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Posts Tagged ‘William Wordsworth’

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Its manifestations are diversified by varying causes, and in this diversity there are signs for men of discernment. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.

Tablets of Bahá’u’lláhpage 142

Once on board, each night before I slept I read at least 50 pages of Bate’s biography of Clare. This was usually after spending an hour or two on one of the decks watching the sunset and looking out for dolphins. I hoped it would help me get a better grip on what Bate’s had meant by poetry being the song of the earth.

Eventually, I’d settle down with my book, faintly conscious of the slight swaying of the ship and the constant grumble of the engine.

Bate’s compassionate account of Clare’s troubled existence brings to life some of the more abstract aspects of man’s exploitation of nature. Clare was both deeply connected from childhood with the nature around him and forcibly cut off from it first by the Enclosure Movement, then by an enforced move from his birth home to one he experienced as every different and finally by his incarceration in an asylum. All these dislocations were further confounded by his success as a poet, where his experience of London changed him radically.

This time I picked up the book from where I had left off, already with a clear sense of how damaging the process of Enclosure had been for Clare, his family and his neighbours. As Bate’s explains (pages 49-50):

Enclosure was… symbolic of the destruction of an ancient birthright based on cooperation and common rights. The chance of Clare’s time and place of birth gave him an exceptional insight into this changed world.

This was because a high proportion of local villagers held common rights, an unusually large area of the parish was heathland, and the open fields survived until an unusually late date.

Bate continues:

For Clare himself, enclosure infringed the right to roam, which had been one of the joys of his youth… E.P. Thompson grasped the radical significance of this, discerning that ‘Clare maybe described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.’

In Clare’s own words:

Inclosure like a Bonaparte let nothing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
and hung the moles as traitors –

Much later I came across this prose description in a similar spirit, which I’ll quote now to give another clear example of Clare’s unedited mode of writing (page 272): ‘what terryfying rascals these wood keepers and gamekeepers are – they make a prison of the forrests and are its joalers.’

His love of nature, I already knew, was quasi-religious (page 59):

. . . though he professed himself an Anglican, Clare’s attendance at church was mostly irregular. His deepest feelings of a religious kind were reserved for his experience of nature and his memories of childhood innocence and joy.

I was really looking forward to learning more, though I knew that Clare’s life had a tragic trajectory, ending as it did in an asylum over almost his last two decades.

Clare’s feeling for nature were not unique and he would have resonated to Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime’ of ‘something far more deeply interfused’ within it (pages 100-101):

. . . if someone who had never read – perhaps never even heard of – such nature poets as Thomson, Cowper and Wordsworth nevertheless responded to nature in the same way as they, then there must be ‘universal feelings’ about nature which poetry was but an echo… Clare saw it as his task to write down the poetry that was already there in nature itself.

That his gift was recognized by a publisher was a blessing to his parents (page 120):

Drury’s faith in the potential of Clare’s poetry saved Parker and Ann from the poor-house.

But this came at a price (page 166):

[On his way to London in the wake of his success] full of anticipation at the prospect of seeing a place known only from fireside tales, he looked out from the coach at the labourers ploughing and ditching in the fields: ‘the novelty created such strange feelings that I could almost fancy that my identity as well as my occupations had changed – that I was not the same John Clare but that some stranger soul had jumped into my skin.’

He had become disconnected from his old sense of self (page 171):

After his exposure to fame and London, he could never fully return to his old life. In this sense, his consciousness of a new identity as he sat in the Stamford coach was prophetic.

I put the book down and switched off the light. My head hit the pillow to the continuing growl of the engine. As usual, my sleep was fitful. Just as I was falling asleep again for the umpteenth time, I heard the ship’s intercom through the cabin door: ‘For exercise only. For exercise only. For exercise only. All medical staff to the muster room on B deck. Repeat – all medical staff to the muster room on B deck.’

My wife and I were both awake. It was 7.30 am. We groaned and got up grumbling.

When we were dressed and had left the cabin to head for breakfast at the buffet on Deck 15, we bumped into our steward in the narrow corridor outside our room.

Standing by the trolley piled high with towels and bedding, he greeted us with his usual friendly smile.

‘How are you both?’

We asked him if he knew about the recent earthquake. He didn’t. We apologised for worrying him but explained that we were concerned to know whether his family were all OK.

He was clearly concerned. He explained that he would not be able to find out yet but hoped to get in touch with family later in the day.

We parted without our usual exchange of joking comments.

En route to the buffet we picked up our newsletter and puzzles. The puzzle sheet had a fairly demanding Sudoku on one side and ridiculously easy crossword on the other. The newssheet was based generally on yesterday’s news and was only worth picking up if we’d missed Sky news the night before.

Horizon was a more valuable read. It told us what would be happening the following day and was left in our cabin the evening before. On this occasion, over my usual breakfast of oats, raisins and milk plus a slice of toast and for once marmalade, we looked at the day’s events and spotted a talk on Lowry, a joint favourite, in the theatre. As we both knew a fair bit about the artist from reading his biography and going to see his paintings at Salford Quays, we decided to give the talk a miss but to go to the gallery where some prints were on show.

This was probably a wise decision given the delay caused by having to queue for clean teacups at the buffet. We would’ve missed the start of the talk anyway. As it was there was only one print that caught our attention: The Brothers. I don’t have a copy of that in my Shelley Rohde’s biography, nor have I ever seen the original anywhere.

Lowry’s ‘The Brothers’ (For source of image see link.)

Its impact was quite intense.

The way the brothers overlap in the print conveys the strong sense of a symbiotic relationship. Their merged black hats make them seem almost like twins joined at the head. The colour of the arch overhead matches their coats and, along with the narrowness of the picture, seems to imply that they are both in some way imprisoned or at least overshadowed by their relationship. The townscape behind them is unusually constricted for Lowry and the church and flats, if that’s what the red buildings were, would not look out of place in a doll’s house, hinting that, in spite of the greying hair of the background brother, we are not quite in a fully adult world here.

Most of Lowry’s work contrasts quite strongly with Clare’s rural home, in which I was so vicariously immersed at the time. His less well-known seascapes, which I first encountered on visiting the Lowry gallery at Salford Quays, added a new dimension to my understanding of his work, and would’ve blended in better with my cruise perhaps if I’d found one of those in the ship’s gallery.

