the fundamental postulate that all manifestation
necessitates opposition. He asserted the uniformity of law throughout
all existence, physical and spiritual, and this law, which applies all
through nature, divine and human alike, is that nothing can reveal
itself without resistance, good can only be known through evil, and
weakness through strength, just as light is only visible when reflected
by a dark body.
Thus when God, the Triune Principle, or _Will_ under three aspects,
desires to become manifest, He divides the Will into two, the "yes" and
the "no," and so founds an eternal contrast to Himself out of His own
hidden Nature, in order to enter into struggle with it, and finally to
discipline and assimilate it. The object of all manifested nature is the
transforming of the will which says "No" into the will which says "Yes,"
and this is brought about by seven organising spirits or forms. The
first three of these bring nature out of the dark element to the point
where contact with the light is possible. Boehme calls them harshness,
attraction, and anguish, which in modern terms are contraction,
expansion, and rotation. The first two are in deadly antagonism, and
being forced into collision, form an endless whirl of movement. These
two forces with their resultant effect are to be found all through
manifested nature, within man and without, and are called by different
names: good, evil and life, God, the devil and the world, homogeneity,
heterogeneity, strain, or the three laws of motion, centripetal and
centrifugal force, resulting in rotation. They are the outcome of the
"nature" or "no" will, and are the basis of all manifestation. They are
the "power" of God, apart from the "love," hence their conflict is
terrible. When spirit and nature approach and meet, from the shock a new
form is liberated, lightning or fire, which is the fourth moment or
essence. With the lightning ends the development of the negative triad,
and the evolution of the three higher forms then begins; Boehme calls
them light or love, sound and substance; they are of the spirit, and in
them contraction, expansion, and rotation are repeated in a new sense.
The first three forms give the stuff or strength of being, the last
three manifest the quality of being good or bad, and evolution can
proceed in either direction.
The practical and ethical result of this living unity of nature is the
side which most attracted Law, and it is one which is as simple to state
as it is difficult to apply. Boehme's philosophy is one which can only
be apprehended by living it. Will, or desire, is the radical force in
man as it is in nature and in the Godhead, and until that is turned
towards the light, any purely historical or intellectual knowledge of
these things is as useless as if hydrogen were to expect to become water
by study of the qualities of oxygen, whereas what is needed is the
actual union of the elements.
The two most important of Law's mystical treatises are _An Appeal to all
that Doubt_, 1740, and _The Way to Divine Knowledge_, 1752. The first of
these should be read by any one desirous of knowing Law's later thought,
for it is a clear and fine exposition of his attitude with regard more
especially to the nature of man, the unity of all nature, and the
quality of fire or desire. The later book is really an account of the
main principles of Boehme, with a warning as to the right way to apply
them, and it was written as an introduction to the new edition of
Boehme's works which Law contemplated publishing.
The following is the aspect of Boehme's teaching which Law most
Man was made out of the Breath of God; his soul is a spark of the Deity.
It therefore cannot die, for it "has the Unbeginning, Unending Life of
God in it." Man has fallen from his high estate through ignorance and
inexperience, through seeking separation, taking the part for the whole,
desiring the knowledge of good and evil as separate things. The
assertion of self is thus the root of all evil; for as soon as the will
of man "turns to itself, and would, as it were, have a Sound of its own,
it breaks off from the divine harmony, and falls into the misery of its
own discord." For it is the state of our will that makes the state of
our life. Hence, by the "fall," man's standpoint has been dislocated
from centre to circumference, and he lives in a false imagination. Every
quality is equally good, for there is nothing evil in God from whom all
comes; but evil appears to be through separation. Thus strength and
desire in the divine nature are necessary and magnificent qualities, but
when, as in the creature, they are separated from love, they appear as
evil. The analogy of the fruit is, in this connection a favourite
one with both Law and Boehme. When a fruit is unripe (i.e. incomplete)
it is sour, bitter, astringent, unwholesome; but when it has been longer
exposed to the sun and air it becomes sweet, luscious, and good to eat.
Yet it is the same fruit, and the astringent qualities are not lost or
destroyed, but transmuted and enriched, and are thus the main cause of
its goodness. The only way to pass from this condition of
"bitterness" to ripeness, from this false imagination to the true one,
is the way of death. We must die to what we are before we can be born
anew; we must die to the things of this world to which we cling, and for
which we desire and hope, and we must turn towards God. This should be
the daily, hourly exercise of the mind, until the whole turn and bent of
our spirit "points as constantly to God as the needle touched with the
loadstone does to the north." To be alive in God, before you are
dead to your own nature, is "a thing as impossible in itself, as for a
grain of wheat to be alive before it dies."
The root of all, then, is the will or desire. This realisation of the
momentous quality of the will is the secret of every religious mystic,
the hunger of the soul, as Law calls it, is the first necessity, and all
else will follow. It is the seed of everything that can grow in us;
"it is the only workman in nature, and everything is its work;" it is
the true magic power. And this will or desire is always active; every
man's life is a continual state of prayer, and if we are not praying for
the things of God, we are praying for _something else_. For prayer
is but the desire of the soul. Our imaginations and desires are,
therefore, the greatest realities we have, and we should look closely to
what they are.
It is essential to the understanding of Law, as of Boehme, to remember
his belief in the reality and actuality of the oneness of nature and of
law. Nature is God's great Book of Revelation, for it is nothing
else but God's own outward manifestation of what He inwardly is, and can
do.... The mysteries of religion, therefore, are no higher, nor deeper
than the mysteries of nature. God Himself is subject to this law.
There is no question of God's mercy or of His wrath, for it is an
eternal principle that we can only receive what we are capable of
receiving; and to ask why one person gains no help from the mercy and
goodness of God while another does gain help is "like asking why the
refreshing dew of heaven does not do that to the flint which it does to
the vegetable plant."
Self-denial, or mortification of the flesh is not a thing imposed upon
us by the mere will of God: considered in themselves they have nothing
of goodness or holiness, but they have their ground and reason in the
nature of the thing, and are as "absolutely necessary to make way for
the new birth, as the death of the husk and gross part of the grain is
necessary to make way for its vegetable life."
These views are clear enough, but the more mystical ones, such as those
which Law and Boehme held, for instance, about fire, can only be
understood in the light of this living unity throughout nature,
humanity, and divinity.
"Everything in temporal Nature," says Law, "is descended out of
that which is eternal, and stands as a palpable, visible Outbirth
of it: ... Fire and Light and Air in this World are not only a true
Resemblance of the Holy Trinity in Unity, but are the Trinity
itself in its most outward, lowest kind of Existence or
Manifestation.... Fire compacted, created, separated from Light and
Air, is the Elemental Fire of this World: Fire uncreated,
uncompacted, unseparated from Light and Air, is the heavenly Fire
of Eternity: Fire kindled in any material Thing is only Fire
breaking out of its created, compacted state; it is nothing else
but the awakening the Spiritual Properties of that Thing, which
being thus stirred up, strive to get rid of that material Creation
under which they are imprisoned ... and were not these spiritual
Properties imprisoned in Matter, no material Thing could be made to
burn.... Fire is not, cannot be a material Thing, it only makes
itself visible and sensible by the Destruction of Matter." "If
you ask what Fire is in its first true and unbeginning State, not
yet entered into any Creature, It is the Power and Strength, the
Glory and Majesty of eternal Nature.... If you ask what Fire is in
its own spiritual Nature, it is merely a _Desire_, and has no other
Nature than that of a _working Desire_, which is continually its
_own Kindler_." 
All life is a kindled fire in a variety of states, and every dead,
insensitive thing is only dead because its fire is quenched or
compressed, as in the case of a flint, which is in a state of death
"because its fire is bound, compacted, shut up and imprisoned," but a
steel struck against it, shows that every particle of the flint consists
of this compacted fire.
But even as, throughout all nature, a state of death is an imprisoned
fire, so throughout all nature is there only one way of kindling life.
You might as well write the word "flame" on the outside of a flint and
expect it to emit sparks as to imagine that any speculations of your
reason will kindle divine life in your soul.
No; Would you have Fire from a Flint; its House of Death must be
shaken, and its Chains of Darkness broken off by the Strokes of a
Steel upon it. This must of all Necessity be done to your Soul, its
imprisoned Fire must be awakened by the sharp Strokes of Steel, or
no true Light of Life can arise in it.
All life, whether physical or spiritual, means a death to some previous
condition, and must be generated in pain. 6 1: _An Appeal, Works_,
vol. vi. pp. 166. 2 _Ibid._, p, 82.
If this mystical view of Fire be clear, it will be easy enough to
follow what Law says about Light and Darkness, or Air, Water, and Earth,
interpreting them all in the same way as "eternal Things become gross,
finite, measurable, divisible, and transitory."
_The Spirit of Prayer_ is of all Law's works the one most steeped in
mystic ardour, and it possesses a charm, a melody of rhythm, and an
imaginative quality rarely to be found in his earlier work. It should be
read by those who would see Law under a little known aspect, and who do
not realise that we have an English mystic who expresses, with a
strength and beauty which Plotinus himself has rarely surpassed, the
longing of the soul for union with the Divine.
Burke, Coleridge, and Carlyle are three very different writers who are
alike in the mystical foundations of their belief, and who, through
their writings, for over a hundred years in England carry on the
mystical attitude and diffuse much mystical thought.
