Hints about the Infinite
It’s interesting how life keeps drawing our attention to a special theme sometimes. Images and eternity seems to be my theme of the moment and life won’t let me leave it alone. I felt about as powerful in the grip of this idea as a doll in the jaws of a dog. I decided to give in gracefully and write another post about it.
Some reminders came in response to the post on the subject so they perhaps don’t count, though one was very valuable: it concerned ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ For some reason I had completely forgotten the opening lines of this poem by William Blake, so central though they were to my theme:
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.
Others were not prompted by me in that way though perhaps I sought them out unconsciously.
There was the television programme about the cracking of the ‘Narnia Code.’ Life was reminding me again about imagery and its power, especially in the way that Michael Ward, whose doctorate was focused on this issue, was eloquent on screen about the way that every natural object in our world has mystical significance.
A.A. Gill reviewed the programme in the Culture section of the Sunday Times (19th April 2009). The discovery was that:
the seven books of the [Narnia] cycle relate to the seven planets. The revelation posed three questions the programme didn’t quite answer. Why keep it a secret? Lewis was an unstoppable explainer and not a little pleased with his own cleverness, so why hide this bit?”
(I won’t bother quoting the other two questions. They get worse.)
There is an explanation that would probably throw Gill into paroxysms of disbelief. Perhaps C. S. Lewis didn’t consciously know what he was doing. While this may seem far-fetched in this case, let’s not throw out this enthralling possibility because of one possibly bad example.
An author’s text and an author’s conscious intentions have a very uncertain relationship. People end up saying far more than they consciously mean. This is part of the power of art. Imagery contributes a huge amount to this effect. It’s why a great work of art means different things to us at different periods of our lives and to people in general at different points in human history. Put crudely, Shakespeare could never have anticipated that Richard III would be performed in modern military uniform as a comment on Fascism.
Another reminder came last week when I was sitting in a sunlit room in the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford with a group of people discussing chaplaincy. Philip Sutton is the head of the Chaplaincy Service there and, in the course of his comments on chaplaincy, he spoke of the power of natural objects like flowers to help people connect with the mystery of life, of how they can help move someone’s vision beyond the prison walls of their misery to a transcendent awareness of this mystery in a way that brings them some relief from their sorrow. (Another gem of his was to say that, when people are coping with terminal illness or bereavement, what they often need most is ‘a good listening to.’)
I was reminded of the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil . . . .
There lives the dear freshness deep down things.
. . . . . the very faculty of truth,
Which wanting, . . . . man, a creature great and good,
Seems but a pageant plaything with vile claws,
And this great frame of breathing elements
A senseless idol.
(Book Fourth: 1805, lines 298-304)
This is not one of Wordworth’s clearest passages on this insight, which is probably why he dropped it from his 1850 edition. It links though with the lines from his great poem composed above Tintern Abbey where he speaks of
. . . . . a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.’
But the Prelude passage also draws attention to the observer and his qualities.
While I was being reminded of what I had already said in my earlier post, I was also being reminded of what I had left unsaid. The natural world does not always seem such an uplifting experience.
Last week a group of us were sitting together looking at the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh:
O My Servants! Were ye to discover the hidden, the shoreless oceans of My incorruptible wealth, ye would, of a certainty, esteem as nothing the world, nay, the entire creation.
That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for seeing the world as drenched in mystical meanings!
The same section of the Gleanings, which I looked at later, contains the following:
The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it. . . . . . Verily I say, the world is like the vapour in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion.
People have also struggled with the dark side of our experience of the world. Tennyson puts this very powerfully: he describes nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ (In Memoriam: 56) and at moments experiences life as very bleak:
. . . when the sensuous frame
Is rack’d with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.
(In Memoriam: 50)
Some poets, when they are not recoiling from its dark side, can see the world as having no meaning at all beyond the material reality of it: a crib-site has this to say about William Carlos Williams and says it far better than I could:
Citing Williams’s dictum, “No ideas but in things,” and such poems as “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Miller claims that–in contrast to the duality inherent in the idealism of the classical, romantic, or symbolist traditions, wherein the objects of the world signify transcendent “supernatural realities”–the objects of Williams’s poetry signify themselves and nothing more, existing “within a shallow space, like that created on the canvases of the American abstract expressionists”, exposing the poem not as a representation of an object, but as an object in itself. Miller finds in Williams’s verse “no symbolism, no depth, no reference to a world beyond the world, no pattern of imagery, no dialectical structure, no interaction of subject and object–just description”.
Wallace Stevens even went so far as to make poetry a religion:
. . . . . . . . . Poetry
Exceeding music must take the place
Of empty heaven and its hymns.
(The Man with the Blue Guitar: Section v)
He seems to be making a god out of poetry rather than poems out of God.
So the world (and presumably poetry that celebrates it) is either a snare to delude us, a block in our path or simply the trigger of brain activity shaped by evolution to help our bodies to survive, not a gateway to the spiritual after all?
A Way out of the Difficulty
Bahá’u’lláh also writes:
Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path. . . . . . . . As to thy question whether the physical world is subject to any limitations, know thou that the comprehension of this matter dependeth upon the observer himself. In one sense, it is limited; in another, it is exalted beyond all limitations.
Know ye that by “the world” is meant your unawareness of Him Who is your Maker, and your absorption in aught else but Him. . . . . Whatsoever deterreth you, in this Day, from loving God is nothing but the world. . . . . Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him.
So, it depends upon the attitude of the person. If we are attached to the things of the world, if we want to exploit them for our own purposes, they will veil us from spiritual realities. If we are detached and dispassionate, every thing will speak to us of mysteries, of God as the ground of being, not of course as a bearded figure in the sky.
Which brings us back to Wordsworth’s observation that if we lack ‘the faculty of truth’ the world is drained of meaning. Looking back on his own experience, in one of the greatest poems ever written in English, he feels that, as an adult, he has since childhood lost much of this power to discern the glory of the world.
Whereas at one time everything seemed ‘apparelled in celestial light’ now there has ‘passed away a glory from the earth.’ He asks:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
He sees adulthood as robbing us of this direct vision. In contrast with the child,
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
He sees something that helps offset this:
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.
And in the end, speaking of the ‘faith that looks through death’ and in awareness of human suffering, he can write:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Perhaps Blake was right after all — heaven is to be found in a wild flower. It depends on how you look at it. Maybe this topic will now ease its grip on me. Maybe not. Time will tell.