I didn’t realise at this point that I would soon be encountering a third very different environment in paint. Blended with the artificial world of the cruise ship, nature, art and town alone began to weave a pattern of insights I haven’t quite digested yet.

‘Head of Man with Red Eyes’ painted after spending an exhausting night ministering to his hypochondriacal autocratic mother’s imaginary needs. (Image scanned from L S Lowry: a life by Shelley Rohde)

Part of the pattern is clear. Clare was uprooted from the earth of his childhood with devastating effects on his mental health and an inspiring impact on his poetry. Lowry’s roots were in the Northern townscape, which fed his art but may have starved his emotional life, though his voraciously demanding mother and a possible poorly understood autistic tendency didn’t help.

The third world I entered, through prints again, opened up another world altogether, but that will have to wait till next time. Together they illustrate just how complex is the relationship between art, personal life and nature. This idea, that poetry might, at some level, simply be the song of the earth, was seeming slightly fragile.

Even Bate, in his biography of Ted Hughes, is clearly aware that poetry comes in many forms. For example (page 93), he describes Yeats as ‘the poet of the land and the spirit of place’ in contrast to Eliot as ‘the poet of deracinated modernity.’ This of course still leaves begging the question of whether a poet who simply ‘gives voice to a new terror: the meaningless’, is a poet in the full sense of the word, no matter how powerful and honest that voice may be.

This relates to my struggle, explored in earlier posts, with much modern art, if it seems to capitulate to the dissonance and disbelief of the modern world with no counterbalancing sense of meaning and purpose. Can true poetry be simply nihilistic? Not that I’m saying, as should be clear by now, that poetry is only authentic if it sings about nature. Nature is not the only higher value poetry can draw upon to give it depth.

Clare though made a strong case for nature as a front runner in this race (page 480):

‘Birds bees trees flowers all talked to me incessantly louder than the busy hum of men and who so wise as nature out of doors on the green grass by woods and streams under the beautiful sunny sky – daily communings with God and not a word spoken.’

To complete the picture, it might help here to fast-forward to where my reading of Bate’s whole biography of Clare left me.

After his brief moment in the spotlight and two less successful collections of what Bate feels were superior poems, Clare’s world was turning significantly darker. Not only was the impact of Enclosure still tightening but his success had brought with it the opportunity to move three miles away to a more spacious home, something which proved a mixed blessing.

Even before the move things were not going well (page 276):

The changes in the land wrought by enclosure were by now symbolic of his own narrowing prospects and the loss of the familiar landmarks of his childhood.

There was no going back (page 317):

Save in memory and poetry, there was no road back to childhood, to the unenclosed commons, to Eden. As his depression closed in upon him, the only future was alienation.

Now there was the impending challenge of a serious mental health problem, brought on by a combination of factors, not least his increasing sense of alienation. His move to Northborough did not help (page 388):

The accommodation was much more spacious than at Helpston… But the village never became home. It felt like a closed community, hostile to newcomers.

Clare describes his feelings of loss and displacement in The Flitting (Page 389):

I’ve left my own old home of homes,
Green fields, and pleasant place:
The summer, like a stranger comes,
I pause – and hardly know her face.’

His poetry, which Bate sees as rooted in Clare’s ‘art of noticing’ and ‘intuitive responsiveness to minute particulars’ (pages 300-01) had so far lost nothing of its power though in this unhinging process (page 390):

His remembrance is not just of his old home, but specifically of the pre-enclosure landscape. It was also at this time that he wrote another of his great enclosure elegies, a vigourous poem of political complaint spoken in the very voice of a piece of land, ‘Swordy Well’. . . . With the enclosure, it was taken by the parish overseers as a source of stone for road mending. In the poem, the land speaks out against its own enclosure in the same terms as a labourer would have used to complain about his loss  of ancient rights. ‘I ha’n’t a friend in all the place,’ sings the desecrated earth, ‘Save one and he’s away.’ That one is Clare himself, both physically away from Helpston and mentally distant from his own unenclosed youth.

And again (page 405):

Clare’s sense of his own status as a perpetual outsider, a man who did not fully belong in either the world of London property or that of literary propriety, is nowhere better caught that in a sonnet on his fear of trespassing: ‘I dreaded walking where there was no path.’

I can resonate to this to some degree, as I was transplanted from lower middle class roots at the age of seventeen to the lofty heights of privilege at Cambridge in the early 60s. Since then I have always felt déclassé, belonging neither to my culture of origin nor to the rarified atmosphere of dinner suits and cocktail parties. This may partly account for why I found the cruise concept of ‘black-tie dining’, something that happened on four nights of our journey, a somewhat bizarre experience: I tried it once, in my green suit not a dinner suit, and stuck to the casual dress of the buffet after that.

Compared to Clare though my experience was relatively mild. The stresses of it did not strain me beyond endurance so that I would end my life staring from the window of an institution which felt like a prison, as Clare did in his asylum according to one of his visitors (page 475):

‘There was a birdcage, with a skylark in it, near the window; and pointing to the iron bars in his apartment, he smiled gloomily, and said, in a strong provincial accent, “We are both of us bound birds, you see.”’

I couldn’t help but remember Hopkins’s poem as I read those words[1]:

As a dare-gale skylark scanted in a dull cage,
Man’s mounting spirit in his bone-house, mean house, dwells –

In a sense that Clare does not express as far as I know, this would make him double-caged, as of course was Hopkins in the Jesuit order, though he never admitted that explicitly in any of his poems as far as I’m aware. Hopkins shared another passion with Clare (Robert Bernard Martin’s biography – page 212):

When an ash tree was felled in the garden, he ‘heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.’

Clare would certainly have been familiar though with the words of Blake that came tumbling into my head a this point:

A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions.

I was beginning to feel that the motif of the prison was becoming an uncomfortably frequent theme.

In the end, divorced from nature by the Enclosure process, by his well-meant but unavoidable move to a different locality and by the social elevation his obsessive versifying earned him, he broke down and entered the final alienation of the asylum. He registers the ultimate consequence in his poem An Invite to Eternity (page 491):

Clare had coined the term self identity. Now he coins its opposite: sad non-identity. The absence of home and family has stripped Clare of his sense of self. At the same time, the very act of writing is a defiant assertion of the self. ‘At once to be and not to be’ is a breath-taking riposte to Hamlet’s question.

