In this 6th article of our series, the respected scholar K. D. Sethna – also known as Amal Kiran – offers a literary feast to all those who desire to understand the genius of Sri Aurobindo. Sethna suggests that many of the World’s greatest poets possessed, however small or narrow, a mystical sense that revealed itself in their great works. In thirty-one intellectually-stimulating pages, giving example after example, Sethna convincingly argues that Sri Aurobindo’s mystical inspiration would usher in a new age of poetry; a poetry that would be reminiscent of vedic and upanishadic mantric poetry but occupy a niche above and beyond them.
A New Age of Mystical Poetry
Every poet is in essence a Platonist. No poet but feels he is serving a sacred mission beyond his own self, the mission of some perfect beauty waiting to be revealed. He may be as poignantly personal and fired with the body’s hunger as Sappho and Catullus, yet the urge to his lyrical self-expression is not merely the joys and griefs of a personal libido: it is also an aspiration for a flawless magic of verbal form. Sappho and Catullus were not justlovers grown vocal and nothing more: they were pre-eminently idealists of speech. Their passion was for an irreproachable word-music and they perpetuated their love in a language whose phrases and rhythms gave their personal desires a faultless mould wrought by a functioning of the senses, feelings and thoughts as though some concealed godhead were taking body through each poem. By answering that mysterious call of inspiration and not just the voice of Atthis or Lesbia, Sappho and Cattullus wrote poetry. Whether they were intellectually conscious of serving a divinity, in which they believed, is immaterial. All that was necessary for art was that they should be conscious of an overwhelming urge to fashion a piece of utter and unsurpassable beauty.
Even atheistic poets possess a mystical sense that helps them write inspired poetry
We have actually in Lucretius a poet who was an atheist and yet embodied the godlike presence that makes poetry the revelation it is. Such a paradox is possible because inspiration does not depend on the intellect’s arguing for God and against God: inspiration is beyond the mind’s logical machine, and if there is the right susceptibility in the depths of a man’s nature, it rushes through, no matter how averse to religious belief may be his outward mind. The unreligious concepts of the mind it seizes as though with superhuman hands and builds out of them “topless towers” of loveliness. What is more, it envelops these concepts with a sort of cosmic grandeur that only differs from the infinitude haunting the religious spirit by being dark instead of luminous, an empire of everlasting night and death instead of an empire of everlasting day and life. Lucretius’s summum bonum is the acceptance of that unconscious eternity to which our flesh returns after the brief interval of living, the immense inanimate within which our few feverish years seem to make a small noise and then ceases to be. A profound awe, a solemn sense of universal Nature, blindly and inexorably at work in its immeasurable reaches of space and time, pervade his philosophical epic like a religion manque, even as the presence of an “unweeting”[?] power, absolute and endless in “crass casualty”, is perceived in the world of Thomas Hardy.
The atheisms of Lucretius and Hardy are really special forms, heroic or morbid according to temperament, of the mystical belief all ages have had in an utter Unknown that rules above the desires and imaginings of men the totality of things: the Greeks called it Ananke, the Fate and the Necessity that is greater than even the Gods. Steeped in the conception of that dark Supreme, poets like Hardy and Lucretius create their masterpieces and disclose, in spite of themselves, where inspiration really comes from. It is also significant that even atheists like them break forth on occasion into chants about living forces more than human, one divine Spirit or many divine or at least supernatural presences. Thus Lucretius at his most inspired hails as all-fostering Venus, “delight of Gods and men”, the procreative energy that is abroad in Nature; he invokes it as a Goddess to aid his exploration of “the secret ways of things”. Hardy brings in a whole troop of presiding powers, spirits of pity and irony pressing onward from above the Napoleonic drama depicted in The Dynasts. An instinct of the true source of the magnificence that is poetic expression appears to have compelled both the Roman poet and the English to conjure up an atmosphere of the Divine and the Superhuman around their highest moments, an instinct aligning itself with the inward impulsion that led Homer to appeal to his Thea and Milton to cry ” Sing, Heavenly Muse”.
