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Mysticism in English Literature
Caroline F. E. Spurgeon
“Many are the thyrsus-bearers, but few are the mystics”
Mysticism in English Literature
The variety of applications of the term “mysticism” has forced me to restrict myself here to a discussion of that philosophical type of mysticism which concerns itself with questions of ultimate reality. My aim, too, has been to consider this subject in connection with great English writers. I have had, therefore, to exclude, with regret, the literature of America, so rich in mystical thought.
I wish to thank Mr John Murray for kind permission to make use of an article of mine which appeared in the _Quarterly Review_, and also Dr Ward and Mr Waller for similar permission with regard to certain passages in a chapter of the _Cambridge History of English Literature_, vol. ix.
I am also indebted to Mr Bertram Dobell, Messrs Longmans, Green, Mrs Coventry Patmore and Mr Francis Meynell for most kindly allowing me to quote from the works respectively of Thomas Traherne, Richard Jefferies, Coventry Patmore, and Francis Thompson.
Definition of Mysticism. The Early Mystical Writers. Plato. Plotinus. Chronological Sketch of Mystical Thought in England.
II. Love and Beauty Mystics
Shelley, Rossetti, Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Keats.
III. Nature Mystics
Henry Vaughan, Wordsworth, Richard Jefferies.
IV. Philosophical Mystics
(i) _Poets._–Donne, Traherne, Emily BrontÃ«, Tennyson.
(ii) _Prose Writers._–William Law, Burke, Coleridge, Carlyle.
V. Devotional and Religious Mystics
The Early English Writers: Richard Rolle and Julian; Crashawe, Herbert, and Christopher Harvey; Blake and Francis Thompson.
Mysticism in English Literature
Mysticism is a term so irresponsibly applied in English that it has become the first duty of those who use it to explain what they mean by it. The _Concise Oxford Dictionary_ (1911), after defining a mystic as “one who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding,” adds, “whence _mysticism_ (n.) (often contempt).” Whatever may be the precise force of the remark in brackets, it is unquestionably true that mysticism is often used in a semi-contemptuous way to denote vaguely any kind of occultism or spiritualism, or any specially curious or fantastic views about God and the universe.
The word itself was originally taken over by the Neo-platonists from the Greek mysteries, where the name of Î¼á½»ÏÏÎ·Ï given to the initiate, probably arose from the fact that he was one who was gaining a knowledge of divine things about which he must keep his mouth shut (Î¼á½»Ï = close lips or eyes). Hence the association of secrecy or “mystery” which still clings round the word.
Two facts in connection with mysticism are undeniable whatever it may be, and whatever part it is destined to play in the development of thought and of knowledge. In the first place, it is the leading characteristic of some of the greatest thinkers of the world–of the founders of the Eastern religions of Plato and Plotinus, of Eckhart and Bruno, of Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel. Secondly, no one has ever been a lukewarm, an indifferent, or an unhappy mystic. If a man has this particular temperament, his mysticism is the very centre of his being: it is the flame which feeds his whole life; and he is intensely and supremely happy just so far as he is steeped in it.
Mysticism is, in truth, a temper rather than a doctrine, an atmosphere rather than a system of philosophy. Various mystical thinkers have contributed fresh aspects of Truth as they saw her, for they have caught glimpses of her face at different angles, transfigured by diverse emotions, so that their testimony, and in some respects their views, are dissimilar to the point of contradiction. Wordsworth, for instance, gained his revelation of divinity through Nature, and through Nature alone; whereas to Blake “Nature was a hindrance,” and Imagination the only reality. But all alike agree in one respect, in one passionate assertion, and this is that unity underlies diversity. This, their starting-point and their goal, is the basic fact of mysticism, which, in its widest sense, may be described as an attitude of mind founded upon an intuitive or experienced conviction of unity, of oneness, of alikeness in all things. From this source springs all mystical thought, and the mystic, of whatever age or country, would say in the words of Krishna–
There is true knowledge. Learn thou it is this: To see one changeless Life in all the Lives, And in the Separate, One Inseparable.
_The Bhagavad-GÃ®tÃ¢_, Book 18.
This fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of the one divine life, and that these phenomena are fleeting and impermanent, although the spirit which informs them is immortal and endures. In other words, it leads to the belief that “the Ideal is the only Real.”
Further, if unity lies at the root of things, man must have some share of the nature of God, for he is a spark of the Divine. Consequently, man is capable of knowing God through this godlike part of his own nature, that is, through his soul or spirit. For the mystic believes that as the intellect is given us to apprehend material things, so the spirit is given us to apprehend spiritual things, and that to disregard the spirit in spiritual matters, and to trust to reason is as foolish as if a carpenter, about to begin a piece of work, were deliberately to reject his keenest and sharpest tool. The methods of mental and spiritual knowledge are entirely different. For we know a thing mentally by looking at it from outside, by comparing it with other things, by analysing and defining it, whereas we can know a thing spiritually only by becoming it. We must _be_ the thing itself, and not merely talk about it or look at it. We must be in love if we are to know what love is; we must be musicians if we are to know what music is; we must be godlike if we are to know what God is. For, in Porphyry’s words: “Like is known only by like, and the condition of all knowledge is that the subject should become like to the object.” So that to the mystic, whether he be philosopher, poet, artist, or priest, the aim of life is to become like God, and thus to attain to union with the Divine. Hence, for him, life is a continual advance, a ceaseless aspiration; and reality or truth is to the seeker after it a vista ever expanding and charged with ever deeper meaning. John Smith, the Cambridge Platonist, has summed up the mystic position and desire in one brief sentence, when he says, “Such as men themselves are, such will God Himself seem to them to be.” For, as it takes two to communicate the truth, one to speak and one to hear, so our knowledge of God is precisely and accurately limited by our capacity to receive Him. “Simple people,” says Eckhart, “conceive that we are to see God as if He stood on that side and we on this. It is not so: God and I are one in the act of my perceiving Him.”
This sense of unity leads to another belief, though it is one not always consistently or definitely stated by all mystics. It is implied by Plato when he says, “All knowledge is recollection.” This is the belief in pre-existence or persistent life, the belief that our souls are immortal, and no more came into existence when we were born than they will cease to exist when our bodies disintegrate. The idea is familiar in Wordsworth’s _Ode on the Intimations of Immortality_.
Finally, the mystic holds these views because he has lived through an experience which has forced him to this attitude of mind. This is his distinguishing mark, this is what differentiates him alike from the theologian, the logician, the rationalist philosopher, and the man of science, for he bases his belief, not on revelation, logic, reason, or demonstrated facts, but on _feeling_, on intuitive inner knowledge.
He has felt, he has seen, and he is therefore convinced; but his experience does not convince any one else. The mystic is somewhat in the position of a man who, in a world of blind men, has suddenly been granted sight, and who, gazing at the sunrise, and overwhelmed by the glory of it, tries, however falteringly, to convey to his fellows what he sees. They, naturally, would be sceptical about it, and would be inclined to say that he is talking foolishly and incoherently. But the simile is not altogether parallel. There is this difference. The mystic is not alone; all through the ages we have the testimony of men and women to whom this vision has been granted, and the record of what they have seen is amazingly similar, considering the disparity of personality and circumstances. And further, the world is not peopled with totally blind men. The mystics would never hold the audience they do hold, were it not that the vast majority of people have in themselves what William James has called a “mystical germ” which makes response to their message.
James’s description of his own position in this matter, and his feeling for a “Beyond,” is one to which numberless “unmystical” people would subscribe. He compares it to a tune that is always singing in the back of his mind, but which he can never identify nor whistle nor get rid of. “It is,” he says, “very vague, and impossible to describe or put into words…. Especially at times of moral crisis it comes to me, as the sense of an unknown something backing me up. It is most indefinite, to be sure, and rather faint. And yet I know that if it should cease there would be a great hush, a great void in my life.”
This sensation, which many people experience vaguely and intermittently, and especially at times of emotional exaltation, would seem to be the first glimmerings of that secret power which, with the mystics, is so finely developed and sustained that it becomes their definite faculty of vision. We have as yet no recognised name for this faculty, and it has been variously called “transcendental feeling,” “imagination,” “mystic reason,” “cosmic consciousness,” “divine sagacity,” “ecstasy,” or “vision,” all these meaning the same thing. But although it lacks a common name, we have ample testimony to its existence, the testimony of the greatest teachers, philosophers, and poets of the world, who describe to us in strangely similar language–
That serene and blessed mood
In which … the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood, Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things.
“Harmony” and “Joy,” it may be noted, are the two words used most constantly by those who have experienced this vision.
The mystic reverses the ordinary methods of reasoning: he must believe before he can know. As it is put in the _Theologia Germanica_, “He who would know before he believeth cometh never to true knowledge.” Just as the sense of touch is not the faculty concerned with realising the beauty of the sunrise, so the intellect is not the faculty concerned with spiritual knowledge, and ordinary intellectual methods of proof, therefore, or of argument, the mystic holds, are powerless and futile before these questions; for, in the words of Tennyson’s Ancient Sage–
Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son, Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in: Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone, Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone, Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one: Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no, Nor yet that thou art mortal–nay, my son, Thou canst not prove that I who speak with thee Am not thyself in converse with thyself, For nothing worthy proving can be proven, Nor yet disproven.
Symbolism is of immense importance in mysticism; indeed, symbolism and mythology are, as it were, the language of the mystic. This necessity for symbolism is an integral part of the belief in unity; for the essence of true symbolism rests on the belief that all things in Nature have something in common, something in which they are really alike. In order to be a true symbol, a thing must be partly the same as that which it symbolises. Thus, human love is symbolic of divine love, because, although working in another plane, it is governed by similar laws and gives rise to similar results; or falling leaves are a symbol of human mortality, because they are examples of the same law which operates through all manifestation of life. Some of the most illuminating notes ever written on the nature of symbolism are in a short paper by R. L. Nettleship, where he defines true mysticism as “the consciousness that everything which we experience, every ‘fact,’ is an element and only an element in ‘the fact’; i.e. that, in being what it is, it is significant or symbolic of more.” In short, every truth apprehended by finite intelligence must by its very nature only be the husk of a deeper truth, and by the aid of symbolism we are often enabled to catch a reflection of a truth which we are not capable of apprehending in any other way. Nettleship points out, for instance, that bread can only be itself, can only _be_ food, by entering into something else, assimilating and being assimilated, and that the more it loses itself (what it began by being) the more it “finds itself” (what it is intended to be). If we follow carefully the analysis Nettleship makes of the action of bread in the physical world, we can see that to the man of mystic temper it throws more light than do volumes of sermons on what seems sometimes a hard saying, and what is at the same time the ultimate mystical counsel, “He that loveth his life shall lose it.”