Even so, he is able to capture this in powerful poetry that does not completely capitulate to his sense of annihilation.

In the end there was no viable escape from his distress, except through poetry. Concerning his poem I am Bate writes (page 505):

In imagination, even in the asylum, he could complete the circle of vision, undoing his troubles by laying himself to rest between grass and ‘vaulted sky.’ He longs at once for both childhood and the grave.

He does not, if Bate’s sense of him is to be trusted, invest as much meaning in the horizon, or perhaps even in nature, as Emily Dickinson did, according to Judith Farr in her book, The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity,’ and she makes this explicit. This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Maybe though for Clare, even though poetry began as a song of the earth, in the end it was more than that. I’m not sure I can quite find words right now for what that means. All I can say at the moment is that poetry itself can be a kind of transcendence, that brings meaning, perhaps even consolation, into the darkest moments of our lives.

When we spoke to our steward later that day to check how things were back home, he looked quite worried and told us that his cousin was missing, but the rest of his family were thankfully OK. We commiserated with him and assured him that we would remember his family in our prayers and hope that all would be well.

Footnote:

[1]. It would be fascinating to explore this further here but the post is long enough already. For now it is enough to indicate that R B Martin’s biography of Hopkin’s suggests (page 268) that an enforced move from St Beuno’s in rural Wales, where he had been studying for the priesthood, may have accounted in part for this sense of (page 264) ‘limitation, entrapment, a kind of stifling imprisonment of the spirit.’ The intensity of his connection with nature (page 203) would be more than enough to suggest a close affinity with Clare at least in this respect, and a comparable reaction to being torn away from nature by his move.

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O My servants! Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh  No. CLII)

My wife and I were sitting reading on the upper deck as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon. The sea was calm. There was a low band of cloud floating just at the bottom of the sky-line. It didn’t look as though we’d get the spectacular fire-forge of a sunset we’d been hoping for. Still, it was pleasant to sit, stroked by a relatively gentle wind, before a sky far wider than we usually enjoyed.

I took out my copy of Mindfulness and the Natural World by Claire Thompson. I had decided to use one of her meditations (page 124) to help me tune in more to nature.

‘Write a list of five things in nature that you noticed that day and feel grateful for.’ I started to work on my list, glancing at the sinking sun as I scoured my memory.

There was the fig tree in the square in Cadiz, at least I think it was a fig tree. The fruit hanging from its branches might have been just a tad too large to be a fig, but I wrote that down anyway.

Then there was the old tree in the coastal garden there. We’d been hurrying back to the boat at that point so I didn’t really have time to savour fully the complexity of its system of branches, but the impact it made even so had stuck in my mind.

I was beginning to struggle at this point. Clearly my campaign to connect with nature was getting off to a bad start here.

As I gazed at the slowly reddening sun, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a woman with an expensive camera leaning over the rail and staring at the water.

The melons I had eaten in my fruit salad came to mind for some reason. I wrote it down. That concoction was going to be a regular feature of my on-board diet, though I didn’t know that yet. Gratitude would shift into boredom.

Then I remembered the flocks of seagulls swooping down towards the waves as we pulled out of Cádiz.

As I worked on remembering another item to make my list of five, and tried to summon up a feeling of gratitude for the experiences I had remembered, the lady with the camera approached.

‘Hallo,’ she said, in a clearly Spanish accent.

‘Hi,’ I responded. ‘Glad you came up to speak to us. I was wondering what you were hoping to catch in your camera.’

‘Whales or dolphins.’

‘Ah, that explains your badge,’ I said, catching on slightly late to something I had noticed earlier even at a distance. I could read it clearly now. ‘Orca. What does that mean exactly?’

She gave me her opt-in card.

‘We’re giving a talk tomorrow. Would you like to come? It’s at 10 o’clock in the theatre.’

‘We will do. By the way it’s a bit of a coincidence that I was trying to tune into nature better when you showed up.’

I showed her the page I was working on and what the meditation was about.

She expressed polite interest before moving on to the next deck chair.

Later, at her talk, we learned, amongst other things, that the Orca, though it is known as the killer whale, is really a dolphin because it has teeth, which whales do not. There are 29 species of the whale/dolphin family in the Mediterranean. The tongue of the largest whale is large enough for an African elephant to stand on and its heart is the size of a VW car, apparently. The Orca is more modestly sized as a bus. The sperm whale can hold its breath for two hours. I’m not sure this factual approach was helping me in my efforts to tune in to the natural world.

After she walked away, I remembered the pigeons cooling off in the fountain just off the Plaza de España in Cádiz. I was kicking myself for not having taken a photograph.

I had a half-hearted attempt to meditate with gratitude on the five things in nature I’d recently noticed, before picking up the book to read some more, glancing at the setting sun as I did so, but failing to wonder why I hadn’t used that in my list instead of the melons.

Unfortunately I bumped up against one of my bêtes noirs almost as soon as I started reading (page 33

Like our bodies and our senses, our minds came from nature and were shaped by living in the natural world.

It is amazing to me how deep-seated and taken for granted this reductionist view of the mind is, spawned within the default materialism in which our minds swim. A materialistic model of the mind leaves us only with the Earth as a self-transcendent source of meaning and a motivator to lift our sights higher and behave more morally. This is the problem I have discussed before in reaction to Rifkin’s prescription for a change that would save our civilisation. Rifkin clearly feels our connection with the earth is the best hope we’ve got (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

As I expanded on in that post, my sense is that, sadly, nature alone will not be enough to lift us above our tendencies to self-destruction.

Of course, I also accept that some forms of ‘religion’ have led to the opposite problem, an exploitative contempt for nature and recognize that we need to integrate both religion and nature constructively if we are to survive.

Thompson’s reductionist assumptions continued (page 49):

To live in the realms of our minds and to cling to the idea of a constant separate ‘I’ experiencing our entire lives lies at the heart of most of our unhappiness.

It is true that our idea of who we are can cause unhappiness, but it does not prove that believing there is no self at all will make us happy. She is conflating mind with its contents. She is not considering the possible nature of pure consciousness, another issue I have dealt with at length elsewhere in a discussion of Sam Harris’ position in the light of his meditative practice. The part of it that is relevant to recall here, because of Thompson’s attachment to Buddhism, is this:

To explore this further with some hope of clarity I need to go back to something Harris says: ‘The implied centre of cognition and emotion simply falls away, and it is obvious that consciousness is never truly confined by what it knows.’