A sense of the mysterious Divine is always leaping out in this manner through great poetry. In general, it is the unformulated background whose presence is felt primarily in the perfection of words, making a sheer absolute, an unsurpassable ultimate of beauty which can be perceived as much in what is intellectually understood to be an atheistic passage as in one that yields mystical meaning. Because of the touch of this absolute and ultimate we respond to poetry as to a statement of incontrovertible truth, an expression that compels belief as if by a God’s dictate, even though what is stated and expressed may run quite counter to our own accepted notions about the universe. We may be scientifically-minded and see nothing beyond a swirl of electrons; still when A. E. sounds his crystal note of the Undying Ones that are not clay, we feel caught up into a realm of crowned souls, a world of wizardry uncharted by Planck and Schroedinger. And paradoxical though it may seem, our firmest faith in A.E.’s occult “Candle of Vision” will not drive back the shadow that falls upon us from Housman’s exquisite agnosticism: like a final truth the omnipotence of the dust encompasses us through his lyrical inevitabilities of despair and denial. Every mood that finds faultless poetic form lords it over us like a deity. What invests it with that gospel-glow is not merely our willingness to make-believe. The true aesthetic response is no playful assent to a pleasing verbal legerdemain; it is a seizure of the being by a magic and a mystery that has no scar of defect, it is a surrender by us, willy-nilly, to an assault from some realm of archetypes. In order to realise the assault, we do not need a Gabriel’s trumpet like D. H. Lawrence’s cry to the Mexican eagle:
You never look at the sun with your two eyes.
Only the inner eye of your scorched broad breast
Looks straight at the sun.
Poetry in a subdued style will serve equally. If we take those lines from W. H. Davies’s poem to the moon –
Though there are birds that sing this night
With thy white beams across their throats –
it is inadequate to say we have merely a sense of pleasure produced by significant sounds arranged in a cunning pattern. We may even call that pleasure, as I. A. Richards does, a rest, a balance, an integration of our impulses so that they are no more in conflict among themselves. We still leave unmeasured the effect of Davies’s subtly beautiful picture of the moon inspiring the nightingales. Indeed there seems no point in speaking of beauty if the terms “pleasure, rest, balance, integration” are enough. Beauty in its full and final meaning implies a Form through which some absolute perfection impinges on us. Virginia Woolf, in her biography of Roger Fry, quotes from a letter by that famous art-critic to Robert Bridges. “One can only say that those who experience the aesthetic emotion feel it to have a peculiar quality of’reality’ which makes it a matter of infinite importance in their lives. Any attempt I might make to explain this would probably land me in the depths of mysticism”. Modern art critics fight shy of those depths, yet they cannot help hovering on their verge. Even Richards, with his equilibrium of impulses, is pointing to a quality in art which lifts us for the moment above the turmoil of want and desire, striving and seeking and frustration, and which gives the feeling of an ultimate wherein we can repose with a positive peace distinguished from inactive irresolution or unconsciousness: in short, a quality which is a kind of second cousin to that of mystical experience. Unless we describe poetry as a window opening through Form on the Divine, on a realm of archetypes, we shall never convey accurately the secret of its spell.
