Posts Tagged ‘George Herbert’

A Mumbai pavement

The drive up the section of the Western Ghats from Mumbai towards Panchgani was much less scary than the last time we came. Instead of the single track, with two way traffic winding alongside vertiginous drops into the valleys below, we wound our way serenely up and down three-lane dual carriageways higher and higher into the mountains, past the same river and in sight of the same lakes as before.

Even so it was a longer drive than expected, more than five hours, because of the dense volume of traffic leaving Mumbai.

The closer we got the more peaceful it became. Unlike Mumbai, Panchgani had not changed all that much – slightly busier perhaps, but still much quieter, much slower, than Mumbai.

I’m publishing a couple of poems relating to this place, one that I love the most in India. One is the reposting last Monday of the story of the burial of my wife’s grandma and the next one tries to capture the emotional impact of this most recent visit.

This post has a different purpose.

Bougainvillea in Panchagani

The value of this visit did not just reside in revisiting old haunts, like grandma’s grave, Table Land or my wife’s old school, important as those experiences were.

This post is going to try and record something much harder to define. It is something that belongs among those strange coincidences and sudden leaps of faith that led to my becoming a psychologist and choosing the Bahá’í path. It didn’t involve anything so dramatically life changing but it had something of the same strange unsettling power.

Panchgani is much colder than Mumbai, though I did not really notice this until after sunset. We hadn’t thought to bring any warmer clothes than those we had been wearing at sea level.

As the sun was setting and we sat on the patio of the Prospect Hotel where we were staying, the conversation became an ever more intense exploration of spiritual issues with like-minded souls (I’ll not share their names for fear of embarrassing them). Two of them were as deeply interested in spiritual psychology as I am. Rarely have I ever had the chance to meet with psychologists with a spiritual bent, probably because such people are as almost as rare as the Phoenix, for reasons I have explored elsewhere on this blog. The sense of rising energy became stronger every moment as the exploration continued and I did not notice at first how much I was shivering.

At last I apologised for breaking the flow of the conversation saying that I had to go to my room to get my dressing gown, the only warm garment I had with me. Immediately, I was offered a warm sweater, which I gratefully accepted, and sat down again to immerse myself once more in the refreshing flow of conversation.

As we spoke many books were mentioned. I threw into the mix at various points the recent books I’d read about Shoghi Effendi through the eyes of the pilgrims who visited Haifa in his lifetime, and at least one book from long ago – Schweder’s Thinking Through Cultures – which I blogged about a long time back.

One of my companions mentioned a book I’d never heard of: The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak. I wrote the title and the author down, but didn’t think much more of it at the time. I noticed that the sweater had not done much to diminish my underlying sense of shaking which clearly wasn’t to do with feeling cold anymore. It didn’t feel like shivering anymore: perhaps it had never been only that.

I had to entertain the possibility that some other seismic change was taking place at an altogether different level, something perhaps to do with the territory we were treading together or the connection that was active between us all or maybe both.

Anyway, once the intensity of the conversation died down, the rest of the visit, though memorable for the beauty of the place, the hospitality of our hosts and tranquility of the whole environment, lacked anything quite so dramatic.

We were very sad to leave the following day after so short a stay.

It was only later that a synchronicity occurred that suggested that the conversation in Panchgani might have had more to it than I thought.

I was lamenting to my wife that I should have brought more books. I had finished the two massive tomes I’d brought with me. I thought they’d last the whole trip and possibly beyond. Three weeks, with not much other work to do, can gobble up more pages than I realized.

A few hours later there was a knock on the door.

‘It’s a parcel for you,’ my sister shouted.

‘For me?’

‘Yes, for you.’

I went to the door and signed for the package the postman handed over.

I looked at the label. It was from the person who had recommended the book by Shafak. I could tell immediately the parcel contained a book.

You will have already guessed which book it contained. You’ve got it: The Forty Rules of Love.

As usual I checked out the reviews. One of them referred to it as a children’s book, not my usual diet. Other reviews and a quick glance inside the book itself quickly dispelled that delusion. I don’t know (m)any children who would read their way through this book.

Even more convincing was my web search of the topic and the discovery of the entire list of 40 rules in condensed form. Some of them were amazingly resonant. I’ll deal with the issue of whether they are expressed in this way by either Shams or Rumi later.

Take Rule 6 for example: ‘Loneliness and solitude are two different things. When you are lonely, it is easy to delude yourself into believing that you are on the right path. Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely. But eventually it is the best to find a person who will be your mirror. Remember only in another person’s heart can you truly see yourself and the presence of God within you.’

One sentence in particular struck a chord with me: ‘Solitude is better for us, as it means being alone without feeling lonely.’

Ever since childhood, with its experiences of stays in hospital for surgery before the days when parents could remain close, I have felt that in the end I cannot be absolutely sure that, in times of need, I will have someone there to support me. I learned the importance of self-reliance early and have practiced it often. This, combined with my introversion, means that loneliness is not a feeling I’m familiar with. I don’t generally feel lonely when alone. I invent, or perhaps naturally possess, purposes to pursue by myself. I love the company of like-minded hearts as the Panchgani episode illustrates, but I can use books, writing, art and nature as satisfactory substitutes for quite long periods of time if necessary. So, I relate to that point, though admittedly in my fashion. I’m not so clear about the mirror idea.