He may have disposed of the self in a way that preserves his atheism intact. What he skates over are the implications of the consciousness with which he is left. I can see that we are close to Buddhist ideas of the annihilation of the self as it merges back into the ground of being – blending its drop into the ocean once more.

But there’s a catch, isn’t there? There is still some kind of consciousness albeit without the usual boundaries. There is still an awareness with which he is connected and whose experience he remembers even if he cannot sustain that kind of awareness for long.

I put the book down again and picked up that day’s Sudoku puzzle, something the cruise printed off every morning for all passengers to battle with between watching the waves, the sunset or the dancing lessons in the Atrium (that term is an interesting remnant of the Roman civilisation which made it difficult to shake of the amphitheatre associations I described last time).

Instead of focusing on the numbers, I found my mind drifting back to another book I’d read before setting off on this trip, one that dealt with nature, this time in the context of poetry, and hadn’t pressed my anti-scientism button to quite the same extent, but enough to explain why my mind now drifted off in that direction.

Before setting foot on any deck, I had completed my reading of Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth. Its rich and intriguing exploration of the relationship between poetry and nature was reshaping my understanding of both nature and poetry. I took it with me onboard ship along with his biography of John Clare, a sensation in his time as a peasant poet, an English equivalent of Robert Burns. The lifelong theme of his poetry was nature. His almost obsessional life’s work was a vast collection of poems rooted in his passionately intense and minute observations of the natural world.

I had naively thought that the cruise would bring me closer to the sea in a way that would deepen my relationship with nature. I had underestimated how hard the glittering carapace of the cruise ship would make connecting with the sea it sailed on, and how the instrumental architecture of the docks we landed at would virtually delete from sight the land we disembarked on. Cranes and containers, warehouses and duty free shops, competed for my attention instead.

Even driving through the countryside near Livorno, on the way to Pisa, had its ironic contrasts: on the right flourished green glades of umbrella pines opposite the war machine of an American army base.

Even so the conclusions Bate had reached in The Song of the Earth were still rattling round my head.

An important insight towards the end of the book comes from a poet whose complete works I recently took to the local Oxfam shop as not worth keeping. Bate writes (page 238):

Murray implies that the vastness and untamability of Australia mean that the peculiar power and sacredness of that land may still be sensed. He christens this religious sense ‘Strine Shinto.’ His own poetry – though tempered with wryness, irony and self-deprecation – undertakes a complex integration of the ancient idea that nature is the book in which a transcendent God writes his presence with a kind of secular Shinto which serves as the ground for an environmental ethic.

The insight, combining as it does the sacred and poetic with the natural, resonated strongly with me. I have written before of how repellant I find our exploitative relationship with the earth, a point that Bate touches on (page 244):

Advanced Western culture has a distinctive and perhaps exceptionally divisive understanding of humankind’s relationship to nature, an understanding which may for convenience be traced back to Baconian empirical science and Cartesian philosophical dualism, and which was further developed in Kantian idealism.

He pushed me to confront an issue that I hadn’t really thought much about before (page 251):

If ‘world’ is, as Ricoeur has it, a panoply of possible experiences and imaginings projected through the infinite potentiality of writing, then our world, our home, is not earth but language. . . . There is a special kind of writing, called poetry, which has the peculiar power to speak ‘earth’. Poetry is the song of the earth.

I’m not sure I agree with his point about where our home is, but I was eager to explore the idea of poetry as the ‘song of the earth.’

The sun was almost set now. Time to go back to our room and listen to the news before attempting to go to sleep, in my case with the usually reliable sedative of a good book.

As we took the lift down through the eight levels to Deck 5 after our conversation about whales and dolphins, I remembered the point in the mindfulness book that had linked with Thompson’s reductionism and Bate’s use of the example of one poet who has always intrigued me, though also frustrated my full understanding of what he is attempting to say (page 263):

In a letter of 13 November 1925 to his Polish translator, Rilke explained his purpose in his master work, the Duino Elegies. He considered these meditations as responses to the transience of all earthly things. In the face of transience, the poet must undertake the work of transformation. . . The language of unification and transformation, the yoking of earth and consciousness, the divinisation of the immanent world as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm: these are all the moves which Wordsworth made in ‘Tintern Abbey’.

The phrase ‘as against a withdrawal to a transcendent realm’ struck a warning bell to which I will return later in this sequence – shades of reductionism again perhaps?

For now the key point is the haunting truth that (page 281):

The poetic articulates both presence and absence, it is both the imaginary recreation and the trace on the sand which is all that remains of the wind itself. The poetic is ontologically double because it may be thought of as ecological in two senses: it is either (both?) a language (logos) that restores us to our home (oikos) or (and?) a melancholy recognising that our only (oikos) home is language (logos).

It relates to something I was already aware of: transience. A haunting example cut literally across my path in China when I saw a man writing in water on the path of a Shanghai park. I learnt that this was a symbol of transience, of how all things fade eventually as time goes by.

When we got back to our cabin we watched Sky news, our default channel and not my preferred fare, which on this occasion was focused partly on the earthquakes in Indonesia. There had been a second one, slightly weaker than the first but still causing damage and possible loss of life. We promised ourselves we’d check with our steward the following day to make sure his family were all OK. 

Writing with Water in a Shanghai Park – a Buddhist symbol of Evanescence

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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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Much has been happening this year to give me cause to reflect, whether I wanted to or not, on the meaning of life.

‘Judging by your blog posts, you do this anyway,’ I can almost hear you comment.

Yes, that’s true but only up to point, it seems.

I accept that I have explored at possibly excruciating length the importance of reflection, and kept coming back relentlessly to the issues of the afterlife, and the nature of the mind/brain relationship. I have banged on endlessly about the impact of my sister’s death before I was born and how grappling with my parents’ grief shaped my childhood.

The same kind of preoccupations persist, of course.

