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July 27th, 2009, 10:59 PM
Chapter II

Love and Beauty Mystics

In studying the mysticism of the English writers, and more especially of the poets, one is at once struck by the diversity of approach leading to unity of end.
"There are," says Plotinus, "different roads by which this end [apprehension of the Infinite] may be reached. The love of beauty, which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and that ascent of science which makes the ambition of the philosopher; and that love and those prayers by which some devout and ardent soul tends in its moral purity towards perfection. These are the great highways conducting to that height above the actual and the particular, where we stand in the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines out as from the deeps of the soul."—Letter to Flaccus.
We have grouped together our English writers who are mystical in thought, according to the five main pathways by which they have seen the Vision: Love, Beauty, Nature, Wisdom, or Devotion. Even within these groups, the method of approach, the interpretation or application of the Idea, often differs very greatly. For instance, Shelley and Browning may both be called love-mystics; that is, they look upon love as the solution of the mystery of life, as the link between God and man. To Shelley this was a glorious intuition, which reached him through his imagination, whereas the life of man as he saw it roused in him little but mad indignation, wild revolt, and passionate protest. To Browning this was knowledge—knowledge borne in upon him just because of human life as he saw it, which to him was a clear proof of the great destiny of the race. He would have agreed with Patmore that "you can see the disc of Divinity quite clearly through the smoked glass of humanity, but no otherwise." He found "harmony in immortal souls, spite of the muddy vesture of decay."

The three great English poets who are also fundamentally mystical in thought are Browning, Wordsworth, and Blake. Their philosophy or mystical belief, one in essence, though so differently expressed, lies at the root, as it is also the flower, of their life-work. In others, as in Shelley, Keats, and Rossetti, although it is the inspiring force of their poetry, it is not a flame, burning steadily and evenly, but rather a light flashing out intermittently into brilliant and dazzling radiance. Hence the man himself is not so permeated by it; and hence results the unsatisfied desire, the almost painful yearning, the recurring disappointment and disillusionment, which we do not find in Browning, Wordsworth, and Blake.

In our first group we have four poets of markedly different temperaments—Shelley intensely spiritual; Rossetti with a strong tinge of sensuousness, of "earthiness" in his nature; Browning, the keenly intellectual man of the world, and Patmore a curious mixture of materialist and mystic; yet to all four love is the secret of life, the one thing worth giving and possessing.

Shelley believed in a Soul of the Universe, a Spirit in which all things live and move and have their being; which, as one feels in the Prometheus, is unnamable, inconceivable even to man, for "the deep truth is imageless." His most passionate desire was not, as was Browning's, for an increased and ennobled individuality, but for the mystical fusion of his own personality with this Spirit, this object of his worship and adoration. To Shelley, death itself was but the rending of a veil which would admit us to the full vision of the ideal, which alone is true life. The sense of unity in all things is most strongly felt in Adonais, where Shelley's maturest thought and philosophy are to be found; and indeed the mystical fervour in this poem, especially towards the end, is greater than anywhere else in his writings. The Hymn to Intellectual Beauty is in some ways Shelley's clearest and most obvious expression of his devotion to the Spirit of Ideal Beauty, its reality to him, and his vow of dedication to its service. But the Prometheus is the most deeply mystical of his poems; indeed, as Mrs Shelley says, "it requires a mind as subtle and penetrating as Shelley's own to understand the mystic meanings scattered throughout the poem."

Shelley, like Blake, regarded the human imagination as a divine creative force; Prometheus stands for the human imagination, or the genius of the world; and it is his union with Asia, the divine Idea, the Spirit of Beauty and of Love, from which a new universe is born. It is this union, which consummates the aspirations of humanity, that Shelley celebrates in the marvellous love-song of Prometheus. As befitted a disciple of Godwin, he believed in the divine potentiality of man, convinced that all good is to be found within man's own being, and that his progress depends on his own will.
It is our will
That thus enchains us to permitted ill—
We might be otherwise—we might be all
We dream of happy, high, majestical.
Where is the love, beauty, and truth we seek
But in our mind?
Julian and Maddalo.

