Poetry And Nature Mysticism

What a charm the nature deities of Greece and Rome can still

exercise! How large the place they still occupy in poetry, art,

and general culture! At times some of our moderns are tempted

to look back with a very real measure of regret to the golden age

of mythology, feeling that in comparison the present is often

sadly dull and sordid. Wordsworth's great sonnet gives classical

expression to this mood, and rises to a wh
te heat of


"Great God! I'd rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,--

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."

It may be said that the poet is carried away by the feeling of the

moment. It finds expression, however, more calmly, though no

less decidedly, in a less well-known passage:

"O fancy, what an age was that for song!

That age, when not by laws inanimate,

As men believed, the waters were impelled,

The air controlled, the stars their courses held;

But element and orb on _acts_ did wait

Of Powers endued with visible form instinct,

With will, and to their work by passion linked."

Clearly mythology and nature-poetry are closely allied though

centuries come between: they breathe the same air though

"creeds outworn" have yielded place to deeper faiths. And we are

driven to ask--Is poetry in its turn to go?--poetry, at any rate,

of the old, simple, direct sort? Reflective reason is asserting

itself: critical methods play havoc with the spontaneous

creations of imagination. Coleridge, in one of his moods, would

almost persuade us so. In his "Piccolomini" Max is conversing

with the Countess:

"The intelligible forms of ancient poets,

The fair humanities of old religion,

The power, the beauty and the majesty,

That had their haunts in dale, or piny mountain,

Or forest by slow stream, or pebbly spring,

Or chasms and wat'ry depths; all these have vanished;

They live no longer in the faith of reason."

And yet Coleridge did not allow that the outlook was wholly

sad. His young soldier continues:

"But still the heart doth need a language, still

Doth the old instinct bring back the old names."

. . . and even at this day

'Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,

And Venus who brings everything that's fair."

No, poetry is not dead, and never will die. Certain stages in

human progress may favour its spontaneity more than others--

critical reflection may cloud over the naive and fresh directness

of experience--but behind each natural phenomenon is the

immanent idea, the phase of cosmic will and consciousness,

which science, and logic and critical analysis can never exhaust.

The intuition has its rights as well as the syllogism, and will

always ultimately assert them. Whereas science reduces the

world to mechanism, poetry intuits and struggles to express its

inner life; and since this inner life is inexhaustible, poetry is

immortal. Emerson seized upon this truth with characteristic

keenness of perception allied with feeling.

"For Nature beats in perfect time

And rounds with rhyme her every rune,

Whether she work in land or sea,

Or hide underground her alchemy.

Thou canst not wave thy staff in air,

Or dip thy paddle in the lake,

But it carves the bow of beauty there,

And the ripples in rhymes the oar forsake.

The wood is wiser far than thou;

The wood and the wave each other know

Not unrelated, unaffected,

But to each thought and thing allied

Is perfect Nature's every part,

Rooted in the mighty heart."

And again in his "Ode to Beauty," he rejoices in the

"Olympian bards who sung

Divine Ideas below,

Which always find us young

And always keep us so."

Thank Heaven, we have not yet come to think that the highest

form of wisdom is enshrined in the _sesquipedalia monstra_ of

chemical formulae, still less in the extreme abstractions of

mathematics. Not that such formulae have not a beauty, and

even a Mysticism of their own; their harmfulness comes from

the exclusiveness of their claims when they are advanced as an

adequate description (sometimes explanation!) of existence at

large and of life in particular. The biological formulas, based on

mathematics, at which Le Dantec, for instance, has arrived, if

taken at their author's valuation, and if consistently applied,

would make the sublimest poetry to be greater folly than the

babble of a child. The nature-mystic may, or may not, allow

them a relative value according as he considers them to be valid

or invalid abstractions from observed facts; but he knows that

the most valid of them are exceedingly limited in their scope

and superficial in their bearing: and it remains a standing

wonder to him that any trained intellect can fail to realise their

miserable inadequacy, in view of the full rich current of living


One of the chief merits of genuine nature-poetry is that it keeps

us in close and constant touch with sense experience, and at the

same time brings home nature's inner life and meaning. It is not

a mere string of metaphors and symbols based on accidental

associations of ideas, but an expression and interpretation of

definite sensations and intuitions which result from the action of

man's physical environment upon his deepest and most delicate

faculties. "High art" (says Myers) "is based upon unprovable

intuitions; and of all arts it is poetry whose intuitions take the

brightest glow, and best illumine the mystery without us from

the mystery within."

