The Poets

When it comes to learning the great truths of life, the poets are not to be despised! The great poets, of course, unconsciously rely for their inspiration upon the right hemisphere of the brain, which as neurologists have now discovered, provide us with creative, imaginative and intuitive insights, rather than reasoning, calculation and analysis of the left hemisphere. Shakespeare, Blake, Milton, Wordsworth, Dante Alighieri, Shelley, Keats, Browning and Francis Thompson spring to mind, to mention just a few.

There are greater intuitive truths to live by, as revealed by these poets and Shakespeare’s Plays than may be found in many a scientific treatise or journal. For instance, the poets are often concerned with the nature of beauty and of love, great aspects of reality which often pass the purely empirical scientist by, leave him cold, or curiously unmoved. Freud would fall in the last category but certainly not Carl Gustav Jung. So would the great modern physicist Stephen Hawking who expects all answers to life will be found ultimately in an equation, but I would tend to exclude Paul Davies, his great contemporary who does promote the new ‘Chaos’ Theory. (That all ‘creation’ is not reverting to ‘chaos’-pursuant to the second law of thermo-dynamics, as one might otherwise expect.)

Recently, I found myself taking a very whimsical look at what some of our leading poets had to say about ‘Time’. I knew Shakespeare, had much to say, and I loved some of his comments such as appear in his sonnets and elsewhere in his plays such as the seven ages of man,(from the play, ‘As you like it’) or,as to our final ending:--

Fear no more the heat of the sun
Nor the cold winds bitter rages.
Home art gone and ta’en their wages.
Golden boys and girls all must
Like chimney sweepers.
Come to dust.

From the very first anthology of verse that I lifted from the shelves, I was to find myself in a realm, where poets railed against the essential ‘transience’ of time. Shelley’s lament, for instance.

‘O World! O Life! O Time! On whose last steps, I climb....’

The poets, in particular, are very articulate on the sad aspect of time as the harbinger of change, death and decay. The romantic poets, in particular sigh for the passing beauty of youth and loveliness of woman and of lost and past loves. The oft repeated themes were the concerns of the poets, that time was all too short. ‘Gather ye rosebuds whilst ye may!’

From a great wealth of material, the following is a very modest selection:-

Time is the feather’d thing
And, whilst I praise
The sparkling of thy looks and call them rays
Takes wing
Leaving behind him as he flies
An unperceived dimness in thine eyes.
His minutes, while they’re told
Do make us old
And every sand of his fleet glass,
Increasing age as it does pass.

Jasper Mayne (1604-16720).

He finally enjoins us:-

Lets number out the hours by blisses
And count the minutes by kisses.

The actual injunction to gather ‘rosebuds’ springs from the poet, Robert Herrick (1591-1674):-

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
Old time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow may be dying.

The theme of time ravaging beauty is constant and in Shakespeare’s sonnets he calls on time to halt its destruction of beauty.

...but I forbid thee one more heinous crime
O carve not with thy hours my love’s fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen.

It was the poet Edward FitzGerald’s rendering of Omar Khayyam, that caught my fancy, and who in verse after verse, captures the passing pageant of life:-

Think in this batter’d Caravanserai
Whose Portals are alternate Night and Day
How Sultan after Sultan with his pomp
Abode his Hour, and went his way.

and in another sadder verse:-

Ah Moon of my delight who knows no wane
The Moon of Heaven is rising one again
How oft hereafter shall she look
Through this same Garden after me, in vain.

His answer, at first sight, seems to be ‘the Grape’:-

Dreaming when dawn’s left hand was in the sky
I heard a voice within the tavern cry
Awake my little ones, and fill the cup
Before life’s liquor in the cup be dry.
Come, fill the Cup and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter garment of Repentence fling
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

However the late modern Saint, Paramahansa Yogananda, famed author of ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’, one day suddenly realised that if we attached to ‘the tavern’ ‘wine’ and similar idioms a meaning suggesting a more spiritual sustenance, then the whole of Rubaiyat was capable of being interpreted to bear a profound spiritual meaning. This was keeping with the known reputation of Omar Khayyam in his life time to be a seeker after truth, wisdom and spiritual values, and never one who engaged in any excesses of alcohol or otherwise.