In the allegorical introduction to the Revolt of Islam, which is an interesting example of Shelley's mystical mythology, we have an insight into the poet's view of the good power in the world. It is not an almighty creator standing outside mankind, but a power which suffers and rebels and evolves, and is, in fact, incarnate in humanity, so that it is unrecognised by men, and indeed confounded with evil:—
And the Great Spirit of Good did creep among
The nations of mankind, and every tongue
Cursed and blasphemed him as he passed, for none
Knew good from evil.
There is no doubt that to Shelley the form assumed by the divine in man was love. Mrs Shelley, in her note to Rosalind and Helen, says that, "in his eyes it was the essence of our being, and all woe and pain arose from the war made against it by selfishness or insensibility, or mistake"; and Shelley himself says, "the great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action or person, not our own."

Shelley was always searching for love; and, although he knew well, through his study of Plato, the difference between earthly and spiritual love, that the one is but the lowest step on the ladder which leads to the other, yet in actual practice he confounded the two. He knew that he did so; and only a month before his death, he summed up in a sentence the tragedy of his life. He writes to Mr Gisborne about the Epipsychidion, saying that he cannot look at it now, for—
"the person whom it celebrates was a cloud instead of a Juno," and continues, "If you are curious, however, to hear what I am and have been, it will tell you something thereof. It is an idealized history of my life and feelings. I think one is always in love with something or other; the error—and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in flesh and blood to avoid it—consists in seeking in a mortal image the likeness of what is, perhaps, eternal."
No poet has a more distinct philosophy of life than Browning. Indeed he has as much a right to a place among the philosophers, as Plato has to one among the poets. Browning is a seer, and pre-eminently a mystic; and it is especially interesting as in the case of Plato and St Paul, to encounter this latter quality as a dominating characteristic of the mind of so keen and logical a dialectician. We see at once that the main position of Browning's belief is identical with what we have found to be the characteristic of mysticism—unity under diversity at the centre of all existence. The same essence, the one life, expresses itself through every diversity of form.
He dwells on this again and again:—
God is seen
In the star, in the stone, in the flesh, in the soul and the clod.
And through all these forms there is growth upwards. Indeed, it is only upon this supposition that the poet can account for
many a thrill
Of kinship, I confess to, with the powers
Called Nature: animate, inanimate
In parts or in the whole, there's something there
Man-like that somehow meets the man in me.
Prince Hohenstiel-Schwangau.
The poet sees that in each higher stage we benefit by the garnered experience of the past; and so man grows and expands and becomes capable of feeling for and with everything that lives. At the same time the higher is not degraded by having worked in and through the lower, for he distinguishes between the continuous persistent life, and the temporary coverings it makes use of on its upward way;
From first to last of lodging, I was I,
And not at all the place that harboured me.
Humanity then, in Browning's view, is not a collection of individuals, separate and often antagonistic, but one whole.
When I say "you" 'tis the common soul,
The collective I mean: the race of Man
That receives life in parts to live in a whole
And grow here according to God's clear plan.
Old Pictures in Florence.
This sense of unity is shown in many ways: for instance, in Browning's protest against the one-sidedness of nineteenth-century scientific thought, the sharp distinction or gulf set up between science and religion. This sharp cleavage, to the mystic, is impossible. He knows, however irreconcilable the two may appear, that they are but different aspects of the same thing. This is one of the ways in which Browning anticipates the most advanced thought of the present day.
In Paracelsus he emphasises the fact that the exertion of power in the intelligence, or the acquisition of knowledge, is useless without the inspiration of love, just as love is waste without power. Paracelsus sums up the matter when he says to Aprile—
I too have sought to KNOW as thou to LOVE
Excluding love as thou refusedst knowledge....
We must never part ...
Till thou the lover, know; and I, the knower,
Love—until both are saved.
Arising logically out of this belief in unity, there follows, as with all mystics, the belief in the potential divinity of man, which permeates all Browning's thought, and is continually insisted on in such poems as Rabbi ben Ezra, A Death in the Desert, and The Ring and the Book. He takes for granted the fundamental position of the mystic, that the object of life is to know God; and according to the poet, in knowing love we learn to know God. Hence it follows that love is the meaning of life, and that he who finds it not
loses what he lived for
And eternally must lose it.

