Nobody thinks of the English as mystic; the Victorian English least of all. Yet in 1913 a very Victorian Englishwoman wrote a book in which she argues that nearly twenty of the nineteenth century's writers were mystics to one degree or another. In Mysticism and English Literature, which has recently been reprinted once again, Caroline Spurgeon (1869-1942) also asks: "what does the mystic see?" Her answer, in three words, is the best you're ever likely to come across: "Unity underlies diversity." That's all. Joy, serenity, a sense of cosmic harmony and benevolence, are side effects; anything else is an intellectual add-on. Via Wordsworth, she also describes the mechanism by which mystics see what they do.
Caroline Spurgeon was born in India in 1869. Her mother died giving birth to her, while her father — an officer in the Herefordshire Regiment — died only five years later. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College and London University and went to an academic career, becoming Professor of English in Bedford College, London, in 1913, the year her book on mysticism was published. In 1918 she went to United States with the British Educational Mission. There she met Virginia Gildersleeve, a fellow academic, at Columbia University who was later involved in writing the UN Charter. They stayed together every summer until Professor Spurgeon's death in 1942. That was in Tucson, Arizona, where she'd gone in 1936. The climate eased the pain of her arthritis. She is best known for a study of Shakespeare's imagery. Imagery, she believed, tells us a lot about a writer's mind and background.
Three different periods have been hot-spots of English mysticism: the thirteenth-fourteenth, the seventeenth, and the nineteenth centuries. Instead of following this chronology, Spurgeon uses four headings: the mysticism of (1) love/beauty, (2) nature, (3) philosophy, (4) religious devotion.
The Mysticism of Love and Beauty
She begins with Shelley (1792-1822) whose world centred on the Spirit or Soul of the Universe in which everything exists and moves. It is also Love and as such is incarnate in humanity. Death is a gate opening on to the realisation of this, the only true life. Love and Imagination between them can create a new universe. Complete goodness is inside us all, all we lack is will.
It is will
That thus enchains us to permitted ill —
We might be otherwise; we might be all
We dream of — happy, high, majestical.
For this reason, perhaps, twentieth-century Marxists claimed Shelley as a proto-one-of-themselves, unaware of his mysticism which is as far from dialectical materialism as you can get. It probably helped, as well, that Shelley was an atheist, although the idea of Suffering Love Incarnate is quite close to his own religious beginnings.
Robert Browning (1812-89) was, with Blake and Wordsworth, one of the deepest of the English mystics, Spurgeon says. She also claims he was a philosopher. The world of things we see all around is merely the expression of an underlying unity. Everything grows towards it. As humans grow, they feel for all creation. The purpose of life is to know God through love, the meeting place between unity and humanity. Knowledge gained through the senses is not enough:
Wholly distrust thy knowledge, then, and trust
As wholly love allied to ignorance.
(Is there an amphibole in that second wholly/holy?) Furthermore, good and evil are relative. Without evil there can be no good, hence Browning's preoccupation with villainy since:
Only by looking low, ere looking high,
Comes penetration of the mystery.
Life is a probation, a starting point. We are here to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones. Pain is good because it makes you grow, though Browning himself seems to have lived a suspiciously comfortable life for a man advocating pain for the rest of us.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), says Spurgeon, was preoccupied with the beauty of the female face because of its "kinship with immortal things." What he wanted was not so much possession, as knowledge of that underlying unity which a beautiful woman can bring. Beauty is a symbol of love which in turn is the answer to the mystery of life. And yet Rossetti was so obsessed with the merely physical it blocked his way to spiritual beauty, which is the ultimate unity at the heart of things.
Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) is little read nowadays, or is thought too uxorious because of his long poem about his wife, Angel in the House. He turned his simple insight (that unity underlies diversity) into a complex system, based on Swedenborg, which seems to boil down to the idea that we can experience God through wedded love ("The smallest unit is a pair").
With Keats (1795-1821), Spurgeon is not at here clearest. For him, at first, the route to that underlying unity was through Beauty. The idea of the unity of life underlies his poetry, along with the concept of progress through change. As he got older, Spurgeon tells us (and of course he never did get very old) he began to think of the merely poetic life as selfish and that insight is gained only through sorrow and human suffering. His only description of the joy of his vision is in Endymion (bk. i.1. 774).