I also found I related pretty strongly to Rule 9 as well: ‘East, west, south, or north makes little difference. No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you’ll travel the whole wide world and beyond.’

Not only have my tendencies in this direction been reinforced by the spiritual path I travel, in that Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, both quotes ‘Alí, Muhammad’s successor in the Seven Valleys (34):

. . . . reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

“Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?”

and in the Hidden Words (from the Arabic 13) directly urges us to recognise that if we ‘turn our sight unto’ ourselves we may find God standing within us, ‘mighty powerful and self-subsisting.’ This same idea is echoed in the Quaker phrase used by George Fox who spoke of ‘that of God in every man.’

Poetry also has reinforced these tendencies within me. I’ll quote just two examples, the first from an Anglican priest.

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

(R. S. Thomas: ‘Groping’ page 328, Collected Poems)

And the second from a Jesuit priest looking at the dark side of that immensity, something which puts many of us off such explorations:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there.

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: No worst, there is none)

I don’t think it’s something only priests tend to do, by the way, but maybe not all poets – only poets who are also priests perhaps. I must check out George Herbert and John Donne: I don’t remember anything of quite that kind in their work, though I’m fairly  sure Thomas Traherne came pretty close. I may just need to revisit every other poet on my shelves in case a find a black swan poet of the interior who isn’t a priest: my first ports of call will probably be Henry Vaughan, a 17th Century medic and mystical poet, David Gascoyne, whose later poetry became distinctly mystical, followed by Wordsworth and Eliot as Thomas points firmly in their direction. One of my favourite Wordsworth poems, – Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood – according to some, owes a debt to Vaughan, something else to tease out if possible.

That’s enough for now. Next time I’ll close in on the question of the Rules’ origin.


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O thou who art attracted by the Fragrances of God!

. . .  I read thy poem, which contained new significances and beautiful words. My heart was dilated by its eloquent sense. I prayed God to make thee utter more beautiful compositions than this.

(Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

It may seem strange resurrecting a post on poetry from 2009 amidst sequences on psychosis. If you are interested to know you’ll need to patience to read on almost to the end!

The BBC Poetry Season currently unfolding is causing me to reflect on why I think poetry matters.

There may be a clue for me in how my interest shifted, when I left the Catholic Church, from poetry to novels as my favourite reading matter. It’s true that my disillusion with religion was influenced by poetry as well: one of my favourite poets at the time was Byron. Others, though were Wordsworth, Coleridge, George Herbert, the Tennyson of In Memoriam and Gerard Manley Hopkins — a spiritually troubled bunch maybe but not exactly godless.

Even though I spent another decade teaching English Literature, my love for poetry remained prematurely buried: occasionally I could hear its finger nails scraping at the coffin lid but put it down to rats behind the skirting boards.

When my career change came and I took up with Psychology you would have thought that would be the end of it. The undead in the coffin should have given up the ghost and turned into a corpse. But strangely enough it didn’t. I threw myself enthusiastically into my new calling and was two years into my degree course while working at a day centre for the so-called ‘mentally ill,’ before I had a strange dream to remind me that my love for poetry might be buried but it wasn’t dead.

I can’t now recall all the details but the key moment in the dream was when my car broke down. I clambered out to look under the bonnet to see what was wrong. (This was at a time when I often had to cook the spark plugs in the oven in the morning before the car would start, so at this stage it would’ve been tempting to dismiss the dream as simply revisiting a prosaic daytime anxiety.) When I lifted the bonnet though everything changed. Instead of the engine there was the most beautiful golden horn — the instrument not the sharp pointed weapon of the rhinoceros.

When I woke I knew that something needed explaining here. What on earth was a golden horn doing under the bonnet of my car in place of the engine?

To cut a long story short, the chain of associations led me from music, creativity and song through the horn of plenty as a pun to Yeats‘ moving poem A Prayer for my Daughter.

It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

(lines 33-32)

(Before dismissing this as sexist, it’s important to take into account that there is a particular emphasis on the word ‘fine’ here which, in the context about his worries concerning his daughter’s future, is partly to do with being made proud by beauty and unconcerned about defects of character.)

There is more, fuelled by his experiences with Maude Gonne who was a bit of a fanatic:

Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
Because of her opinionated mind
Barter that horn and every good
By quiet natures understood
For an old bellows full of angry wind.

(lines 60-65)

There were obvious surface implications here which I had to consider and weren’t excluded by the main message I finally took away from the dream. It was asking me how I might have undone the Horn of Plenty in some way, perhaps by disowning something important to me that the dream was trying to remind me of. What might an ‘opinionated mind’ have to do with it? What were the good things understood by ‘quiet natures’? And what, if anything, was my ‘old bellows full of angry wind’?

The bottom line for me was that the dream was telling me in no uncertain terms that I had sold out poetry (‘song’) for prose, heart for intellect (‘the opinionated mind’), and intuition for reason and most of all was emphasising that this choice was ‘breaking down,’ that perhaps even the car (an ‘old bellows’?), symbol of a mechanical approach, was the wrong vehicle to be relying on so exclusively.