For life with all it yields of joy and woe
And hope and fear ...
Is just our chance o' the prize of learning love.
A Death in the Desert.
This is Browning's central teaching, the key-note of his work and philosophy. The importance of love in life is to Browning supreme, because he holds it to be the meeting-point between God and man. Love is the sublimest conception possible to man; and a life inspired by it is the highest conceivable form of goodness.

In this exaltation of love, as in several other points, Browning much resembles the German mystic, Meister Eckhart. To compare the two writers in detail would be an interesting task; it is only possible here to suggest points of resemblance. The following passage from Eckhart suggests several directions in which Browning's thought is peculiarly mystical:—
Intelligence is the youngest faculty in man.... The soul in itself is a simple work; what God works in the simple light of the soul is more beautiful and more delightful than all the other works which He works in all creatures. But foolish people take evil for good and good for evil. But to him who rightly understands, the one work which God works in the soul is better and nobler and higher than all the world. Through that light comes grace. Grace never comes in the intelligence or in the will. If it could come in the intelligence or in the will, the intelligence and the will would have to transcend themselves. On this a master says: There is something secret about it; and thereby he means the spark of the soul, which alone can apprehend God. The true union between God and the soul takes place in the little spark, which is called the spirit of the soul.[9]
The essential unity of God and man is expressed more than once by Browning in Eckhart's image: as when he speaks of God as Him
Who never is dishonoured in the spark
He gave us from his fire of fires.
He is at one with Eckhart, and with all mystics, in his appeal from the intellect to that which is beyond intellect; in his assertion of the supremacy of feeling, intuition, over knowledge. Browning never wearies of dwelling on the relativity of physical knowledge, and its inadequacy to satisfy man. This is perhaps best brought out in one of the last things he wrote, the "Reverie" in Asolando; but it is dwelt on in nearly all his later and more reflective poems. His maxim was—
Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
As wholly love allied to ignorance!
There lies thy truth and safety. ...
Consider well!
Were knowledge all thy faculty, then God
Must be ignored: love gains him by first leap.
A Pillar at Sebzevar.
Another point of resemblance with Eckhart is suggested by his words: "That foolish people take evil for good, and good for evil." Browning's theory of evil is part of the working-out of his principle of what may be called the coincidence of extreme opposites. This is, of course, part of his main belief in unity, but it is an interesting development of it. This theory is marked all through his writings; and, although philosophers have dealt with it, he is perhaps the one poet who faces the problem, and expresses himself on the point with entire conviction. His view is that good and evil are purely relative terms (see The Bean-stripe), and that one cannot exist without the other. It is evil which alone makes possible some of the divinest qualities in man—compassion, pity, forgiveness patience. We have seen that Shelley shares this view, "for none knew good from evil"; and Blake expresses himself very strongly about it, and complains that Plato "knew nothing but the virtues and vices, the good and evil.... There is nothing in all that.... Everything is good in God's eyes." Mysticism is always a reconcilement of opposites; and this, as we have seen in connection with science and religion, knowledge and love, is a dominant note of Browning's philosophy. He brings it out most startlingly perhaps in The Statue and the Bust, where he shows that in his very capacity for vice, a man proves his capacity for virtue, and that a failure of energy in the one implies a corresponding failure of energy in the other.