Time-Torn

Recently, when I was in Birmingham, I bought a book that I already owned. This is only the second time I’ve done so. It was the greeny-blue paperback edition of Claire Tomalin’s Thomas Hardy: the Time-torn Man. I knew I owned one book about his life but it didn’t look like this one, so I bought it, partly motivated by the BBC’s recent screening of a new version of Far from the Madding Crowd.

It took me a while to find the one I’d got. I combed my re-arranged shelves (we’ve been de-cluttering again), and was almost on the point of putting my name on the flyleaf of my new acquisition, when I spotted a cream coloured hard-back.

‘Found it!’ my mind shrieked.

I managed to get my money back from Waterstones and, afterwards, decided to check whether I’d read the book. My de-cluttering and reorganisation process is based partly on examining books to see when I bought them and if I’ve even looked at them. I’m operating a 10 year rule. If I’ve had it 10 years and not read it, I should consider taking it to the Oxfam shop.

This book surprised me. I’d bought it in 2006, but there was no evidence I’d ever read it, though I thought I had.

Next test: ‘Read the opening pages.’

I did.

There was no way this was going to charity.

Memories came flooding back, even more than had been triggered by the film, which linked only with the other novels. The biography brought back the poems, because they were the focus of the prologue, including a particularly haunting one, written after the death of his wife, from whom he had become increasingly estranged over the years, though they continued to live in the same house:

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

Tomalin doesn’t quote the whole poem, only the first and last verses, but my mind (or was it my heart?) filled in much of the rest.

I am now almost at the end of her engaging account of his life. The debt I owe to Hardy, who helped me place my family’s grief and suffering in a wider context as I grew up through adolescence to something closer to maturity, is very great indeed. It’s good to be reminded of that, even though I had much further to go than he could take me.

But even describing this, and mentioning the next book on my list, Night Falls Fast by Kay Redfield Jamison (another one rediscovered unread) which deals with suicide, doesn’t quite convey where I find I’m up to now.

Recent Experiences

To do that I need to touch briefly on some events of the last few months.

First, there was the series of colds that left me with a cough I couldn’t shake off, and a deep sense of fatigue. This overlapped with a health MOT that flagged up a highly elevated blood pressure, which I thought might have been triggered by the series of  infections.

Antibiotics, which cleared the cough, and Amlodipine, which brought down my blood pressure, levelled things off for a while. Even so something had shifted in my consciousness.

Maybe it was the evident panic of the nurses at the sight of a systolic BP in excess of 200, and the manic sequence of blood tests that followed to check out the state of my major organs, that changed my sense of my own body. Whereas before my body was something that I identified with so closely that I barely noticed it if it did not hurt, tingle or display some similarly intense experience, now I was aware of it plodding along most of the time.

But, and this is an important ‘but’, I do not feel I am my body. I have a body obviously, and depend upon it to get me around and carry my consciousness.

Somehow, though, the hand I write with and the feet I walk with, no longer feel part of who I really am. They are instruments I use, and I catch myself watching them as I write or walk, but they are not me. I need them, and as my body gets tired faster than it used to, I get impatient with them and frustrated by them more often. Yeats’ expression of feeling ‘fastened to a dying animal’ is taking on new meanings for me.

More recently, and literally the day before I was due to travel to Scotland to run a workshop on unity, I found myself needing to go to the doctor’s again, unable to drive myself because I was suddenly seeing two of everything. My GP couldn’t explain why it had suddenly occurred, though he knew the name for it: diplopia.

He referred me to the hospital and they confirmed my diagnosis but had no real idea either what might have caused it. They gave me a prism patch to place on the left lens of my spectacles. It deflects the light and corrects my double vision. I’ll need to wear it till the damaged nerve is repaired, which could take months.

This diplopia, perhaps predictably, redoubled the problem.

Not only was I feeling different about my body now, but the world had changed its appearance and was reinforcing the sense, which I have had for as long as I can remember, that all I have is a simulation of reality. When your simulation breaks down further, and doesn’t even fulfil its evolutionary purpose too well, there’s no get out.

Not only am I not my body, it feels, but I don’t even know what the world is really like anymore, if I ever did.

Reaffirmations

This has led me to reaffirm even more strongly the importance of reflection, stepping back from my identifications with the contents of my consciousness, and consultation, comparing simulations as dispassionately as possible with others in order to get closer to the truth. Learning to act reflectively has come to seem even more crucial.

Following on from that reminder, I added in my journal:

This needs to be held in mind along with my metaphor of the bees of reflection gathering the pollen of wisdom and the honey of love from the flowers of experience, and with my dream metaphor of the hearth (see link for a full description) with its associations of earth, heart, art, ear and hear, plus the peat that burns within the structure of the grate to provide light and warmth.

It was only as I re-read those words this morning that I realised another level of interpretation of that dream.

This was the dream:

I am sitting on a rag rug, the kind where you drag bits of cloth through a coarse fabric backing to build up a warm thick rug.  The rags used in this case were all dark browns, greys and blacks. It is the rug, made by my spinster aunt, that was in the family home where I grew up. I’m in the living room, facing the hearth with its chimney breast and its cast-iron grate and what would have been a coal fire burning brightly. I am at the left hand corner of the rug furthest from the fire. To my right are one or two other people, probably Bahá’ís, but I’m not sure who they are. We are praying. I am chewing gum. I suddenly realise that Bahá’u’lláh is behind my left shoulder. I absolutely know it. I am devastated to be ‘caught’ chewing gum during prayers but can see no way of getting rid of the gum unobserved.

My interpretation of ‘peat,’ as written down several years after, was that ‘the essence of my being – peat – is to fuel’ the process of’ ‘giving warmth to the mansion of being.’

Peat was perhaps not simply, as I had originally thought, a pun on my name that related to the idea of sacrificing an innate spiritual deeper self for a higher purpose (light/warmth): it now seemed to be pointing towards something more complex.

This is partly because there are implications concerning the time scales involved. The Wikipedia article explains: ‘In natural peatlands, the “annual rate of biomass production is greater than the rate of decomposition”, but it takes “thousands of years for peatlands to develop the deposits of 1.5 to 2.3 m [4.9 to 7.5 ft], which is the average depth of the boreal [northern] peatlands”.’

If I translate that into personal terms, peat, although derived from the earth, becomes to some degree at least an attribute painstakingly acquired, something that takes long periods of time to create or evolve. It is not already available nor can it be created impatiently, in a rush. Yes, it is the fuel which gives the energy to bring light (wisdom?) and warmth (love?) into the world of being but it needs work to bring it into existence.