Feel we these things? That moment have we stept
Into a sort of oneness, and our state
Is like a floating spirit's.
Love of another is the same as love of beauty which is the same as the love of beauty's underlying (presumably Platonic) principle. That underlying unity, in other words, is beauty and truth. They are aspects of the same thing. The meaning of his most famous couplet is thus clear:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty; that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Writers nowadays are instructed to "show, not tell." With mystics there's not a lot to show, unless you share their experience, and those who tell it the way it is are usually the most powerful and graphic. Nature mystics seem to do this best of all. In her book, Spurgeon discusses three: Henry Vaughan, Wordsworth, and Richard Jefferies.
Wordsworth owed nothing to anybody but himself, Spurgeon insists, while Vaughan (1622-1695) was steeped in both Plato and alchemy (which was about reaching union with God, as much as turning base metal into gold). Vaughan thought, like most mystics, that the underlying unity is reachable via all created things. To him, a pool below a waterfall (on the River Usk in his native mid-Wales) was an symbol of what happens after death — at first the water loiters then suddenly pours swiftly away down to the sea. But in his most famous lines he gives us a direct glimpse of what he himself witnessed:
I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright.
Byron famously called Wordsworth (1770-1850) an old sheep, yet according to Spurgeon the old sheep lived "a life of excitement and passion". His vision of the "central peace subsisting for ever at the heart of endless agitation" transformed and glorified his life.
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.
If unity underlying diversity is what is seen, stilling the mind is the way to see it. Wordsworth discovered this for himself. Nothing is too trivial to bring it about, from the dust of the road to birdsong. Yet he also knew that most of us are like illiterates with a book. What we need to know is printed there on the page if only we could change something inside ourselves and learn to read. This, it turned out was, almost literally true for R. S. Thomas, the Welsh poet. In 1971 he edited a volume of Wordsworth's verse for which he also wrote the Introduction. R S Thomas was also an Anglican priest, a professional Christian if you like, who spent his life vainly looking for the God whose word he preached. Ironically, what he looked for was written there in the verses he edited, yet he was mystically illiterate, you could say, and unable to read them.
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light.
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) was a Wiltshireman, the son of a farmer, who became a journalist and novelist specialising in nature. After London,for example, is a novel about an England returned to nature by an unnamed catastrophe — a kind of dystopian News from Nowhere. Like Shelley, he was an atheist and so, to him, that underlying unity was not God but the Life Force. And a Force is all it is, without a mind, feelings or consciousness. Sunshine was to him what moonlight was to Keats. In The Story of My Heart he describes standing on London bridge one bright summer morning: "I felt in the midst of eternity then, in the midst of the supernatural, among the immortal; . . . and I knew the supernatural to be more intensely real than the sun. . . . I touched the supernatural, the immortal, there that moment."
Was John Donne (1572-1631) really a mystic? Spurgeon's case is unconvincing. Elsewhere she dismisses Spenser as a book-learned Platonist and not a true mystic. Here she tells us Donne understood that Love belongs, not to the body, but only to the soul, yet with no convincing argument that he knew this from experience. She refers the reader to The Undertaking and The Ecstasie, though in neither is there any hint of a sense of unity below diversity. In a letter to the Countess of Salisbury, Donne said: "Man, to get towards Him that's Infinite, must first be great." A mystic would turn that around a hundred and eighty degrees: it is only through the loss of self that you reach the Infinite. The anguish in the Holy Sonnets, and in his sermons as Dean of St Paul's, also suggest he was out of kilter with the benevolence mystics usually see.
Like Beowulf, the manuscript of Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) were lost, in his case for over two hundred years. A copy was found on a London bookstall in 1897 and printed only five years before Spurgeon's book came out. She says he was a man who lost his childhood vision and set about re-finding it by deliberately becoming like a child again, living on ten pounds a year and bread and water. How true this is, I don't know: he was certainly a shoemaker's son from Herefordshire who became a country clergyman after leaving Oxford. Spurgeon says he shared Wordsworth's rapture, Browning's interest in people, Shelley's belief in the meaning of love, and Keats's worship of beauty. He's certainly widely quoted in the literature. He wrote both prose and poetry, though he prose is more poetic than the verse. Of his childhood he writes: "The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped, nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold . . . . Boys and girls tumbling in the street were moving jewels . . . The city seemed to stand in Eden, or to be built in Heaven."
