The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

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.

1917, The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

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?

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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12 Responses to The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

  1. Just pulled my copy off the shelf. It seems to be the same edition as yours. I can’t find any mention of Charles Williams, though.

    I had a quick flick through and noticed Edward Carpenter among the entries (definitely of interest).

    And I see Evelyn Underhill and a good number of women in the list of authors.

    I am surprised they omitted Rabindranath Tagore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, I’m impressed you have a copy! Yes, then as now, the internal editor working for the press is often not named. Good catch: Tagore would have been a natural inclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I picked it up in a secondhand bookshop years ago. I also have the 1918 edition of the Oxford Book of English Verse, picked up for a song in a wonderful secondhand bookshop in Southampton UK which had five floors (sadly no longer there).


  2. Eric Rauscher says:

    Interesting choice of word in the phrase “By the rhythm and glamour of their verse.”
    The word glamour stands out as a signpost.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It may be handy that there are several scans in the Internet Archive, including of a couple first-edition copies – it is certainly interesting to see this New York Public Library copy is a 1962 reprint – the eleventh reprint noted, without any note of any being corrected or revised. This scan pagination gives “666” because there are [xvi] + 644 numbered pages (or 660 in total, plus the last blank leaf as [645-46]) – and the scans of recto and verso of the front and back covers which add 4 (for 666) – so that in ‘turning’ the scanned pages the counter suddenly jumps from “644 of 644” (the ‘arabic-numeral’ pages, not counting the final leaf) to “664 of 666”.

    It is definitely interesting to see the range and variety of authors (Index of Authors, pages [632]-634) and the note on page xiv about Sidney Lanier and George Meredith. What I do not remember being aware of is (1) Caroline F.E. Spurgeon’s Mysticism in English Literature (Cambridge UP, 1913), and (2) The Rev. Percy H. Osmond’s The Mystical Poets of the English Church (SPCK,1919) – in the Preface to which he writes (p. x) “It may not be amiss to state that the MS. of this volume was (with the exception of a few slight interpolations) ready fo the press when the war broke out”. It would be interesting to compare whom Spurgeon and Osmond discuss in these contemporary studies with Nicholson and Lee’s selections, as well as any overlap between their selections and any in the various anthologies which Williams later made.

    The “huge leap through time to John Donne” which you note is interesting (with the only ‘fully Elizabethan’ selection being two poems by Robert Southwell). Spurgeon leaps about as hugely, moving from Julian of Norwich to Spenser, while Osmond attends to Spenser (with a footnote on Sidney), Sir John Davies, and Thomas Heywood. Another work encountered in the Internet Archive and previously unknown to me looks like it may help fill the gap – John Burns Collins’s 1934 Johns Hopkins doctoral dissertation published by that university’s press in 1940 as Christian Mysticism in the Elizabethan Age: With its Background in Mystical Methodology.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I know the 666 is a feature of the particular PDF from which I was working, not a design element in the book itself. But fun to joke about!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Indeed! I often wonder just what’s going on with Internet Archive scan pagination, and it was fun to try to analyze it, for once (and see how it made sense!).

        Encountering the approaches of Spurgeon and Osmond, I was strengthened in my impression of how big and how varied a selection The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse has. Tagore raised an interesting question I have not really considered – ‘English’ includes English translations, beginning with the first, Irish poem (which is a lot like some Welsh poetry attributed to Taliesin!), but I have no idea how many of the poems are translated, and from what languages. Tagore may offer interesting questions of copyright and permission – as Lanier and Meredith are explicitly said to.

        It occurs to me that Williams’s New Christian Year (1940) has a lot of selections from mystical works (mostly prose), and might be seen as a sort of complementary anthology – though explicitly Christian and clearly with translations of many non-English works, as well as giving an easy structure for getting from cover to cover.


        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Investigating a bit further, my first impression is that there are not many translations after the first poem – for instance, her Wikipedia article says Sarojini Nayadu’s “poetry is written in English”. I also happened to notice there were updates made in the course of reprinting – at least as far as some writers’ ‘dates’ are concerned (in the 1962 reprint, p. 370 notes Emily Henrietta Hickey died in 1924 – though p. 371 intriguingly now reports George Barlow died in 1913, while the 1917 first edition only gives his date of birth). For what it’s worth, it looks like nearly 23% of the writers are women (though pp. xiii-xiv suggest Wiliam Sharp’s poems may have been originally published as by ‘Fiona Macleod’.) I wonder who Anonymous is on pages 548-50?

          Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if the huge gaps in time can be mapped to events in church history, such as the Henrician Reformation, the Commonwealth period, and the rather staid Christianity of the 18th century. Although there’s plenty of Blake to represent the 18th century.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Who ‘gets’ how many pages would be another interesting thing to ponder – Blake has from page 89 through page 109, Wordworth from page 109 through page 125. Going back a century, Vaughan has from page 56 through page 63, Traherne from the bottom of page 63 through page 82 (and a comment on p. viii about “difficulty of selection” in particular where he is concerned, as “nearly all the poems are definitely mystical”). Another point inviting consideration here is the type or genre: four excerpts from ‘The Excursion’ and seven from ‘The Prelude’ by Wordsworth; the version of, or selections from, ‘The Everlasting Gospel’ by Blake continuous over ten pages; but only 18 lines from Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’.

        Discussing translations, I was forgetting Nicholson and Lee’s own discussion on page ix, which includes, “translations from any European language have been excluded, often with very great regret” – which leaves me curious about John Byrom’s ‘A Poetical Version of a Letter from Jacob Behmen’ .

        Liked by 1 person

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