by Sam Buntz
“We are led to believe a lie / When we see not through the eye / That was born in a night / To perish in a night / While the soul slept in beams of light / God appears and God is light / To those poor souls who dwell in night / But does a human form display / To those who dwell in realms of day.” –William Blake
Time sputters its moments in much the same way that the wind rustles its leaves: green, gold, red, brown, dead…and finally, blank. And, cyclically, we come back to the original green, the C that tunes the choir. Within this flux of minutes and hours—some of them good some of them rich, some of them bad, some of them rotten, some of them simply empty—we find rare moments that possess a certain something, a quality that might be latched onto, might (if granted the complete attention and devotion of the perceiving mind) relieve the burden of time, the pressures of life’s “unquiet dream.” This is essentially what poets—and most other artists—do. They perceive the same sort of “privileged moments” that fall on most of us, but actually articulate them and preserve them so that we might, if the mood is right, attain something of that “visionary gleam” once again. There are many terms for these moments: Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” and James Joyce called them “epiphanies” – which cuts close to the religious origins of the experience, since “epiphany” is the name for the holiday (January 6) when the Three Wise Men behold the Christ child in the manger. The word literally means “manifestation” or “striking appearance” in Greek. It is, to put it in terms accessible to the secular and religious alike, the presence of light in the midst of a dreary, work-a-day, barnyard sort of world. The same idea can be found in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where certain experiences prime the narrator’s memory and allow him to see the world of time and its relations subsisting in his own life as though he were outside or beyond those relations. “The dream is lifted / And we see into the life of things.” We can get these experiences most readily from books—but they are not unheard of at the movies.
Yet the problem with this method for attaining joy—for that’s what we’re really seeking—is its inconstancy. Emily Dickinson spoke of “The Moments of Dominion / That happen on the Soul / And leave it with a Discontent / Too exquisite – to tell –…” It is the discontent with which we are probably most familiar (if I am addressing the imaginary audience I think I’m addressing), though we recognize that the discontent would not be there if we had never had the privilege of enjoying those brief glimpses into the life of things in the first place. We can be “surprised by joy,” joy poured in with an impression of natural beauty, but can we create our own instances of joy? The process seems to be all too dependent on the will-less will of nature, that scatters our bright and dull moments unevenly and strangely before us. Like Rilke says, to have these moments constantly or frequently is “Easy – for a god. But when can we exist? When can we become one with the earth and stars?”
Rilke thought one could partially attain this god-like ability to manufacture one’s own joy, one’s own privileged moments, by recognizing that it is not so much from the external world, but from the song we sing about that wide-open world that our joy comes—“Song is being,” he asserts. I don’t dispute Rilke, but I think that there’s something available to us that is higher than simply sharing a moment of communion with the stones or with the stars. For Rilke himself, communion with nature and the seeking and finding of such epiphanies in the natural world, was easy. But as he ran through one woman after another, it became clear to him that communion with the very culmination of nature—with a human being—was, for him, rather difficult. When you read a striking line of poetry or see a great painting, there’s a chance it will really find you—it eats up your ego, liberates yourself from the aches and pains of your own personal desires and fears, and simply dominates the mind. Sure, this is a high matter, and such a total overwhelming of one’s being by another—even an author—is what we usually call “love.” The perceiver and the perceived cease to be two beings—they so totally are contained within each other that they melt into one, cease being perceiver and perceived and become lover and beloved. But the problem with this is that nature is not going to love us back—Wordsworth once wistfully asserted (rather uneasily), “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.” The ugly truth is that Nature always—unless you happen to be insanely lucky—betrays the heart that loves her, simply because she isn’t a person—she’s actually an “it” and not a “she.” It can’t love you back. It is not a “lover” but only a passive “beloved,” and the communion only cuts one way. W.H. Auden wrote: “Looking up at the stars, I know quite well / That, for all they care, I can go to hell…” Nature can provide a balm from time to time—but can never actually heal. It’s not a person.
So the highest poetry does not—cannot—sing primarily of the love we feel for stones and trees and streams. It takes these things into account, but it does not focus overmuch on them. On the other hand, devotional poetry makes admirable attempts to sing of human love for God—yet, though God may well love us back, in these poems (and I mean the poems of Donne, Herbert, Hopkins, Eliot—the English devotional poets) He still of necessity remains a mystery, a great shadow. We hymn love songs for the unknown that stands behind or in contrast to nature—the conscious Being who puts on the garb of nature’s unconscious, indifferent dress. So, while I admire traditional devotional poetry, I think it often winds up in the same place that nature poetry always winds up – it sings praises to a version of God that hasn’t markedly enough involved itself in our lives, or, if it more specifically hymns Jesus of Nazareth, to Someone who involved Himself in our lives physically in the past, but not in the present moment. Thus devotional poetry can easily conclude in being similar to love songs written for clouds and ghosts—unless the divinity it sings is made flesh—not in the past, but in the present moment, in a living person. This kind of poem is not foreign to the Western Canon, but it actually has found its fullest expression in the divine-love poetry of the Persians, J’laludin Rumi and Hafiz, whose poems were addressed to the Divine as incarnate in an actual person—a person who provides an external revelation of a Divinity, which the poet then finds within. The relation of Rumi to his beloved teacher, Shams-i-Tabriz, is the same as Catherine’s relation to Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights: “I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being. So don’t talk of our separation…”
These lines wouldn’t be entirely out of place in a Rumi poem. And there is, of course, a long line of poets in the Western Tradition who have written brilliant love poetry—love poetry that is more than love poetry, because it tries to see the Divine Image reflected in the soul of the beloved. One thinks of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Yeats’ poems in praise of Maude Gonne, Shelley’s love lyrics and Epipsychidion, or even Tennyson’s elegiac lamentations for his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam. But none of them have articulated that experience of divine epiphany in the soul of another as well as Dante, who, for all his obvious personality flaws, is the only Western Poet to speak of love for another human being as a mode of Divine Vision with the same degree of authority that Rumi or Hafiz can speak of it. He swore that his love for Beatrice Portinari—which, from the stodgy orthodox perspective, would need to be a form of idolatrous love for a created being, rather than for the cloudy Creator (though most orthodox readers of Dante tip-toe around this, thankfully)—never ceased to lead him on to the Vision of God. This process is no different from what Plato talks about in the “Symposium” – it is what he meant by “Platonic love” rather than what we mean by it, since we usually mean just normal friendships.
This is the very heart of poetry and of what art itself strives towards—to attain a steady vision of beauty and goodness and divinity in another person, and to then extend that vision to embrace everyone—as in the “mystical body of Christ” or in Rumi’s assertion that he would find Shams everywhere, even when they were divided by hundreds of miles. And, since this is a relationship between two people, and not a relationship between a person and a mountain or a person and the sky, it is actually a relationship between two subjects and not a subject and an object—it is real communion, what the disciples experienced around Jesus’ breakfast table, or what the companions of Muhammad knew, encamped in the desert in exile. It may be that, for now, the “egotistical sublime”—the communing of the self with nature in solitude—may be the primary mode of poetic and artistic expression. And it has much to teach us, I believe. But the true visionary, ecstatic mode—the mode of the poet who is so enraptured with interpersonal communion that he or she can “sing out lines that he [or she] has never thought”—will return… if it hasn’t already begun to rise. The nature-communion poems, the poems of solitary brooding, are something like what Blake meant in the quote at the beginning, when he says that God appears as light—brief glimpses of a higher world seen through nature—to those who are trapped in the night…which is our world. But those who have entered the realms of day—the world of vision and divine imagination—encounter, like Rumi or Dante, a God who is actually more ourselves than we are.