It is worth while, in this connection, to ponder the constant use Christ makes of nature symbolism, drawing the attention of His hearers to the analogies in the law we see working around us to the same law working in the spiritual world. The yearly harvest, the sower and his seed, the leaven in the loaf, the grain of mustard-seed, the lilies of the field, the action of fire, worms, moth, rust, bread, wine, and water, the mystery of the wind, unseen and yet felt–each one of these is shown to contain and exemplify a great and abiding truth.
This is the attitude, these are the things, which lie at the heart of mysticism. In the light of this, nothing in the world is trivial, nothing is unimportant nothing is common or unclean. It is the feeling that Blake has crystallised in the lines:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
The true mystic then, in the full sense of the term, is one who _knows_ there is unity under diversity at the centre of all existence, and he knows it by the most perfect of all tests for the person concerned, because he has felt it. True mysticism–and this cannot be over-emphasised–is an experience and a life. It is an experimental science, and, as Patmore has said, it is as incommunicable to those who have not experienced it as is the odour of a violet to those who have never smelt one. In its highest consummation it is the supreme adventure of the soul: to use the matchless words of Plotinus, it is “the flight of the Alone to the Alone.”
As distinguished, therefore, from the mystical thinker or philosopher, the practical mystic has direct knowledge of a truth which for him is absolute. He consequently has invariably acted upon this knowledge, as inevitably as the blind man to whom sight had been granted would make use of his eyes.
Among English writers and poets the only two who fulfil this strict definition of a mystic are Wordsworth and Blake. But we are not here concerned primarily with a study of those great souls who are mystics in the full and supreme sense of the word. For an examination of their lives and vision Evelyn Underhill’s valuable book should be consulted. Our object is to examine very briefly the chief English writers–men of letters and poets–whose inmost principle is rooted in mysticism, or whose work is on the whole so permeated by mystical thought that their attitude of mind is not fully to be understood apart from it.
Naturally it is with the poets we find the most complete and continuous expression of mystical thought and inspiration. Naturally, because it has ever been the habit of the English race to clothe their profoundest thought and their highest aspiration in poetic form. We do not possess a Plato, a Kant, or a Descartes, but we have Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Browning. And further, as the essence of mysticism is to believe that everything we see and know is symbolic of something greater, mysticism is on one side the poetry of life. For poetry, also, consists in finding resemblances, and universalises the particulars with which it deals. Hence the utterances of the poets on mystical philosophy are peculiarly valuable. The philosopher approaches philosophy directly, the poet obliquely; but the indirect teaching of a poet touches us more profoundly than the direct lesson of a moral treatise, because the latter appeals principally to our reason, whereas the poet touches our “transcendental feeling.”
So it is that mysticism underlies the thought of most of our great poets, of nearly all our greatest poets, if we except Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, and Byron. Shakespeare must be left on one side, first, because the dramatic form does not lend itself to the expression of mystical feeling, and secondly, because even in the poems there is little real mysticism, though there is much of the fashionable Platonism. Shakespeare is metaphysical rather than mystical, the difference being, roughly, that the metaphysician seeks to know the beginnings or causes of things, whereas the mystic feels he knows the end of things, that all nature is leading up to union with the One.
We shall find that mystical thought, and the mystical attitude, are curiously persistent in English literature, and that although it seems out of keeping with our “John Bull” character, the English race has a marked tendency towards mysticism. What we do find lacking in England is the purely philosophical and speculative spirit of the detached and unprejudiced seeker after truth. The English mind is anti-speculative; it cares little for metaphysics; it prefers theology and a given authority. English mystics have, as a rule, dealt little with the theoretical side of mysticism, the aspect for instance with which Plotinus largely deals. They have been mainly practical mystics, such as William Law. Those of the poets who have consciously had a system and desired to impart it, have done so from the practical point of view, urging, like Wordsworth, the importance of contemplation and meditation, or, like Blake, the value of cultivating the imagination; and in both cases enforcing the necessity of cleansing the inner life, if we are to become conscious of our divine nature and our great heritage.
For the sake of clearness, this thought may first be traced very briefly as it appears chronologically; it will, however, be considered in detail, not in order of time, but according to the special aspect of Being through which the writer felt most in touch with the divine life. For mystics, unlike other thinkers, scientific or philosophical, have little chronological development, since “mystic truths can neither age nor die.” So much is this the case that passages of Plotinus and Tennyson, of Boehme and Law, of Eckhart and Browning, may be placed side by side and be scarcely distinguishable in thought. Yet as the race evolves, certain avenues of sensation seem to become more widely opened up. This is noticeable with regard to Nature. Love, Beauty, Wisdom, and Devotion, these have been well-trodden paths to the One ever since the days of Plato and Plotinus; but, with the great exception of St Francis of Assisi and his immediate followers, we have to wait for more modern times before we find the intense feeling of the Divinity in Nature which we associate with the name of Wordsworth. It is in the emphasis of this aspect of the mystic vision that English writers are supreme. Henry Vaughan, Wordsworth, Browning, Richard Jefferies, Francis Thompson, and a host of other poet-seers have crystallised in immortal words this illuminated vision of the world.
The thought which has been described as mystical has its roots in the East, in the great Oriental religions. The mysterious “secret” taught by the Upanishads is that the soul or spiritual consciousness is the only source of true knowledge. The Hindu calls the soul the “seer” or the “knower,” and thinks of it as a great eye in the centre of his being, which, if he concentrates his attention upon it, is able to look outwards and to gaze upon Reality. The soul is capable of this because in essence it is one with Brahman, the universal soul. The apparent separation is an illusion wrought by matter. Hence, to the Hindu, matter is an obstruction and a deception, and the Eastern mystic despises and rejects and subdues all that is material, and bends all his faculties on realising his spiritual consciousness, and dwelling in that.
This type of thought certainly existed to some extent in both Greece and Egypt before the Christian era. Much of Plato’s thought is mystical in essence, and that which be points out to be the motive force of the philosophic mind is also the motive force of the mystic, namely, the element of attraction, and so of love towards the thing which is akin to him. The illustration of the dog being philosophic because he is angry with a stranger but welcomes his friend, though at first it may seem, like many of Plato’s illustrations, far-fetched or fanciful, in truth goes to the very root of his idea. Familiarity, akinness, is the basis of attraction and affection. The desire of wisdom, or the love of beauty, is therefore nothing but the yearning of the soul to join itself to what is akin to it. This is the leading conception of the two great mystical dialogues, the Symposium and the PhÃ¦drus. In the former, Socrates, in the words of the stranger prophetess Diotima, traces the path along which the soul must travel, and points out the steps of the ladder to be climbed in order to attain to union with the Divine. From beauty of form and body we rise to beauty of mind and spirit, and so to the Beauty of God Himself.
He who under the influence of true love rising upward from these begins to see that beauty, is not far from the end. And the true order of going or being led by another to the things of love, is to use the beauties of earth as steps along which he mounts upwards for the sake of that other beauty, going from one to two, and from two to all fair forms, and from fair forms to fair practices, and from fair practices to fair notions, until from fair notions he arrives at the notion of absolute beauty, and at last knows what the essence of beauty is. This … is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute.
That is a passage whose music re-echoes through many pages of English literature, especially in the poems of Spenser, Shelley, and Keats.
Plato may therefore be regarded as the source of speculative mysticism in Europe, but it is Plotinus, his disciple, the Neo-platonist, who is the father of European mysticism in its full sense, practical as well as speculative, and who is also its most profound exponent. Plotinus (A.D. 204-270), who was an Egyptian by birth, lived and studied under Ammonius Sakkas in Alexandria at a time when it was the centre of the intellectual world, seething with speculation and schools, teachers and philosophies of all kinds, Platonic and Oriental, Egyptian and Christian. Later, from the age of forty, he taught in Rome, where he was surrounded by many eager adherents. He drew the form of his thought both from Plato and from Hermetic philosophy (his conception of Emanation), but its real inspiration was his own experience, for his biographer Porphyry has recorded that during the six years he lived with Plotinus the latter attained four times to ecstatic union with “the One.” Plotinus combined, in unusual measure, the intellect of the metaphysician with the temperament of the great psychic, so that he was able to analyse with the most precise dialectic, experiences which in most cases paralyse the tongue and blind the discursive reason. His sixth Ennead, “On the Good or the One,” is one of the great philosophic treatises of the world, and it sums up in matchless words the whole mystic position and experience. There are two statements in it which contain the centre of the writer’s thought. “God is not external to any one, but is present in all things, though they are ignorant that he is so.” “God is not in a certain place, but wherever anything is able to come into contact with him there he is present” (_Enn._ vi. 9, Â§Â§ 4, 7). It is because of our ignorance of the indwelling of God that our life is discordant, for it is clashing with its own inmost principle. We do not know ourselves. If we did, we would know that the way home to God lies within ourselves. “A soul that knows itself must know that the proper direction of its energy is not outwards in a straight line, but round a centre which is within it” (_Enn._ vi. 9, Â§ 8).
The whole Universe is one vast Organism (_Enn._ ix. 4, Â§Â§ 32, 45), and the Heart of God, the source of all life, is at the centre, in which all finite things have their being, and to which they must flow back; for there is in this Organism, so Plotinus conceives, a double circulatory movement, an eternal out-breathing and in-breathing, the way down and the way up. The way down is the out-going of the undivided “One” towards manifestation. From Him there flows out a succession of emanations. The first of these is the “Nous” or Over-Mind of the Universe, God as thought. The “Mind” in turn throws out an image, the third Principle in this Trinity, the Soul of all things. This, like the “Nous,” is immaterial, but it can act on matter. It is the link between man and God, for it has a lower and a higher side. The lower side _desires_ a body and so creates it, but it is not wholly incarnate in it, for, as Plotinus says, “the soul always leaves something of itself above.”