Discounting, in existential therapy, cuts both ways. You don’t solve the kind of discount I was making by throwing away the car of prosaic mechanical psychology and picking up the horn of poetry and blowing it for all your worth in everybody’s ears. You find a way of balancing both, of integrating them at a higher level of understanding which dissolves their apparent incompatibility. You can’t drive a horn to work or play a haunting melody with an engine but you might need to find the right place for both of these in a complete life..

Interestingly my work with ‘psychosis’ helped me do precisely that.

The psychotic experience, looked at from this angle, is all metaphor. Hallucinations are imagery taken literally: delusions are stories mistaken for plain truth. Both hallucinations and delusions are rooted in reality in the same way that poetry and dreams are, and they point towards truths that we might otherwise ignore or cannot otherwise express. They only become dangerous when we unreflectingly act them out in ways that you would never act out a poem and most people do not act out dreams because their motor system has been shut down in sleep.

The great power of poetry is to articulate for us and convey to us the otherwise inexpressible aspects of experience that cry out to be integrated if we are not to die spiritually, emotionally and intuitively. I was rescued by my dream from continuing to disown the creative force of poetry. Reintegrating poetry into my life was a critical step, not only in becoming a better clinician than I would otherwise have been by the aid of psychology alone, but it also led me to a greater openness to the spirituality of Buddhism than I would otherwise have been capable of, which in turn led me to the Baha’i Faith whose poetic and mystical writings  were easier for me to absorb than would have otherwise been the case.

In a very real sense I owe the rich texture of my present life at least in part — and it is a significant part — to poetry.

Yeats wrote:

. . . many a poor man that has roved,
Loved and thought himself beloved,
From a glad kindness cannot take his eyes.

(lines 38-40)

And in the Bahá’í Writings we are told:

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding….

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh: CXXXII)

They both seem to be speaking of the same appealing quality in their different ways.

That’s why it is so good to know that the BBC is seeking to bring the creative and transformative power of poetry to people who might otherwise be tempted to ignore it.

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[S]election is what the egrets teach
on the wide open lawn, heads nodding as they read
in purposeful silence, a language beyond speech.

(White Egrets: page 10)

white-egretsThe other recurrent theme on my blog recently, apart from psychosis, has been death. No surprise then that I’m going to use that as an excuse to re-publish this post from 2010. Still, I’m glad it gives me another opportunity to plug one of my favourite poets.

For those with little enthusiasm for poetry my current obsession must be getting somewhat tedious. However, I can’t quite let go of it without one more post at least on the subject.

Walcott has just produced a short collection called White Egrets, a series of beautiful meditations on old age, ageless works of art, loss, love and the beauties of nature. Not a big ask then at the age of eighty. It is no coincidence that egrets rhymes almost perfectly with regrets.

Derek Walcott is one of my favourite poets. He is an  inspirational figure whose identity cuts across so many cultural boundaries. His reputation as a poet has thankfully survived the personal innuendoes of the election campaign for the 2009 Oxford professor of poetry contest: I won’t explore here the conflicts inherent between an artist’s life and his art – there’s more than enough on this blog already. Suffice it to say, his poetry is far more accessible than that of Geoffrey Hill, the winner of the 2010 election for that post, whose verse is, to put it mildly, maddeningly and elusively allusive. (It is good to see that since this post was first written Walcott has been awarded the T S Eliot prize.)

The Guardian quotes Adrian Mitchell disapprovingly when he said, “[M]ost people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people”. I’m with Mitchell on this and am happy to say that Walcott is a great poet who writes for everyone.

Obviously he’s not the first poet to tackle the experience of old age in his verse. Yeats had more than one idea about it. He looks at the power of art to offset mortality in Sailing to Byzantium.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence . . . .

(W. B. Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium)

In 1934 the Steinach rejuvenation operation has a less exalted effect on him:

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

(W.B.Yeats: Politics)

If we want to find out how bleak old age can be, then most poetry enthusiasts would agree that Thomas Hardy is a good place to start. And we would not be disappointed if we took their advice.

Strozzi: Old Woman at the Mirror

I look into my glass,
And view my wasting skin,
And say, “Would God it came to pass
My heart had shrunk as thin!”

For then, I, undistrest
By hearts grown cold to me,
Could lonely wait my endless rest
With equanimity.

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

(Thomas Hardy)

There are shades of the late Janáček here, to my ear at least.

Those with more faith than he had will have noticed the comfortless notion of ‘endless rest.’ Hardy’s pessimism may be courageous but that does not, of course, make it true: nor does it make a deluded coward out of every believer as some of the evangelical atheists would have us think.

Shakespeare’s approach is more measured and more stately perhaps because he had fewer years behind him and also the sonnet tradition of his time was not used as a medium for baring all the agonies of your soul.

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest . .

(Sonnet 28)

That word ‘rest’ again. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that George Herbert drew out the power that word has over our minds in his brilliant poem, The Pulley. I quote it in full. The implication is that weariness is the pulley that will hoist man up to God. The background idea, adding to the layers of meaning, is Pandora’s ‘box,’ a mistranslation, as Herbert would have been aware, of the word in the original Greek meaning ‘jar.’