Burke, the greatest and most philosophic of English statesmen, was so
largely because of his mystic spirit and imagination. Much of the
greatness of his political pamphlets and speeches and of their enduring
value is owing to the fact that his arguments are based on a sense of
oneness and continuity, of oneness in the social organism and of
continuity in the spirit which animates it. He believes in a life in the
Universe, in a divine order, mysterious and inscrutable in origins and
in ends, of which man and society are a part.
This society is linked together in mutual service from the lowest to the
highest. "Society is indeed a contract," he says in a memorable passage,
It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a
partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of
such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it
becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but
between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are
to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause
in the great primaeval contract of eternal society, linking the
lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible
world, according to a fixed compact sanctioned by the inviolable
oath which holds all physical and all moral natures, each in their
These are strange words for an English statesman to address to the
English public in the year 1790; the thought they embody seems more in
keeping with its surroundings when we hear it thundered out anew forty
years later by the raw Scotch preacher-philosopher in the chapter he
calls "Organic Filaments" in his odd but strangely stirring mystical
rhapsody, _Sartor Resartus_.
It is on this belief of oneness, this interrelationship and
interdependence that all Burke's deepest practical wisdom is based. It
is on this he makes his appeal for high principle and noble example to
the great families with hereditary trusts and fortunes, who, he says, he
looks on as the great oaks that shade a country and perpetuate their
benefits from generation to generation.
This imaginative belief in the reality of a central spiritual life is
always accompanied, whether definitely expressed or not, with a belief
in the value of particulars, of the individual, as opposed to general
statements and abstract philosophy. The mystic, who believes in an
inward moulding spirit, necessarily believes that all reforms must come
from within, and that, as Burke points out in the _Present Discontents_,
good government depends not upon laws but upon individuals. Blake, in a
characteristic phrase, says: "He who would do good to another must do it
in minute particulars; general good is the plea of the hypocrite,
flatterer, and scoundrel." This sums up the essence of the social
philosophy of these three thinkers, as seen by Burke's insistence on the
value of concrete details in Coleridge's use of them in his Lay Sermon,
and in Carlyle's belief in the importance of the single individual life
It is easy to see that Coleridge's attitude of mind and the main lines
of his philosophy were mystical. From early years, as we know from
Lamb, he was steeped in the writings of the Neo-platonists and these,
together with Boehme, in whom he was much interested, and Schelling,
strengthened a type of belief already natural to him.
In spite of his devotion to the doctrines of Hartley, it is clear from
his poetry and letters, that Coleridge very early had doubts concerning
the adequacy of the intellect as an instrument for arriving at truth,
and that at the same time the conviction was slowly gaining ground with
him that an act of the will is necessary in order to bring man into
contact with reality. Coleridge believed in a Spirit of the universe
with which man could come into contact, both directly by desire, and
also mediately through the forms and images of nature, and in the
_Religious Musings_ (1794) we get very early a statement of this
There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind
Omnific. His most holy name is Love.
... we roam unconscious, or with hearts
Unfeeling of our universal Sire,
and the greatest thing we can achieve, "our noon-tide majesty," is--
to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wonderous whole!
The way to attain this knowledge is not by a process of reasoning, but
by a definite act of will, when the "drowsed soul" begins to feel dim
recollections of its nobler nature, and so gradually becomes attracted
and absorbed to perfect love--
and centered there
God only to behold, and know, and feel,
Till by exclusive consciousness of God
All self-annihilated it shall make
God its Identity: God all in all!
This sense of "oneness," with the desire to reach out to it, was very
strong with Coleridge in these earlier years, and he writes to Thelwall
in 1797, "The universe itself, what but an immense heap of little
things?... My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something
_great_, something _one_ and _indivisible_." He is ever conscious of the
symbolic quality of all things by which we are visibly surrounded,
all that meets the bodily sense I deem
Symbolical, one mighty alphabet
For infant minds.
To pierce through the outer covering, and realise the truth which they
embody, it is necessary to feel as well as to see, and it is the loss of
this power of feeling which Coleridge deplores in those bitterly sad
lines in the _Dejection Ode_ when he gazes "with how blank an eye" at
the starry heavens, and cries,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
It is in this Ode that we find the most complete description in English
verse of that particular state of depression and stagnation which often
follows on great exaltation, and to which the religious mystics have
given the name of the "dark night of the soul." This is an experience,
not common to all mystics, but very marked in some, who, like St John of
the Cross and Madame Guyon, are intensely devotional and ecstatic. It
seems to be a well-defined condition of listlessness, apathy, and
_dryness_, as they call it, not a state of active pain, but of terrible
inertia, weariness, and incapacity for feeling; "a wan and heartless
mood," says Coleridge,
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear.
Coleridge's distrust of the intellect as sole guide, and his belief in
some kind of intuitional act being necessary to the apprehension of
reality, which he felt as early as 1794, was strengthened by his study
of the German transcendental philosophers, and in March 1801 he writes,
"My opinion is that deep thinking is attainable only by a man of deep
feeling; and that all truth is a species of Revelation."
Coleridge, following Kant, gave the somewhat misleading name of "reason"
(as opposed to "understanding") to the intuitive power by which man
apprehends God directly, and, in his view, imagination is the faculty,
which in the light of this intuitive reason interprets and unifies the
symbols of the natural world. Hence its value, for it alone gives man
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Carlyle's mysticism is the essence of his being, it flames through his
amazing medley of writings, it guides his studies and his choice of
subjects, it unifies and explains his visions, his thought, and his
doctrines. His is a mystical attitude and belief of a perfectly simple
and broad kind, including no abstruse subtleties of metaphysical
speculation, as with Coleridge, but based on one or two deeply rooted
convictions. This position seems to have been reached by him partly
through intellectual conflict which found relief and satisfaction in the
view of life taken by Goethe, Fichte, and other German "transcendental"
thinkers; but partly also through a definite psychical experience which
befell him in Edinburgh when he was twenty-six, and which from that day
changed for him the whole of his outlook on life. He speaks of it
himself as "a Spiritual New-birth, or Baphometic Fire-baptism." It came
to him after a period of great wretchedness, of torture with doubt and
despair, and--what is significant--"during three weeks of total
sleeplessness." These are conditions which would be likely to reduce his
body to the state of weakness and sensitiveness which seems often
antecedent to psychic experience. He has given an account of the
incident in _Sartor_ (Book ii. chap, vii.), when, he says, "there rushed
like a stream of fire over my whole soul; and I shook base Fear away
from me for ever. I was strong, of unknown strength; a spirit, almost a
god." The revelation seems to have been of the nature of a certainty and
assertion of his own inherent divinity, his "native God-created
majesty," freedom and potential greatness. This brought with it a
characteristic defiance of untoward outer circumstances which gave him
strength and resolution. "Perhaps," he says, "I directly thereupon began
to be a man."
Carlyle believes that the world and everything in it is the expression
of one great indivisible Force; that nothing is separate, nothing is
dead or lost, but that all "is borne forward on the bottomless shoreless
flood of Action, and lives through perpetual metamorphoses." Everything
in the world is an embodiment of this great Force, this "Divine Idea,"
hence everything is important and charged with meaning. "Rightly viewed
no meanest object is insignificant; all objects are as windows, through
which the philosophic eye looks into Infinitude itself."
The universe is thus the "living visible garment of God," and "matter
exists only spiritually," "to represent some Idea, and _body_ it forth."
We, each of us, are therefore one expression of this central spirit, the
only abiding Reality; and so, in turn, everything we know and see is but
an envelope or clothing encasing something more vital which is invisible
within. Just as books are the most miraculous things men can make,
because a book "is the _purest_ embodiment a Thought of man can have,"
so great men are the highest embodiment of Divine Thought visible to us
here. Great men are, as it were, separate phrases, "inspired texts" of
the great book of revelation, perpetually interpreting and unfolding in
various ways the Godlike to man (_Hero as Man of Letters_, and _Sartor_,
Book ii. chap. viii.).
From this ground-belief spring all Carlyle's views and aims. Hence his
gospel of hero-worship, for the "hero" is the greatest embodied "Idea" a
man can know, he is a "living light fountain," he is "a man sent hither
to make the divine mystery more impressively known to us." Hence it is
clear that the first condition of the great man is that he should be
sincere, that he should _believe_. "The merit of originality is not
novelty: it is sincerity. The believing man is the original man." It is
equally necessary that his admirers should be sincere, they too must
believe, and not only, as Coleridge puts it, "believe that they
believe." No more immoral act can be done by a human creature, says
Carlyle, than to pretend to believe and worship when he does not.
Hence also springs Carlyle's doctrine of work. If man is but the
material embodiment of a spiritual Idea or Force, then his clear duty is
to express that Force within him to the utmost of his power. It is what
he is here for, and only so can he bring help and light to his
fellow-men. And Carlyle, with Browning, believes that it is not the
actual deeds accomplished that matter, no man may judge of these, for
"man is the spirit he worked in; not what he did, but what he became."
Devotional and Religious Mystics
All mystics are devotional and all are religious in the truest sense of
the terms. Yet it seems legitimate to group under this special heading
those writers whose views are expressed largely in the language of the
Christian religion, as is the case with our earliest mystics, with
Crashaw and Francis Thompson and it applies in some measure to Blake.