But more especially, poetry is essentially animistic. It produces

its characteristic effect by creating in the mind the sensuous

images which best stimulate the mind to grasp the immanent

idea, and it presents those images as instinct with life and

movement--sometimes it goes so far as to personify them. This

is what Matthew Arnold meant when he declared poetry to be

"simple, sensuous, passionate." Coleridge has a good illustration

(quoted by Nisbet). He observes that the lines:

"Behold yon row of pines that shorn and bowed

Bend from the sea-blast, seen at twilight eve"--

contain little or no poetry if rearranged as a sentence in a book

of topography or description of a tour. But the same image, he

says, rises into the semblance of poetry if thus conveyed:

"Yon row of black and visionary pines

By twilight glimpse discerned! Mark how they flee

From the fierce sea-blast, all their tresses wild

Streaming before them."

The difference in the two presentations consists in this, that in

the second of them there is a suggestion of life and movement

which is lacking in the first. But why the different effect upon

the mind? Nisbet answers--"the visual and motor centres

contribute to the creation of the image"--an answer admirably

typical of the fashionable psychology of the day, not necessarily

wrong in itself, but so curiously incomplete! Nisbet holds that

man himself is a machine, and thus could not easily go farther--

especially as his own machinery evidently would not work any

farther. The nature-mystic begins at the other end. He holds that

even the inorganic world is more than machinery--that it is

instinct with life and meaning. When, therefore, life and

movement are attributed to seemingly inert or motionless

objects, there is a responsive thrill caused by the subconscious

play of primitive intuitions that are based on the facts of

existence. Spirit realises more vividly than in normal experience

that it is in touch with spirit.

Contrast with the psychological dictum the proud claim

advanced by Emerson.

"The gods talk in the breath of the woods,

They talk in the shaken pine,

And fill the reach of the old sea-shore

With melody divine.

And the poet who overhears

Some random word they say

Is the fated man of men,

Whom the ages must obey."

There are two claims presented here--one directly, the other

indirectly. The direct claim is that there are seers and

interpreters who can catch the mystic words that nature utters.

The indirect is that the general mass of humanity have the

capacity for sharing the experiences of their poet leaders. The

one class are endowed to an exceptional degree with receptivity;

the other are also receptive, but are dependent on those who can

give expression to the intuitions which are, though in varying

degrees, a possession common to humanity at large. As Sir

Lewis Morris puts it:

"All men are poets if they might but tell

The dim ineffable changes which the sight

Of natural beauty works on them."

He, too, recognises the mediating function of the poet.

"We are dumb,

Save that from finer souls at times may rise

Once in an age, faint inarticulate sounds,

Low halting tones of wonder, such as come

From children looking on the stars, but still

With power to open to the listening ear

The Fair Divine Unknown, and to unseal

Heaven's inner gates before us evermore."

And what is this but to claim for the mass of men, in varying

but definite degrees, a capacity for the experiences of the

nature-mystic? Poetry and Nature Mysticism are linked together

in an imperishable life so long as man is man and the world is

the world.

It will have been apparent that in what has been said about the

relation of poetry to science, there has been no shadow of

hostility to science as such, but only to the exclusive claims so

often preferred on its behalf. Let a French philosopher of the

day conclude this chapter by a striking statement of the

relationship that should exist between these seemingly

incompatible modes of mental activity. In a recent number of

the "Revue Philosophique," Joussain writes as follows:

"On peut ainsi se demander si le savant, a mesure qu'il tend vers

une connaissance plus complete du reel, n'adopte pas, en un

certain sens, le point de vue propre au poete. Boileau disait de la

physique de Descartes qu'elle avait coupe la gorge a la poesie.

La raison en est qu'elle s'en tenait au pur mecanisme et ne

definissait la matiere que par l'etendue et le mouvement. Mais la

physique de Descartes n'a pu subsister. Et, avec la gravitation

universelle que Leibniz considerait a juste titre, du point de vue

cartesien, comme une _qualite occulte_, avec les attractions, les

repulsions, les affinites chimiques, avec la theorie de

l'evolution, la science tend de plus en plus a penetrer la vie reele

des choses. Elle se rapproche, bon gre, mal gre, de la

metaphysique et de la poesie, en prenant une conscience plus

profonde de la force et du devenir. C'est qu'au fond la pensee

humaine est une, quelle que soit la diversite des objets auxquels

elle s'applique, art, science, poesie, metaphysique, repondant,

chacun a sa facon au meme desir, chacun refletant dans la

conscience humaine les multiples aspects de la vie