When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the worlds riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.

This is reminiscent of the Bahá’í view.

O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Arabic Hidden Words: No. 40)

So, after all that, how does Walcott sound?

He’s a modern poet so his music sounds somewhat different, but his roots go deep into the tradition from which I’m quoting as well as drawing on the very different cultural influences of St Lucia.

Perhaps the most striking difference between his treatment of this theme and the poets I have quoted is his humour:

. . . . . . . . . In the cool lobby
the elderly idle. I was now one of them.
Studying the slow, humped tourists was my only hobby,
racked now by a whimsical bladder and terrible phlegm.

(page 33)

And these are not isolated touches. There are many more, of which the most outrageous is the pun in these lines about the British Empire:

He hears the mocking cannonade of battle
from the charging breakers and sees the pluming hordes
of tribesman galloping down the hills of sand
and hears the old phrase “Peccavi. I have Sind.”

(page 41)

He also has command of the elegaic tone:

. . . . . . . I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; . . . . .

(page 29)

You will not find such a flood of half-rhymes as these poems display – ‘treacherous’/’errors’, ‘else’/’bells’ – in the older poetry we saw earlier, but here their lack of full closure adds to the melancholy of his musings. Ironically, only ‘truth’ and ‘youth’ rhyme fully.

In Barcelona his own aging is echoed in that of his friend, Robert Antoni:

. . . . you take time in portions
one cough at a time, your personal thunder
that turns compassionate heads.

(page 85)

This paves the way for his wry reflections on his own state:

I could never join the parade; I can’t walk fast.
Such is time’s ordinance. Lungs that rattle, eyes
that run. Now Barcelona is part of the past.


It takes a skilled poet to hit on the contrast between what his eyes can do that his legs now can’t, and introduce the humour without taking away the pain.

And there is no sense of self-pity. The backdrop to these musings is an undiminished love of nature and of art. It reminds me of Landor‘s wonderful lines composed on his 75th birthday:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife;
Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

Walcott’s book of poems is like an extended examination of that idea. It opens with a reference to an astonishing work of art:

The chessmen are as rigid on their chessboard
as those life-sized terra-cotta warrriors whose vows
to their emperor with bridle, shield and sword
were sworn by a chorus that has lost its voice; . . .

(Page 3)

It draws on many other references, from the Pharaohs (page 8) to van Gogh (page 68). The egrets combine with a reference to art (page 8) as well as representing nature at its most wonderful:

The perpetual ideal is astonishment.
The cool green lawn, the quiet trees, the forest
on the hill there, then the white gasp of an egret sent
sailing into the frame then teetering to rest
with its gawky stride, erect, an egret emblem!

(page 8)

The beauty of nature comes in at many other points but it is in the sequence of poems from which the volume takes its title that one of the clearest links with age and death is made.

. . . . Some friends, the few I have left
are dying, but the egrets stalk through the rain
as if nothing mortal can affect them . . . .
Sometimes the hills themselves disappear
like friends, slowly, but I am happier
that they [the egrets] have come back now, like memory, like prayer.

(page 9)

Among all the celebrations of art and nature, the memories of love in a variety of forms, the reminders of old age, that twine their threads together in a complex pattern throughout the book, one of the most straight forwardly lyrical that can perhaps stand for all the rest is on page 70:

Wake up again to a dawn trembling with joy,
the silver beads on a dasheen leaf; the dew
of the small morning at Vigie when you were a boy,
a vessel, a trembling branch, a nodding acolyte
with the blackbird, not in the geometry of galleons
or abstract museum openings. Cherish the uninterpreted light
of approaching eighty, let your ignorance increase
as fashion fades, and cities decide what is right.

(page 70)

As with all poetry, this book has to be experienced to be understood. I think it’s well worth its purchase price and is a worthy companion to those long-established favourites on my shelves.

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In 2010 I published this post which attempted to define the appeal of poetry for me. I republished it again in early 2015. As it probably reflects my deepest feelings on the subject it seemed only right to give it another airing after the Shelley sequence on reality, art and the artist.  

Over the years of trying to read it and create it I have come to have a feeling for what poetry is for me.

This is not a theory about poetry. There can be no true theory about poetry whose essence eludes all theory. Poetry for me is about approaching an aspect of experience beyond the reach of prose and possibly beyond the reach of words at all. When I attempt to write a poem of potential value I am striving to express what I can’t explain, even to myself.

W. H. Auden

Auden referred to this as ‘solving for the unknown.’

Now, there are many perfectly enjoyable examples of what many people refer to as poetry which don’t do this. Such productions don’t take you anywhere you haven’t been before: they just describe it better – ‘What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,’ as Alexander Pope put it.

McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary, deals well with this issue of what great poetry does that’s different. He quotes Scheler (pages 341-342):

[Poets] actually extend the scope of our possible self awareness. They effect a real enlargement of the kingdom of the mind and make new discoveries, as it were, within that kingdom. . . . That is indeed the mission of all true art: not to reproduce what is already given . . ., nor to create something in the pure play of subjective fancy . . . ., but to press forward into the whole of the external world and the soul, to see and communicate those objective realities within it which rule and convention have hitherto concealed.