But beyond this, it seems, in more general terms, to apply specially to
those who are so conscious of God that they seem to live in His
presence, and who are chiefly concerned with approaching Him, not by way
of Love, Beauty, Wisdom, or Nature, but directly, through purgation and
This description, it is obvious, though it fits fairly well the other
writers here included, by no means suffices for Blake. For he possessed
in addition a philosophy, a system, and a profound scheme of the
universe revealed to him in vision. But within what category could Blake
be imprisoned? He outsoars them all and includes them all. We can only
say that the dominant impression he leaves with us that is of his
vivid, intimate consciousness of the Divine presence and his attitude of
We have seen that the earliest mystical thought came into this country
by way of the writings of "Dionysius" and of the Victorines (Hugh and
Richard of St Victor), and it is this type of thought and belief cast
into the mould of the Catholic Church that we find mainly in the little
group of early English mystics, whose writings date from the middle of
the thirteenth to the beginning of the fifteenth century.
These early Catholic mystics are interesting from a psychological point
of view, and they are often subtle exponents of the deepest mystical
truths and teachings, and in some cases this is combined with great
literary power and beauty.
One of the earliest examples of this thought in English literature is
the tender and charming lyric by Thomas de Hales, written probably
before 1240. Here is perhaps the first expression in our poetry of
passionate yearning of the soul towards Christ as her true lover, and of
the joy of mystic union with Him. A maid of Christ, says the poet, has
begged him to "wurche a luve ron" (make a love-song), which he does; and
points out to her that this world's love is false and fickle, and that
worldly lovers shall pass away like a wind's blast.
Hwer is Paris and Heleyne
That weren so bright and feyre on bleo:
Amadas, Tristram and Dideyne
Yseude and alle theo:
Ector with his scharpe meyne
And Cesar riche of wor[l]des feo?
Heo beoth iglyden ut of the reyne,
So the schef is of the cleo.
As the corn from the hill-side, Paris and Helen and all bright lovers
have passed away, and it is as if they had never lived.
But, maid, if you want a lover, he continues, I can direct you to one,
the fairest, truest, and richest in the whole world. Henry, King of
England, is his vassal, and to thee, maid, this lover sends a message
and desires to know thee.
Mayde to the he send his sonde
And wilneth for to beo the cuth.
And so the poem goes on to express in simple terms of earthly love, the
passionate delight and joy and peace of the soul in attaining to union
with her God, in whose dwelling is perfect bliss and safety.
This poem is a delicate example of what is called "erotic mysticism,"
that is the love and attraction of the soul for God, and of God for the
soul, expressed in the terms of the love between man and woman. It is a
type of expression characteristic of the great mystics of the Catholic
Church, especially in the Middle Ages, and we find a good deal of it
in our earliest mystical writers. One of the most charming examples of
it other than this lyric, is the chapter "Of Love" in the _Ancren
Riwle_, or Rule for Anchoresses, written probably early in the
thirteenth century. An account is there given, quite unsurpassed for
delicate beauty, of the wooing of the soul by God. On the whole,
however, this type of mysticism is rare in England, and we scarcely meet
it again after these early writers until we come to the poems of
Crashaw. The finest expression of it is the Song of Solomon, and it is
easy to see that such a form of symbolism is specially liable to
degradation, and is open to grave dangers, which it has not always
escaped. Yet, in no other terms known to man is it possible so fully to
express the sense of insatiable craving and desire as well as the
rapture of intimate communion felt by the mystic towards his God, as in
the language of that great passion which, in its purest form, is the
best thing known to man and his highest glory. "I saw Him, and sought
Him, I had Him and I wanted Him." Could any words more completely
express the infinity of love's desire, ever unsatisfied even in
possession, than does this love-cry from the heart of Julian the
anchoress of Norwich?
The intensity and freshness of religious feeling of a mystical type in
England in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries are often
not realised, partly owing to the fact that much of the religious
writing of this time is still in manuscript. The country was full of
devotees who had taken religious vows, which they fulfilled either in
the many monasteries and convents, or often in single cells, as "hermit"
or "anchoress." Here they lived a life devoted to contemplation and
prayer, and to the spiritual assistance of those who sought them out.
The hermits, of whom there were a large number, were apparently free to
move from one neighbourhood to another, but the woman recluse, or
"anchoress," seldom or never left the walls of her cell, a little house
of two or three rooms built generally against the church wall, so that
one of her windows could open into the church, and another, veiled by a
curtain, looked on to the outer world, where she held converse with and
gave counsel to those who came to see her. Sometimes a little group of
recluses lived together, like those three sisters of Dorsetshire for
whom the _Ancren Riwle_ was written, a treatise which gives us so many
homely details of this type of life.
Richard Rolle (_c._ 1300-1349), of Hampole, near Doncaster, and the
Lady Julian, a Benedictine nun of Norwich (1342-_c._1413), are the two
most interesting examples of the mediaeval recluse in England. Both seem
to have had a singular charm of character and a purity of mystical
devotion which has impressed itself on their writings. Richard Rolle,
who entered upon a hermit's life at nineteen on leaving Oxford, had
great influence both through his life and work on the whole group of
fourteenth-century religious writers, and so on the thought of mediaeval
England. His contemporaries thought him mad, they jeered at him and
abused him, but he went quietly on his way, preaching and writing. Love
forced him to write; love, he said, gave him wisdom and subtlety, and he
preached a religion of love. Indeed the whole of his work is a symphony
of feeling, a song of Love, and forms a curious reaction against the
exaltation of reason and logic in scholasticism. He wrote a large number
of treatises and poems, both in Latin and English, lyrical songs and
alliterative homilies, burning spiritual rhapsodies and sound practical
sermons, all of which were widely known and read. Certain points about
Rolle are of special interest and distinguish him from other mystics and
seers. One is that for him the culminating mystical experience took the
form of melody, rhythm, harmony. He is the most musical of mystics, and
where others "see" or "feel" Reality, he "hears" it. Hence his
description of his soul's adventures is peculiarly beautiful, he thinks
in images and symbols of music, and in his writings we find some of the
most exquisite passages in the whole literature of mysticism, veritable
songs of spiritual joy. In the _Fire of Love_, perhaps the finest of his
more mystical works, he traces in detail his journey along the upward
path. This is very individual, and it differs in some important respects
from other similar records. He passed through the stage of "purgation,"
of struggle between the flesh and spirit, of penitence and aspiration,
through "illumination," until he reached, after nearly three years, the
third stage of contemplation of God through love.
In this condition, after about a year, "the door of heaven yet biding
open," he experienced the three phases to which he gives the names of
"calor, canor, dulcor," heat, song, and sweetness. "Heat soothly I call
when the mind truly is kindled in Love Everlasting, and the heart on the
same manner to burn not hopingly, but verily is felt."
This "burning" seems to have been for him a real physical sensation, a
bodily condition induced by the adventure of the spirit. This is not
unusual in mystical states, and possibly the cryptic notes made by
Pascal record a similar experience. He continued in this warmth for
nine months, when suddenly he felt and heard the "canor," the "spiritual
music," the "invisible melody" of heaven. Here is his description of his
change from "burning love" to the state of "songful love."
Whilst ... I sat in chapel, in the night, before supper, as I my
psalms sung, as it were the sound of readers or rather singers
about me I beheld. Whilst also, praying to heaven, with all desire
I took heed, suddenly, in what manner I wot not, in me the sound of
song I felt; and likeliest heavenly melody I took, with me dwelling
in mind. Forsooth my thought continually to mirth of song was
changed: and as it were the same that loving I had thought, and in
prayers and psalms had said, the same in sound I showed, and so
forth with [began] to sing that [which] before I had said, and from
plenitude of inward sweetness I burst forth, privily indeed, alone
before my Maker.
The sweetness of this inward spiritual song is beyond any sound that may
be heard with bodily ears, even lovers can only catch snatches of it.
"Worldly lovers soothly words or ditties of our song may know, for the
words they read: but the tone and sweetness of that song they may not
learn." The final stage of "sweetness" seems really to include the
other two, it is their completion and fruition. The first two, says
Rolle, are gained by devotion, and out of them springs the third.
Rolle's description of it, of the all-pervading holy joy, rhythm, and
melody, when the soul, "now become as it were a living pipe," is caught
up into the music of the spheres, "and in the sight of God ... joying
sounds," deserves to be placed beside what is perhaps the most
magnificent passage in all mystical literature, where Plotinus tells us
of the choral dance of the soul about her God.
Enough has been said to show that Rolle is a remarkable individual, and
one of the most poetic of the English religious mystical writers, and it
is regrettable that some of his other works are not more easily
accessible. Unfortunately, the poem with which his name is generally
associated, _The Pricke of Conscience_, is entirely unlike all his other
work, both in form and matter. It is a long, prosaic and entirely
unmystical homily in riming couplets, of a very ordinary mediaeval type,
stirring men's minds to the horrors of sin by dwelling on the pains of
purgatory and hell. It would seem almost certain, on internal evidence,
that the same hand cannot have written it and the _Fire of Love_, and
recent investigation appears to make it clear that Rolle's part in it,
if any, was merely of the nature of compilation or translation of some
other work, possibly by Grosseteste.