In short, I am not burning something that is already there fully formed from birth, as it were, ‘the Soul that rises with’ me, as Wordsworth put it, but something that I have had to devote time to creating. It is almost certainly related to my soul and to spirit, but it is also involves something which I have a responsibility to develop, create, bring into being.

Perhaps I had only partly understood my dream all this time, glibly oversimplifying it. Why doesn’t what surprise me?

What had seemed like separate aspects of experience suddenly have come to seem connected.

Reflection requires patience. Long periods of practice are required to even begin to get the hang of it. Using it entails slowing down. Periods of silence, as quiet as the deep ground that holds the formation of peat, are essential prerequisites to reflection and the ultimate creation of its fruits.

I am still in the process of digesting these insights and refining them. I can’t yet articulate them clearly or exactly.

What it means for this blog is that I will only publish when I feel I really have something to say, not at the dictates of a calendar deadline. I am still not even sure exactly which direction my writing will now take.

There will be more silence and fewer words. Be patient with me. It may prove worth it.

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My current sequence of posts on subliminal influences makes it seem timely to republish this sequence that last saw the light two years ago. I have changed the numbering from before. The posts are interwoven with current sequences.

I know you will say I brought this on myself. Nobody asked me to tackle this issue in public. I have only myself to blame. I wanted to know more clearly what is meant by Bahá’u’lláh’s expression ‘ the understanding heart.’  I decided to go public with my struggles to do so. Now I’m not so sure that was such a great idea after all. I’m not at all convinced I can deliver in a way that advances anyone’s understanding more than a few millimetres at best. Some people may even feel I’m taking them back a step or two.

Anyway I said I would have a go, so let’s get on with it.

I have so far been tackling the easy bit. I’ve clarified that the heart in the sense Bahá’u’lláh meant could not be reduced to our gut feelings, or possibly even to our feelings of any surface kind.

Buddha in Blue jeans-1

Downloadable at this link

Interestingly, Tai Sheridan touches on this distinction in his pamphlet Buddha in Blue Jeans (page 7): ‘Your feelings are your heart and gut response to the world.’

The heart obviously does not mean our thoughts, though the thoughts we have, which relate to our beliefs about the world and what it means, can trigger a whole host of diverse feelings. Given that our view of the world is probably a kind of cultural trance, it’s not likely to be the pathway to our understanding heart.

What we discover about the nature of the understanding heart should not be too grandiose, that’s for sure. Though wiser than our other faculties, it will be a fallible and limited organ nonetheless. Bahá’u’lláh makes that abundantly clear. We can’t even use it to understand a key aspect of our own mind let alone more abstruse mysteries:

Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. . . . . . Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, . . .  thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God . . . . . . This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.

(Gleanings: page 164-166: LXXXIII)

He leaves us with the paradox that we would we wiser to recognise our limitations in this respect. This may be a good place to start in our investigation of what an understanding heart would be like if we were aware of it. We’d know what we couldn’t know. We’d have a realistic sense of humility in the face of the unknowable. We would probably not be saying that it could not exist because I can’t measure or physically detect it. 

What then do we need to do to get closer to a state of mind that might allow us to get in touch with our understanding heart, which Gurdjieff in his way, and Bahá’u’lláh in His, assure us that we potentially can do?

This is where we leave the easy bit behind. Bahá’u’lláh writes:

When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. . . . . . He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 162)

We are in difficult territory here. First of all, we have the need to dispense with every trace of love as well as hate. At the same time we have to take account of what Bahá’u’lláh says in other places. For example: ‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.’ This is from the Persian Hidden Words (PHW: 3).

Red rose 2

I am clearly unable to give an authoritative explanation of how these two sets of statements can be reconciled. They clearly indicate that we must not be too simplistic here. They probably suggest that doing verbal pyrotechnics would not be as good an idea as meditating upon these two quotations for a long period of time until they sink into the depths of our consciousness as a result of which we may come to benefit from the whisperings of our understanding heart if we are patient and attentive enough.

For now, all I can say is that it reactivated the same puzzlement in me as when I read how Buddhism suggests we have to relinquish even the desire for enlightenment as we meditate if we are ever to achieve it and the compassion and wisdom that are its fruits. How was I supposed to persist for years in meditation without any desire for what was supposed to result?

Bahá’u’lláh’s phrase ‘the rose of love’ suggests that He might be pointing us towards the possibility that there are many kinds of love but only one that would be compatible with realising the truth. It feels to me that the many feelings of ‘love’ that I have experienced, even when I have thought it was the love for God, might well be the nettles and thistles of love which the Kitáb-i-Íqán seems to be telling me I have to weed out of my heart. The same pattern may be true also of the ‘nightingale of affection and desire:’ I’m stuck with the crows and ravens perhaps, not even the robins.

I could of course be hopelessly off the mark, though my inference here is given some credibility by the fact that the comparison between the nightingale and the Messenger of God is often made in the Bahá’í Writings, for example: ‘ the Nightingale of Paradise singeth upon the twigs of the Tree of Eternity, with holy and sweet melodies, proclaiming to the sincere ones the glad tidings of the nearness of God,’ and one rose in particular is described in exceptional terms:

In the Rose Garden of changeless splendour a Flower hath begun to bloom, compared to which every other flower is but a thorn, and before the brightness of Whose glory the very essence of beauty must pale and wither.

What is unarguable is that the path I have to tread to get in touch with my understanding heart will be long and arduous, though infinitely rewarding.

I am reminded of Margaret Donaldson‘s book Human Minds. Part of her contention in this deeply rewarding book is to argue that our modern so-called developed society has chosen to value and promote the arduously won insights of mathematics and the scientific method  over the equally arduously won insights of the meditative traditions. In both cases most of us do not test or investigate in depth for ourselves the insights won: we simply trust the experts.  

We also fail to appreciate that the arduously won insights of the meditative traditions are equally testable and replicable as those of hard science for those prepared to devote enough hours to the acquisition of the requisite skills.  Because our society encourages the latter, we have scientific adepts in abundance: because it is suspicious of the former, accomplished mystics are hard to come by. We are out of balance and will eventually pay the ultimate price if we are not already beginning to do so.