He sees the limitations of Augustan, i.e. 18th Century English, poetry which represents experience pleasingly rather than authentically. Even art forms not so concerned with pleasing and more with informing the mind or inspiring the heart along predetermined lines, such as political propaganda or religious hymns, fall short of being great poetry by my definition. Once you compare, for example, a typical hymn with what Emily Dickinson did with the same pattern on the page, you inevitably get closer to seeing the difference between great inspirational verse and great exploratory poetry.

Cardinal Newman is in the spotlight at the moment as the Vatican ponders on moving him towards sainthood via beatification. He wrote the words of a still very popular hymn:

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

This is beautifully put but the imagery is purely conventional and what it conveys is deeply familiar. We don’t need the hymn to introduce it to us. It is comforting to find the well-trodden paths of our own experience reflected back to us in this way. It helps us keep plodding on perhaps, which may be no bad thing sometimes. There is an honourable place for such work as this.

Emily Dickinson‘s experience is by contrast right at the edge of a darkness most of us know very little if anything about, even after more than 100 years, though a typical theme of hers, which I use here to illustrate her gift, is one that haunts us still. It’s in one of her better known (and therefore hopefully better understood) poems, of which I quote only the first verse:

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

What exactly are we to make of this?

At one level it’s as easy to understand as Newman’s hymn. The imagery is as familiar in one sense as his. We know almost as much about funeral carriages (see the link below to When the Circle is Unbroken)  as we do about the night. But not carriages that carry immortality as well. So puzzles begin to arise.

How can a carriage carry both death and immortality? They’re deadly enemies and immortality is vast – too big to fit even into a stretch limo. So the familiar here is used in an unsettling even sinister way.

And why the hyphens? And the ironic tone – calling death’s action ‘kindly’ for example. In any case, if we are conscious, his carriage is usually stopping to pick up someone else – maybe someone close to us, but definitely not us. So, what’s this poem really about?

Because the theme of this poem lies within a great tradition we can all begin to formulate answers to these questions. ‘Oh, death must be kind because he is releasing us into the realm of immortality.’ But, in truth, the poem in its entirety does not make it easy for us to settle into any one explanation as complete or satisfactory. She is using the verse form of the hymn to probe disquietingly into the themes that hymns are there to comfort us about.

Even my own modest efforts at poetry come up against this wall between what can be felt and what can be said. And that even when the experience described is pretty commonplace.

The Last Thing on my Mind
(with thanks to Julie Felix)

On a bare and wooden stage, a metal chair
and two guitars wait in the still and empty air
until, with her lined face and jet black hair,
much lighter than her years she runs up to
the microphones and chooses her guitar.

Her long black veil, blurred with early morning rain,
dissolves into the long room in Wood Green
where, more than forty years ago, blues ran
the game
: when the circle was unbroken,
Tom Paxton knew the last thing on my mind.

Now, in the mangle of my mind, the rollers
of my memories, and her melodies,
compress the fragile screen of consciousness
so thin the dyes of different times bleed both ways
with such relentless pressure thought stammers.

Even released days later, this ink’s flow
does not convey what I have come to know
nor my tongue catch its air within the strings of speech
though it was strings that brought her music within reach.

It doesn’t take a brilliant critic to realise how much greater this gap is when spiritual experiences are involved, as in Dickinson’s case.

George Herbert‘s genius, in a way not dissimilar to Dickinson’s, lies at least in part in his knowing how to use the commonplace to bridge the gap.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And made a suit unto him, to afford
A new small rented lease, and cancel th’old.

In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts,
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth

Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

We’re in a world of tenants, landlords, manors, parks and theatres. The verse form is a common or garden sonnet, albeit one that mixes the Shakespearean and the Petrarchan forms. His readers would have read hundreds of similar ones, many about worldly love, some dealing with the divine.

But at the same time we’re also sharing an aspect of Herbert’s experience of Christ. He has made it possible for us to capture something about that which is clearly impossible to summarise. The poem gives us an experience which extends our world – well, I believe it does – and I would defy anyone to express what we have learned except by reading the poem to me again.

Ridván Gardens

The Ridván Gardens near Acre, Israel – a haven for Bahá’u’lláh in His last years


A tradition of Bahá’í poetry has a long way to go to catch up. Christianity goes back two thousand years compared to our mere one hundred-and-sixty-seven. I don’t think we can yet match Dickinson and Herbert who were both standing on the shoulders of giants.

One of the earliest Bahá’í poets was Tahirih. I only know her in translation but a non-Bahá’í scholar, Farzaneh Milani, praises her highly (page 91 in Veils and Words) though recognising she can be inaccessible :

Some of Tahereh’s (sic) poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Babi jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle in its way. The erotic-mystical imagery and language she uses reveal an all-consuming love of and an intense devotion to a divine manifestation.

And the translation on page 93 of one of Tahirih’s poems gives a sense of what I might be missing, though I suspect, as always, to translate a poem is to betray it (an old Italian saying about all translation goes: ‘Traduttore, traditore.’).