At the same time, clear knowledge that evil is illusion would defeat its own end and paralyse all moral effort, for evil only exists for the development of good in us.
Type needs antitype:
As night needs day, as shine needs shade, so good
Needs evil: how were pity understood
Unless by pain?
This is one reason why Browning never shrank from the evil in the world, why indeed he expended so much of his mind and art on the analysis and dissection of every kind of evil, laying bare for us the working of the mind of the criminal, the hypocrite, the weakling, and the cynic; because he held that—
Only by looking low, ere looking high
Comes penetration of the mystery.
There are other ways in which Browning's thought is especially mystical, as, for instance, his belief in pre-existence, and his theory of knowledge, for he, like Plato, believes in the light within the soul, and holds that—
To know
Rather consists in opening out a way
Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,
Than in effecting entry for a light
Supposed to be without.
Paracelsus, Act I.
But the one thought which is ever constant with him, and is peculiarly helpful to the practical man, is his recognition of the value of limitation in all our energies, and the stress he lays on the fact that only by virtue of this limitation can we grow. We should be paralysed else. It is Goethe's doctrine of Entbehrung, and it is vividly portrayed in the epistle of Karshish. Paracelsus learns it, and makes it clear to Festus at the end.

The natural result of Browning's theory of evil, and his sense of the value of limitation, is that he should welcome for man the experience of doubt, difficulty, temptation, pain; and this we find is the case.
Life is probation and the earth no goal
But starting point of man...
To try man's foot, if it will creep or climb
'Mid obstacles in seeming, points that prove
Advantage for who vaults from low to high
And makes the stumbling-block a stepping-stone.
The Ring and the Book: The Pope, 1436-7, 410-13.
It is this trust in unending progress, based on the consciousness of present failure, which is peculiarly inspiriting in Browning's thought, and it is essentially mystical. Instead of shrinking from pain, the mystic prays for it, for, properly met, it means growth.
Was the trial sore?
Temptation sharp? Thank God a second time!
Why comes temptation but for man to meet
And master and make crouch beneath his foot,
And so be pedestaled in triumph?
The Ring and the Book: The Pope, 1182-02.
Rossetti's mysticism is perhaps a more salient feature in his art than is the case with Browning, and the lines of it, and its place in his work, have been well described by Mr Theodore Watts-Dutton.[10] We can only here indicate wherein it lies, and how it differs from and falls short of the mysticism of Shelley and Browning. Rossetti, unlike Browning, is not the least metaphysical; he is not devoured by philosophical curiosity; he has no desire to solve the riddle of the universe. All his life he was dominated and fascinated by beauty, one form of which in especial so appealed to him as at times almost to overpower him—the beauty of the face of woman.[11] But this beauty is not an end in itself; it is not the desire of possession that so stirs him, but rather an absolute thirst for the knowledge of the mystery which he feels is hiding beneath and beyond it. Here lies his mysticism. It is this haunting passion which is the greatest thing in Rossetti, which inspires all that is best in him as artist, the belief that beauty is but the expression or symbol of something far greater and higher, and that it has kinship with immortal things. For beauty, which, as Plato has told us, is of all the divine ideas at once most manifest and most lovable to man, is for Rossetti the actual and visible symbol of love, which is at once the mystery and solution of the secret of life.[12] Rossetti's mystical passion is perhaps most perfectly expressed in his little early prose romance, Hand and Soul. It is purer and more austere than much of his poetry, and breathes an amazing force of spiritual vision. One wonders, after reading it, that the writer himself did not attain to a loftier and more spiritual development of life and art; and one cannot help feeling the reason was that he did not sufficiently heed the warning of Plotinus, not to let ourselves become entangled in sensuous beauty, which will engulf us as in a swamp.