From this World Soul proceed the individual souls of men, and they partake of its nature. Its nature is triple, the animal or sensual soul, closely bound to the body, the logical reasoning human soul, and the intellectual soul, which is one with the Divine Mind, from whence it comes and of which it is an image.
Souls have forgotten then: divine origin because at first they were so delighted with their liberty and surroundings (like children let loose from their parents, says Plotinus), that they ran away in a direction as far as possible from their source. They thus became clogged with the joys and distractions of this lower life, which can never satisfy them, and they are ignorant of their own true nature and essence. In order to return home, the soul has to retrace the path along which she came, and the first step is to get to know herself, and so to know God. (See _Enn._ vi. 9, Â§ 7.) Thus only can she be restored to the central unity of the universal soul. This first stage on the upward path is the purgative life, which includes all the civic and social virtues, gained through general purification, self-discipline, and balance, with, at the same time, a gradual attainment of detachment from the things of sense, and a desire for the things of the spirit.
The next step is to rise up to mind (_Enn._ v. 1, Â§ 3) to the world of pure thought, the highest unity possible to a self-conscious being. This is often called the illuminative life, and it might be summed up as concentration of all the faculties–will, intellect, feeling–upon God. And lastly comes the unitive life, which is contemplation, the intense desire of the soul for union with God, the momentary foretaste of which has been experienced by many of the mystics. This last stage of the journey home, the supreme Adventure, the ascension to the One above thought, this cannot be spoken of or explained in words, for it is a state beyond words, it is “a mode of vision which is ecstasy.” When the soul attains to this state, the One suddenly appears, “with nothing between,” “and they are no more two but one; and the soul is no more conscious of the body or of whether she lives or is a human being or an essence; she knows only that she has what she desired, that she is where no deception can come, and that she would not exchange her bliss for the whole of Heaven itself” (paraphrased from _Enn._ vi. 7, Â§ 24).
The influence of Plotinus upon later Christian mysticism was immense, though mainly indirect, through the writings of two of his spiritual disciples, St Augustine (354-450), and the unknown writer, probably of the early sixth century, possibly a Syrian monk, who ascribes his works to Dionysius the Areopagite, the friend of St Paul. The works of “Dionysius” were translated from Greek into Latin by the great Irish philosopher and scholar, John Scotus Erigena (Eriugena), and in that form they widely influenced later mediÃ¦val mysticism.
The fusion of Eastern mysticism with Christianity finally brought about the great change which constitutes the difference between Eastern and Western mysticism, a change already foreshadowed in Plato, for it was in part the natural outcome of the Greek delight in material beauty, but finally consummated by the teachings of the Christian faith. Eastern thought was pure soul-consciousness, its teaching was to annihilate the flesh, to deny its reality, to look within, and so to gain enlightenment. Christianity, on the other hand, was centred in the doctrine of the Incarnation, in the mystery of God the Father revealing Himself in human form. Hence the human body, human love and relationships became sanctified, became indeed a means of revelation of the divine, and the mystic no longer turned his thoughts wholly inwards, but also outwards and upwards, to the Father who loved him and to the Son who had died for him. Thus, in the West, mystical thought has ever recognised the deep symbolism and sacredness of all that is human and natural, of human love, of the human intellect, and of the natural world. All those things which to the Eastern thinker are but an obstruction and a veil, to the Western have become the very means of spiritual ascent. The ultimate goal of the Eastern mystic is summed up in his assertion, “I am Brahman,” whereas the Western mystic believes that “he who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God.”
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the mystical tradition was carried on in France by St Bernard (1091-1153), the Abbot of Clairvaux, and the Scotch or Irish Richard of the Abbey of St Victor at Paris, and in Italy, among many others, by St Bonaventura (1221-1274), a close student of Dionysius, and these three form the chief direct influences on our earliest English mystics.
England shares to the full in the wave of mystical experience, thought, and teaching which swept over Europe in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and at first the mystical literature of England, as also of France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, is purely religious or devotional in type, prose treatises for the most part containing practical instruction for the inner life, written by hermits, priests, and “anchoresses.” In the fourteenth century we have a group of such writers of great power and beauty, and in the work of Richard Rolle, Walter Hilton, Julian of Norwich, and the author of the _Cloud of Unknowing_, we have a body of writings dealing with the inner life, and the steps of purification, contemplation, and ecstatic union which throb with life and devotional fervour.
From the time of Julian of Norwich, who was still alive in 1413, we find practically no literature of a mystical type until we come to Spenser’s _Hymns_ (1596), and these embody a Platonism reached largely through the intellect, and not a mystic experience. It would seem at first sight as if these hymns, or at any rate the two later ones in honour of Heavenly Love and of Heavenly Beauty, should rank as some of the finest mystical verse in English. Yet this is not the case. They are saturated with the spirit of Plato, and they express in musical form the lofty ideas of the _Symposium_ and the _PhÃ¦drus_: that beauty, more nearly than any other earthly thing, resembles its heavenly prototype, and that therefore the sight of it kindles love, which is the excitement and rapture aroused in the soul by the remembrance of that divine beauty which once it knew. And Spenser, following Plato, traces the stages of ascent traversed by the lover of beauty, until he is caught up into union with God Himself. Yet, notwithstanding their melody and their Platonic doctrine, the note of the real mystic is wanting in the _Hymns_, the note of him who writes of these things because he knows them.
It would take some space to support this view in detail. Any one desirous of testing it might read the account of transport of the soul when rapt into union with the One as given by Plotinus (_Enn._ vi. 9, Â§ 10), and compare it with Spenser’s description of a similar experience (_An Hymne of Heavenly Beautie_, 11. 253-273). Despite their poetic melody, Spenser’s words sound poor and trivial. Instead of preferring to dwell on the unutterable ecstasy, contentment, and bliss of the experience, he is far more anxious to emphasise the fact that “all that pleased earst now seemes to paine.”
The contradictory nature of his belief is also arresting. In the early part of the _Hymne of Heavenly Beautie_, in-speaking of the glory of God which is so dazzling that angels themselves may not endure His sight, he says, as Plato does,
The meanes, therefore, which unto us is lent Him to behold, is on his workes to looke, Which he hath made in beauty excellent.
This is the view of the true mystic, that God may be seen in all His works, by the eye which is itself purified. Yet, in the last stanza of this beautiful Hymn, this is how Spenser views the joy of the union of the soul with its source, when it looks
at last up to that Soveraine Light, From whose pure beams al perfect beauty springs, That kindleth love in every godly spright Even the love of God; _which loathing brings Of this vile world and these gay-seeming things_.
This is not the voice of the mystic. It is the voice of the Puritan, who is also an artist, who shrinks from earthly beauty because it attracts him, who fears it, and tries to despise it. In truth, the dominating feature in Spenser’s poetry is a curious blending of Puritanism of spirit with the Platonic mind.
In the seventeenth century, however, England is peculiarly rich in writers steeped in mystical thought.
First come the Quakers, headed by George Fox. This rediscovery and assertion of the mystical element in religion gave rise to a great deal of writing, much of it very interesting to the student of religious thought. Among the _Journals_ of the early Quakers, and especially that of George Fox, there are passages which charm us with their sincerity, quaintness, and pure flame of enthusiasm, but these works cannot as a whole be ranked as literature. Then we have the little group of Cambridge Platonists, Henry More, John Smith, Benjamin Whichcote, and John Norris of Bemerton. These are all Platonic philosophers, and among their writings, and especially in those of John Norris, are many passages of mystical thought clothed in noble prose. Henry More, who is also a poet, is in character a typical mystic, serene, buoyant, and so spiritually happy that, as he told a friend, he was sometimes “almost mad with pleasure.” His poetical faculty is, however, entirely subordinated to his philosophy, and the larger portion of his work consists of passages from the _Enneads_ of Plotinus turned into rather obscure verse. So that he is not a poet and artist who, working in the sphere of the imagination, can directly present to us mystical thoughts and ideas, but rather a mystic philosopher who has versified some of his discourses. At this time also many of the “metaphysical poets” are mystical in much of their thought. Chief among these is John Donne, and we may also include Henry Vaughan, Traherne, Crashaw, and George Herbert.
Bunyan might at first sight appear to have many of the characteristics of the mystic, for he had certain very intense psychic experiences which are of the nature of a direct revelation of God to the soul; and in his vivid religious autobiography, _Grace Abounding_, he records sensations which are akin to those felt by Rolle, Julian, and many others. But although psychically akin, he is in truth widely separated from the mystics in spirit and temperament and belief. He is a Puritan, overwhelmed with a sense of sin, the horrors of punishment in hell, and the wrath of an outside Creator and Judge, and his desire is aimed at escape from this wrath through “election” and God’s grace. But he is a Puritan endowed with a psychopathic temperament sensitive to the point of disease and gifted with an abnormally high visualising power. Hence his resemblance to the mystics, which is a resemblance of psychical temperament and not of spiritual attitude.