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

When we look at poems written by Bahá’ís whose native language is English there is only one as yet who is recognised as a poet of stature outside the Bahá’í community, and he is Robert Hayden.

Many of his poems do not confront a Bahá’í theme head on. One that does I have scanned as the layout will be lost if I typed it in. Poems use their shape as well their sound to speak to us, though this shift came only with the birth of writing, then of print.

Scanned from 'Robert Hayden: Collected Poems - edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)

Scanned from ‘Robert Hayden: Collected Poems – edited by Frederick Glaysher (Liveright Publishing)


Robert Hayden (Photo from John Hatcher, The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Oxford: George Ronald, 1984.)

Here he is attempting to capture the turning point in a garden in Baghdad when Bahá’u’lláh had arrived at the moment when He would make fully public the exact nature of His Station and Revelation. You can sense Hayden’s struggle to find the words in English that fit his purpose. Christian and quasi-scientific imagery rub shoulders perhaps uneasily, perhaps creatively together – it’s hard to judge. It is a significant achievement but it’s not on George Herbert’s level, I think. But we need to walk this precarious path of poetry unstintingly, persistently, and such gifts of grace as Herbert’s will eventually come our way.

Because great poetry broadens and deepens consciousness it has a significant part to play in building a better world. But great poets do not appear from nowhere. They need a fertile soil from which to grow. That soil is the wide-scale practice of poetry throughout a whole community of minds. Great poets arrive on the scene when ordinary people not only read but write poetry, and not only that but they pass it round from hand to hand, from brain to brain – in the old days it was in manuscript, nowadays it can be in blogs and on Facebook. We all need to play our part in this, if we are so inclined.

So, post a poem and pave the way along which the next great genius can walk into our midst.

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Butterfly Magritte v2

This short sequence sheds some light on the Parliament of Selves sequence.

The shortcomings of my memory described in the last post were bad enough, but what is even more disconcerting about it is that, even when I am exerting myself to the utmost, the full truth of my own potentially retrievable past can evade me and remain completely hidden for decades, and in some cases for life.

Recently, I was forcibly reminded of that fact.

Soon after I became a Bahá’í, almost 30 years ago, I wrote a poem fairly obviously ‘after the manner’ of George Herbert with a less obvious reference, in its abstractions, to Andrew Marvell‘s enigmatic minor masterpiece, The Definition of Love. I didn’t consciously presume to do that – it just came out that way. The first draft I have tracked back to January 1983 – so that’s a fact at least, which is a relief after the will-o’-the-wisp realities of the previous post.

Thief in the Night

Down the dark spinning stairway of my years
Under exalted space,
Abandoned, yet galled by compassion’s spears,
I walked with a blank face
Beneath my searching soul’s long scrutiny,
Wild in despair and helpless mutiny.

At last, locked in denial’s icy vault,
Belying the Sun’s power,
I outfroze each noon – congealed in my fault,
Blinded deafened by dour
Distrust, unmoving – proud perversity
Defrauding me of all tranquillity.

You, with a robber’s skill, intruded there,
Behind my barricades,
Contemptuous of lock and heavy bar.
God speed the Thief who raids
From Magnanimity!  Dear Lord, You left
Me rich in peace, only of pain bereft.

At the time of writing I was a bit uncomfortable about the poem. I was pleased it had come out onto the page needing relatively little editing. I was embarrassed about how overblown the language seemed to be as a description of a shift from atheism to faith: ‘I’ve only moved house from my old mild atheism to this tolerant faith,’ I said to myself, ‘Though the foundations are different, much of the furniture looks the same. It’s true that I’m much happier, but it’s not as though I’ve escaped from Topcliffe‘s dungeon.’

The truth was I did not understand my own poem fully. I only came to a true understanding much later – about three weeks ago in fact. The seed of that insight was in my last experience of therapy as a client about twenty six years ago.

Why did I go back there now? Well, a close friend asked me recently what my experience of Rebirthing had been like. In telling her I came to see a link that I had been blind to before, because I had never previously put the poem and the experience I am about to describe in the same frame of reference. This is true but barely credible given that the therapy took place less than three years after I wrote the poem. What stunned me most however is conveyed by that simple word – ‘after.’ I had written the poem before I knew what it meant.

Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

I found a therapist in Much Wenlock near where Housman had found the woods in trouble. I didn’t know how much trouble of a different kind I was going find. I went for eight sessions and it was the last one that brought about the dramatic shift in consciousness. It was on 11 July 1985, two and a half years after the poem was written: I have a journal entry to prove it. Another fact, thank goodness. The session lasted over three hours, and three hours was meant to be the maximum time I was paying for. I think the experience accounts for the brinkmanship.

So, there I was in the back room of a small cottage, lying on a mattress along the wall, a stone fireplace nearby, with the therapist on a cushion by my side. I can’t remember her name, which is rather sad. It’s fortunate that she ignored the clock for this session – a generous piece of good judgement for which I am extremely grateful.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

Several things happened then that would be barely credible if I had not experienced it myself.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This was not new material. I had always known that something like it happened. I had vague memories of the ward I was on and the gurney that took me to the operating theatre.  What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts. And yet I had no difficulty retaining it and explaining it to the therapist. And I remember it still without having taken any notes at all at the time that I can now find. The journal entry recording the event is a single line – no more.