In adult life he believed you not only have to merge with all creation, you have to love it too, the unlovable bits included: "You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars . . . .. till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst for equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all . . . . The world is a mirror of infinite beauty." Traherne was also, like Blake, good with epigrams. "All men see the same objects, but do not equally understand them." Compare that to Blake's: " A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees."
How many people think of the author of Wuthering Heights as a mystic? Here, Emily Brontë (1818-1848) is described as "one of the most strange and baffling figures in our literature" — a woman whose narrow life was bounded by a graveyard and the moors where the wind, in those days before the end of the Little Ice Age, really would have wuthered. Philosophy, metaphysics, and the mystics themselves must have been unknown to her. In spite of this Emily Brontë wrote mystical poetry recording the "vision of a soul." She knew that material things are valueless, that reality lies below them. In The Prisoner, She tells of the ecstasy and freedom which a messenger brought her every night:
He comes with western winds, with evening's wandering airs,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.
....a hush of peace — a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress and fierce impatience ends.
Mute music soothes my breast — unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream till earth was lost to me.
. . . the Unseen its truth reveals;
My inward sense is gone, my inward essence feels.
Brontë also expresses a more uncommon thought:
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee."
Like Coleridge and Hopkins, Emily Brontë also records the desolation — the dark night of the soul — the mystic feels when the tie to the underlying reality is broken; when the soul begins "to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain."
"Tennyson's mysticism came . . . in spite of himself, and is based on one thing only — experience." It's not quite clear what Spurgeon means by this; mysticism is an experience in itself brought about the temporary stoppage of all other experiences. She refers the reader to In Memoriam, cxxiv, without discussing it. Tennyson begins:
I found him not in world or sun,
Or eagle's wing, or insect's eye;
Nor through the questions men may try,
The petty cobwebs we have spun.
And goes on to say that on those occasions when faith has ceased:
A warmth within the breast would melt
The freezing reason's colder part,
And like a man in wrath the heart
Stood up and answer'd 'I have felt'.
And what I am beheld again
What is, and no man understands;
And out of darkness came the hands
That reach through nature, moulding men.
All of which seems a straightforward description of the common mystic experience. Tennyson doesn't find that unity through nature or the intellect. But always, when doubt tells him to believe no more, sterile reason is melted by something greater and he 'feels' a presence below diversity. Once again he ('what I am') sees 'what is', or true underlying reality, reaching through nature to change him.
Confusingly, in the next paragraph Spurgeon says that throughout his life Tennyson experienced "ecstasies" upon which he based his deepest belief. (Interestingly he could reach that experience of oneness by repeating his own name; using, in fact, what we'd now call a mantra.) In these states he faded into 'boundless being':
" . . . moments when he feels he cannot die,
And knows himself no vision to himself,
Nor the high God a vision, nor that One
Who rose again."
Tennyson tells us himself that these three concepts — immortality, God's existence, the reality of the Resurrection — are central to the Idylls. All these things are beyond the reach of sense-knowledge. In The Ancient Sagehe writes:
For knowledge is the swallow on the lake
That sees and stirs the surface-shadows there
But never yet hath dipt into the abyss.
Spurgeon then tells us Tennyson had read Lao-Tsze (Laocius), the founding mind behind Taoism. She ends with a quotation from The Higher Pantheism (read aloud at the first meeting of the Metaphysical Society in 1869):
Speak to Him thou for He hears, and
Spirit with Spirit can meet —
Closer is He than breathing, nearer
than hands and feet.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was influenced by the German transcendentalists, Goethe and Fichte, but he also had his own experience in a street in Edinburgh at the age of twenty-six. He called it a "Spiritual New-Birth or Baphometic Fire-baptism". The event is described in Sartor Resartus. Through it, he saw his own divinity, which made him fearless. Perhaps because of his temperament he called the underlying unity a Force. Since everything is an expression of the one Force, each bit of the sense-perceived cosmos can give access to the underlying unity. Nothing dies. Matter is spiritual. Everything is important. Heroes, its highest embodiment, are sent to make the divine mystery known to the rest of us. Your duty is to express the Force within you through work, although what matters in the end is not what you do, but what you become.