The consciousness has to take a particular pattern before it can become the poetic word
Yes, through Form and not Matter. But by Form we must not understand exclusively the turn of phrase and the movement of rhythm: the language-mould is all in all but it comes fused with a cast of consciousness – a form of vision and a form of emotion. Metrical speech without that vivid cast is the ghost of poetry. Neither does mere substance of consciousness, however weighty or recondite, make on us the art-impact that is revelation: the consciousness has to take a particular pattern before it can become the poetic word. The philosophy of Epicurus is the substance, the matter, of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, but not till it has been stamped with the”Lucretian sight and feeling, no less than shaped into the Lucretian word and rhythm, is the force of the archetypal received by us”. Form in that fourfold sense has the archetypal touch which Matter by itself lacks just as much as do emptily resounding language and mechanically modulated metre. And it is because Form is the priest of the poetic revelation that all substance of consciousness, even the most profane, can be brought by the poet to stand before us like a godhead which will brook no “Nay” to its utterance. What is the source of poetry’s convincing charm? Not the ideas expressible by the intellect and endlessly debatable by the logical faculty but a gleam and image, a hint and echo of some reality living hidden from us in its own self-world of absolute loveliness and holding there a manifold harmony of truth which our ideas cut up into a thousand conflicting aspects. As soon as flawless Form is achieved, that hidden reality shines out; it cares not if the Matter of a poem be spiritual or secular, God-affirming or God-denying, covered with holy incense or reckless rose-leaves. If somehow the path of inspiration keeps clear in a poet, the archetypes journey along it and the mysterious Divine trysts with the human.
Explaining Art as a journey and a tryst by the Highest, we are led – while we depreciate by no jot the perfection of poems that are concerned with things mortal – to prepare a special place for the lyra mystica. For, if the archetypal touch is everywhere through the Form of poetry, the mystic who invokes the Muse to convert his intuitions into song becomes her instrument in a double way: both Matter and Form are lit up by the archetypal. Openly, and not through themes that are no more than human, the Divine presses forward through the mystic’s inspiration to lay hands on the world. Not the acme of the fictitious in the poet’s mind, calling for a peak of make-believe in ours, but an immediate revealing of what is revealed remotely by other kinds of verse: this is mystical inspiration. When the Matter is remote from mysticism, the poetic value gets no less: the Form determines that value. But provided the Form remains equally intense, a mystical immediacy in the Matter renders poetry a revelation in excelsis of the Real and the True. All great poetry has a body that is divine, but mostly the soul of it is divine with a human mask; the mystical poet’s work is the unmasking of the divine spirit in that divine body.
Poetry of the mystical realms
The unmasking, however, is no simple and uniform act. Nor is it determined alone by a poet’s individual style. Herbert has a religious simplicity, at once piquant and passionate; Crashaw a rich sensuousness kindling into spirituality; Donne a nervous intricate power troubling the Unknown; Vaughan a half-obscure half-bright straining beyond thought into mystical vision; Patmore a pointed polished ardour of the intellect for the veiled Wonder; Francis Thompson a restless and crowded and colourful heat of response to “the many-splendoured Thing”. All of them have flights of fine poetry, but their styles, standing out one from another, have yet a common element: the mask on the face of the Divine Spirit is diversely thinned and made translucent instead of being removed. Their unmasking is indirect. Only at rare moments something of the sheer reality shows itself. These poets have considerable vividness of mystical meaning: what they do not have enough is the language and rhythm of the mystical planes. The mystical planes are classified by Sri Aurobindo broadly as occult, psychic and spiritual. The occult language and rhythm have something of a Coleridgean, Blakean or Yeatsian stamp. They are not always instinct with the Divine, they have often a Celtic atmosphere, weird or fairylike. But when the mystical vision and emotion possess them, they transmit baffling buried heavens of Beauty like Yeats’s
Throne above throne where in half sleep,
Their swords upon their iron knees,
Brood her high lonely mysteries.
The psychic speech has a deeply delicate radiance moving the heart to some far sweetness or suffusing it with an exquisite ecstasy of God’s love. Its yearning cry is heard in Blake’s
Ah, sunflower! weary of Time
as well as in Geoffrey Faber’s
O moon, that your light had lips and hands!
while the note of fulfillment steals into Robert Nichols’s picture of “the Secret Garden” when the unseen gardener goes through it
Humbled and hushed and happy falls each bird.
Vaughan hints the psychic plane in his image of the paradise felt by him in childhood:
That shady city of palm trees.
The spiritual inspiration, as distinguished from the occult and the psychic, has a wide-winging power. Sri Aurobindo calls it “overhead” because it arrives as if by a descent from spaces of light above the mind-level. Often it gets mixed with planes that are but mental: then its typical afflatus gets considerably subdued and comes out in no more than a few scattered breaths. Read carefully Vaughan’s
I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days,
My days which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmerings and decays.