Of the life of the Lady Julian we know very little, except that she was
almost certainly a Benedictine nun, and that she lived for many years in
an anchoress's cell close to the old church of St Julian at Conisford,
near Norwich. But her character and charm are fully revealed in the
little book she has left of _Revelations of Divine Love_, which contains
a careful account of a definite psychological experience through which
she passed on the 8th day of May 1373, when she was thirty years of age.
She adds to this record of fact certain commentaries and explanations
which, she says, have been taught her gradually in the course of the
subsequent twenty years. This experience, which lasted altogether
between five and six hours, was preceded by a seven days' sickness most
vividly described, ending in a semi-rigidity of the body as if it were
already half dead, and it took the form of sixteen "Shewings" or
"Visions." These, she says, reached her in three ways, "by bodily sight,
by word formed in mine understanding" (verbal messages which took form
in her mind), "and by spiritual sight." But of this last, she adds, "I
may never fully tell it." It is impossible here to do justice to
this little book, for it is one of the most important documents in the
history of mysticism. There is no mention in it of any preliminary
"purgative" stage, nor of any ultimate experience of ecstasy; it is
simply--if one may so put it--a narrative of certain intimate talks with
God, once granted, when, during a few hours of the writer's life, He
explained various difficulties and made clear to her certain truths. The
impression left of the nearness of God to the soul was so vivid and
sustaining, that it is not possible to read the record of it, even now,
across six hundred years, without feeling strangely stirred by the
writer's certainty and joy.
Her vision is of Love: Love is its meaning, and it was shown her for
Love; she sees that God is Love and that God and man are one. "God is
nearer to us than our own soul, for man is God, and God is in all." If we
could only know ourselves, our trouble would be cleared away, but it is
easier to come to the knowing of God than to know our own soul. "Our
passing life here that we have in our sense-soul knoweth not what our
Self is," and the cause of our disease is that we rest in little things
which can never satisfy us, for "our Soul may never have rest in things
that are beneath itself." She actually saw God enfolding all things.
"For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and
the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the whole, so are we, soul and
body, clad in the Goodness of God, and enclosed." She further had sight
of all things that are made, and her description of this "Shewing" is so
beautiful and characteristic that it must be given in her own words.
"In this same time our Lord shewed me a spiritual sight of His
homely loving.... He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an
hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I
looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding, and thought:
_What may this be_? And it was answered generally thus: _It is all
that is made_. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it
might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was
answered in my understanding: _It lasteth, and ever shall [last]
for that God loveth it_. And so All-thing hath the Being by the
love of God." Later, she adds, "Well I wot that heaven and earth,
and all that is made is great and large, fair and good; but the
cause why it shewed so little to my sight was for that I saw it in
the presence of Him that is the Maker of all things: for to a soul
that seeth the Maker of all, all that is made seemeth full little."
"In this Little Thing," she continues, "I saw three properties. The
first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the
third, that God keepeth it. But what is to me verily the Maker, the
Keeper, and the Lover--I cannot tell; for till I am Substantially
oned to Him, I may never have full rest nor very bliss: that is to
say, till I be so fastened to Him, that there is right nought that
is made betwixt my God and me" (_Revelations_, pp. 10, 18).
Julian's vision with regard to sin is of special interest. The problem
of evil has never been stated in terser or more dramatic form.
After this I saw God in a Point, that is to say, in mine
understanding which sight I saw that He is in all things. I beheld
and considered, seeing and knowing in sight, with a soft dread, and
thought: _What is sin?_ (_Ibid_, p. 26).
Here is the age-old difficulty. God, so the mystic sees, is "in the
Mid-point of all thing," and yet, as Julian says, it is "dertain He
doeth no sin." The solution given to her is that "sin is no deed," it
"hath no part of being," and it can only be known by the pain it is
cause of. Sin is a negation, a failure, an emptiness of love, but pain
_is_ something it is a purification. Sin brings with it pain, "to me was
shewed no harder hell than sin"; but we must go through the pain in
order to learn, without it we could never have the bliss. As a wave
draws back from the shore, in order to return again with fuller force;
so sin, the lack of love, is permitted for a time, in order that an
opening be made for an inrush of the Divine Love, fuller and more
complete than would otherwise be possible. It is in some such way as
this, dimly shadowed, that it was shown to Julian that sin and pain are
necessary parts of the scheme of God. Hence God does not blame us for
sin, for it brings its own blame or punishment with it, nay more, "sin
shall be no shame to man, but worship," a bold saying, which none but a
mystic would dare utter. When God seeth our sin, she says, and our
despair in pain, "His love excuseth us, and of His great courtesy He
doeth away all our blame, and beholdeth us with ruth and pity as
children innocent and unloathful."
It would be pleasant to say more of Julian, but perhaps her own words
have sufficed to show that here we are dealing with one of the great
mystics of the world. Childlike and yet rashly bold, deeply spiritual,
yet intensely human, "a simple creature, unlettered," yet presenting
solutions of problems which have racked humanity, she inherits the true
paradoxical nature of the mystic, to which is added a beauty and
delicacy of thought and expression all her own.
There were many other mystical works written about this time in England.
Of these the best known and the finest is _The Scale, or Ladder, of
Perfection_, by Walter Hylton, the Augustinian, and head of a house of
canons at Thurgarton, near Newark, who died in 1396. This is a practical
and scientific treatise of great beauty on the spiritual life. An
interesting group of writings are the five little treatises, almost
certainly by one author (_c._ 1350-1400), to be found in Harleian 674,
and other MSS. Their names are _The Cloud of Unknowing, The Epistle of
Prayer, The Epistle of Discretion, The Treatise of Discerning Spirits_,
and _The Epistle of Privy Counsel_. We find here for the first time in
English the influence and spirit of Dionysius, and it is probably to the
same unknown writer we owe the first (very free) translation of the
_Mystical Theology_ of Dionysius, _Deonise Hid Divinite_, which is bound
up with these other manuscripts.
These little tracts are written by a practical mystic, one who was able
to describe with peculiar accuracy and vividness the physical and
psychological sensations accompanying mystical initiation. _The Cloud of
Unknowing_ is an application in simple English of the Dionysian teaching
of concentration joined to the practice of contemplation taught by
Richard of St Victor, and it describes very clearly the preliminary
struggles and bewilderment of the soul. The _Epistle of Privy Counsel_
(still in MS.) is the most advanced in mystical teaching: the writer in
it tries to explain very intimately the nature of "onehede with God,"
and to give instruction in simple and yet deeply subtle terms as to the
means for attaining this.
There is a mystical strain in other writings of this time, the most
notable from the point of view of literature being in the
fourteenth-century alliterative poem of _Piers the Plowman_. This is
mystical throughout in tone, more especially in the idea of the journey
of the soul in search of Truth, only to find, after many dangers and
disciplines and adventures, that--
If grace graunte the to go in this wise,
Thow shalt see in thi-selve Treuthe sitte in thine herte
In a cheyne of charyte as thow a childe were.
Moreover, the vision of Dowel, Dobet, and Dobest, bears a definite
analogy to the three stages of the mystic's path, as will be seen if the
description of the qualities of these three are examined, as they are
given in B., Passus viii. 11. 78-102.
* * * * *
Crashaw, George Herbert, and Christopher Harvey all alike sound the
personal note in their religious poems. All three writers describe the
love of the soul for God in the terms of passionate human love: Crashaw
with an ardour which has never been surpassed, Herbert with a homely
intimacy quite peculiar to him, and Christopher Harvey with a point and
epigrammatic setting which serve only to enhance the deep feeling of
In many a lyric of flaming passion Crashaw expresses his love-longing
for his God, and he describes in terms only matched by his spiritual
descendant, Francis Thompson, the desire of God to win the human soul.
Let not my Lord, the mighty lover
Of soules, disdain that I discover
The hidden art
Of his high stratagem to win your heart,
It was his heavnly art
Kindly to crosse you
In your mistaken love,
That, at the next remove
Thence he might tosse you
And strike your troubled heart
Home to himself.
The main feature of Herbert's poetry is the religious love lyric, the
cry of the individual soul to God. This is the mystical quality in his
verse, which is quieter and far less musical than Crashaw's, but which
possesses at times a tender fragrance and freshness, as in the little
Christopher Harvey, the friend of Izaak Walton and the admirer of
Herbert, has in his poems some lines which breathe almost as rapturous a
passion of spiritual love as anything in Crashaw. Such is his epigram
on the _Insatiableness of the Heart_.
The whole round world is not enough to fill
The heart's three corners; but it craveth still.
Onely the Trinity, that made it, can
Suffice the vast-triangled heart of man.
Or again, in a later epigram in the same poem (_The School of the
Heart_), he puts the main teaching of Plotinus and of all mystics into
four pregnant lines--
My busie stirring heart, that seekes the best,
Can find no place on earth wherein to rest;
For God alone, the Author of its blisse,
Its only rest, its onely center is.
But it is Crashaw who, of these three, shares in fullest measure the
passion of the great Catholic mystics, and more especially of St Teresa,
whom he seems almost to have worshipped. His hymn to her "name and
honor" is one of the great English poems; it burns with spiritual flame,
it soars with noble desire. Near the beginning of it, Crashaw has, in
six simple lines, pictured the essential mystic attitude of action, not
necessarily or consciously accompanied by either a philosophy or a
theology. He is speaking of Teresa's childish attempt to run away and
become a martyr among the Moors.