Bahá’u’lláh has no doubt about the benefits of the path of search he advocates:

Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. . . . . . Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude.

(Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán page 196)

WILLIAM BLAKE

William Blake (for source of image see link)

We are in the world of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence:

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.

And Wordsworth’s ‘sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused.’ When mystics and so many poets agree we would have to be arrogant indeed to dismiss out of hand the possible truth of what they describe.

Donaldson also refers interestingly to the views of Iris Murdoch on the value of art and imagery to this process of deepening understanding (op.cit.: page 230):

Murdoch . . . . . defends art as giving us ‘intermediate images’ and argues, correctly I think, that most of us cannot do without the ‘high substitute for the spiritual and the speculative life,’ that it provides. But she also recognises that images can lead to a full stop if they are taken as being ‘for real.’

This sounds like the mistake we all might be making, which is to take what we sense for what truly is.  Basic science scuppers that in any case. Colour is not in the object, nor is it even in the eye, but in the mind of the beholder. We translate a particular wavelength of light into red, blue, green and so on. Red could just as easily have been experienced as blue. The colour allocation is arbitrary and not inherent in the object.

Science even carries us as far as understanding that solid objects have more empty space than matter in them. It is the force that particles exert that creates the illusion of solidity. It is not then quite such a huge leap of imagination to suppose that atoms could be doorways to a deeper reality if only we could detach ourselves sufficiently from the delusions and attachments of consensus reality.

Where then do we turn from here in order to progress further in this task?

As the heart, in the sense we are using the word, is a metaphor it is perhaps not surprising that the best way of enhancing our understanding of the term might be through other metaphors. We’re at the cusp where mysticism and poetry intersect, it seems.

We’ve been here before on this blog, with my encounter with R S Thomas. I found his anthology of religious verse published in the 60s, and read in his introduction (page 9):

The mystic fails to mediate God adequately insofar as he is not a poet. The poet, with possibly less immediacy of apprehension, shows his spiritual concern and his spiritual nature through the medium of language, the supreme symbol. The presentation of religious experience is the most inspired language in poetry. This is not a definition of poetry, but a description of how the communication of religious experience best operates.

That is where we look next time, and given that Bahá’u’lláh was both a mystic and an accomplished poet it should be a fruitful but perhaps demanding experience.

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[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.

(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)

As I am about to bring Shelley back into the frame with my next new post, it seemed worth picking up this sequence from a year ago part way through. I will be checking each post carefully before I republish as I want to try and flag up places where my new understanding of the role of trauma shaping personality might help me see where any trauma in Shelley’s history might have had an impact on his art. The first three re-published posts will be run consecutively. Others will follow after Monday’s new post.

As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.

For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.

Tintern Abbey (for source of image see link)

“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)

The Limitations of Protest Alone

Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).

The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):

                                      And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.

More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.

The diary entry in part reads:

At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.

I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.

O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.

I then continue:

Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?

Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.

Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)

A Charismatic Teacher

Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.

My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.

He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:

All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—

It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.

I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.

In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.

Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.

Coming onto Shelley

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) - for source see link

Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link

So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?

I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.

Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent twovolume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.

Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.

However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.

Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.

I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’

Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.

Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.

However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.

In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.

Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.

I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse.  Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.

Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull. Bob Dylan, in response to his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature, has admitted that he has to write 100 worthless songs for every good one. Also:

Gottfried Benn said: ‘No one, not even the greatest poets of our time, has left more than eight or ten perfect poems . . For six poems, thirty or fifty years’ asceticism, suffering, battle!’

(A Centenary Pessoa edited by Eugénio Lisboa & L. C. Taylor – page 18)

Dullness can even predominate in the published work. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:

And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
       (I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
       Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
       And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!

That complicates it all even more.

Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.

An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.

There will be more on Shelley tomorrow.

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Sartori

It is more than two years since I posted this short sequence. Given my recent sharing of Sharon Rawlette’s review, it seemed a good time to republish it.

The last post looked at some of the additional insights Penny Sartori’s book contributes to the field of NDE studies. Particularly intriguing for me were the insights relating to the field of Chaplaincy, some of the threads of which also appear in what follows.

Given that NDEs happen and they are not hallucinations what are the implications that she suggests flow from that realisation? It’s easiest to divide these into several categories:

  1. How do we improve the care we provide for those who have had a close brush with death or are actually dying, so as to take account of the reality of the NDE? These are the most relevant to Chaplaincy obviously.
  2. What are the after effects? I will deal with those she refers to which took my understanding further than previous accounts.
  3. How can they change our culture’s destructive attitude towards death?
  4. And lastly, how might they change the way we live now?

Improving Care for the dying:

People who have experienced an NDE have a clear idea of how we can improve the way that such people can be responded to in the aftermath (3053-58):

Following a retreat to help further understand their experience, a group of NDErs suggested ways of improving support for future experiencers:

• Understanding, well-informed healthcare workers
• Information on research, comparison with mystical traditions, historical perspectives, personal experiences and after effects
• Time to meditate, process the experience, pray or be in nature
• Spiritual counsellors, trained clergy, informed marriage and family counsellors, guides and mentors
• Workshops, retreats, conferences, support groups, classes, on-line support • Self-help material
• Heightened public awareness of all that the NDE entails
• Venues to learn, speak, network and integrate the NDE into careers
• Retreat for childhood NDErs

Certain simple practical steps became clearer. Routine medication may not always be the best thing, for example (3235):

When analysing the results of my research, one thing that I discovered was that the painkilling and sedative drugs we give patients appear to have an inhibitory effect on NDEs.

Her own painful personal experience during the death of her grandfather fuels the intensity of her concern with this issue (3258):

We nursed him in his own home and in my discussion with the palliative-care team I requested that midazolam be omitted from the infusion (I had found this to contribute greatly to confusional experiences in my research), which was agreed unless he became unmanageable and it would then be reviewed.

When the nurses visited that evening and moving him caused significant pain as the painkiller prescribed earlier had not fully kicked in, unknown to Satori they administered midazolam. Her grandfather (3064)  ‘never regained consciousness and died the next day, not having had the opportunity to say things he may have wanted to say to his daughter’ who had just arrived there from France.