And what were the thoughts?

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind found words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

At that young age I began to grow the carapace that would lead me eventually to feel safe only in trusting no one but myself. The shell continued to hide its origins even from me as its creator until that moment. It was the root of my atheism, the root that I had concealed from myself and everyone else for so many years. That was the true source of the poem, which I had completely failed to recognise even though I wrote it.

Sorry to bang on so emphatically about the degree of concealment, but I was, and perhaps still am, reeling from the shock of discovering something that, once discovered, looked as though it should have been obvious – what the poem really meant.

I had to revisit my faith in Bahá’u’lláh, before I could rediscover the root, and it was only that faith which enabled me to trust the therapist, to trust the therapy, and to let go. Otherwise I’d have been frozen in my fault forever. And when I used that phrase to describe the situation to my friend was when I remembered the poem again. So, it was not until three decades later, when I described that self-work to my friend about three weeks ago, that I fully understood the poem I had written so soon after becoming a Bahá’í. This probably makes the poem a failure for anyone who doesn’t know the background (perhaps even if they do). It seems, maybe, to be straining for an effect beyond the reach of its apparent subject.

(I am aware that this account so far begs a rather important question: how could I have embraced the Bahá’í Faith, or any form of religion, in the first place when, at the core of my being, I harboured such a distrustful script? There is a post that goes some way towards answering that, but the issue needs to be addressed more fully at another time, I think.)

I had cloaked myself from a conscious realisation of what I really meant in the poem, presumably to protect myself from the pain of it. Blind as I was to its true meaning, the imagery of cold for instance seemed over the top to me, until I understood the chloroform connection.  When you breath in chloroform it feels as though your lungs are filling with ice and unconsciousness invades your mind like a freezing gale blowing upwards from your chest. Then there is a dizzy plunge into oblivion – which makes more sense of the ‘dark spinning stairway of my years.’ The chloroform makes sense also of why a breathing therapy should be the one to help me re-integrate this trauma into consciousness.

I think it’s best to leave those who are curious, to pick up on any other parallels for themselves, if anyone has an appetite for the task. If it wasn’t my trauma, or someone’s I cared about, I’m not sure I would want to do that kind of work on it.

There is another question that I can’t ignore, much as I wish I could. Why should I trust this memory anymore than the one I deconstructed to such deflating effect in the previous post?

There is, of course, no completely convincing answer to that.

All I can say is that I do trust the amber of the core experience, not least because it is qualitatively different from the episodic memories that provide its setting and which are so susceptible to confabulation. My recollection of the details that surround the crucial moment are extremely vague. I can’t even be sure at this distance in time what the therapist looked like. The core memory has little or no such potentially counterfeit detail to undermine its credibility. Its glowing resin, of pure thought and emotion fused together, held such immediacy and power it was completely compelling. That’s why I believe I can trust it and I do.

I expect you’re hoping that I won’t be going back to memory lane any time soon. I’m glad I returned there this time though.  I’m not planning a third part called Memory (3/3): the perfect reproduction of events. I’m not going to write about elves either.

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The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 64)

Onely a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like seasoned timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turns to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

(George Herbert: 1634)

This sequence of posts appeared in September 2012. It seemed a good idea to republish them now. They contain a number of references to Century of Light, the focus of the workshop materials I am currently posting, and placing them between two workshops dealing with the dark side of our materialistic culture seems especially appropriate. I am posting all three in the sequence on consecutive days.  It’s perhaps also necessary to share the nub of a comment left on part one of the original  by a good friend. He felt that “the relationship of secularisation and the ‘secularisation thesis’ (so beloved of 1960s sociology) to the present state of religion and religiosity is much more complex and multi-dimensional than this post seems to suggest.” This is a valid point and is not explored in this sequence, though it triggered some changes in Parts 2 & 3 as I explain then. 

The Starting Point:

In The World Order of Bahá’u’lláhShoghi Effendi refers to “the onslaught of secularism invading what has hitherto been regarded as the impregnable strongholds of Christian and Muslim orthodoxy” as one of several grave symptoms boding ill “for the future stability of the structure of modern civilisation.” It clearly would seem a good idea to try and understand its nature better. When we look at current thinking in the wider community alongside key Bahá’í concepts, can we tease out the nature of secularisation more clearly?

“Secularism”, according to the Chambers Dictionary (1994), is “the belief that the state, morals, education etc. should be independent of religion” whereas “secularisation” is not defined: we are left to assume it might be the process by which secularism comes about, from “secularise” meaning “to make secular.” The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1973) gives the primary definition of secularisation as “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to secular possession or use.” This more or less forces us to start by attempting a definition.

Problems of Definition:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.

