Happy Wednesday! Here’s your dose of CW for this week. Instead of a work that he wrote, today I’m talking about a book that he edited. His connection with its compilers contributed one of the more important aspects of his life, as I’ll explain. Do let me know if you have any thoughts or questions about this book or his friendship with the two men who put it together. BTW, Apocryphile Press has a new edition of this work.
There are three things I find interesting about this strange anthology: the people involved in it, the ideas in the introduction, and the authors included (or excluded).
Williams worked on this collection while he was still establishing himself as a Personality and a Force around the London offices of the Oxford University Press; Nicholson and Lee first proposed the project to OUP in 1915, and they worked on it with Williams for a few years thereafter (Lindop 54). I think it was the first significant volume that CW edited, working under the supervision of the formidable Humphrey Milford–whom he calls “Caesar” in his later office dramas. The poems were selected by D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.E. Lee, about whom I’ve written before. They were both high-ranking occultists, and they soon invited CW to join them in bi-weekly meetings at Lee’s vicarage (he was an Anglican priest as well as a magician). There, they talk about all kinds of mysterious matters, many of which CW went on to develop into his signature doctrine of “Romantic Theology.” In short, his friendship with these two men–along with A.E. Waite–was essential to the formation of his hermetic belief system.
In their surprisingly brief and prosy introduction, Nicholson and Lee trace the origins of English mysticism to the 5th or 6th century AD, when they claim that the works of Pseudo-Dionysius were wildly popular on that island. They assert–in convoluted syntax very like CW’s own–that the practice or acceptance of mysticism has waxed and waned but never died off, and they observe that it is experiencing a revival in their own time. They hope that the whole world is going through “a spiritual revitalization” and that mysticism will soon rule a “kingdom” larger and more fertile than it has ever done before. Therefore, they thought it was a good time to provide a poetical retrospective, as it were, of mysticism in the past.
They make no attempt to define “mysticism,” instead directing the reader to formulate their own understanding from the poems themselves. However, we get some glimpses from the diction they use. Most revealing, IMO, is their choice of the phrase “Inner Light” (capitalized), which is drawn directly from occultism (although also used in the Quaker faith and a notable Star Trek episode). They straight-up admit that they have a secret knowledge (“the secret of the inmost sanctuary”), but they’re not worried about giving away anything they shouldn’t, since the acquisition of those secrets is not a matter of imparting information, but of long years of intimate experience and initiation.
Of course, they acknowledge the futility of such a pursuit right from the beginning: Mysticism is by definition ineffable, inexpressible, beyond the resources of language. Poetry at least does a better job than prose, but even it can’t get very far in expressing the sublime heights of spiritual ecstasy. Given my recent studies of the power of spoken verse for magical workings, I find the literal nature of their faith in poetry fascinating; they claim that poets, “By the rhythm and the glamour of their verse, by its peculiar quality of suggesting infinitely more than it ever says directly, by its very elasticity, they struggle to give what hints they may of the Reality that is eternally underlying all things.” Thus they chose poems on their individual merit in giving some glimpse of that divine union, not on the reputation of the poet him- or herself. The collection is necessarily very selective and probably unrepresentative, given the limitations of their resources and historical perspective.
The index of authors included in this anthology is super weird to anybody interested in English literature of this period. Here are some of the living poets they include: Lascelles Abercrombie, G. K. Chesterton, Aleister Crowley, Eva Gore-Booth, Laurence Housman, John Masefield, Alice Meynell, William Sharp, A.E. Russell, Evelyn Underhill, A. E. Waite, and W.B. Yeats. That’s not exactly a catalog of influential modernist poets of the nineteen-teens, now, is it? It’s basically their friends in the modern occult revival.
The rest of the volume is also oddly imbalanced, due to their particular purpose of providing an historical survey of English (and Irish, and a little bit of American) mystical poetry. The poems are in chronological order, and the arrangement is telling. From a couple of anonymous early-middle-English verses, there’s a huge leap through time to John Donne. Other recognizable names include Herrick, Herbert, Crashaw, Marvell, Vaughan, Traherne, Pope, Cowper, Blake, Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, P.B. Shelley, Cardinal Newman, Emerson, E.B. Browning, Poe, Tennyson, R. Browning, E. Brontë, Whitman, Arnold, Patmore, George MacDonald (interesting), D.G. Rossetti, C.G. Rossetti, Swinburne, Hopkins, Wilde, Frances Thompson, and Mary Coleridge. I’ve skipped over the names of lots of writers I didn’t recognize, but it might be worth skimming through the Index of Authors to see if there’s anybody else of interest to you. There are huge swathes of work by Traherne, Blake, and a few others (not surprisingly), but nothing from the Elizabethan era, a teeny snippet from the 17th century, and a heavy sampling of living-but-totally-unknown poets.
I wonder what it would be like to read through this book cover to cover. I wonder whether doing so, in a suitably quiet environment and open state of mind, might induce any mystical experiences. I imagine so, especially if one were in a vulnerable, transitional life-phase, such as the undergraduate years, or, say, an existential spiritual crisis brought on by a pandemic and extreme political-religious polarization.
Maybe I should go rent a cabin in the woods and try the experiment. I shan’t, but let me know if you do.
The book is 666 pages long. Coincidence, much?