In the eighteenth century the names of William Law and William Blake shine out like stars against a dark firmament of “rationalism” and unbelief. Their writings form a remarkable contrast to the prevailing spirit of the time. Law expresses in clear and pointed prose the main teachings of the German seer Jacob Boehme; whereas Blake sees visions and has knowledge which he strives to condense into forms of picture and verse which may be understood of men. The influence of Boehme in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is very far-reaching. In addition to completely subjugating the strong intellect of Law, he profoundly influenced Blake. He also affected Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, and through him, Carlyle, J. W. Farquhar, F. D. Maurice, and others. Hegel, Schelling, and Schlegel are alike indebted to him, and through them, through his French disciple St Martin, and through Coleridge–who was much attracted to him–some of his root-ideas returned again to England in the nineteenth century, thus preparing the way for a better understanding of mystical thought. The Swedish seer Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was another strong influence in the later eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Swedenborg in some ways is curiously material, at any rate in expression, and in one point at least he differs from other mystics. That is, he does not seem to believe that man has within him a spark of the divine essence, but rather that he is an organ that reflects the divine life. He is a recipient of life, but not a part of life itself. God is thought of as a light or sun outside, from which spiritual heat and light (= love and wisdom) flow into men. But, apart from this important difference Swedenborg’s thought and teaching are entirely mystical. He believes in the substantial reality of spiritual things, and that the most essential part of a person’s nature, that which he carries with him into the spiritual world, is his love. He teaches that heaven is not a place, but a condition, that there is no question of outside rewards or punishments, and man makes his own heaven or hell; for, as Patmore pointedly expresses it–
Ice-cold seems heaven’s noble glow
To spirits whose vital heat is hell.
He insists that Space and Time belong only to physical life, and when men pass into the spiritual world that love is the bond of union, and thought or “state” makes presence, for thought is act. He holds that instinct is spiritual in origin; and the principle of his science of correspondences is based on the belief that everything outward and visible corresponds to some invisible entity which is its inward and spiritual cause. This is the view echoed by Mrs Browning more than once in _Aurora Leigh_–
There’s not a flower of spring, That dies in June, but vaunts itself allied By issue and symbol, by significance
And correspondence, to that spirit-world Outside the limits of our space and time, Whereto we are bound.
In all this and much more, Swedenborg’s thought is mystical, and it has had a quite unsuspected amount of influence in England, and it is diffused through a good deal of English literature.
Blake knew some at least of Swedenborg’s books well; two of his friends, C. A. Tulk and Flaxman, were devoted Swedenborgians, and he told Tulk that he had two different states, one in which he liked Swedenborg’s writings, and one in which he disliked them. Unquestionably, they sometimes irritated him, and then he abused them, but it is only necessary to read his annotations of his copy of Swedenborg’s _Wisdom of the Angels_ (now in the British Museum) to realise in the first place that he sometimes misunderstood Swedenborg’s position and secondly, that when he did understand it, he was thoroughly in agreement with it, and that he and the Swedish seer had much in common. Coleridge admired Swedenborg, he gave a good deal of time to studying him (see Coleridge’s letter to C. A. Tulk, July 17, 1820), and he, with Boehme, were two of the four “Great Men” unjustly branded, about whom he often thought of writing a “Vindication” (Coleridge’s Notes on Noble’s Appeal, _Collected Works_, ed. Shedd, 1853 and 1884, vol. v. p. 526).
Emerson owes much to Swedenborg, and Emerson’s thought had much influence in England. Carlyle also was attracted to him (see his letter from Chelsea, November 13, 1852); Mrs Browning studied him with enthusiasm and spent the winter of 1852-3 in meditation on his philosophy (_Letters_, vol. ii. p. 141), which bore fruit four years later in _Aurora Leigh_.
Coventry Patmore is, however, the English writer most saturated with Swedenborg’s thought, and his _Angel in the House_ embodies the main features of Swedenborg’s peculiar views expressed in _Conjugial Love_, on sex and marriage and their significance. It is not too much to say that Swedenborg influenced and coloured the whole trend of Patmore’s thought, and that he was to him what Boehme was to Law, the match which set alight his mystical flame. He says Swedenborg’s _Heaven and Hell_ “abounds with perception of the truth to a degree unparalleled perhaps in uninspired writing,” and he asserts that he never tires of reading him, “he is unfathomably profound and yet simple.”
Whatever may be the source or reason, it is clear that at the end of the eighteenth century we begin to find a mystical tinge of thought in several thinkers and writers, such as Burke, Coleridge, and Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. This increases in the early nineteenth century, strengthened by the influence, direct and indirect, of Boehme, Swedenborg, and the German transcendental philosophers and this mystical spirit is very marked in Carlyle, and, as we shall see, in most of the greatest nineteenth-century poets.
In addition to those writers which are here dealt with in detail, there is much of the mystic spirit in others of the same period, to name a few only, George Meredith, “Fiona Macleod,” Christina Rossetti, and Mrs Browning; while to-day writers like “A. E.,” W. B. Yeats, and Evelyn Underhill are carrying on the mystic tradition.
Love and Beauty Mystics
In studying the mysticism of the English writers, and more especially of the poets, one is at once struck by the diversity of approach leading to unity of end.
“There are,” says Plotinus, “different roads by which this end [apprehension of the Infinite] may be reached. The love of beauty, which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher; and that love and those prayers by which some devout and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection. These are the great highways conducting to that height above the actual and the particular, where we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul.”–_Letter to Flaccus._
We have grouped together our English writers who are mystical in thought, according to the five main pathways by which they have seen the Vision: Love, Beauty, Nature, Wisdom, or Devotion. Even within these groups, the method of approach, the interpretation or application of the Idea, often differs very greatly. For instance, Shelley and Browning may both be called love-mystics; that is, they look upon love as the solution of the mystery of life, as the link between God and man. To Shelley this was a glorious intuition, which reached him through his imagination, whereas the life of man as he saw it roused in him little but mad indignation, wild revolt, and passionate protest. To Browning this was knowledge–knowledge borne in upon him just because of human life as he saw it, which to him was a clear proof of the great destiny of the race. He would have agreed with Patmore that “you can see the disc of Divinity quite clearly through the smoked glass of humanity, but no otherwise.” He found “harmony in immortal souls, spite of the muddy vesture of decay.”
The three great English poets who are also fundamentally mystical in thought are Browning, Wordsworth, and Blake. Their philosophy or mystical belief, one in essence, though so differently expressed, lies at the root, as it is also the flower, of their life-work. In others, as in Shelley, Keats, and Rossetti, although it is the inspiring force of their poetry, it is not a flame, burning steadily and evenly, but rather a light flashing out intermittently into brilliant and dazzling radiance. Hence the man himself is not so permeated by it; and hence results the unsatisfied desire, the almost painful yearning, the recurring disappointment and disillusionment, which we do not find in Browning, Wordsworth, and Blake.
In our first group we have four poets of markedly different temperaments–Shelley intensely spiritual; Rossetti with a strong tinge of sensuousness, of “earthiness” in his nature; Browning, the keenly intellectual man of the world, and Patmore a curious mixture of materialist and mystic; yet to all four love is the secret of life, the one thing worth giving and possessing.
Shelley believed in a Soul of the Universe, a Spirit in which all things live and move and have their being; which, as one feels in the _Prometheus_, is unnamable, inconceivable even to man, for “the deep truth is imageless.” His most passionate desire was not, as was Browning’s, for an increased and ennobled individuality, but for the mystical fusion of his own personality with this Spirit, this object of his worship and adoration. To Shelley, death itself was but the rending of a veil which would admit us to the full vision of the ideal, which alone is true life. The sense of unity in all things is most strongly felt in _Adonais_, where Shelley’s maturest thought and philosophy are to be found; and indeed the mystical fervour in this poem, especially towards the end, is greater than anywhere else in his writings. The _Hymn to Intellectual Beauty_ is in some ways Shelley’s clearest and most obvious expression of his devotion to the Spirit of Ideal Beauty, its reality to him, and his vow of dedication to its service. But the _Prometheus_ is the most deeply mystical of his poems; indeed, as Mrs Shelley says, “it requires a mind as subtle and penetrating as Shelley’s own to understand the mystic meanings scattered throughout the poem.”
Shelley, like Blake, regarded the human imagination as a divine creative force; Prometheus stands for the human imagination, or the genius of the world; and it is his union with Asia, the divine Idea, the Spirit of Beauty and of Love, from which a new universe is born. It is this union, which consummates the aspirations of humanity, that Shelley celebrates in the marvellous love-song of Prometheus. As befitted a disciple of Godwin, he believed in the divine potentiality of man, convinced that all good is to be found within man’s own being, and that his progress depends on his own will.
It is our will
That thus enchains us to permitted ill– We might be otherwise–we might be all We dream of happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek But in our mind?
_Julian and Maddalo._
In the allegorical introduction to the _Revolt of Islam_, which is an interesting example of Shelley’s mystical mythology, we have an insight into the poet’s view of the good power in the world. It is not an almighty creator standing outside mankind, but a power which suffers and rebels and evolves, and is, in fact, incarnate in humanity, so that it is unrecognised by men, and indeed confounded with evil:–
And the Great Spirit of Good did creep among The nations of mankind, and every tongue Cursed and blasphemed him as he passed, for none Knew good from evil.
There is no doubt that to Shelley the form assumed by the divine in man was love. Mrs Shelley, in her note to _Rosalind and Helen_, says that, “in his eyes it was the essence of our being, and all woe and pain arose from the war made against it by selfishness or insensibility, or mistake”; and Shelley himself says, “the great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own.”
Shelley was always searching for love; and, although he knew well, through his study of Plato, the difference between earthly and spiritual love, that the one is but the lowest step on the ladder which leads to the other, yet in actual practice he confounded the two. He knew that he did so; and only a month before his death, he summed up in a sentence the tragedy of his life. He writes to Mr Gisborne about the _Epipsychidion_, saying that he cannot look at it now, for–
“the person whom it celebrates was a cloud instead of a Juno,” and continues, “If you are curious, however, to hear what I am and have been, it will tell you something thereof. It is an idealized history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error–and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it–consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal.”
No poet has a more distinct philosophy of life than Browning. Indeed he has as much a right to a place among the philosophers, as Plato has to one among the poets. Browning is a seer, and pre-eminently a mystic; and it is especially interesting as in the case of Plato and St Paul, to encounter this latter quality as a dominating characteristic of the mind of so keen and logical a dialectician. We see at once that the main position of Browning’s belief is identical with what we have found to be the characteristic of mysticism–unity under diversity at the centre of all existence. The same essence, the one life, expresses itself through every diversity of form.
He dwells on this again and again:–
God is seen
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod.
And through all these forms there is growth upwards. Indeed, it is only upon this supposition that the poet can account for
many a thrill
Of kinship, I confess to, with the powers Called Nature: animate, inanimate
In parts or in the whole, there’s something there Man-like that somehow meets the man in me.