She never undertook to know
What death with love should have to doe;
Nor has she e're yet understood
Why to shew love, she should shed blood
Yet though she cannot tell you why,
She can LOVE, and she can DY.
Spiritual love has never been more rapturously sung than in this
marvellous hymn. Little wonder that it haunted Coleridge's memory, and
that its deep emotion and rich melody stimulated his poet's ear and
imagination to write _Christabel_. Crashaw's influence also on
Patmore, more especially on the _Sponsa Dei_, as well as later on
Francis Thompson, is unmistakable.
William Blake is one of the great mystics of the world; and he is by far
the greatest and most profound who has spoken in English. Like Henry
More and Wordsworth, he lived in a world of glory, of spirit and of
vision, which, for him, was the only real world. At the age of four he
saw God looking in at the window, and from that time until he welcomed
the approach of death by singing songs of joy which made the rafters
ring, he lived in an atmosphere of divine illumination. The material
facts of his career were simple and uneventful. He was an engraver by
profession, poet and painter by choice, mystic and seer by nature. From
the outer point of view his life was a failure. He was always crippled
by poverty, almost wholly unappreciated in the world of art and letters
of his day, consistently misunderstood even by his best friends, and
pronounced mad by those who most admired his work. Yet, like all true
mystics, he was radiantly happy and serene; rich in the midst of
poverty. For he lived and worked in a world, and amongst a company,
little known of ordinary men:--
With a blue sky spread over with wings,
And a mild Sun that mounts & sings;
With trees & fields full of Fairy elves,
And little devils who fight for themselves--
* * * * *
With Angels planted in Hawthorn bowers,
And God Himself in the passing hours.
It is not surprising that he said, in speaking of Lawrence and other
popular artists who sometimes patronisingly visited him, "They pity me,
but 'tis they are the just objects of pity, I possess my visions and
peace. They have bartered their birthright for a mess of pottage." The
strength of his illumination at times intoxicated him with joy, as he
writes to Hayley (October 23, 1804) after a recurrence of vision which
had lapsed for some years, "Dear Sir, excuse my enthusiasm or rather
madness, for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take
a pencil or graver into my hand." This is the "divine madness" of which
Plato speaks, the "inebriation of Reality," the ecstasy which makes the
poet "drunk with life."
In common with other mystics, with Boehme, St Teresa, and Madame Guyon,
Blake claimed that much of his work was written under direct
inspiration, that it was an automatic composition, which, whatever its
source, did not come from the writer's normal consciousness. In speaking
of the prophetic book _Milton_, he says--
I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve or
sometimes twenty or thirty lines at a time, without pre-meditation
and even against my will. The time it has taken in writing was thus
rendered non-existent, and an immense poem exists which seems to be
the labour of a long life, all produced without labour or study.
Whatever may be their source, all Blake's writings are deeply mystical
in thought, and symbolic in expression, and this is true of the
(apparently) simple little _Songs of Innocence_, no less than of the
great, and only partially intelligible, prophetic books. To deal at all
adequately with these works, with the thought and teaching they contain,
and the method of clothing it, would necessitate a volume, if not a
small library, devoted to that purpose. It is possible, however, to
indicate certain fundamental beliefs and assertions which lie at the
base of Blake's thought and of his very unusual attitude towards life,
and which, once grasped, make clear a large part of his work. It must be
remembered that these assertions were for him not matters of belief, but
of passionate knowledge--he was as sure of them as of his own existence.
Blake founds his great myth on his perception of unity at the heart of
things expressing itself in endless diversity. "God is in the lowest
effects as [in] the highest causes. He is become a worm that he may
nourish the weak.... Everything on earth is the word of God, and in its
essence is God."
In the _Everlasting Gospel_, Blake emphasises, with more than his usual
amount of paradox, the inherent divinity of man. God, speaking to Christ
as the highest type of humanity, says--
If thou humblest thyself, thou humblest me.
Thou also dwellst in Eternity.
Thou art a man: God is no more:
Thy own humanity learn to adore,
For that is my Spirit of Life.
Similarly the union of man with God is the whole gist of that
apparently most chaotic of the prophetic books, _Jerusalem_.
The proof of the divinity of man, it would seem, lies in the fact that
he desires God, for he cannot desire what he has not seen. This view is
summed up in the eight sentences which form the little book (about 2
inches long by 11/2 inches broad) in the British Museum, _Of Natural
Religion_. Here are four of them.
Man's perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception, he
perceives more than sense (tho' ever so acute) can discover.
None could have other than natural or organic thoughts if he had
none but organic perceptions.
Man's desires are limited by his perceptions, none can desire what
he has not perceiv'd.
The desires and perceptions of man untaught by anything but organs
of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.
The solution of the difficulty is given in large script on the last of
the tiny pages of the volume:
Therefore God becomes as we are, that we may be as he is.
According to Blake, the universe as we know it, is the result of the
fall of the one life from unity into division. This fall has come about
through man seeking separation, and taking the part for the whole. (See
Jacob Boehme's view, pp. 94, 95 above, which is identical with that of
Blake.) "Nature," therefore, or the present form of mental existence,
is the result of a contraction of consciousness or "selfhood," a
tendency for everything to shrink and contract about its own centre.
This condition or "state" Blake personifies as "Urizen" (=Reason) a
great dramatic figure who stalks through the prophetic books,
proclaiming himself "God from Eternity to Eternity," taking up now one
characteristic and now another, but ever of the nature of materialism,
opaqueness, contraction. In the case of man, the result of this
contraction is to close him up into separate "selfhoods," so that the
inlets of communication with the universal spirit have become gradually
stopped up; until now, for most men, only the five senses (one of the
least of the many possible channels of communication) are available for
the uses of the natural world. Blake usually refers to this occurrence
as the "flood ": that is, the rush of general belief in the five senses
that overwhelmed or submerged the knowledge of all other channels of
wisdom, except such arts as were saved, which are symbolised under the
names of Noah (=Imagination) and his sons. He gives a fine account of
this in _Europe_ (p. 8), beginning--
Plac'd in the order of the stars, when the five senses whelm'd
In deluge o'er the earth-born man, then turn'd the fluxile eyes
Into two stationary orbs, concentrating all things.
The ever-varying spiral ascents to the heavens of heavens
Were bended downward, and the nostrils' golden gates shut,
Turn'd outward, barr'd, and petrify'd against the infinite.
The only way out of this self-made prison is through the Human
Imagination, which is thus the Saviour of the world. By "Imagination"
Blake would seem to mean all that we include under sympathy, insight,
idealism, and vision, as opposed to self-centredness, logical argument,
materialism and concrete, scientific fact. For him, Imagination is the
one great reality, in it alone he sees a human faculty that touches both
nature and spirit, thus uniting them in one. The language of Imagination
is Art, for it speaks through symbols so that men shut up in their
selfhoods are thus ever reminded that nature herself is a symbol. When
this is once fully realised, we are freed from the delusion imposed upon
us from without by the seemingly fixed reality of external things. If we
consider all material things as symbols, their suggestiveness, and
consequently their reality, is continually expanding. "I rest not from
my great task," he cries--
To open the eternal worlds, to open the immortal eyes
Of man inwards into the worlds of thought, into eternity,
Ever expanding in the bosom of God, the human imagination.
In Blake's view the qualities most sorely needed by men are not
restraint and discipline, obedience or a sense of duty, but love and
understanding. "Men are admitted into heaven, not because they have
curbed and governed their passions, or have no passions, but because
they have cultivated their understandings." To understand is three parts
of love, and it is only through Imagination that we _can_ understand. It
is the lack of imagination that is at the root of all the cruelties and
all the selfishness in the world. Until we can feel for all that lives,
Blake says in effect, until we can respond to the joys and sorrows of
others as quickly as to our own, our imagination is dull and incomplete:
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear
A Skylark wounded in the wing
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
_Auguries of Innocence._
When we feel like this, we will go forth to help, not because we are
prompted by duty or religion or reason, but because the cry of the weak
and ignorant so wrings our heart that we cannot leave it unanswered.
Cultivate love and understanding then, and all else will follow. Energy,
desire, intellect; dangerous and deadly forces in the selfish and
impure, become in the pure in heart the greatest forces for good. What
mattered to Blake, and the only thing that mattered, was the purity of
his soul, the direction of his will or desire, as Law and Boehme would
have put it. Once a man's desire is in the right direction, the more he
gratifies it the better;
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there.
Only an extraordinarily pure nature or a singularly abandoned one could
confidently proclaim such a dangerous doctrine. But in Blake's creed, as
Swinburne has said, "the one thing unclean is the belief in
It is easy to see that this faculty which Blake calls "Imagination"
entails of itself naturally and inevitably the Christian doctrine of
self-sacrifice. It is in _Milton_ that Blake most fully develops his
great dogma of the eternity of sacrifice. "One must die for another
through all eternity"; only thus can the bonds of "selfhood" be broken.
Milton, just before his renunciation, cries--
I will go down to self-annihilation and eternal death
Lest the Last Judgment come and find me unannihilate,
And I be seiz'd and giv'n into the hands of my own Selfhood.