The impression as a whole is of an excellent thinning and translucence of the Divine’s mask, but a steadier scrutiny unravels three strains of poetry. The third line is nothing save a thinking-out, an ideative statement just lifted from prose-level by a stir of sight and a musical breath. The first and last lines have a more felicitous, more intense articulation: still they are the imaginative mind tossing its ideas into the Unknown, theirs is not the true freedom, the large radiance, the direct throb of what is above imaginative mysticism. Only the second line of the quatrain -“whose light doth trample on my days” – breaks somewhat loose from the tether of thought and contacts a consciousness more than mental. Perhaps the really accurate description of it is not that it ceases to be thought but that its thinking is taken up into a spiritual clarity and amplitude. This is more than a thinning or translucence of the mask: it begins to remove it, though the removal is partial, just by one-fourth, we might say. Beyond this liberation from mental into spiritual thought a purer mystical intensity awaits the poet, but it is no more than once in a long while that English singers attain it. A magnificent unmasking by one-half is done by Vaughan himself:
I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great ring of pure and endless light
All calm as it was bright.
The thing-in-itself is sensed, the spiritual mystery is mirrored in an eye from which all effort of thought has fallen away, the effort that is the mask between the human and the Divine. It may not yet be the most intimate expression of the mystical: the intimacy grows as the thought-effort falls further and further away, but here it has sunk sufficiently far to let the Spirit disclose in some super-conscious ether of keen illumination its own being-stuff through a significant symbol of the complete and the unending. We feel the power of the disclosure not only in the vision and the word but also in the rhythm. The rhythm has a vibrant wideness belonging to a consciousness that is not human though caught in language through a human medium.
Poetry packed with a mask-removing quality is holy scripture in a special way. Whatever wakes in us a feeling of the Divine is scriptural and yet there is a sense in which the ancient Vedas and Upanishads stand apart from the other bibles [scriptures]of the world. The latter have a good deal of moving God-intoxicated lyricism, also a mass of forceful God-haunted meditation, but the note of the Indian Rishis is infrequent in them as in the majority of mystical poetry written hitherto in English or for that matter any language save Sanskrit. No poet has proved a constant channel of its peculiar intensity. It is sporadic, almost accidental, in English literature. Where, however, it appears, it bears an unmistakable halo. It may not mention even the name of God, it may speak of things that lie about us every day, and yet we recognise in it a spiritual creativity of the most puissant order. Put beside lines with a similar drift of meaning but drawn from less supernormal “planes” of consciousness, it is as if a prophet instead of his ministers, wonderfully gifted though they might be, stood before us and laid a transfiguring hand in benediction on our heads. A great minister is what we meet in Browning’s
Silent silver lights and darks undreamed of.
Fine poetry, this, and suggestive of the Unknown through a symbol of night; but it is the poetry of imaginative thought, it does not come sheer from a mystical plane. Harindranath Chattopadhya’s
The silence of the midnight many-starred
has a more ample “atmospheric” touch; nevertheless, it is a touch of something splendid and secret rather than concretely mystical or spiritual. Wordsworth’s much simpler line,
The silence that is in the starry sky
conveys the unknown and the ineffable in an intense intimacy, a state of high trance seems to be made actual, a lofty consciousness glimmering beyond mere imaginative thought makes its presence felt because both the expression and the rhythm come straight from a Vedic and Upanishadic source. A Rishi’sor a prophet’s is this line, the Divine in the act of unmasking.
Though not so impressive as the verse quoted from Vaughan it has a profounder vibration. If Vaughan’s unmasking took place in a high ether of keen illumination, Wordsworth’s is part of a yet higher domain from the mystical standpoint: a more penetrating spirituality is here, not keenly illuminative so much as raptly intuitive, not shedding the Divine’s radiance upon us but rather making us enter into it and dwell in its midst. What may obscure from us its extraordinary revelation is precisely that entry and indwelling: the light that is above the mind is here like home, a natural and familiar thing: the line makes no “display” of the Spirit’s marvellousness, it simply gives it to us with an utterly unassuming intimacy. I do not mean that the intuitive speech is always divorced from richness: it can have a rich body as in another night-vision of Chattopadhyaya’s:
The diamond dimness of the domed air.
