Mysticism in English Literature
Caroline F. E. Spurgeon
Part 1 out of 3
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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_,
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 Brontë, 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 μύστης 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 (μύω = 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
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-Gîtâ_, 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
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
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 Phædrus. 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, §§ 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, § 8).
The whole Universe is one vast Organism (_Enn._ ix. 4, §§ 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, § 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, § 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, § 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 mediæval 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 _Phædrus_: 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
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,
§ 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
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
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
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. ...
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
He believed that sex is a relationship at the base of all things natural
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
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,
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
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 mediæval 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
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
At the end of the _Prelude_ he makes his confession of the sins he did
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Brontë, 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
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
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, § 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
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
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 £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 Brontë 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
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