For, according to Blake, personal love or selfishness is the one sin
which defies redemption. This whole passage in _Milton_ (Book i., pp.
12, 13) well repays study, for one feels it to be alive with meaning,
holding symbol within symbol. Blake's symbolism, and his fourfold view
of nature and of man, is a fascinating if sometimes a despairing study.
Blake has explained very carefully the way in which the visionary
faculty worked in him:--
What to others a trifle appears
Fills me full of smiles or tears;
For double the vision my Eyes do see,
And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward Eye, 'tis an old Man grey,
With my outward, a Thistle across my way.
* * * * *
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
'Tis fourfold in my supreme delight,
And threefold in soft Beulah's night,
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton's sleep!
He says twofold always, for everything was of value to Blake as a
symbol, as a medium for expressing a still greater thing behind it. It
was in this way that he looked at the human body, physical beauty,
splendour of colour, insects, animate, states, and emotions, male and
female, contraction and expansion, division and reunion, heaven and
When his imagination was at its strongest, his vision was fourfold,
corresponding to the fourfold division of the Divine Nature, Father,
Son, Spirit, and the fourth Principle, which may be described as the
Imagination of God, without which manifestation would not be
possible. These principles, when condensed and limited so as to be
seen by us, may take the form of Reason, Emotion, Energy and Sensation,
or, to give them Boehme's names, Contraction, Expansion, Rotation, and
Vegetative life. These, in turn, are associated with the four states of
humanity or "atmospheres," the four elements, the four points of the
compass, the four senses (taste and touch counting as one), and so on.
Blake seemed, as it were, to hold his vision in his mind in solution,
and to be able to condense it into gaseous, liquid, or solid elements at
whatever point he willed. Thus we feel that the prophetic books contain
meaning within meaning, bearing interpretation from many points of view;
and to arrive at their full value, we should need to be able--as Blake
was--to apprehend all simultaneously, instead of being forced
laboriously to trace them out one by one in succession. It is this very
faculty of "fourfold vision" which gives to these books their
ever-changing atmosphere of suggestion, elusive and magical as the
clouds and colours in a sunset sky, which escape our grasp in the very
effort to study them. Hence, for the majority even of imaginative
people, who possess at the utmost "double vision," they are difficult
and often wearisome to read. They are so, because the inner, living,
vibrating ray or thread of connection which evokes these forms and
beings in Blake's imagination, is to the ordinary man invisible and
unfelt; so that the quick leap of the seer's mind from figure to figure,
and from picture to picture, seems irrational and obscure.
To this difficulty on the side of the reader, there must in fairness be
added certain undeniable limitations on the part of the seer. These are
principally owing to lack of training, and possibly to lack of patience,
sometimes also it would seem to defective vision. So that his symbols
are at times no longer true and living, but artificial and confused.
Blake has visions, though clouded and imperfect, of the clashing of
systems, the birth and death of universes, the origin and meaning of
good and evil, the function and secret correspondences of spirits, of
states, of emotions, of passions, and of senses, as well as of all forms
in earth and sky and sea. This, and much more, he attempts to clothe in
concrete forms or symbols, and if he fails at times to be explicit, it
is conceivable that the fault may lie as much with our density as with
his obscurity. Indeed, when we speak of Blake's obscurity, we are
uncomfortably reminded of Crabb Robinson's naive remark when recording
Blake's admiration for Wordsworth's _Immortality Ode_: "The parts ...
which Blake most enjoyed were the most obscure--at all events, those
which I least like and comprehend."
Blake's view of good and evil is the characteristically mystical one, in
his case much emphasised. The really profound mystical thinker has no
fear of evil, for he cannot exclude it from the one divine origin, else
the world would be no longer a unity but a duality. This difficulty of
"good" and "evil," the crux of all philosophy, has been approached by
mystical thinkers in various ways (such as that evil is illusion, which
seems to be Browning's view), but the boldest of them, and notably Blake
and Boehme, have attacked the problem directly, and carrying mystical
thought to its logical conclusion, have unhesitatingly asserted that God
is the origin of Good and Evil alike, that God and the devil, in short,
are but two sides of the same Force. We have seen how this is worked out
by Boehme, and that the central point of his philosophy is that all
manifestation necessitates opposition. In like manner, Blake's
statement, "Without Contraries is no progression," is, in truth, the
keynote to all his vision and mythology.
Attraction and Repulsion, Benson and Energy, Love and Hate, are
necessary to Human existence.
From these contraries spring what the religious call Good and Evil.
Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing
from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
With these startling remarks Blake opens what is the most intelligible
and concise of all the prophetic books, _The Marriage of Heaven and
Hell_. Swinburne calls it the greatest of Blake's books, and ranks it as
about the greatest work "produced by the eighteenth century in the line
of high poetry and spiritual speculation." We may think Swinburne's
praise excessive, but at any rate it is well worth reading (_Essay on
Blake_, 1906 edn., pp. 226-252). Certainly, if one work had to be
selected as representative of Blake, as containing his most
characteristic doctrines clothed in striking form, this is the book to
be chosen. Place a copy of _The Marriage of Heaven and Hell_ in the
hands of any would-be Blake student (an original or facsimile copy,
needless to say, containing Blake's exquisite designs, else the book is
shorn of half its force and beauty); let him ponder it closely, and he
will either be repelled and shocked, in which case he had better read no
more Blake, or he will be strangely stirred and thrilled, he will be
touched with a spark of the fire from Blake's spirit which quickens its
words as the leaping tongues of flame illuminate its pages. The kernel
of the book, and indeed of all Blake's message, is contained in the
following statements on p. 4, headed "The Voice of the Devil."
All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following
1. That man has two real existing principles, viz. a Body and a
2. That Energy, called Evil, is alone from the Body; and that
reason, called Good, is alone from the Soul.
3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his
But the following Contraries to these are True:--
1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul, for that called Body is
a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of
Soul in this age.
2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body, and Reason is the
bound or outward circumference of Energy.
3. Energy is Eternal Delight.
Blake goes on to write down some of the Proverbs which he collected
while walking among the fires of hell. These "Proverbs of Hell" fill
four pages of the book, and they are among the most wonderful things
Blake has written. Finished in expression, often little jewels of pure
poetry, they are afire with thought and meaning, and inexhaustible in
suggestion. Taken all together they express in epigrammatic form every
important doctrine of Blake's. Some of them, to be fully understood,
must be read in the light of his other work. Thus, "The road of excess
leads to the palace of wisdom," or, "If the fool would persist in his
folly he would become wise," are expressions of the idea constantly
recurrent with Blake that evil must be embodied or experienced before it
can be rejected. But the greater number of them are quite clear and
present no difficulty, as for instance the following:--
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.
He whose face gives no light shall never become a star.
No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings.
What is now proved was once only imagined.
As the air to a bird or the sea to a fish, so is contempt to the
Exuberance is Beauty.
Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth.
There are two tendencies of Blake's mind, both mystical--that is, rooted
in unity--the understanding of which helps, on the one hand, to clear
much in his writing that seems strange and difficult; and, on the
other, reveals a deep meaning in remarks apparently simple to the point
of silliness. These are his view of the solidarity of mental and
spiritual as compared with physical things, and his habit of
concentrating a universal truth into some one small fact.
For Blake, mental and spiritual things are the only real things. Thought
is more real than action, and spiritual attitude is more real than
thought. It is the most real thing about us, and it is the only thing
that is of any importance. The difference between Blake's attitude and
that of the ordinary practical man of the world is summed up in his
characteristic pencil comment in his copy of Bacon's _Essays_ on the
remark, "Good thoughts are little better than good dreams," in the Essay
on Virtue. Blake writes beside this, "Thought _is_ act." This view is
well exemplified in the Job illustrations, where Blake makes quite clear
his view of the worthlessness, spiritually, of Job's gift to the beggar
of part of his last meal, because of the consciously meritorious
attitude of Job's mind.
If this attitude be remembered it explains a good many of the most
startling and revolutionary views of Blake. For instance, in the poems
called "Holy Thursday" in the _Songs of Innocence and Experience_, he
paints first of all with infinite grace and tenderness the picture of
the orphan charity children going to church, as it would appear to the
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.
* * * * *
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.
But in short, scathing words and significant change of metre he reverses
the picture to show his view of it, when, in the companion song of
"Experience," he asks--
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?
It is owing to a false idea that we can bear to see this so-called
"charity" at all, for we--
reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
The real evil is that we can suffer the need of the crust of bread to
exist. This is a view which is gradually beginning to be realised
Blake is peculiarly daring and original in his use of the mystical
method of crystallising a great truth in an apparently trivial fact. We
have seen some of these truths in the Proverbs, and the _Auguries of
Innocence_ is nothing else but a series of such facts, a storehouse of
deepest wisdom. Some of these have the simplicity of nursery rhymes,
they combine the direct freshness of the language of the child with the
profound truth of the inspired seer.
If the Sun & Moon should Doubt
They'd immediately Go Out.
It would scarcely be possible to sum up more completely than does this
artless couplet the faith--not only of Blake--but of every mystic.