It can, however, dispense with the impressive and complex, since its essence is independent of that quality. The same intuitively vibrant simplicity as in the line of Wordsworth already quoted is in the one with which he companions it:
The sleep that is among the lonely hills.
Without openly saying anything, it presents to us through a familiar symbol a peace of in-drawn power of some lordly consciousness stretching wide across earth’s being and into the Beyond or standing as a firm imperturbable intermediary between the terrestrial and the transcendental. Perhaps equally poetic are Abercrombie’s
Tall hills that stand in weather-blinded trances
As if they heard, drawn upward and held there,
Some god’s eternal tune,
but the direct spiritual rhythmic turn is absent. Apt and euphonious language carrying a mystically pointed thought and image is achieved by Abercrombie: what Wordsworth has done is to catch, in the very rhythm of the line, “some god’s eternal tune” instead of speaking about it. The result is that the sleep he does speak of has the stuff of some god’s experience while Abercrombie’s weather-blinded trances are only a felicitous thought-reflection of the godlike.
It is the rhythm that most decisively distinguishes one plane of conscious being from another. For rhythm is not just a play of ordered sound; it is the thrill of the consciousness translating itself into sound-vibration. That thrill gives us more than the mood: it gives too the psychological level on which the mood arises. And the poetic outbursts of the various levels differ not in degree but in kind. Difference in degree would imply poetic superiority and inferiority, whereas the fact is that each level can have its perfection of poetic outburst. Difference in kind enables us to see how the quotation from Wordsworth, without necessarily being superior qua poetry to that from Abercrombie, is more close to the hidden Divine by deriving its rhythm from a more spiritual plane. And it is also by a different kind of rhythm, more even than of vision and expression, that we perceive how that line of Wordsworth’s is still not the most intense spirituality. The Divine is unmasked by it three-fourths and not wholly. Beyond the intuitively intimate, there remains the complete identity. Poetry can descend into us from a level where the spiritual light does not merely carry us into the midst of the deific but makes us one with it. Then we have an expansion of the meaning to a supreme massiveness of immeasurable suggestion, an endlessness of overtone and undertone as though the line which seems to terminate went really sounding on from everlasting to everlasting because what it embodies is, without any mask at all, the Divine, the Deathless, the Infinite. When on a sudden a sonnet of Shakespeare’s breaks into that extraordinary phrase:
The prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come,
our mind loses its customary bearings and flounders in a strange element we can scarcely plumb. The phrase is a grand intrusion in Shakespeare, the rhythm and rapture of another world than his tense quivering sonorities of sensation and passion. Not that those sonorities are absent or that a mystical idea deeper than any he was otherwise capable of has made its appearance. The phrase has a fathomlessness of word-suggestion and sound-suggestion other than the significant breadth and vivid plangency of not only his usual inspiration but also of lines like
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we may.
This is as penetrating in thought, the idea of it moves as puissantly upon our pulses: what it lacks is the immense profundity and wide supernatural presence which the words about the prophetic world-soul possess. The poetry is equally perfect, yet its plane of inspiration is not quite the same as of the Dreamer of things to come. There is something in common – Shakespeare’s habitual thinking with his senses and his nerves and his entrails – but, merging in it or absorbing it, an immediacy of some spiritual vastitude is there, whose vibration of consciousness is dissimilar to what is native to the thought-thrill and the passion-gusto that are Shakespeare’s wont. The unmasking of the secret Divine is direct instead of indirect and the revelatory impulse is from a plane where the Spirit stands wholly bare. If we can hold the “feel” and rhythm of it intensely within us, we shall distinguish that utter “wholeness” from the high spirit-stuffed ideation of Frederic Myers’s urge to
Leap from the universe and plunge in Thee
or Wordsworth’s apostrophe to the unclouded soul of innocent clairvoyant childhood –
Thou over whom thy immortality
Broods like the Day,
as well as from that astonishing spirit-illumined line of Rimbaud’s :
Millions d’oiseaux d’or, O futur vigueur ! –
a line whose prophetic superhuman elan is perhaps just caught in the rendering :
Millions of golden birds,
O vigour unborn!