The poet sees that in each higher stage we benefit by the garnered experience of the past; and so man grows and expands and becomes capable of feeling for and with everything that lives. At the same time the higher is not degraded by having worked in and through the lower, for he distinguishes between the continuous persistent life, and the temporary coverings it makes use of on its upward way;
From first to last of lodging, I was I, And not at all the place that harboured me.
Humanity then, in Browning’s view, is not a collection of individuals, separate and often antagonistic, but one whole.
When I say “you” ’tis the common soul, The collective I mean: the race of Man That receives life in parts to live in a whole And grow here according to God’s clear plan.
_Old Pictures in Florence._
This sense of unity is shown in many ways: for instance, in Browning’s protest against the one-sidedness of nineteenth-century scientific thought, the sharp distinction or gulf set up between science and religion. This sharp cleavage, to the mystic, is impossible. He knows, however irreconcilable the two may appear, that they are but different aspects of the same thing. This is one of the ways in which Browning anticipates the most advanced thought of the present day.
In _Paracelsus_ he emphasises the fact that the exertion of power in the intelligence, or the acquisition of knowledge, is useless without the inspiration of love, just as love is waste without power. Paracelsus sums up the matter when he says to Aprile–
I too have sought to KNOW as thou to LOVE Excluding love as thou refusedst knowledge…. We must never part …
Till thou the lover, know; and I, the knower, Love–until both are saved.
Arising logically out of this belief in unity, there follows, as with all mystics, the belief in the potential divinity of man, which permeates all Browning’s thought, and is continually insisted on in such poems as _Rabbi ben Ezra, A Death in the Desert_, and _The Ring and the Book_. He takes for granted the fundamental position of the mystic, that the object of life is to know God; and according to the poet, in knowing love we learn to know God. Hence it follows that love is the meaning of life, and that he who finds it not
loses what he lived for
And eternally must lose it.
For life with all it yields of joy and woe And hope and fear …
Is just our chance o’ the prize of learning love.
_A Death in the Desert._
This is Browning’s central teaching, the key-note of his work and philosophy. The importance of love in life is to Browning supreme, because he holds it to be the meeting-point between God and man. Love is the sublimest conception possible to man; and a life inspired by it is the highest conceivable form of goodness.
In this exaltation of love, as in several other points, Browning much resembles the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. To compare the two writers in detail would be an interesting task; it is only possible here to suggest points of resemblance. The following passage from Eckhart suggests several directions in which Browning’s thought is peculiarly mystical:–
Intelligence is the youngest faculty in man…. The soul in itself is a simple work; what God works in the simple light of the soul is more beautiful and more delightful than all the other works which He works in all creatures. But foolish people take evil for good and good for evil. But to him who rightly understands, the one work which God works in the soul is better and nobler and higher than all the world. Through that light comes grace. Grace never comes in the intelligence or in the will. If it could come in the intelligence or in the will, the intelligence and the will would have to transcend themselves. On this a master says: There is something secret about it; and thereby he means the spark of the soul, which alone can apprehend God. The true union between God and the soul takes place in the little spark, which is called the spirit of the soul.
The essential unity of God and man is expressed more than once by Browning in Eckhart’s image: as when he speaks of God as Him
Who never is dishonoured in the spark He gave us from his fire of fires.
He is at one with Eckhart, and with all mystics, in his appeal from the intellect to that which is beyond intellect; in his assertion of the supremacy of feeling, intuition, over knowledge. Browning never wearies of dwelling on the relativity of physical knowledge, and its inadequacy to satisfy man. This is perhaps best brought out in one of the last things he wrote, the “Reverie” in _Asolando_; but it is dwelt on in nearly all his later and more reflective poems. His maxim was–
Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust As wholly love allied to ignorance!
There lies thy truth and safety. … Consider well!
Were knowledge all thy faculty, then God Must be ignored: love gains him by first leap.
_A Pillar at Sebzevar._
Another point of resemblance with Eckhart is suggested by his words: “That foolish people take evil for good, and good for evil.” Browning’s theory of evil is part of the working-out of his principle of what may be called the coincidence of extreme opposites. This is, of course, part of his main belief in unity, but it is an interesting development of it. This theory is marked all through his writings; and, although philosophers have dealt with it, he is perhaps the one poet who faces the problem, and expresses himself on the point with entire conviction. His view is that good and evil are purely relative terms (see _The Bean-stripe_), and that one cannot exist without the other. It is evil which alone makes possible some of the divinest qualities in man–compassion, pity, forgiveness patience. We have seen that Shelley shares this view, “for none knew good from evil”; and Blake expresses himself very strongly about it, and complains that Plato “knew nothing but the virtues and vices, the good and evil…. There is nothing in all that…. Everything is good in God’s eyes.” Mysticism is always a reconcilement of opposites; and this, as we have seen in connection with science and religion, knowledge and love, is a dominant note of Browning’s philosophy. He brings it out most startlingly perhaps in _The Statue and the Bust_, where he shows that in his very capacity for vice, a man proves his capacity for virtue, and that a failure of energy in the one implies a corresponding failure of energy in the other.
At the same time, clear knowledge that evil is illusion would defeat its own end and paralyse all moral effort, for evil only exists for the development of good in us.
Type needs antitype:
As night needs day, as shine needs shade, so good Needs evil: how were pity understood
Unless by pain?
This is one reason why Browning never shrank from the evil in the world, why indeed he expended so much of his mind and art on the analysis and dissection of every kind of evil, laying bare for us the working of the mind of the criminal, the hypocrite, the weakling, and the cynic; because he held that–
Only by looking low, ere looking high Comes penetration of the mystery.
There are other ways in which Browning’s thought is especially mystical, as, for instance, his belief in pre-existence, and his theory of knowledge, for he, like Plato, believes in the light within the soul, and holds that–
Rather consists in opening out a way Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape, Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.
_Paracelsus_, Act I.
But the one thought which is ever constant with him, and is peculiarly helpful to the practical man, is his recognition of the value of limitation in all our energies, and the stress he lays on the fact that only by virtue of this limitation can we grow. We should be paralysed else. It is Goethe’s doctrine of _Entbehrung_, and it is vividly portrayed in the epistle of Karshish. Paracelsus learns it, and makes it clear to Festus at the end.
The natural result of Browning’s theory of evil, and his sense of the value of limitation, is that he should welcome for man the experience of doubt, difficulty, temptation, pain; and this we find is the case.
Life is probation and the earth no goal But starting point of man …
To try man’s foot, if it will creep or climb ‘Mid obstacles in seeming, points that prove Advantage for who vaults from low to high And makes the stumbling-block a stepping-stone.
_The Ring and the Book_: The Pope, 1436-7, 410-13.
It is this trust in unending progress, based on the consciousness of present failure, which is peculiarly inspiriting in Browning’s thought, and it is essentially mystical. Instead of shrinking from pain, the mystic prays for it, for, properly met, it means growth.
Was the trial sore?
Temptation sharp? Thank God a second time! Why comes temptation but for man to meet And master and make crouch beneath his foot, And so be pedestaled in triumph?
_The Ring and the Book_: The Pope, 1182-02.
Rossetti’s mysticism is perhaps a more salient feature in his art than is the case with Browning, and the lines of it, and its place in his work, have been well described by Mr Theodore Watts-Dutton. We can only here indicate wherein it lies, and how it differs from and falls short of the mysticism of Shelley and Browning. Rossetti, unlike Browning, is not the least metaphysical; he is not devoured by philosophical curiosity; he has no desire to solve the riddle of the universe. All his life he was dominated and fascinated by beauty, one form of which in especial so appealed to him as at times almost to overpower him–the beauty of the face of woman. But this beauty is not an end in itself; it is not the desire of possession that so stirs him, but rather an absolute thirst for the knowledge of the mystery which he feels is hiding beneath and beyond it. Here lies his mysticism. It is this haunting passion which is the greatest thing in Rossetti, which inspires all that is best in him as artist, the belief that beauty is but the expression or symbol of something far greater and higher, and that it has kinship with immortal things. For beauty, which, as Plato has told us, is of all the divine ideas at once most manifest and most lovable to man, is for Rossetti the actual and visible symbol of love, which is at once the mystery and solution of the secret of life. Rossetti’s mystical passion is perhaps most perfectly expressed in his little early prose romance, _Hand and Soul_. It is purer and more austere than much of his poetry, and breathes an amazing force of spiritual vision. One wonders, after reading it, that the writer himself did not attain to a loftier and more spiritual development of life and art; and one cannot help feeling the reason was that he did not sufficiently heed the warning of Plotinus, not to let ourselves become entangled in sensuous beauty, which will engulf us as in a swamp.
Coventry Patmore was so entirely a mystic that it seems to be the first and the last and the only thing to say about him. His central conviction is the unity of all things, and hence their mutual interpretation and symbolic force. There is only one kind of knowledge which counts with him, and that is direct apprehension or perception, the knowledge a man has of Love, by being in love, not by reading about its symptoms. The “touch” of God is not a figure of speech.
“Touch,” says Aquinas, “applies to spiritual things as well as to material things…. The fulness of intelligence is the obliteration of intelligence. God is then our honey, and we, as St Augustine says, are His; and who wants to understand honey or requires the _rationale_ of a kiss?” (_Rod, Root, and Flower_, xx.)
Once given the essential idea, to be grasped by the intuitive faculty alone, the world is full of analogies, of natural revelations which help to support and illustrate great truths. Patmore was, however, caught and enthralled by one aspect of unity, by one great analogy, almost to the exclusion of all others. This is that in human love, but above all in wedded love, we have a symbol (that is an expression of a similar force in different material) of the love between God and the soul. What Patmore meant was that in the relationship and attitude of wedded lovers we hold the key to the mystery at the heart of life, and that we have in it a “real apprehension” (which is quite different from real comprehension) of the relationship and attitude of humanity to God. His first wife’s love revealed to him this, which is the basic fact of all his thought and work.
