Day 3 — National Poetry Month
Back in grade school, I first came upon this Tennyson poem:
Flower in the Crannied Wall
FLOWER in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
— Alfred, 1st Baron Lord Tennyson (1809–1892),
from A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895 (1895),
ed. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908).
Not bad! Especially for grade school. But I was already a fan of William Blake (1757-1827), so Tennyson was a bit drab by comparison! I mean, come on now, who can compare with Blake (at his best)? Here’s Blake’s more finely-cut superior little gem:
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
— from “Auguries of Innocence” (1803)
Tennyson may not have had any awareness of Blake’s earlier more precisely cut jewel (few people knew of Blake’s words until the 20th century), though reading the two poems side by side it’s almost impossible for me to think so. Yet, it does seem rather as if it would be just like the stuffy Victorian aristocrat, national poet laureate and lyric champion of Empire (the thin red line and all that, onward into the valley of death, their’s is not to reason why but to do or die! Fight on fight on for Queen and country, and all that rot), perhaps just like him, not to have heard of Blake and seen his poetry. Yet still, I wonder…. In any case, here are some even earlier similar lines from Blake:
If you trap the moment before it’s ripe
The tears of repentance you’ll certainly wipe
But if once you let the ripe moment go
You can never wipe off the tears of woe
from Notebook 42
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise
from Notebook 43
Blake certainly had some cosmic insights he wished to share, even if he sometimes purposely chose to word them in a manner he seemed to imagine a child might use, and for a reading/listening audience of children, — of all ages, and every degree of Innocence (and/or Experience). But when he wanted to elaborate in some detail upon aspects of his own abiding experience of Infinity, he could speak to book-reading adults as a book-learned man:
THE NATURE of Infinity is this: That every thing has its
Own Vortex; and when once a traveller thro’ Eternity
Has pass’d that Vortex, he perceives it roll backward behind
His path, into a Globe itself enfolding, like a sun,
Or like a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty,
While he keeps onwards in his wondrous journey on the Earth,
Or like a human form, a friend with whom he liv’d benevolent.
As the eye of man views both the East and West, encompassing
Its vortex, and the North and South with all their starry host,
Also the rising sun and setting moon he views, surrounding
His corn-fields and his valleys of five hundred acres square.
Thus is the Earth one infinite plane, and not as apparent
To the weak traveller confin’d beneath the moony shade.
Thus is the Heaven a Vortex pass’d already, and the Earth
A Vortex not yet pass’d by the traveller thro’ Eternity.
— from Milton (f. 14, ll. 21–35. [The Nature of Infinity] )
But when such detailed and descriptive verbiage doubtless grew wearisome at times even for Blake himself, the poet-seer could cut right to the quick and the crisp, and instead of expatiating upon the experiential texture of Eternal Delight as enjoyed through all the senses as well as the intellect and emotions, he would state simply once again the bald truth of the Whole Existential Enchilada:
If the doors of perception were cleansed
every thing would appear to man as it is:
For man has closed himself up, till he sees
all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.
from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93)
This brings us to a later poem by another poet of the same era, a younger contemporary of Blake, George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). Again, I don’t know if Byron was lucky enough to have read any of the then obscure works of Blake. Yet it would certainly seem possible when one reads these lines from Byron’s closet drama verse, Cain, A Mystery (1821). Byron’s lines below are spoken by Lucifer concerning God’s angels:
With us acts are exempt from time, and we
Can crowd eternity into an hour,
Or stretch an hour to eternity:
We breathe not by a mortal measurement —
But that’s a mystery.
Of course, the seeming overlap here with Blake’s “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour” may certainly just be simple co-incidence, and may be accounted for in part by the fact that the younger Byron shared with Blake a love-hate interest in the works of John Milton (1608-1674), and the Bible, for that matter. While working, from his deathbed, on his own illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost, Blake said of Milton, “He sees demons everywhere, whereas I see everywhere hosts of glorious Angels.” One is tempted to think that, for Byron, the contrast with Milton was otherwise. Though Byron elsewhere gives slight indication of perhaps some episodic experience of boundless Transcendental consciousness, I tend to doubt he enjoyed celestial perception of angelic planes of existence.