Shakespeare’s accidental unmasking of the Divine by a Word, one with some cosmic Truth-Consciousness exceeds as spiritual poetry the large magnificence deepening into mystery that we contact in even that Wordsworthian Being
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.
Wordsworth seems here on the verge of the unmasking by identity; only a certain difference in the basic rhythm keeps the verse Spirit-intuitive instead of Spirit-identical. Possibly I am wrong, since it is very difficult to mark shades in a field so little explored, and Wordsworth here may be employing the accent which is at the top of the Vedic and Upanishadic grade and which the Rishis called the Mantra. There is, however, no doubt that the Mantra is uttered by a contemporary Indian poet writing in English in Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram, Dilip Kumar Roy, when he coins that phrase about God’s guardianship :
His sentinel love broods o’er the universe.
A modern English poet who died too young and whose work though published awaits the recognition it deserves utters it also through a vision of the grandiose triviality of the Cosmos in comparison to the unmanifest Divine:
This patter of time’s marring steps across the solitude
Of Truth’s abidingness,
Self-blissful and alone.
It was John Chadwick, known to his friends in India as “Arjava” who wrote those profoundly haunting lines. A disciple of Sri Aurobindo he drew at several places in his work from the planes which his Master was the first to embody en masse in a poetic language that stands on a par with the plenary apocalypse of the Vedas and Upanishads and surpasses it in an application of the luminous look not only to what is beyond the world and calls the soul thither but also to what the soul can call down from there to transform and fulfil earth-life.
Sri Aurobindo and the New Age of poetry
Sri Aurobindo’s mystical inspiration is a New Age of poetry. The New Age consists to some extent in a fuller emergence of the occult and the psychic, either pure or mingled with the mind’s thought-stuff; to a greater extent in a blending of the occult, the psychic and the mysticised mental with the overhead afflatus; to the largest extent in the overhead afflatus sheer and undisguised, rising higher and higher towards the Mantra and frequently attaining it. Everywhere, Sri Aurobindo brings out living symbols from the mystical planes – a concrete contact with the Divine’s presence. Even when realities that are not openly divine are viewed, the style is of a direct knowledge, direct feeling, direct rhythm from an inner or upper poise: the mundane scene and the supra-mundane principalities and powers are given their image and value and secret life-throb as realised from a consciousness aware directly of the supreme Spirit. That consciousness covers all phenomena with significances and suggestions which the mere mind cannot adequately gauge. It is necessary, therefore, for us readers to develop our aesthetic sense to a pitch subtler than in our normal response to poetry; else we shall often get no more than a run of disconnected flashes or, worse, a jostle of grandiose abstractions; in either case we shall miss the concrete revelation, the living actuality. A two-fold method of approach is desirable. There must be as much as possible a stilling of ourselves, an indrawn hush ready to listen to the supernormal speech; and we must help the hush to absorb successfully the new tone by reading the verse aloud.