Coventry Patmore was so entirely a mystic that it seems to be the first and the last and the only thing to say about him. His central conviction is the unity of all things, and hence their mutual interpretation and symbolic force. There is only one kind of knowledge which counts with him, and that is direct apprehension or perception, the knowledge a man has of Love, by being in love, not by reading about its symptoms. The "touch" of God is not a figure of speech.
"Touch," says Aquinas, "applies to spiritual things as well as to material things.... The fulness of intelligence is the obliteration of intelligence. God is then our honey, and we, as St Augustine says, are His; and who wants to understand honey or requires the rationale of a kiss?" (Rod, Root, and Flower, xx.)
Once given the essential idea, to be grasped by the intuitive faculty alone, the world is full of analogies, of natural revelations which help to support and illustrate great truths. Patmore was, however, caught and enthralled by one aspect of unity, by one great analogy, almost to the exclusion of all others. This is that in human love, but above all in wedded love, we have a symbol (that is an expression of a similar force in different material) of the love between God and the soul. What Patmore meant was that in the relationship and attitude of wedded lovers we hold the key to the mystery at the heart of life, and that we have in it a "real apprehension" (which is quite different from real comprehension[13]) of the relationship and attitude of humanity to God. His first wife's love revealed to him this, which is the basic fact of all his thought and work.
The relationship of the soul to Christ as His betrothed wife is the key to the feeling with which prayer and love and honour should be offered to Him ... She showed me what that relationship involves of heavenly submission and spotless passionate loyalty.[14]
He believed that sex is a relationship at the base of all things natural and divine;
Nature, with endless being rife,
Parts each thing into "him" and "her"
And, in the arithmetic of life,
The smallest unit is a pair.[15]
This division into two and reconciliation into one, this clash of forces resulting in life, is, as Patmore points out in words curiously reminiscent of those of Boehme, at the root of all existence. All real apprehension of God, he says, is dependent upon the realisation of his triple Personality in one Being.
Nature goes on giving echoes of the same living triplicity in animal, plant, and mineral, every stone and material atom owing its being to the synthesis or "embrace" of the two opposed forces of expansion and contraction. Nothing whatever exists in a single entity but in virtue of its being thesis, antithesis, and synthesis and in humanity and natural life this takes the form of sex, the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter, or third, forgotten sex spoken of by Plato, which is not the absence of the life of sex, but its fulfilment and power, as the electric fire is the fulfilment and power of positive and negative in their "embrace."
The essay from which this passage is taken, The Bow set in the Cloud, together with The Precursor, give in full detail an exposition of this belief of Patmore's, which was for him "the burning heart of the Universe."
Female and male God made the man;
His image is the whole, not half;
And in our love we dimly scan
The love which is between Himself.[16]
God he conceived of as the great masculine positive force, the soul as the feminine or receptive force, and the meeting of these two, the "mystic rapture" of the marriage of Divinity and Humanity, as the source of all life and joy.

This profound and very difficult theme is treated by Patmore in a manner at once austere and passionate in the exquisite little preludes to the Angel in the House, and more especially in the odes, which stand alone in nineteenth-century poetry for poignancy of feeling and depth of spiritual passion. They are the highest expression of "erotic mysticism"[17] in English; a marvellous combination of flaming ardour and sensuousness of description with purity and austerity of tone. This latter effect is gained largely by the bare and irregular metre, which has a curiously compelling beauty of rhythm and dignity of cadence.

The book into which Patmore put the fullness of his convictions, the Sponsa Dei, which he burnt because he feared it revealed too much to a world not ready for it, was says Mr Gosse, who had read it in manuscript, "a transcendental treatise on Divine desire seen through the veil of human desire." We can guess fairly accurately its tenor and spirit if we read the prose essay Dieu et ma Dame and the wonderful ode Sponsa Dei, which, happily, the poet did not destroy.
It may be noted that the other human affections and relationships also have for Patmore a deep symbolic value, and two of his finest odes are written, the one in symbolism of mother love, the other in that of father and son.[18]

We learn by human love, so be points out, to realise the possibility of contact between the finite and Infinite, for divinity can only be revealed by voluntarily submitting to limitations. It is "the mystic craving of the great to become the love-captive of the small, while the small has a corresponding thirst for the enthralment of the great."[19]

And this process of intercourse between God and man is symbolised in the Incarnation, which is not a single event in time, but the culmination of an eternal process. It is the central fact of a man's experience, "for it is going on perceptibly in himself"; and in like manner "the Trinity becomes the only and self-evident explanation of mysteries which are daily wrought in his own complex nature."[20] In this way is it that to Patmore religion is not a question of blameless life or the holding of certain beliefs, but it is "an experimental science" to be lived and to be felt, and the clues to the experiments are to be found in natural human processes and experiences interpreted in the light of the great dogmas of the Christian faith.