The relationship of the soul to Christ _as His betrothed wife_ is the key to the feeling with which prayer and love and honour should be offered to Him … _She_ showed me what that relationship involves of heavenly submission and spotless passionate loyalty.
He believed that sex is a relationship at the base of all things natural and divine;
Nature, with endless being rife,
Parts each thing into “him” and “her” And, in the arithmetic of life,
The smallest unit is a pair.
This division into two and reconciliation into one, this clash of forces resulting in life, is, as Patmore points out in words curiously reminiscent of those of Boehme, at the root of all existence. All real apprehension of God, he says, is dependent upon the realisation of his triple Personality in one Being.
Nature goes on giving echoes of the same living triplicity in animal, plant, and mineral, every stone and material atom owing its being to the synthesis or “embrace” of the two opposed forces of expansion and contraction. Nothing whatever exists in a single entity but in virtue of its being thesis, antithesis, and synthesis and in humanity and natural life this takes the form of sex, the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter, or third, forgotten sex spoken of by Plato, which is not the absence of the life of sex, but its fulfilment and power, as the electric fire is the fulfilment and power of positive and negative in their “embrace.”
The essay from which this passage is taken, _The Bow set in the Cloud_, together with _The Precursor_, give in full detail an exposition of this belief of Patmore’s, which was for him “_the burning heart of the Universe_.”
Female and male God made the man;
His image is the whole, not half; And in our love we dimly scan
The love which is between Himself.
God he conceived of as the great masculine positive force, the soul as the feminine or receptive force, and the meeting of these two, the “mystic rapture” of the marriage of Divinity and Humanity, as the source of all life and joy.
This profound and very difficult theme is treated by Patmore in a manner at once austere and passionate in the exquisite little preludes to the _Angel in the House_, and more especially in the odes, which stand alone in nineteenth-century poetry for poignancy of feeling and depth of spiritual passion. They are the highest expression of “erotic mysticism” in English; a marvellous combination of flaming ardour and sensuousness of description with purity and austerity of tone. This latter effect is gained largely by the bare and irregular metre, which has a curiously compelling beauty of rhythm and dignity of cadence.
The book into which Patmore put the fullness of his convictions, the _Sponsa Dei_, which he burnt because he feared it revealed too much to a world not ready for it, was says Mr Gosse, who had read it in manuscript, “a transcendental treatise on Divine desire seen through the veil of human desire.” We can guess fairly accurately its tenor and spirit if we read the prose essay _Dieu et ma Dame_ and the wonderful ode _Sponsa Dei_, which, happily, the poet did not destroy.
It may be noted that the other human affections and relationships also have for Patmore a deep symbolic value, and two of his finest odes are written, the one in symbolism of mother love, the other in that of father and son.
We learn by human love, so be points out, to realise the possibility of contact between the finite and Infinite, for divinity can only be revealed by voluntarily submitting to limitations. It is “the mystic craving of the great to become the love-captive of the small, while the small has a corresponding thirst for the enthralment of the great.”
And this process of intercourse between God and man is symbolised in the Incarnation, which is not a single event in time, but the culmination of an eternal process. It is the central fact of a man’s experience, “for it is going on perceptibly in himself”; and in like manner “the Trinity becomes the only and self-evident explanation of mysteries which are daily wrought in his own complex nature.” In this way is it that to Patmore religion is not a question of blameless life or the holding of certain beliefs, but it is “an experimental science” to be lived and to be felt, and the clues to the experiments are to be found in natural human processes and experiences interpreted in the light of the great dogmas of the Christian faith.
For Keats, the avenue to truth and reality took the form of Beauty. The idea, underlying most deeply and consistently the whole of his poetry, is that of the unity of life; and closely allied with this is the belief in progress, through ever-changing, ever-ascending stages. _Sleep and Poetry, Endymion_, and _Hyperion_ represent very well three stages in the poet’s thought and art. In _Sleep and Poetry_ Keats depicts the growth even in an individual life, and describes the three stages of thought, or attitudes towards life, through which the poet must pass. They are not quite parallel to the three stages of the mystical ladder marked out by Wordsworth in the main body of his poetry, because they do not go quite so far, but they are almost exactly analogous to the three stages of mind he describes in _Tintern Abbey_. The first is mere animal pleasure and delight in living–
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air; A laughing school-boy without grief or care Hiding the springy branches of an elm.
Then follows simple unreflective enjoyment of Nature. The next stage is sympathy with human life, with human grief and joy, which brings a sense of the mystery of the world, a longing to pierce it and arrive at its meaning, symbolised in the figure of the charioteer.
Towards the end of Keats’s life this feeling was growing stronger; and it is much dwelt upon in the _Revision of Hyperion_. There he plainly states that the merely artistic life, the life of the dreamer, is selfish; and that the only way to gain real insight is through contact and sympathy with human suffering and sorrow; and in the lost Woodhouse transcript of the _Revision_, rediscovered in 1904, there are some lines in which this point is still further emphasised. The full realisation of this third stage was not granted to Keats during his short life; he had but gleams of it. The only passage where he describes the ecstasy of vision is in _Endymion_ (bk. i., 1. 774 ff.), and this resembles in essentials all the other reports of this experience given by mystics. When the mind is ready, anything may lead us to it–music, imagination, love, friendship.
Feel we these things?–that moment have we stept Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit’s.
Keats felt this passage was inspired, and in a letter to Taylor in January 1818 he says, “When I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a truth.”
In _Endymion_, the underlying idea is the unity of the various elements of the individual soul; the love of woman is shown to be the same as the love of beauty; and that in its turn is identical with the love of the principle of beauty in all things. Keats was always very sensitive to the mysterious effects of moonlight, and so for him the moon became a symbol for the great abstract principle of beauty, which, during the whole of his poetic life, he worshipped intellectually and spiritually. “The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness,” he writes to his brother George; and the last two well-known lines of the _Ode on a Grecian Urn_ fairly sum up his philosophy–
Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
So that the moon represents to Keats the eternal idea, the one essence in all. This is how he writes of it, in what is an entirely mystical passage in _Endymion_–
… As I grew in years, still didst thou blend With all my ardours: thou wast the deep glen; Thou wast the mountain-top, the sage’s pen, The poet’s harp, the voice of friends, the sun; Thou wast the river, thou wast glory won; Thou wast my clarion’s blast, thou wast my steed, My goblet full of wine, my topmost deed: Thou wast the charm of women, lovely Moon!
In his fragment of _Hyperion_, Keats shadows forth the unity of all existence, and gives magnificent utterance to the belief that change is not decay, but the law of growth and progress. Oceanus, in his speech to the overthrown Titans, sums up the whole meaning as far as it has gone, in verse which is unsurpassed in English–
We fall by course of Nature’s law, not force Of thunder, or of Jove …
… on our heels a fresh perfection treads, A power more strong in beauty, born of us And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness …
… for ’tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might.
This is true mysticism, the mysticism Keats shares with Burke and Carlyle, the passionate belief in continuity of essence through ever-changing forms.
Vaughan and Wordsworth stand pre-eminent among our English poets in being almost exclusively occupied with one theme, the mystical interpretation of nature. Both poets are of a meditative, brooding cast of mind; but whereas Wordsworth arrives at his philosophy entirely through personal experience and sensation, Vaughan is more of a mystical philosopher, deeply read in Plato and the mediÃ¦val alchemists. The constant comparison of natural with spiritual processes is, on the whole, the most marked feature of Vaughan’s poetry. If man will but attend, he seems to say to us, everything will discourse to him of the spirit. He broods on the silk-worm’s change into the butterfly (_Resurrection and Immortality_); he ponders over the mystery of the continuity of life as seen in the plant, dying down and entirely disappearing in winter, and shooting up anew in the spring (_The Hidden Flower_); or, while wandering by his beloved river Usk, he meditates near the deep pool of a waterfall on its mystical significance as it seems to linger beneath the banks and then to shoot onward in swifter course, and he sees in it an image of life beyond the grave. The seed growing secretly in the earth suggests to him the growth of the soul in the darkness of physical matter; and in _Affliction_ he points out that all nature is governed by a law of periodicity and contrast, night and day, sunshine and shower; and as the beauty of colour can only exist by contrast, so are pain, sickness, and trouble needful for the development of man. These poems are sufficient to illustrate the temper of Vaughan’s mind, his keen, reverent observation of nature in all her moods, and his intense interest in the minutest happenings, because they are all manifestations of the one mighty law.
Vaughan appears to have had a more definite belief in pre-existence than Wordsworth, for he refers to it more than once; and _The Retreate_, which is probably the best known of all his poems and must have furnished some suggestion for the _Immortality Ode_, is based upon it. Vaughan has occasionally an almost perfect felicity of mystical expression, a power he shares with Donne, Keats, Rossetti, and Wordsworth. His ideas then produce their effect through the medium of art, directly on the feelings. The poem called _Quickness_ is perhaps the best example of this peculiar quality, which cannot be analysed but must simply be felt; or _The World_, with its magnificent symbol in the opening lines:–
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great _Ring_ of pure and endless light, All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years, Driv’n by the spheres,
Like a vast shadow mov’d.