Rather unfairly, Spurgeon dismisses the seventeenthth-century Quakers because Fox's Journal is not literature. She then glosses over the Cambridge Platonists; a pity, since they are now unreadable without a great effort; a summing up would have been useful. But she also makes two startling claims. The first is that the Laws of Motion came out of Newton's reading of Jacob Boehme. The second is that the Society of Friends (Quakers) is a Boehmist sect based on the translations of his works which came out between 1644 and 1692, a span of nearly half a century. Yet Quakerism is simplicity itself and Fox's experience of the Inner Light was his own. (His dates are 1624-1691.) I'm not sure about Newton.
Jacob Boehme (1575-1624) was an illiterate German cobbler. He's found in any standard work on mysticism, mainly because he erected an analysable superstructure on top of his simple insight. Spurgeon's book is at its weakest when she goes into the details of these intellectual add-ons — she does it with Plotinus, Swedenborg, Boehme, Blake, and William Law.
William Law (1686-1761) had been a mainstream theological writer, best known for A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life until in 1733 he read Boehme and his life changed. His subsequent books illustrate what happens when you over-intellectualise simple insights; they read like the work of a New Age crank. "Fire uncreated, uncompacted, unseparated form the Light and Air, is the heavenly Fire of Eternity: Fire kindled in any material Thing is only Fire breaking out of its created, compacted state; it is nothing else but the awakening the Spiritual Properties of that Thing."
There are still a few people who call themselves Burkean Tories (politics should be based on human nature, not what the disaffected think reality should be). What they believe is based on Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France. Edmund Burke (1729-1797), then, is perhaps the exception to the rule that mystics rarely make philosophers. Not many who accept his politics will be aware he had mystical tendencies, if Spurgeon is right about them. His sense of the underlying oneness of things is at the bottom of his thinking. His politics value the individual and particular, not the general and abstract: bottom-up, not top down: the little platoons, not statist bureaucrats.
In his early days at least, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) believed in a universal Mind or Spirit which we can approach by an act of will until we become part of God. He also describes that feeling of desolation which comes with loss of contact with underlying unity. (Spurgeon, of course, was unaware of the Terrible Sonnets of Hopkins, which were not published until four years after her own book came out.)
A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word or sigh or tear.
Spurgeon's last section heading is "Devotional and Religious." Of the ten names, seven are Roman Catholics, and five of those (unsurprisingly) are from the Middle Ages, with only one Victorian (Francis Thompson). The earliest poet, writing in mid-thirteenth century, is Thomas de Hales, a Franciscan friar, probably from Gloucestershire. In his poem, a maid asks him to write her a love-rune or song. Where are they now, he asks, the lovers of yesterday? Gone like the sheaf before the scythe. He then leads the girl to God using the language of earthly love.
This is "erotic mysticism" (of which the earliest example is The Song of Solomon) about the mutual love and attraction between every human soul and God. Another example is the early thirteenth-century Ancren Riwle (Rule of Anchoresses — or women hermits.)
Richard Rolle (c.1350-1400) was a student at Oxford before becoming a hermit in the South Riding. Spurgeon says he preached a religion of love, a reaction against Scholasticism. His 'vision', paradoxically, was aural: he heard it as music. It culminated in what he called calor, canor, and dulcor — heat, song, and sweetness. The calor, apparently, was literally true — his skin grew hotter. dulcor seems to be the all-pervading joy which all mystics feel.
Spurgeon also mentions, without going into detail, Water Hylton's Scale of Perfection. — "a practical and scientific treatise of great beauty on the spiritual life". Hylton was an Augustinian monk from Nottinghamshire. He died in 1396. The Cloud of Unknowing is one a group of five books written between 1350 and 1400 for anchoresses. They teach the techniques of contemplation — how to reach 'onehede' (onehood) with God — after the manner of Richard of St Victor, the monastery in Paris.