For Keats, the avenue to truth and reality took the form of Beauty. The idea, underlying most deeply and consistently the whole of his poetry, is that of the unity of life; and closely allied with this is the belief in progress, through ever-changing, ever-ascending stages. Sleep and Poetry, Endymion, and Hyperion represent very well three stages in the poet's thought and art. In Sleep and Poetry Keats depicts the growth even in an individual life, and describes the three stages of thought, or attitudes towards life, through which the poet must pass. They are not quite parallel to the three stages of the mystical ladder marked out by Wordsworth in the main body of his poetry, because they do not go quite so far, but they are almost exactly analogous to the three stages of mind he describes in Tintern Abbey. The first is mere animal pleasure and delight in living—
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air;
A laughing school-boy without grief or care
Hiding the springy branches of an elm.
Then follows simple unreflective enjoyment of Nature. The next stage is sympathy with human life, with human grief and joy, which brings a sense of the mystery of the world, a longing to pierce it and arrive at its meaning, symbolised in the figure of the charioteer.

Towards the end of Keats's life this feeling was growing stronger; and it is much dwelt upon in the Revision of Hyperion. There he plainly states that the merely artistic life, the life of the dreamer, is selfish; and that the only way to gain real insight is through contact and sympathy with human suffering and sorrow; and in the lost Woodhouse transcript of the Revision, rediscovered in 1904, there are some lines in which this point is still further emphasised. The full realisation of this third stage was not granted to Keats during his short life; he had but gleams of it. The only passage where he describes the ecstasy of vision is in Endymion (bk. i., 1. 774 ff.), and this resembles in essentials all the other reports of this experience given by mystics. When the mind is ready, anything may lead us to it—music, imagination, love, friendship.
Feel we these things?—that moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit's.
Keats felt this passage was inspired, and in a letter to Taylor in January 1818 he says, "When I wrote it, it was a regular stepping of the Imagination towards a truth."

In Endymion, the underlying idea is the unity of the various elements of the individual soul; the love of woman is shown to be the same as the love of beauty; and that in its turn is identical with the love of the principle of beauty in all things. Keats was always very sensitive to the mysterious effects of moonlight, and so for him the moon became a symbol for the great abstract principle of beauty, which, during the whole of his poetic life, he worshipped intellectually and spiritually. "The mighty abstract Idea I have of Beauty in all things stifles the more divided and minute domestic happiness," he writes to his brother George; and the last two well-known lines of the Ode on a Grecian Urn fairly sum up his philosophy—
Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
So that the moon represents to Keats the eternal idea, the one essence in all. This is how he writes of it, in what is an entirely mystical passage in Endymion—
... As I grew in years, still didst thou blend
With all my ardours: thou wast the deep glen;
Thou wast the mountain-top, the sage's pen,
The poet's harp, the voice of friends, the sun;
Thou wast the river, thou wast glory won;
Thou wast my clarion's blast, thou wast my steed,
My goblet full of wine, my topmost deed:
Thou wast the charm of women, lovely Moon!
In his fragment of Hyperion, Keats shadows forth the unity of all existence, and gives magnificent utterance to the belief that change is not decay, but the law of growth and progress. Oceanus, in his speech to the overthrown Titans, sums up the whole meaning as far as it has gone, in verse which is unsurpassed in English—
We fall by course of Nature's law, not force
Of thunder, or of Jove ...
... on our heels a fresh perfection treads,
A power more strong in beauty, born of us
And fated to excel us, as we pass
In glory that old Darkness ...
... for 'tis the eternal law
That first in beauty should be first in might.
This is true mysticism, the mysticism Keats shares with Burke and Carlyle, the passionate belief in continuity of essence through ever-changing forms.