She argues (3266) for ‘greater awareness of the dying process’ so that ‘many individuals faced with terminal illness [can] decide to complete a death plan or complete an advanced decision to refuse treatment (ADRT) form with regards to their wishes as their condition deteriorates.

The impact of an NDE

bruce-greyson-beyond-the-mind-body-problem2-300x300

For source of image see link

Given my earlier comments on the possible relationship between NDEs and suicide, it was interesting to read her rather different take on the issue. She first of all quotes Greyson (3276):

Professor Bruce Greyson found that patients who had had multiple suicide attempts but then experienced an NDE during the attempt were far less likely to attempt suicide again.

The evidence points strongly even further in that direction (3279):

In fact, those who had an NDE during a suicide attempt felt that suicide was not an option. The NDE empowered them with a sense of purpose in life and prompted an overwhelming realization that they took their problems with them even when out of their body – there was simply no way to escape their problems, so to attempt suicide was futile.

There are other aspects of the aftermath. The most important for me is the emphasis she places on our interconnectedness. This comes out more strongly here than in most accounts of the evidence (3309).

The overall message of the NDE is that we are all interconnected and we should treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves.

She also places it interestingly in the unlikely context of evolutionary theory (3346):

. . . Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley, highlights how in Darwin’s Descent of Man the word ‘love’ is mentioned 95 times and the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ is mentioned only twice. Despite not having great strength and agility, or large fangs, etc., the human race has survived and greatly evolved and Darwin believed this to be due to our ability to co-operate and to have sympathy for others. Darwin considered sympathy to be the strongest instinct in nature – there are deep reasons why we have evolved to be good to others: it’s wired into our DNA.

This also has ecological implications (3358-89):

. . . when we see ourselves as interconnected this is conducive not only to our survival as a species but also to our survival as a planet. . . . . . Another important way in which NDErs are affected is that they become more ecologically aware. With the rise of industrialization, humans are currently destroying nature for short-term gain. NDErs report an increased love for nature and the understanding that all people and things on the planet are interconnected.

Changing our attitude to Death

The book contains a powerful analysis of the problems with our culture’s attitude to death. (3427):

The avoidance of the subject of death was recognized over 32 years ago by Hampe, and it now persists to an even greater extent: ‘Anyone who has ever been in hospital, or still more in an intensive-care unit, has found that there above all the subject of dying and death is avoided, benevolently and persistently, though this is the last place where one might expect this avoidance.’

Our mechanistic and materialistic default position have contaminated our ways of dealing with death (3442):

Many people of all ages spend the last few weeks or months of their lives hooked up to machines. During the last few days or hours before the life of the patient is extinguished, relatives are distanced, as the visiting of loved ones remains controlled by the routines of the nurses and doctors.

hospice care

For source of image see link

There is though here a wonderful opportunity to respond to the spiritual aspects of experience (3448):

Healthcare workers are in a unique position of being able to provide both physical and spiritual care; as death approaches, addressing the patient’s spiritual needs is crucial. I regard nursing as one of the highest jobs, on a spiritual level, that can be done and I believe that being at the bedside of a dying patient is an absolute privilege.

Give that we are what Sartori describes (3452) as a ‘death-denying, materialistic society’ it may not be easy for us collectively to support those who are at the front line so that they can be of the greatest help and make the best use of this priceless opportunity.

More and more people, it is true, are coming to believe (3477) that ‘[t]here truly is no such thing as death. What many see as the end is really just a change, like a change of clothes, or a change of vehicle, or a change of residence.’  We are coming to recognize in increasing numbers that (3502) ‘. . .  materialist theories [are] not supported by . . . research and, if anything, drugs appear to inhibit the NDE as opposed to create it.’

We are still a very long way indeed from agreeing, as Bahá’u’lláh writes, that death is ‘a messenger of joy.’ This is because the downside militating against this way of seeing things is still remarkably formidable (3518):

Unfortunately, the belief that consciousness is created by the brain is so thoroughly ingrained within our current belief system that anything that suggests otherwise is immediately discounted or dismissed because it poses such a threat.

NDEs do offer some hope that the balance is beginning to shift (3658):

NDEs have previously been considered unworthy of science but, now that these experiences are being seriously acknowledged and are a valid area for scientific study, it seems that we are on the threshold of expanding our current knowledge about the meaning of life and death. There is no denying that they occur, we simply can’t explain them yet.

flower-of-life-interconnection1

For source of image see link

This changes our attitude towards living

More than 200 years ago Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers . . .

In the 21st century Sartori quotes Jules Lyons as saying (3577):

When I look at the world, it seems that more and more, humans are living out their lives as if their sole purpose is to ‘get’, rather than concentrating on living their soul purpose . . . which is to give.

Sartori then goes on to argue that NDEs are of evolutionary benefit in the way they encourage those who experience them, and many of those who hear about them, to balance their lives better in terms of the material and spiritual aspects. NDEs are a wake up call (3605):

An NDE is an accelerated spiritual transformation – these people have literally encountered death in a totally unexpected and sudden way. It has taken something to shake the foundations of their being and to experience life in ways other than what they have been conditioned to believe.

The resulting realisations and the changes they bring in terms of the way people live are helpful to both humanity and the planet (3607):

The spiritual transformation resulting from the NDE instils qualities that are highly conducive to the evolution of our species and the planet as a whole. We are continuously evolving. When things are considered from a global perspective, spiritual development will lead to a reconsideration of how we live alongside our fellow humans, animals and plants in the world and result in a balance which is necessary for our survival as a planet.

A key piece of learning from the NDE frequently concerns our connectedness with everything and everyone else (3632 -41):

Imagine if everyone changed their perspective on life and saw each other as interconnected and valuable people, all part of the same underlying consciousness. What if everyone put the needs of others before their own needs? How radically transformed the whole world would be. . . . . During the NDE there is an overwhelming understanding that everything is interconnected. Coupled with the message from the life review, this points to the notion that what we do to others we ultimately do to ourselves.

Sartori recognizes that for this insight to be truly effective there has to be a change in (3681) ‘mass consciousness.’ Where can this change begin, though, except with individuals. As Bahá’ís we have a model for how that individual change, once begun, can be expressed in communities so that our civilisation can be ultimately transformed.

In any case, reading her book is one good place to start. Soon I will be looking at how even so-called ‘negative NDEs,’ looked at in the right way, can also be a force for good.

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