Mysticism is the most salient feature of Wordsworth’s poetry, for he was one who saw, whose inward eye was focussed to visions scarce dreamt of by men. It is because of the strangeness and unfamiliarity of his vision that he is a difficult poet to understand, and the key to the understanding of him is a mystic one. People talk of the difficulty of Browning, but he is easy reading compared with a great deal of Wordsworth. It is just the apparent simplicity of Wordsworth’s thought which is so misleading. A statement about him of the following kind would be fairly generally accepted as the truth. Wordsworth was a simple-minded poet with a passion for nature, he found great joy and consolation in the contemplation of the beauty of hills and dales and clouds and flowers, and urged others to find this too; he lived, and recommended others to live a quiet retired unexciting kind of life, and he preached a doctrine of simplicity and austerity. Now, except that Wordsworth had a passion for Nature, there is not a single true statement here. Wordsworth was not only a poet, he was also a seer, a mystic and a practical psychologist with an amazingly subtle mind, and an unusual capacity for feeling; he lived a life of excitement and passion, and he preached a doctrine of magnificence and glory. It was not the beauty of Nature which brought him joy and peace, but the _life_ in Nature. He himself had caught a vision of that life, he knew it and felt it, and it transformed the whole of existence for him. He believed that every man could attain this vision which he so fully possessed, and his whole life’s work took the form of a minute and careful analysis of the processes of feeling in his own nature, which he left as a guide for those who would tread the same path. It would be correct to say that the whole of his poetry is a series of notes and investigations devoted to the practical and detailed explanation of how he considered this state of vision might be reached. He disdained no experience–however trivial, apparently–the working of the mind of a peasant child or an idiot boy, the effect produced on his own emotions by a flower, a glowworm, a bird’s note, a girl’s song; he passed by nothing which might help to throw light on this problem. The experience which Wordsworth was so anxious others should share was the following. He found that when his mind was freed from pre-occupation with disturbing objects, petty cares, “little enmities and low desires,” that he could then reach a condition of equilibrium, which he describes as a “wise passiveness,” or a “happy stillness of the mind.” He believed this condition could be deliberately induced by a kind of relaxation of the will, and by a stilling of the busy intellect and striving desires. It is a purifying process, an emptying out of all that is worrying, self-assertive, and self-seeking. If we can habitually train ourselves and attune our minds to this condition, we may at any moment come across something which will arouse our emotions, and it is then, when our emotions–thus purified–are excited to the point of passion, that our vision becomes sufficiently clear to enable us to gain actual experience of the “central peace subsisting for ever at the heart of endless agitation.” Once seen, this vision changes for us the whole of life; it reveals unity in what to our every-day sight appears to be diversity, harmony where ordinarily we hear but discord, and joy, overmastering joy, instead of sorrow.
It is a kind of illumination, whereby in a lightning flash we see that the world is quite different from what it ordinarily appears to be, and when it is over–for the experience is but momentary–it is impossible to describe the vision in precise terms, but the effect of it is such as to inspire and guide the whole subsequent life of the seer. Wordsworth several times depicts this “bliss ineffable” when “all his thought were steeped in feeling.” The well-known passage in _Tintern Abbey_ already quoted (p. 7) is one of the finest analysis of it left us by any of the seers, and it closely resembles the accounts given by Plotinus and Boehme of similar experiences.
To Wordsworth this vision came through Nature, and for this reason. He believed that all we see round us is alive, beating with the same life which pulsates in us. It is, he says,–
my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
and that if we will but listen and look, we will hear and see and feel this central life. This is the pith of the message we find repeated again and again in various forms throughout Wordsworth’s poetry, and perhaps best summed up at the end of the fourth book of the _Excursion_, a book which should be closely studied by any one who would explore the secret of the poet’s outlook upon life. He tells us in the _Prelude_ (Book iii.) that even in boyhood it was by this feeling he “mounted to community with highest truth”–
To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower, Even the loose stones that cover the highway, I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all That I beheld respired with inward meaning.
Wordsworth, in short, was haunted by the belief that the secret of the universe is written clearly all round us, could we but train and purify our mind and emotions so as to behold it. He believed that we are in something the same attitude towards Nature as an illiterate untrained person might be in the presence of a book containing the philosophy of Hegel. To the educated trained thinker, who by long and arduous discipline has developed his mental powers, that book contains the revelation of the thought of a great mind; whereas to the uneducated person it is merely a bundle of paper with words printed on it. He can handle it, touch it, see it, he can read the words, he can even understand many of them separately, but the essence of the book and its meaning remains closed to him until he can effect some alteration in himself which will enable him to understand it.
Wordsworth’s claim is that he had discovered by his own experience a way to effect the necessary alteration in ourselves which will enable us to catch glimpses of the truths expressing themselves all round us. It is a great claim, but he would seem to have justified it.
It is interesting that the steps in the ladder of perfection, as described by Wordsworth, are precisely analogous to the threefold path or “way” of the religious and philosophic mystic, an ethical system or rule of life, of which, very probably, Wordsworth had never heard.
The mystic vision was not attained by him, any more than by others, without deliberate renunciation. He lays great stress upon this; and yet it is a point in his teaching sometimes overlooked. He insists repeatedly upon the fact that before any one can taste of these joys of the spirit, he must be purified, disciplined, self-controlled. He leaves us a full account of his purgative stage. Although he started life with a naturally pure and austere temperament, yet he had deliberately to crush out certain strong passions to which he was liable, as well as all personal ambition, all love of power, all desire for fame or money; and to confine himself to the contemplation of such objects as–
No morbid passions, no disquietude, No vengeance and no hatred.
In the _Recluse_ he records how he deliberately fought, and bent to other uses, a certain wild passionate delight he felt in danger, a struggle or victory over a foe, in short, some of the primitive instincts of a strong, healthy animal, feelings which few would regard as reprehensible. These natural instincts, this force and energy, good in themselves, Wordsworth did not crush, but deliberately turned into a higher channel.
At the end of the _Prelude_ he makes his confession of the sins he did not commit.
Never did I, in quest of right and wrong, Tamper with conscience from a private aim; Nor was in any public hope the dupe
Of selfish passions; nor did ever yield Wilfully to mean cares or low pursuits.
Such a confession, or rather boast, in the mouth of almost any other man would sound hypocritical or self-complacent; but with Wordsworth, we feel it is the bare truth told us for our help and guidance, as being the necessary and preliminary step. It is a high standard which is held up before us, even in this first stage, for it includes, not merely the avoidance of all obvious sins against man and society, but a tuning-up, a transmuting of the whole nature to high and noble endeavour. Wordsworth found his reward, in a settled state of calm serenity, “consummate happiness,” “wide-spreading, steady, calm, contemplative,” and, as he tells us in the fourth book of the _Prelude_, on one evening during that summer vacation,
Gently did my soul
Put off her veil, and, self-transmuted, stood Naked, as in the presence of her God.
When the mind and soul have been prepared, the next step is concentration, aspiration. Then it is borne in upon the poet that in the infinite and in the eternal alone can we find rest, can we find ourselves; and towards this infinitude we must strive with unflagging ardour;
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, Is with infinitude, and only there.
_Prelude_, Book vi. 604.
The result of this aspiration towards the infinite is a quickening of consciousness, upon which follows the attainment of the third or unitive stage, the moment when man can “breathe in worlds to which the heaven of heavens is but a veil,” and perceive “the forms whose kingdom is where time and place are not.” Such minds–
need not extraordinary calls
To rouse them; in a world of life they live, By sensible impressions not enthralled, … the highest bliss
That flesh can know _is theirs_–the consciousness Of Whom they are.
_Prelude_, Book xiv. 105, 113,
Wordsworth possessed in a peculiar degree a mystic sense of infinity, of the boundless, of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental; and he had a rare power of putting this into words. It was a feeling which, as he tells us in the _Prelude_ (Book xiii.), he had from earliest childhood, when the disappearing line of the public highway–
Was like an invitation into space
Boundless, or guide into eternity,
a feeling which, applied to man, gives that inspiriting certitude of boundless growth, when the soul has–
… an obscure sense
Of possible sublimity, whereto
With growing faculties she doth aspire.
It is at this point, and on this subject, that Wordsworth’s poetical and ethical imagination are most nearly fused. This fusion is far from constant with him; and the result is that there are tracts of his writings where the sentiments are excellent, the philosophy illuminating, but the poetry is not great: it does not awaken the “transcendental feeling.” The moments when this condition is most fully attained by Wordsworth occur when, by sheer force of poetic imagination combined with spiritual insight, in some mysterious and indescribable way, he flashes upon us a sensation of boundless infinity. Herein consists the peculiar magic of such a poem as _Stepping Westward_; and there is a touch of the same feeling in the _Solitary Reaper_.
It is hardly necessary to dwell on other mystical elements in Wordsworth, such as his belief in the one law governing all things, “from creeping plant to sovereign man,” and the hint of belief in pre-existence in the _Ode on Immortality_. His attitude towards life as a whole is to be found in a few lines in the “after-thought” to the Duddon sonnets.
The Form remains, the Function never dies; While we, the brave, the mighty and the wise, We Men, who in our morn of youth defied The elements, must vanish:–be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power To live, and act, and serve the future hour; And if, as toward the silent tomb we go, Through love, through hope, and faith’s transcendent dower, We feel that we are greater than we know.
Richard Jefferies is closely akin to Wordsworth in his overpowering consciousness of the life in nature. This consciousness is the strongest force in him, so that at times he is almost submerged by it, and he loses the sense of outward things. In this condition of trance the sense of time vanishes, there is, he asserts, no such thing, no past or future, only now, which is eternity. In _The Story of my Heart_, a rhapsody of mystic experience and aspiration he describes in detail several such moments of exaltation or trance. He seems to be peculiarly sensitive to sunshine. As the moon typifies to Keats the eternal essence in all things, so to Jefferies the sun seems to be the physical expression or symbol of the central Force of the world, and it is through gazing on sunlight that he most often enters into the trance state.
Standing, one summer’s morning, in a recess on London Bridge, he looks out on the sunshine “burning on steadfast,” “lighting the great heaven; gleaming on my finger-nail.”
“I was intensely conscious of it,” he writes, “I felt it; I felt the presence of the immense powers of the universe; I felt out into the depths of the ether. So intensely conscious of the sun, the sky, the limitless space, I felt too in the midst of eternity then, in the midst of the supernatural, among the immortal, and the greatness of the material realised the spirit. By these I saw my soul; by these I knew the supernatural to be more intensely real than the sun. I touched the supernatural, the immortal, there that moment.”
When he reaches this state, outer things drop away, and he seems to become lost, and absorbed into the being of the universe. He partakes, momentarily, of a larger, fuller life, he drinks in vitality through nature. The least blade of grass, he says, or the greatest oak, “seemed like exterior nerves and veins for the conveyance of feeling to me. Sometimes a very ecstasy of exquisite enjoyment of the entire visible universe filled me.”