All poetry requires to be read aloud for the final force of its meaning to go home and the deepest implications to be evoked. But in Sri Aurobindo’s work the ear’sattention is all the more needed because we have not merely to get out of him the subtle secret of his meaning: we have also to get something which will convey to us a “feel” of reality without the meaning being adequately grasped by our mind. His poetry is drawn from regions so far behind or beyond the human level that the mind is frequently baffled and even when it sees the drift of the significance it fails to hold it enough to experience the concreteness of what is implied. To experience that substantiality the rhythm is of paramount help, for it makes the state of consciousness that is a-thrill in the poem live and vibrate within us, however difficult it may be for the intellect to pierce into that state. The substantiality, the harmony and consistency, the massed grandeur of the many-sided mystical vision and experience disclose themselves with a seizing directness when the poem is read aloud – a seizing directness which is likely on occasion to be absolutely absent if only the eye dwells on the words and notes their meaning without letting in their haunting body of sound. The sound of mystical poetry, especially of the overhead order, is three-fourths of its efficacy: hence the old custom of audibly uttering the Mantra in order to liberate in one’s being the godhead held within the words. This is not to say that spiritual poetry is glorious gibberish – it has a massive vision and an ample meaning, but the main gate of entry for these things into us is the rhythm, the sound-reflex of their hidden life-throb, their inner force of existence. Once the rhythm has transmitted to us that throb and that force, the eye will open wider and wider and our thought begin to shape itself according to the truth of the Spirit.
The ear’s importance can be easily shown by reading a stanza like the following from Sri Aurobindo’s quantitative* Alcaics, Jivanamukta first with the eye alone and then loudly:
He who from Time’s dull motion escapes and thrills
Rapt thoughtless, wordless into the Eternal’s breast,
Unrolls the form and sign of being,
Seated above in the omniscient Silence.
Something in the vitality of the style is felt to build for us more than a philosophical structure, yet the full lift and ecstasy gets clipped,so to speak, unless we roll out the lines with a deliberate in-toning. The slowly breaking suspense at the start, the sudden speeding up, the strange mixture of calm widening and intense penetrating, the grave and ample revealing movement, the tremendous tranced poise – all these become a profound sensation to the soul when the words ring forth in the spaces of consciousness. A latent faculty deeper than thought and imagination is struck awake. The stresses, quantities, vowel-adjustments, consonant-combinations become instruments in the hands of an overhead inspiration to create in us a rhythm of being, an emotional vibration, a soul-stir that echo the self-experience of a divine plane. That self-experience lives most strongly in the second and fourth lines, a powerful pulsing away of mind and heart into the Divine’s depth, a quiet plucking and largening out of them from human nature into the Divine’s height. When these lines are made resonant by the voice the concrete suggestions of words like “into” and ” breast” and “seated” and “above” are perceived as no poetic devices but exact modes of rendering Yogic realisations.
Audible reading, repeated many times, would also tend to save us from falling foul of a poem like Thought the Paraclete, where Sri Aurobindo works into a novel quantitative scheme the experience of an upward movement of the mind as an intermediary between our consciousness and the Unknown. He depicts the mind as caught up into layer after layer of what is beyond, leaving behind in the consciousness here a superb calm unbounded by the brief and the finite, a sense of some ultimate Self without personal confines. The poetic expression is packed with symbols and visions straight from the spiritual planes:
Lustred, pale-blue-lined of the hippogriff,
Eremite, sole, daring the bourneless ways,
Over world-bare summits of timeless being Gleamed;
the deep twilights of the world-abyss Failed below.
Sun-realms of supernal seeing,
Crimson-white mooned oceans of pauseless bliss
Drew its vague heart-yearning with voices sweet.
Hungering, large-souled, to surprise the unconned
Secrets white-fire-veiled of the last Beyond,
Crossing power-swept silences rapture-stunned,
Climbing high far ethers eternal-sunned,
Thought the great-winged wanderer paraclete
Disappeared slow-singing a flame-word rune.
Self was left, lone, limitless, nude, immune.
The ordinary critic is likely to be puzzled. He cannot quite lump it with Surrealism as a chaotic transcription of the Subconscious, for there are evident a process and a denouement, but this control and guidance of the abnormal paints no picture that can be understood like Francis Thompson’s imaginatively gorgeous bravado:
Across the margent of the world I fled,
And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
or his prophetic flourish:
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity.
