Clattery MacHinery on Poetry

June 21, 2006

William James and His Mystic Poets

Filed under: Uncategorized — Clattery MacHinery @ 3:45 am

Joseph Campbell answered Bill Moyers quickly when asked who is the shaman of today. He answered, “The poet.” Instead of looking at mystical poetry per se, tonight I want to check into William James’s classic, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” to see where poets had fit into his lectures. Excerpts below.

Let’s listen to the foghorn first:
Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic”


Lecture III: The Reality of the Unseen:

“In Job,” says that coldly truthful writer, the author of Mark Rutherford, “God reminds us that man is not the measure of his creation. The world is immense, constructed on no plan or theory which the intellect of man can grasp. It is transcendent everywhere. This is the burden of every verse, and is the secret, if there be one, of the poem. . . .”


Lectures IV and V: The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness

Whitman is often spoken of as a ‘pagan.’ The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.

“I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long;
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.”

No natural pagan could have written these well-known lines. But on the other hand Whitman is less than a Greek or Roman; for their consciousness, even in Homeric times, was full to the brim of the sad mortality of this sunlit world, and such a consciousness Walt Whitman resolutely refuses to adopt. [Song of Myself, 32]


Lectures XI, XII, and XIII: Saintliness

The loathing of ‘capital’ with which our laboring classes to-day are growing more and more infected seems largely composed of this sound sentiment of antipathy for lives based on mere having. As an anarchist poet writes:

“Not by accumulating riches, but by giving away that which you have,
“Shall you become beautiful;
“You must undo the wrappings, not case yourself in fresh ones;
“Not by multiplying clothes shall you make your body sound and healthy, but rather by discarding them…
“For a soldier who is going on a campaign does not seek what fresh furniture he can carry on his back, but rather what he can leave behind;
“Knowing well that every additional thing which he cannot freely use and handle is an impediment.”
[Edward Carpenter: Towards Democracy, p. 362, abridged. ]

In short, lives based on having are less free than lives based either on doing or on being, and in the interest of action people subject to spiritual excitement throw away possessions as so many clogs.


Lecture XVI and XVII: Mysticism

Single words, and conjunctions of words, effects of light on land and sea, odors and musical sounds, all bring it when the mind is tuned aright. Most of us can remember the strangely moving power of passages in certain poems read when we were young, irrational doorways as they were through which the mystery of fact, the wildness and the pang of life, stole into our hearts and thrilled them. The words have now perhaps become mere polished surfaces for us; but lyric poetry and music are alive and significant only in proportion as they fetch these vague vistas of a life continuous with our own, beckoning and inviting, yet ever eluding our pursuit. We are alive or dead to the eternal inner message of the arts according as we have kept or lost this mystical susceptibility.

A more pronounced step forward on the mystical ladder is found in an extremely frequent phenomenon, that sudden feeling, namely, which sometimes sweeps over us, of having ‘been here before,’ as if at some indefinite past time, in just this place, with just these people, we were already saying just these things. As Tennyson writes:

“Moreover, something is or seems,
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams–

“Of something felt, like something here;
Of something done, I know not where;
Such as no language may declare.”

Sir James Crichton-Browne has given the technical name of ‘dreamy states’ to these sudden invasions of vaguely reminiscent consciousness. They bring a sense of mystery and of the metaphysical duality of things, and the feeling of an enlargement of perception which seems imminent but which never completes itself.

[William James’s footnote on Tennyson: The Two Voices. In a letter to Mr. B.P. Blood, Tennyson reports of himself as follows:

“I have never had any revelations through anaesthetics, but a kind of waking trance–this for lack of a better word–I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently, till all at once, as it were out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being, and this not a confused state but the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words- where death was an almost laughable impossibility- the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life. I am ashamed of my feeble description. Have I not said the state is utterly beyond words?”

Professor Tyndall, in a letter, recalls Tennyson saying of this condition: “By God Almighty! there is no delusion in the matter! It is no nebulous ecstasy, but a state of transcendent wonder, associated with absolute clearness of mind.” Memoirs of Alfred Tennyson, ii. 473.]


How different again, apart from the happiness common to all, is the mysticism of Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Richard Jefferies, and other naturalistic pantheists, from the more distinctively Christian sort. The fact is that the mystical feeling of enlargement, union, and emancipation has no specific intellectual content whatever of its own. It is capable of forming matrimonial alliances with material furnished by the most diverse philosophies and theologies, provided only they can find a place in their framework for its peculiar emotional mood. We have no right, therefore, to invoke its prestige as distinctively in favor of any special belief, such as that in absolute idealism, or in the absolute monistic identity, or in the absolute goodness, of the world. It is only relatively in favor of all these things–it passes out of common human consciousness in the direction in which they lie. [–William James]


Blog at