Interestingly, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), an even younger contemporary to Blake and Byron and Tennyson, quotes Byron’s couplet from Cain (1821) in his own monumental essay, “The Over-Soul” (1841). Had Emerson then known Blake’s work, I think he would have quoted the mystic elder instead of Byron at this juncture, or perhaps instead would have shrunk away somewhat from writing on such wonderful matters until gaining even further direct experiential clarity. Still, Emerson’s own insights about the nature of higher consciousness are very thorough. Here is an extensive passage from his essay, followed by one last poem for today:
We know that all spiritual being is in man. A wise old proverb says, “God comes to see us without bell” [my note: ie, without a bell-jar, a glass dome used for protecting delicate objects; in a laboratory, typically used for enclosing samples; thus also, an environment in which someone is protected or cut off from the outside world]; that is, as there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away. We lie open on one side to the deeps of spiritual nature, to the attributes of God. Justice we see and know, Love, Freedom, Power. These natures no man ever got above, but they tower over us, and most in the moment when our interests tempt us to wound them.
The sovereignty of this nature whereof we speak is made known by its independency of those limitations which circumscribe us on every hand. The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said, it contradicts all experience. In like manner it abolishes time and space. The influence of the senses has, in most men, overpowered the mind to that degree, that the walls of time and space have come to look real and insurmountable; and to speak with levity of these limits is, in the world, the sign of insanity. Yet time and space are but inverse measures of the force of the soul. The spirit sports with time, —
“Can crowd eternity into an hour,
Or stretch an hour to eternity.”
We are often made to feel that there is another youth and age than that which is measured from the year of our natural birth. Some thoughts always find us young, and keep us so. Such a thought is the love of the universal and eternal beauty. Every man parts from that contemplation with the feeling that it rather belongs to ages than to mortal life. The least activity of the intellectual powers redeems us in a degree from the conditions of time. In sickness, in languor, give us a strain of poetry, or a profound sentence, and we are refreshed; or produce a volume of Plato, or Shakspeare, or remind us of their names, and instantly we come into a feeling of longevity. See how the deep, divine thought reduces centuries, and millenniums, and makes itself present through all ages. Is the teaching of Christ less effective now than it was when first his mouth was opened? The emphasis of facts and persons in my thought has nothing to do with time. And so, always, the soul’s scale is one; the scale of the senses and the understanding is another. Before the revelations of the soul, Time, Space, and Nature shrink away. In common speech, we refer all things to time, as we habitually refer the immensely sundered stars to one concave sphere. And so we say that the Judgment is distant or near, that the Millennium approaches, that a day of certain political, moral, social reforms is at hand, and the like, when we mean, that, in the nature of things, one of the facts we contemplate is external and fugitive, and the other is permanent and connate with the soul. The things we now esteem fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves, like ripe fruit, from our experience, and fall. The wind shall blow them none knows whither. The landscape, the figures, Boston, London, are facts as fugitive as any institution past, or any whiff of mist or smoke, and so is society, and so is the world. The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds behind her. She has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor specialties, nor men. The soul knows only the soul; the web of events is the flowing robe in which she is clothed.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) from “The Over-Soul” (1841) in Essays
Finally, a poem often wrongly attributed to Shakespeare. It was actually written by a younger American contemporary of Emerson. And it brings Blake’s flying Eternal-Now Moment, along with his fleeting Immortal Flower, right into the 20th century:
Too slow for those who Wait,
Too swift for those who Fear,
Too long for those who Grieve,
Too short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is not.
—Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933), “For Katrina’s Sun-Dial In Her Garden of Yaddo,” Poems (1921).