We have an exact date for Julian of Norwich's mystical experience: 8th May 1373. She was 30, a Benedictine nun, and an anchoress at a church in Norfolk. God is love. Man and God are one and the same. The sense-soul doesn't know this because it's steeped in unsatisfying little things and the self. God showed her all Creation (which He loves and keeps) as a small brown ball the size of a hazel nut. Why so small? Because everything in God's presence is little. (The imagery is even more striking today, given that our universe is infinitely bigger than the Medieval one.) Sin is not something you do. It is not a deed. It is the failure to be what we are meant to be. It is an absence of love. We know it only by the pain it causes. Pain is something however, and is a necessity. We need it for growth. Without it, there can be no bliss. Sin is permitted but only for a time. God doesn't blame us and it is not something to be ashamed of. When He sees and pities our pain, He forgives us. All of this, of course, is unorthodox and probably heretical as well, but it is true to the mystic's vision.
Julian is best known today for a single sentence, which Spurgeon doesn't quote:
All will be well and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.
William Langland's Piers Ploughman is the story of a soul in search of truth which, needless to say, is eventually found within, where it's been all along.
If grace grant thee to go in this wise
Thou shalt see in thyself Truth sit in thine heart
In a chain of charity as thou a child were.
(Charity of course in its old sense — love — from the Latin
Richard Crashaw (1613-1649), George Herbert (1593-1633) and Christopher Harvey are grouped together because they are all personal in their approach to God — Crashaw with ardour, Herbert in a homely Anglican kind of way, Harvey epigrammatically. Harvey (a friend of Izaac Walton, the angler) has two quotations from The School of the Heart . One is:
My busy stirring heart, that seeks the best,
Can find no place on earth wherein to rest,
For God alone, the Author of its bliss,
Its only rest, its only centre, is.
Herbert's poetry is the "cry of the individual soul to God." The reader is referred his poem, Love. In it the poet is arguing with God, declaring he is not worthy to be a guest at His table. God wins and the poet agrees to dine with him. The poet says:
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.
Note God addresses the man with the 'you' of respect, not as 'thou'. All the same, you have to doubt if this is born of a mystic experience. Most vicars, if they had the talent (and the imagination), could have written it. On the other hand, Herbert gave up all the world's glittering prizes, both at Cambridge and in the King's Court, to be the vicar of a parish in Wiltshire which is still deeply rural. If nothing else, he was serious about his calling.
Spurgeon also points out the difference in tone between the mild Anglicanism of Harvey and Herbert and Crashaw's Catholic passion. His influences, of necessity in a Protestant country, were Continental and he was a devotee of the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, St Teresa of Avila. Spurgeon's quotes from A Hymn to St Teresa.As a girl she sought martyrdom among the Moors.
She never understood to know
What death with love should have to do;
Nor has she e're yet understood
Why to show love, she should shed blosod
Yet though she cannot tell you why,
She can love, and she can die.
Francis Thompson (1859-1907) is perhaps best know today for the title of a poem — The Hound of Heaven — the story of the spirit of a man in full flight from where he belongs. The hound, never mentioned in the body of the poem, is God. The poem ends with the spirit's surrender. Thompson was a Catholic from Lancashire where recusancy had lingered on since the Reformation. He failed to become either a priest or a doctor and ended addicted to laudanum, sleeping rough on the streets of London. Then he sent some poems to Wilfrid Meynell, editor of the Catholic literary magic, Merry England. The return address was the Charing Cross Post Office. Meynell delayed replying for three months, by when his letter was undeliverable. Instead, he printed one of Thompson's poems, which brought the poet himself to his office. It was the turning point in Thompson's life and he became quite fêted. Contemporaries compared him to Crashaw.
The divine, Thompson believed, is in all things — disturb a flower and you trouble a star. He called the unity underlying diversity "the many-splendoured thing" and he blames us squarely for being unable to see it. He's probably best known for two quotations from a poem unpublished in his lifetime, In No Strange Land:
'Tis ye, 'tis your estrang¸d faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.
God is everywhere, so everywhere is holy — even the arches of Charing Cross railway viaduct where homeless people slept rough. When your problems become unbearable, call out to God, and
. . . on thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.
Caroline Spurgeon says of Blake: "He outsoars them all and includes them all. He possessed .. a philosophy, a system, and a profound scheme of the universe revealed to him in a vision." He is, she says, one of the world's great mystics and, by far, the greatest in English. "He lived in a world of glory, of spirit, and of vision which for him was the only real world." At the age of four he saw God looking in at the window, and never looked back. Spurgeon tells us Blake sang with joy as he lay dying.