This great central Life Force, which Jefferies, like Wordsworth, seemed at moments to touch, he, in marked contrast to other mystics, refuses to call God. For, he says, what we understand by deity is the purest form of mind, and he sees no mind in nature. It is a force without a mind, “more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.” Yet this cannot content him, for later he declares there must be an existence higher than deity, towards which he aspires and presses with the whole force of his being. “Give me,” he cries, “to live the deepest soul-life now and always with this ‘Highest Soul.'”
This thrilling consciousness of spiritual life felt through nature, coupled with passionate aspiration to be absorbed in that larger life, are the two main features of the mysticism of Richard Jefferies.
His books, and especially _The Story of my Heart_, contain, together with the most exquisite nature description, a rich and vivid record of sensation, feeling, and aspiration. But it is a feeling which, though vivifying, can only be expressed in general terms, and it carries with it no vision and no philosophy. It is almost entirely emotional, and it is as an emotional record that it is of value, for Jefferies’ intellectual reflections are, for the most part, curiously contradictory and unconvincing.
The certainty and rapture of this experience of spiritual emotion is all the more amazing when we remember that the record of it was written in agony, when he was wrecked with mortal illness and his nerves were shattered with pain. For with him, as later with Francis Thompson, physical pain and material trouble seemed to serve only to direct him towards and to enhance the glory of the spiritual vision.
The mystical sense may be called philosophical in all those writers who present their convictions in a philosophic form calculated to appeal to the intellect as well as to the emotions. These writers, as a rule, though not always, are themselves markedly intellectual, and their primary concern therefore is with truth or wisdom. Thus Donne, William Law, Burke, Coleridge, and Carlyle are all predominantly intellectual, while Traherne, Emily BrontÃ«, and Tennyson clothe their thoughts to some extent in the language of philosophy.
The dominating characteristic of Donne is intellectuality; and this may partly account for the lack in him of some essentialty mystical qualities, more especially reverence, and that ascension of thought so characteristic of Plato and Browning. These shortcomings are very well illustrated in that extraordinary poem, _The, Progress of the Soul_. The idea is a mystical one, derived from Pythagorean philosophy, and has great possibilities, which Donne entirely fails to utilise; for, instead of following the soul upwards on its way, he depicts it as merely jumping about from body to body, and we are conscious of an entire lack of any lift or grandeur of thought. This poem helps us to understand how it was that Donne, though so richly endowed with intellectual gifts, yet failed to reach the highest rank as a poet. He was brilliant in particulars, but lacked the epic qualities of breadth, unity, and proportion, characteristics destined to be the distinctive marks of the school of which he is looked upon as the founder.
Apart from this somewhat important defect, Donne’s attitude of mind is essentially mystical. This is especially marked in his feeling about the body and natural law, in his treatment of love, and in his conception of woman. The mystic’s postulate–if we could know ourselves, we should know all–is often on Donne’s lips, as for instance in that curious poem written in memory of Elizabeth Drury, on the second anniversary of her death. It is perhaps best expressed in the following verse:
But we know our selves least; Mere outward shews Our mindes so store,
That our soules, no more than our eyes disclose But forme and colour. Onely he who knowes Himselfe, knowes more.
_Ode: Of our Sense of Sinne._
One of the marked characteristics of Donne’s poetry is his continual comparison of mental and spiritual with, physical processes. This sense of analogy prevailing throughout nature is with him very strong. The mystery of continual flux and change particularly attracts him, as it did the Buddhists and the early Greek thinkers, and Nettleship’s remarks about the nature of bread and unselfishness are akin to the following comparison:–
Dost thou love
Beauty? (And beauty worthy’st is to move) Poor cousened consener, _that_ she, and _that_ thou, Which did begin to love, are neither now; Next day repaires (but ill) last dayes decay. Nor are, (although the river keepe the name) Yesterdaies waters, and to-daies the same.
_Of the Progresse of the Soule. The second Anniversarie_, 389-96.
Donne believes firmly in man’s potential greatness, and the power within his own soul:
Seeke wee then our selves in our selves; for as Men force the Sunne with much more force to passe. By gathering his beames with a chrystall glasse;
So wee, If wee into our selves will turne, Blowing our sparkes of virtue, may out-burne The straw, which doth about our hearts sojourne.
_Letter to Mr Roland Woodward._
And although, in the _Progress of the Soul_, he failed to give expression to it, yet his belief in progress is unquenchable. He fully shares the mystic’s view that “man, to get towards Him that’s Infinite, must first be great” (_Letter to the Countess of Salisbury_).
In his treatment of love, Donne’s mystical attitude is most clearly seen. He holds the Platonic conception, that love concerns the soul only, and is independent of the body, or bodily presence; and he is the poet, who, at his best, expresses this idea in the most dignified and refined way. The reader feels not only that Donne believes it, but that he has in some measure experienced it; whereas with his imitators it degenerated into little more than a fashionable “conceit.” The _Undertaking_ expresses the discovery he has made of this higher and deeper kind of love; and in the _Ecstasy_ he describes the union of the souls of two lovers in language which proves his familiarity with the description of ecstasy given by Plotinus (_Enn._ vi. 9, Â§ 11). The great value of this spiritual love is that it is unaffected by time and space, a belief which is nowhere more exquisitely expressed than in the refrain of his little song, _Soul’s Joy_.
O give no way to griefe,
But let beliefe
Of mutuall love,
This wonder to the vulgar prove
Our Bodyes, not wee move.
In one of his verse letters to the Countess of Huntingdon he explains how true love cannot be desire:
‘Tis love, but with such fatall weaknesse made, That it destroyes it selfe with its owne shade.
He goes still further in the poem entitled _Negative Love_, where he says that love is such a passion as can only be defined by negatives, for it is above apprehension, and his language here is closely akin to the description of the One or the Good given by Plotinus in the sixth Ennead.
Thomas Traherne is a mystical writer of singular charm and originality. The manuscripts of his poems and his prose _Meditations_, a kind of spiritual autobiography and notebook, were only discovered and printed quite recently, and they form a valuable addition to the mystical literature of the seventeenth century.
He has affinities with Vaughan, Herbert, and Sir Thomas Browne, with Blake and with Wordsworth. He is deeply sensitive to the beauty of the natural world, and he insists on the necessity for rejoicing in this beauty if we are really to live. By love alone is God to be approached and known, he says, but this love must not be finite. “He must be loved in all with an unlimited love, even in all His doings, in all His friends, in all His creatures.” In a prose passage of sustained beauty Traherne thus describes the attitude towards earth which is needful before we can enter heaven.
You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars:…. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.
Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels;…. till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never enjoy the world…. The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God…. It is, the place of Angels and the Gate of Heaven.
He is for ever reiterating, in company with all the mystics, that
‘Tis not the object, but the light
That maketh Heaven: ’tis a purer sight.
He shares Wordsworth’s rapture in the life of nature, and Browning’s interest in his fellow-men; he has Shelley’s belief in the inner meaning of love, and much of Keats’s worship of beauty, and he expresses this in an original and lyrical prose of quite peculiar and haunting beauty. He has embodied his main ideas, with a good deal of repetition both in prose and verse, but it is invariably the prose version, probably written first, which is the most arresting and vigorous.
His _Meditations_ well repay careful study; they are full of wisdom and of an imaginative philosophy, expressed in pithy and telling form, which continually reminds the reader of Blake’s _Proverbs of Hell_.
To have no principles or to live beside them, is equally miserable. Philosophers are not those that speak but do great things. All men see the same objects, but do not equally understand them. Souls to souls are like apples, one being rotten rots another.
This kind of saying abounds on every page. Some of his more sustained philosophic passages are also noteworthy; such, for instance, is his comparison of the powers of the soul to the rays of the sun, which carry light in them unexpressed until they meet an object (_Meditations_, second century, No. 78). But Traherne’s most interesting contribution to the psychology of mysticism is his account of his childhood and the “vision splendid” that he brought with him. Even more to him than to Vaughan or Wordsworth,
The earth, and every common sight
… did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
and his description of his feelings and spiritual insight are both astonishing and convincing. A number of his poems are devoted to this topic (_The Salutation, Wonder, Eden, Innocence, The Rapture, The Approach_, and others), but it is the prose account which must be given.
All appeared now, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. I was a little stranger, which at my entrance into the world was saluted and surrounded with innumerable joys…. The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold: the gates were at first the end of the world. The green trees when I saw them first … transported and ravished me, their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy, they were such strange and wonderful things. The Men! O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of life and beauty! Boys and girls tumbling in the street, and playing, were moving jewels. I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally as they were in their proper places…. The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven.
It is necessary to quote at some length, because it is the way in which Traherne expresses his experiences or reflections which is the moving and original thing about him. This last passage seems to anticipate something of the magic of Keats in the _Ode to a Nightingale_ or the _Grecian Urn_, the sense of continuity, and of eternity expressed in time. Traherne’s account of the gradual dimming of this early radiance, and his enforced change of values is equally unusual. Only with great difficulty did his elders persuade him “that the tinselled ware upon a hobby-horse was a fine thing” and that a purse of gold was of any value, but by degrees when he found that all men prized things he did not dream of, and never mentioned those he cared for, then his “thoughts were blotted out; and at last all the celestial great and stable treasures, to which I was born, as wholly forgotten, if as they had never been.”
But he remembered enough of those early glories to realise that if he would regain happiness, he must “become, as it were, a little child again,” get free of “the burden and cumber of devised wants,” and recapture the value and the glory of the common things of life.
He was so resolutely bent on this that when he had left college and come into the country and was free, he lived upon Â£10 a year, fed on bread and water, and, like George Fox, wore a leather suit. Thus released from all worldly cares, he says, through God’s blessing, “I live a free and kingly life as if the world were turned again into Eden, or much more, as it is at this day.”
In Emily BrontÃ« we have an unusual type of mystic. Indeed she is one of the most strange and baffling figures in our literature. We know in truth very little about her, but that little is quite unlike what we know about any one else. It is now beginning to be realised that she was a greater and more original genius than her famous sister, and that strong as were Charlotte’s passion and imagination, the passion and imagination of Emily were still stronger. She had, so far as we can tell, peculiarly little actual experience of life, her material