Simple, ardent, and living, their faith is in truth their life, and the
veriest shadow of doubt would be to them a condition of death. They are
the only people in the world who are the "possessors of certainty." They
have seen, they have felt: what need they of further proof? Logic,
philosophy, theology, all alike are but empty sounds and barren forms to
those who know.
To Francis Thompson the presence of the Divine in all things is the one
overwhelming fact. As a result of this sense, the consciousness that
everything is closely related, closely linked together, is ever present
in his poetry. It is the vision of this truth, he believes, which will
be the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth.
When to the new eyes of thee
All things by immortal power,
Near or far,
To each other linked are,
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.
_The Mistress of Vision._
His "Divine intoxication," his certainty of the presence of God, is the
more remarkable when it is realised through what depths of want and
degradation and suffering Thompson passed, and what his life was for
many years. His father, a north-country doctor, wished him to follow the
profession of medicine, but the son could not bear it, and so he ran
away from home with--for sole wealth--a Blake in one pocket and an
Aeschylus in the other. In his struggle for life in London, fragile in
body and sensitive in soul, he sank lower and lower, from selling boots
to errand-boy, and finally for five years living as a vagabond without
home or shelter, picking up a few pence by day, selling matches or
fetching cabs, and sleeping under the archways of Covent Garden Market
at night. At last, in the very depth of his misery, he was sought out
and rescued by the editor of the paper to whom he had sent _Health and
Holiness_ and some of his poems. This saved him, his work brought him
good friends, and he was enabled to write his wonderful poetry. These
terrible experiences, which would have quenched the faith of the
ordinary man and led him to despair, with the poet mystic sought
expression in those six triumphant verses found among his papers when he
died, verses charged with mystic passion, which assert the solid
reality of spiritual things, and tell us that to the outcast and the
wanderer every place was holy ground, Charing Cross was the gate of
heaven, and that he beheld--
Christ walking on the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!
Through all that he writes there breathes the spirit of mystic devotion
and aspiration, but the following characteristics and beliefs may be
(1) His reverence of childhood. He sees in the child something of the
divinity which Vaughan and Wordsworth saw, and his poems to children,
such as _Daisy_ and _The Poppy_, have a special quality of passionate
worship all their own.
(2) His attitude towards the beauty of woman. This is entirely mystical,
and is akin to the view of Plato and of Donne. He shares their belief
that love is but the power to catch sight of the beauty of the soul,
which shines through and actually moulds the beauty of face and body.
How should I gauge what beauty is her dole,
Who cannot see her countenance for her soul,
As birds see not the casement for the sky?
And, as 'tis check they prove its presence by,
I know not of her body till I find
My flight debarred the heaven of her mind.
(3) His attraction towards the continual change and renewal of nature,
not only of the movement of life to death, but of death to life. He
broods over the changing cycles of the year, winter and spring, decay
and re-birth, and he sees in them a profound and far-reaching symbolism.
This is magnificently expressed in the _Ode to the Setting Sun_, where
he paints a picture, unmatched in English verse, of the sun sinking to
rest amid the splendours gathered round him in his fall. The poem is
charged with mystic symbolism, the main thought of which is that human
life, ending apparently in death, is but the prelude of preparation for
a more glorious day of spiritual re-birth.
For birth hath in itself the germ of death,
But death hath in itself the germ of birth.
It is the falling acorn buds the tree,
The falling rain that bears the greenery,
The fern-plants moulder when the ferns arise.
For there is nothing lives but something dies,
And there is nothing dies but something lives.
But Francis Thompson's most entirely mystical utterance is the famous
Ode--_The Hound of Heaven_--where he pictures with a terrible vividness
and in phrase of haunting music the old mystic idea of the Love
chase. It is the idea expressed by Plotinus when he says, "God ...
is present with all things, though they are ignorant that He is so. For
they fly from Him, or rather from themselves. They are unable,
therefore, to apprehend that from which they fly" (_Ennead_, vi. Sec. 7).
We see the spirit of man fleeing in terror "down the nights and down the
days" before the persistent footsteps of his "tremendous Lover," until,
beaten and exhausted, he finds himself at the end of the chase face to
face with God, and he realises there is for him no escape and no
hiding-place save in the arms of God Himself.
The voices of the English poets and writers form but one note in a
mighty chorus of witnesses whose testimony it is impossible for any
thoughtful person to ignore. Undoubtedly, in the case of some mystics,
there has been great disturbance both of the psychic and physical
nature, but on this account to disqualify the statements of Plotinus, St
Augustine, Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, Blake, and
Wordsworth, would seem analogous to Macaulay's view that "perhaps no
person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry without a certain
unsoundness of mind." Our opinion about this must depend on what we mean
by "soundness of mind." To some it may appear possible that the mystics
and poets are as sound as their critics. In any case, the unprejudiced
person to-day would seem driven to the conclusion that these people, who
are, many of them, exceptionally great, intellectually and morally, are
telling us of a genuine experience which has transformed life for them.
What, then, is the meaning of this experience? What explanation can we
give of this puzzling and persistent factor in human life and history?
These are not easy questions to answer, and only a bare hint of lines of
solution dare be offered.
It is of interest to note that the last word in science and philosophy
tends to reinforce and even to explain the position of the mystic. The
latest of European philosophers, M. Bergson, builds up on a mystical
basis the whole of his method of thought, that is, on his perception of
the simple fact that true duration, the real time-flow, is known to us
by a state of feeling which he calls intuition, and not by an
He says something like this. We find as a matter of practice that
certain problems when presented to the intellect are difficult and even
impossible to solve, whereas when presented to our experience of life,
their solution is so obvious that they cease to be problems. Thus, the
unaided intellect might be puzzled to say how sounds can grow more alike
by continuing to grow more different. Yet a child can answer the
question by sounding an octave on the piano. But this solution is
reached by having sensible knowledge of the reality and not by logical
argument. Bergson's view, therefore, is that the intellect has been
evolved for practical purposes, to deal in a certain way with material
things by cutting up into little bits what is an undivided flow of
movement, and by looking at these little bits side by side. This, though
necessary for practical life, is utterly misleading when we assume that
the "points" thus singled out by the intellect represent the "thickness"
of reality. Reality is fluidity, and we cannot dip up its substance with
the intellect which deals with surfaces, even as we cannot dip up water
with a net, however finely meshed. Reality is movement, and movement is
the one thing we are unable intellectually to realise.
In order to grasp reality we must use the faculty of contact or
immediate feeling, or, as Bergson calls it, intuition. Intuition is a
different order of knowledge, it is moulded on the very form of life,
and it enables us to enter into life, to be one with it, to live it. It
is "a direction of movement: and, although capable of infinite
development, is simplicity itself." This is the mystic art, which in
its early stages is a direction of movement, an alteration of the
quality and intensity of the self. So Bergson, making use of and
applying the whole range of modern psychology and biology, tells us that
we must develop intuition as a philosophical instrument if we are to
gain any knowledge of things in themselves; and he is thus re-echoing in
modern terms what was long ago stated by Plotinus when he said--
Knowledge has three degrees--opinion, science, illumination. The
means or instrument of the first is sense, of the second dialectic,
of the third intuition. To the last I subordinate reason. It is
absolute knowledge founded on the identity of the mind knowing with
the object known. (_Letter to Flaccus._)
We have discovered that sense knowledge, however acute, has to be
corrected by the intellect, which tells us that the sun does not go
round the earth, although it appears to our observation to do this. So
possibly, in turn, the intellect, however acute, may have to be
corrected by intuition, and the impotence of brain knowledge in dealing
with the problem of life is leading slowly to the perception that to
_know_ in its true sense is not an intellectual process at all.
Further, in Bergson's theory of the nature of mind, and in his theory of
rhythm, he seems to indicate the lines of a technical explanation of
some part of the mystic experience. The soul, or the total psychic
and mental life of man, he says, is far greater than the little bit of
consciousness of which we are normally aware, and the brain acts as a
sheath or screen, which allows only a point of this mental life to touch
reality. The brain or the cerebral life is therefore to the whole mental
life as the point of a knife is to the knife itself. It limits the field
of vision, it cuts in one direction only, it puts blinkers on the mind,
forcing it to concentrate on a limited range of facts. It is conceivable
that what happens with the mystics is that their mental blinkers become
slightly shifted, and they are thus able to respond to another aspect or
order of reality. So that they are swept by emotions and invaded by
harmonies from which the average man is screened. Life having for them
somewhat changed in direction, the brain is forced to learn new
movements, to cut along fresh channels, and thus to receive sensations
which do not directly minister to the needs of physical life. "Our
knowledge of things," says Bergson, "derives its form from our bodily
functions and lower needs. By unmaking that which these needs have made,
we may restore to Intuition its original purity, and so recover contact
with the Real." It is possibly this very unmaking and remaking, this
readjustment which we see at work in the lives of the great mystics, and
which naturally causes great psychic and even physical disturbances.
Bergson's theory of rhythm is peculiarly illuminating in this
connection. The intellect, he says, is like a cinematograph. Moving at a
certain pace, it takes certain views, snapshots of the continuous flux
of reality, of which it is itself a moving part. The special views that
it picks out and registers, depend entirely upon the relation between
its movement and the rhythm or movement of other aspects of the flux. It
is obvious that there are a variety of rhythms or tensions of duration.