She summarises him: All is God. All is one. Man is divine. Our ruination comes through concentration on little things and the self, mistaking them for the whole. We need imagination — vision, sympathy, insight, understanding (as opposed to logic, science, self-centredness, materialism) — to escape. Imagination (whose language is art) links this world with the spiritual. Lack of imagination is the cause of cruelty and selfishness but until we can feel for others, imagination will of necessity be dulled.
Each outcry of the hunted Hare
A fibre from the Brain does tear.
A Skylark wounded in the wing,
A Cherubim does cease to sing.
Love and understanding are the beginnings of change. "One must die for another through all eternity," he says, in order to breakdown the constriction of selfhood which is the only unredeemable sin. Finally, Spurgeon brings Blake back to the problem of this world. "Thought is Act." If action and thought are the same, then to act for the wrong reason is — spiritually speaking — worthless. She refers us here to Blake's illustrations of Job. His gift to the beggar had no merit because Job thought it had.
Is this a holy thing to see
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduc'd to misery
Fed cold and usurous hand?
"The real evil," Spurgeon goes on, "is that we can suffer the need of the crust of bread to exist. This is a view which is gradually beginning to be realised today." By this she must mean the changes in social attitudes which had been underway since the 1880s and '90s, prompted by books such as Ruskin's Unto These Last, ideas which would lead to the Welfare State thirty years later. Whether Blake would agree with nationalised compassion, of course, we can never know. She ends her account of Blake with a couplet.
If the Sun and Moon should Doubt
They would immediately go out."
"Mystics," says Spurgeon, "are the only people in the world who are 'possessors of certainty'. They have seen, they have felt; what need they of further proof? Logic, philosophy, theology are empty sounds and barren forms to those who know."
Blake was little known in his life time, and almost completely misunderstood. Time has made up for that (except perhaps for being understood). From time to time there is talk of his poem, Jerusalem, set to music by Hubert Parry, becoming the English national anthem, at least at football matches, and possibly after what may yet be the break up the United Kingdom. A bronze statue of his etching of Sir Isaac Newton squats bent double, wielding callipers, in the forecourt of the British Library. An odd choice, perhaps, given Blake's opinion of science:
May God us keep
From single vision and Newton's sleep.
In passing, Spurgeon also mentions other Victorian writers of a mystical bent: George Meredith, Mrs Browning, Christina Rossetti, W B Yeats. She leaves out two, perhaps three. Gerard Manley Hopkins, of course, because he was unknown to her. Less understandably she missed out John Ruskin. A case could also be made for the metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) whose fascination with hay meadows and mowing ("I am the Mower, Damon, known/Through all the meadows I have mown") and "Annihilating all that's made/To a green thought in a green shade" seem to betoken something deeper than a slight interest in agriculture.
Other names she specifically excludes are Chaucer, Spenser, Dryden, Pope, Byron. Bunyan was a body-hating puritan. Shakespeare is rightly excluded as well — plays are about causes and beginnings; mysticism is about the end. Was she mystically inclined herself? She doesn't say and no internal evidence suggests it. She tells us the condition is very rare, although she quotes William James, the Harvard philosopher, and his belief that most people have a "mystical germ" (he did himself).
Why is there such a thing as mysticism at all? she asks finally. The French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) suggested that the evolution of a self-conscious intellect had screened out ultimate reality by paying too much attention to little things. In other words mysticism is the default position. But what if self-consciousness and mysticism evolved in tandem? To a newly self-conscious species the world would have been a strange and unsettling place. Having your own in-house mystic to explain things might give you an evolutionary advantage.
The West has learned a lot about mysticism since the Allied occupation of Japan in 1945 brought Americans, in particular, into contact with Zen. Today whole bookshops are devoted to Buddhism, Taoism, Transcendentalism, Kabala, Sufism, Hermeticism, the Christian saints. Professor Spurgeon's insights seem to be solely from her own sharp Victorian intelligence.
Spurgeon, Caroline F E. Mysticism and English Literature. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, 1913.
- Also: www.gutenberg.org/etext/11935
- Also: Kindle Edition. Public Domain Books. 2004
Thompson, Francis. Selected Poems Burns and Oates. London, 1908
Wordsworth, William A Choice of Wordsworth's Verse.Selected with an Introduction by R S Thomas. Faber and Faber. London, 1971
Last modified 12 September 2004