Yogananda has given us a verse by verse interpretation accordingly, in his work entitled ‘Wine of the Mystic’, and from this, I quote in relation to verse 3 above:

‘Spiritual Interpretation’ (and he adds much more under the heading ‘Practical Application’).

‘I had not yet fully wakened from my material sleep of ignorance, and was but dreaming of the dawn of early wisdom, when I heard the intuitive voice of my soul cry out from the tavern of inner silence: O little thoughts of awakening wisdom, rouse yourselves, fill the cup of consciousness with Divine Joy, ere life’s vitality vanish from the bodily cup’

From the Tower of London, on the eve of his expected execution for treason, Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618) bequeathed us the moving lines:-

The Conclusion.
Even such is Time, which takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have
And pays us but with earth and dust
Who, in the dark and silent grave
When we have wandered all our ways
Shuts up the story of our days
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
My God shall raise me up, I trust.

From those who lament the passing of time, we can move to others who introduce deeper themes. For instance, in his great poem ‘Intimations of Immortality’, Wordsworth (1770-1850) implies a certain ‘timeless’ wonderment in childhood which alas, dies away as adulthood approaches.

Heaven lies about us in our infancy
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy
But he beholds the light and whence it flows.
He sees it in his joy
The youth who daily further from the east
Must travel still is Nature’s priest
And by the vision splendid
is on his way attended
At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

There are amongst the poets, however, those who have mystical insights, and such mystical insights have a timelessness, which banishes the fleeting, the temporal and the transient. It has been said that eternity is not just an extension of time for ever but a separate dimension. Some poets have intuitively become vividly aware of this.

It is there, when some of us, are fortunate to stumble upon this dimension, that the incredible ‘reverse’ takes place and that which a moment ago, we may have thought was the solid world of things and objects has, when touched by the mystical experience, become the dream- world, whilst that new other dimension, we suddenly discover, with an absolute certainty to be the ultimate reality. Above all, the ‘separation’ has disappeared. Suddenly everything has become the ‘One’. The poets who have attempted to describe this are still numerous, eastern, western, modern and ancient.

The great Hindu saint and mystic, Kabir, has said in one of his poems:-

I laugh when I hear that the fish
In the water is thirsty
You wander restlessly from the forest
while the Reality
Is within your own dwelling.
The truth is here! Go where you will.....

The English poet, Francis Thompson (1859-1907) whom we nearly lost altogether and who had become a derelict, sleeping out in the open, (often apparently under an arch near Charing Cross) until ‘rescued’ by the kindly interest of a prostitute, was to become the poet, many of us have come to love so much, and perhaps the finest to be found amongst western poets to echo this eternal ‘timeless’ world which transcends the temporal.

From ‘No Strange Land’ (The opening words)

O world invisible we view thee
O world intangible, we touch thee
O world unknowable, we know thee
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee....
But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; and upon the so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder.
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Other famous poems of his include ‘The Hound of Heaven’ and ‘To a Snowflake’, but from ‘The Mistress of Vision’ we find the lines so often quoted in commentaries on Mysticism;-

When to the new heart of Thee
All things by immortal power
Near or far
To each other linked are
That thou canst not stir a flower
Without the trembling of a star...

Emily Bronte, of the three famous sisters, has bequeathed us flashes of her mystical insight too.

From her poem ‘No Coward of Soul of mine’:-

Though earth and man were gone
And suns and universes ceased to be
And Thou were left alone
Every existence would exist in Thee.

I think John Masefield, too, knowing ‘the withiness’ of this other world, tried to touch upon it in his sonnet ‘from Lollingdon Downs:-

Here in the self is all that man can know
Of Beauty, all the wonder all the power
All the uneartly colour, all the glow....
Here, in the flesh, behind,
Swift in the blood and throbbing on the bone
Beauty herself, the universal mind
Eternal April wandering alone;
The God, the holy Ghost, the atoning Lord
Here in the flesh, the never yet explored.

The French poet Joachim Du Bellay (1525-60) as translated by Andrew Lang, I dropped on, by chance, but trust I that I may quote the whole of his charming poem.