For example, in what is the fraction of a second of our own duration,
hundreds of millions of vibrations, which it would need thousands of our
years to count, are taking place successively in matter, and giving us
the sensation of light. It is therefore clear that there is a great
difference between the rhythm of our own duration and the incredibly
rapid rhythms of physical matter. If an alteration took place in our
rhythm, these same physical movements would make us conscious--not of
light--but of some other thing quite unknown.
"Would not the whole of history," asks Bergson, "be contained in a very
short time for a consciousness at a higher degree of tension than our
own?" A momentary quickening of rhythm might thus account for the
sensation of timelessness, of the "participation in Eternity" so often
described by the mystic as a part of the Vision of God.
Again, Bergson points out that there is nothing but movement; that the
idea of _rest_ is an illusion, produced when we and the thing we are
looking at are moving at the same speed, as when two railway trains run
side by side in the same direction. Here, once more, may not the mystic
sensation of "stillness," of being at one with the central Life, be
owing to some change having taken place in the spiritual rhythm of the
seer, approximating it to that of the Reality which he is thus enabled
to perceive, so that the fretful movement of the individual mind becomes
merged in the wider flow of the whole, and both seem to be at rest?
Thus, the most recent philosophy throws light on the most ancient mystic
teaching, and both point to the conclusion that our normal waking
consciousness is but one special type of many other forms of
consciousness, by which we are surrounded, but from which we are, most
of us, physically and psychically screened. We know that the
consciousness of the individual self was a late development in the race;
it is at least possible that the attainment of the consciousness that
this individual self forms part of a larger Whole, may prove to be yet
another step forward in the evolution of the human spirit. If this be
so, the mystics would appear to be those who, living with an intensity
greater than their fellows, are thus enabled to catch the first gleams
of the realisation of a greater self. In any case, it would seem
certain, judging from their testimony, that it is possible, by applying
a certain stimulus, to gain knowledge of another order of consciousness
of a rare and vivifying quality. Those who have attained to this
knowledge all record that it must be felt to be understood, but that, so
far as words are of use, it is ever of the nature of a reconciliation;
of discord blending into harmony, of difference merging into unity.
NOTE.--The literature on mysticism is growing very large, and the
following is only a small selection from the general works on it. In the
case of individual writers, references are given only where there might
be difficulty about editions. Thus no references are given to the works
of Burke, Carlyle, Wordsworth, Shelley, Tennyson, Browning, etc.
Underhill, Evelyn. _Mysticism_, Methuen, 1911. (See the valuable
Bibliography of mystical works, pp. 563-585.) _The Mystic Way_, Dent,
Jones, Rufus M. _Studies in Mystical Religion_, Macmillan, 1909.
James, William. _The Varieties of Religious Experience_, Longmans Green,
Inge, W. R. _Christian Mysticism_, Methuen, 1899. _Studies of English
Mystics_, Murray, 1905. _Light, Life and Love._ Selections from the
German mystics. With Introduction. Methuen, 1904.
Huegel, Baron F. von. _The Mystical Element in Religion_, 2 vols.. Dent,
Delacroix, H. _Etudes d'Histoire et de Psychologie du Mysticisme_,
Recejac, E. _Essai sur les fondements de la Connaissance Mystique_,
Paris, 1897 (translated by S. C. Upton, London, 1899).
Gregory, Eleanor C. _A Little Book of Heavenly Wisdom._ Selections from
some English prose mystics, with Introduction. Methuen, 1902.
Plato (_c._ 427-347 B.C.). _Opera_, ed. J. Burnet, 5 vols. (Bibliotheca
Scriptorum Classicorum Oxoniensis), 1899-1907.
Plato (Eng. trans.) _The Dialogues_, translated by B. Jowett, 5 vols.,
Oxford, 3rd ed., 1892.
Plotinus (A.D. 204-270). _Plotini Enneades, praesmisso Porphyrii de vita
Plotini deque ordine librorum ejus libello_, edidit R. Volkmann, 2
vols., Leipzig, 1883-84. (Eng. trans.) There is no complete English
translation of the _Enneads_, only _Select Works_, translated by T.
Taylor, 1817; re-issued, George Bell, 1895. (French trans.) _Les Enneades
de Plotin_, translated by M.-N. Bouillet, 3 vols., Paris, 1857-61. (This
is complete and very good, but out of print.) The best critical account
of Plotinus is in _The Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers_,
by Edward Caird, 2 vols., Maclehose, 1904.
Dionysius the Areopagite. _Works_, translated Parker, 1897.
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624). _Works_ (incomplete), 4 vols., 1764-81.
Reprint of complete works in progress, ed. C. J. Barker, published J.
Watkins. (See Bibliography to chap. xii. of _Cambridge History of
English Literature_, vol. ix.)
Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). _Works_, published by the Swedenborg
Society, London. Selections, _A Compendium of the Theological Writings_,
ed. Warren, 1901.
Thomas de Hales (fl. 1250). _A Luve Ron_, (printed in) Morris's Old
English Miscellany (E.E.T.S.), 1872.
Richard Rolle (1290?-1349). _Richard Rolle and his Followers_, ed.
Horstmann, 2 vols., Sonnenschein, 1895-6. _The Fire of Love, and the
Mending of Life_, ed. R. Harvey (E.E.T.S.), 1896.
Anonymous (_c._ 1350-1400). _The Cloud of Unknowing_, ed. Evelyn
Underhill, J. Watkins, 1912.
All printed, with other early English mystical treatises, in _The Cell
of Self-Knowledge_, ed. E. G. Gardner, Chatto & Windus, 1910. _The
Epistle of Prayer_, _The Epistle of Discretion_, _The Treatise of
Anonymous. _The Epistle of Privy Counsel_, in MS., British Museum,
Harleian, 674 and 2473.
(William Langland, or other authors.? _c._ 1362-1399). _The Vision of
William Concerning Piers the Plowman_, ed. Skeat, 2 vols., Oxford, 1886.
Jusserand, J. J. _Piers Plowman: a Contribution to the History of
English Mysticism._ Translated from the French by M. E. R., 1894.
Walter Hylton (d. 1396). _The Scale of Perfection_, ed. Guy, 1869; ed.
Dalgairns, 1870. _The Song of Angels_, printed by Gardner, in _The Cell
of Self-Knowledge_, 1910.
Julian of Norwich (1342-1413?). _Revelations of Divine Love_, ed.
Warrack, Methuen, 1912.
Richard Crashaw (1613? 1649). _Poems_, ed. A. R. Waller, Cambridge 1904.
John Donne (1573-1631). _Poetical Works_, ed. Grierson, 2 vols., Oxford,
George Herbert (1593-1633). _Poems_, ed. Grosart, 1891; Oxford edition,
Christopher Harvey (1597-1663). _Poems_, ed. Grosart, 1874.
Henry More (1614-1687). _Complete Poems_, ed. Grosart, 1878. _Life_, by
R. Ward, 1710, reprinted Theosophical Society, ed. Howard, 1911.
Henry Vaughan (1622-1695). _Poems_, ed. Chambers, 2 vols., 1896.
Thomas Traherne (_c._ 1636-1674). _Poetical Works_, ed. Dobell, 1903.
_Centuries of Meditations_, ed. Dobell, 1908. _Poems of Felicity_, ed.
Bell, Oxford, 1910.
William Law (1686-1761). _Works_, 9 vols., 1753-76, reprinted privately
by G. Moreton, 1892-3. _The Liberal and Mystical Writings of William
Law_, ed. W Scott Palmer, 1908. (See Bibliography to chap xii. of
_Cambridge History of English Literature_, vol. ix., 1912.)
William Blake (1757-1827). _Works_, ed. Ellis and Yeats, 3 vols.,
William Blake. _Poetical Works_ (including Prophetic Books), ed, Ellis,
2 vols., Chatto and Windus, 1906. _Poetical Works_ (exclusive of
Prophetic Books), ed. Sampson, Oxford, 1905. (The best text of the
poems.) _Life_, Gilchrist, 2 vols., Macmillan, 1880. _William Blake_, by
A. C. Swinburne, Chatto and Windus (new ed.), 1906. _William Blake,
Mysticisme et Poesie_, par P. Berger, Paris, 1907.
S. T. Coleridge (1772-1834). _Complete Poetical Works_, ed. E. H.
Coleridge, 2 vols., Oxford, 1912. _Biographia Literaria_, ed. J.
Shawcross, 2 vols., Oxford, 1907.
Emily Bronte (1818-1848). _Complete Poems_, ed. Shorter, Hodder and
Stoughton, 1910. _The Three Brontes_, by May Sinclair, Hutchinson, 1912.
Coventry Patmore (1823-1896). _Poems_, G. Bell, 1906. _The Rod, the
Root, and the Flower_, 1895. _Memoirs and Correspondence of C. Patmore_,
by B. Champneys, 1900.
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887). _The Story of my Heart_, 1883,
(reprinted) Longmans, 1907.
Francis Thompson (1859-1907). _New Poems_, Burns and Oates, 1897.
_Selected Poems_, 1908. _Sister Songs_, 1908.
Allen, H. E., _Authorship of the Prick of Conscience_
Bacon, Francis, _Essays_
Beauty; moon the symbol of;
Behmenists. (_See_ also under Boehme)
Bergson, mystical basis of his thought;
theory of rhythm
_Auguries of Innocence_;