(Alexander Pope: 1733-34)

David Fontana

The meaning of this term, according to David Fontana in Psychology, Religion and Spirituality (pages 10), probably depends upon what we decide we mean by religion. He summarises a detailed consideration of the work done to define religion and feels that three factors provide a good enough working definition:

1. Belief in a spiritual dimension,

2. Observance of a set of spiritual rituals or practices, and

3. Adherence to a doctrine of ethical conduct arising from spiritual teachings.

As for secularisation, Hamilton, in The Sociology of Religion, distinguishes six overlapping possibilities (pages 166-167):

  1. Decline of religion: previously accepted symbols, doctrines, institutions lose their prestige.
  2. Greater conformity with this world and a turning away from the “supernatural.”
  3. Disengagement of society from religion.
  4. Religious beliefs and institutions get transposed into non-religious forms.
  5. The desacralisation of the world.
  6. The movement from a sacred to a secular society.

Judith Fox, in The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (page 292- First Edition) reminds us of the distinction researchers and theorists have made between public and private “religiosity”, some locating “secularisation” only in the former sphere and “secularism” in the latter. She compares two influential thinkers in the field (page 295). Weber, it seems wistfully, contended that science and modernity would inevitably and irretrievably push faith to the margins: Durkheim, though an atheist, felt that the function religion served, regardless of its truth value, would never be outlived and religion would always revive in some new form when the old forms lost their hold. The latter is known as the functionalist view.

While some have ended up wanting to abandon the concept of secularisation altogether, Hamilton, in his treatment of the subject (page 167), feels this to be premature. He argues the term has a core meaning:

. . . the decline, and perhaps ultimate disappearance, of specifically religious beliefs and institutions which seems to encompass [the] first, second, fourth and fifth meanings. . . . Secularisation in this sense may or may not be occurring and may or may not be a permanent process.

Is It Happening?

Being overcome by the drunkenness of corrupt inclinations, the people of the earth find themselves in a state of stupor. They are, therefore, debarred from the wondrous signs of God, are prevented from attaining the ultimate goal and are deprived of the liberal effusions of divine grace.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Tablets – page 237)

Matthew Arnold

A strong sense of the decline of religion is also shared by poets. Matthew Arnold’s image of a retreating tide is perhaps the most famous example, but we will also be meeting Tennyson’s take on it in a later post.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(Matthew Arnold: 1867)

Hamilton (page 169) reviews the evidence and concludes:

. . . the evidence would appear to be in favour of the view that religion, in general terms, is in decline in most Western industrial societies, at least in so far as they are Christian. . .  The general pattern of this weakening is that it is more marked in the Protestant countries of Northern Europe than in Catholic countries of the Mediterranean region. Britain falls somewhere in the middle. Holland and Belgium, however, show a somewhat less marked trend, at least until recently, and the United States perhaps the least marked but this is on the basis of church attendance and similar indicators . . .

The weakening effects of secularisation may also be extending to Islam as well. So, why is this happening? We’ll be returning to this aspect in the next post.


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When I attended my last trustees’ meeting of a national charity after some years of service, my dearly loved colleagues made me the gift of a book token.

‘What made them think of that?’ you may well ask.

‘I have no idea,’ I lie.

Soon after that moment last March, to my surprise I found myself in a bookshop. Even more surprising, I found a book I wanted and bought it. It is on my desk beside me as I type.

GH cover

Nine months later I started to read it and am now more than half way through. This is actually quite a rapid response to a new purchase. It is not unusual for a book to wait ten years or more for my attention.

It seems fitting to share some of my responses in this period when I have been looking at the issues of spirituality, empathy and poetry.

Before I started reading I thought I knew all I needed to know about George Herbert. Though he was never on any syllabus that I studied formally – Donne and Marvell always stole his thunder – I have carried a few of his poems in my heart for many years and, when I am trying to write a poem on a spiritual subject, it is hard for me to get from under his shadow. In some ways I never do.

It became rapidly apparent that I had rather skated over the details of his life. I could summarise what I knew by saying he was a priest for most of his life. Wrong. Only in the last three years of his life did he serve devotedly as a parish priest. He spent some eight years before then as an orator at Cambridge, immensely skilled at crafting flattery in Latin. He gave his last speech in 1626. In fact, at certain points it seemed unclear where his heart really lay between the paths of politics and priesthood. This was followed by a fallow period of four more years until 1630 when he became rector of Bemerton. He died of consumption in 1633. He had wrestled with ill health for many years.

His poems therefore are recording the struggles of someone whose spirituality was not tranquilly uncomplicated. This explains the breadth of his appeal. His struggles though are heartfelt and his character ultimately humble, kind and centred upon a strong relationship with Christ. Walton’s biography is more than a touch hagiographic, but there are stories in his book that do seem to capture the essence of the man.

Izaak Walton quote on George Herbert

And this is where Drury’s biography is dramatically enhancing my understanding of Herbert both as a man and as a poet. I am discovering poems of his I never knew, and not just any old poems. Take this next one for instance, which I have scanned from Mario A. Di Cesare’s Norton Critical Edition of George Herbert and the Seventeenth Century Religious Poets, and which I find achingly beautiful.


Affliction 1

Affliction 2As an account of one man’s relationship with his God over a long period, moving from intoxicating bliss through painful tests of grief and ill-health and desperate rebellion to a last minute break through into hard won insight, it cannot be matched anywhere, I feel.

I have been spurred by this to extend my knowledge of Herbert far beyond the handful of masterpieces known to me that I thought was all he wrote worth reading. You may well hear more.

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