‘ A Sonnet to Heavenly Beauty’.
If this our little life is but a day
In the Eternal,-if the years in vain
Toil after hours that never come again...
If everything that hath been must decay,
Why dreamest tho of joys that pass away,
My soul, that my sad body doth restrain
Why of the moment’s pleasure art thou fain?
Nay, thou hast wings,- seek another stay
There is the joy whereto each soul aspires,
And there the rest that all the world desires,
And there is love and peace and gracious mirth
And there in the most highest heavens shalt thou
Behold the Very Beauty, whereof now
Thou worshippest the shadow upon earth.

But to travel further eastwards where there would certainly find amongst the Sufi Poets, the Indians such as Tagore and the Chinese, a recognition of these eternities beyond the temporal world, I would like to draw on an inspiring translation of the ‘Tao Teh King’ (also spelled ‘Tao Te Ching’ at times’) by one Isabella Mears which is strangely reminiscent of the Poet Francis Thompson, as she points out in footnotes to her translation. (It would appear that he too, understood and loved the ‘Tao Teh King’ but curiously his poem ‘In no Strange Land’ is thought to precede the first known English translation).

We owe this wonderful work to Lao Tzu, the supposed founder of Taoism, who may have lived as long ago as 500 B.C., and whose teaching in verse form, has a mystical base. The great’ Tao Teh King’( or ‘Tao Te Ching’) and Taoism, not only in the East but in the Countries of the Western World, and even here in Australia, has never lost its countless adherents or its vitality.

While fully acknowledging the fount of poetry on Time and Eternity seen everywhere that I turn, and which I have only touched on, I have chosen to conclude with a brief excerpt from the ‘ Tao Teh King’ ‘tentative translation’ as she describes it of Isabella Mears:-

From the Tao Teh King


LOOKING at it, you do not see it.
You call it invisible.
Listening to it, you do not hear it.
You call it, inaudible
Touching it, you do not grasp it.
You call it intangible
These three cannot be described.
But they blend, and are one.

( Isabella Mears points out in a footnote, the uncanny resemblance to the opening of Francis Thompson poem ‘No Strange Land’, as quoted by me but which I repeat, for contrast:-

O world invisible we view thee
O world intangible, we touch thee
O world unknowable, we know thee
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee....

The Tao Teh King continues:-

Consider the Tao of Old
In order to arrange the affairs of now.

(She is reminded of the lines of Francis Thompson where the traffic of Jacob’s ladder is pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

The Tao Te King also refers to ‘The Key’ which is required to gain entrance to the land of Harmony(of the Tao).

Again, she is reminded of those glorious words of Francis Thompson in ‘The Mistress of Vision’,.

Pierce thy heart to find the key.
When thy seeing blindeth thee
To what thy fellow mortals see
When their sight to thee is sightless
Their living death; their light most lightless
Search no more-
Pass the gates of Luthany, tread the region Elenore.

Everywhere, I turn amongst the poets, I seem to find a wealth of ‘magic’, and revelation. A last glance, after writing the above, yielded the last two quotes with which I wish to conclude:-

The outer world is but a picture scroll
. Of worlds within the soul
A coloured chart, a blazoned missal book
Whereon who rightly look
May spell the splendour with their mortal eyes
And steer to paradise.

-Alfred Noyes. (1880-1958).

I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
All calm as it was bright;
And round beneath it Time in hours,days,years
Driven by the spheres
Like a vast shadow moved.

-Henry Vaughan. (1621-1695).

My Grateful Acknowledgments:

Treasury of English Verse. Collins. University Tutorital Press. London. Oxford Book of Verse. Quiller-Couch. Oxford University Press. Clarendon. An Anthology of Word Poetry. Cassell and Company Ltd. London.

Lao Te King. by Lao Tzu. Isabella Mears. Theosophical Publishing House.

For the quote from Kabir. ‘How to know God’ by Swami Prabhavanda and Christopher Isherwood. A Signet Book. The New American Library

The last two quotes (Noyes and Vaughan):-

Mysticism and religion. The very Rev’d Dean Inge. Rider and Co. London.
‘The Wine of the Mystic’ by Yogananda is now available in Australia in paper-back from bookshops specialising in spiritual and occult books.

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