Sri Aurobindo is not mentally conceiving and visualising: he is recording realities that belong to some Super-Nature, without any effort to clothe his perceptions in emblems we can readily recognise from our contacts with the universe around. He is writing as a Yogi, letting spiritual facts seen in dimensions other than our universe take shape in poetry, and the poetry springs from those dimensions, throbbing with the strange tangibilities there and not throughout aided by an interpretative glow from our experience of material objects, Poetry must always be objective in order to convey a feel of actuality, but the outward world we know by our physical senses is not everything: Yoga reveals subtle senses that put us in touch with other worlds, other outwardnesses as real as those to which we are habituated and considerably divergent from them inspite of a certain correspondence between the two. The mind lifted by Yoga towards the Eternal does not just shoot up ideas, does not just think of the Divine and imagine what the Divine must be like. It clearly separates from the body, rises as a distinct entity into a new consciousness and a series of supra-physical worlds. Passionate with God-hunger it is a living creature inwardly lit by a lust for the Eternal’s empyrean, “pale-blue-lined” and wearing a symbolic form to its own inner eye according to what aspect of the consciousness has winged upward: the hippogriff – half-horse and half-eagle – is a form of this kind and no arbitrary futuristic figuration. And the worlds explored by that dynamic denizen of the inner being are real, concrete, objective.
Sri Aurobindo transmits his experience of them to us in words charged with the very vision and vibration of the consciousness pervading those worlds. That is why the shapes and scenes are so incalculable, so bewildering – until we draw ourselves back from our habitual mind into a receptive hush and quicken that hush by reading aloud the strangely worded and strangely rhythmed lines. The rhythmical scheme is not any of the accepted metres – the stresses and the quantities are a pattern demanding all sorts of unusual word-combinations and sound-effects; the massed accents and lengths call for an abundant use of the compound, and the necessity to hold together in short but accurate phrases the manifold grandeurs of Super-Nature amply justifies it. Seerhood and vitality are constant features of the style, and they possess us most forcefully through an audible reading. Whether we fully understand or no, the pictures and the sound-suggestions make an impact as of undeniable reality:
Crimson-white mooned oceans of pauseless bliss
is a line of extreme subtle-sensuous energy, as is also
Crossing power-swept silences rapture-stunned,
and they strike upon the aesthetic faculty in us with a splendour of poetry equal to the best of Francis Thompson and an immediacy of mystical perception more direct and concentrated than anything he could command.
A mystical immediacy akin to Thought the Paraclete’s in symbol-colour but directed towards a different end meets us in another quantitative experiment by Sri Aurobindo – Flame-Wind. Here too the mental imagination does not hold the seat of honour. It comes to the fore, however, in important places as interpreter, so that the bulk of the poetry which is constituted by an excitement of the occult and a smoulder of the psychic, with widening puissances blown into them from the overhead spiritual, is not quite removed from the accent of Thompson:
A flame-wind ran from the gold of the east,
Leaped on my soul with the breath of a sevenfold noon.
Wings of the angel, gallop of the beast!
Mind and body on fire, but the heart in swoon.
O flame, thou bringest the strength of the noon,
But where are the voices of morn and the stillness of eve?
Where the pale-blue wine of the moon?
Mind and life are in flower, but the heart must grieve.
Gold in the mind and the life-flame’s red
Make of the heavens a splendour, the earth a blaze.
But the white and rose of the heart are dead.
Flame-wind, pass! I will wait for Love in the silent ways.
The style here joins hands in some respects with such Thompson-utterances as
I said to Dawn: Be sudden — to Eve: Be soon;
With thy young skieyblossoms heap me over
From this tremendous Lover,
and the one about Nature:
Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky and show me
The breasts o’her tenderness.
Where it differs is essentially in a certain directness of the symbol: Thompson, for all his power and poignancies, gives the impression of trying to suggest the supernatural by similes and metaphors moulded from natural appearances, his images remain images, his “young skiey blossoms” and “blue bosom-veil of sky” are a figurative play of beautiful ideas whereas Sri Aurobindo’s “pale-blue wine of the moon” and his “white and rose of the heart” come as statements of actualities, bearing directly the concreteness of some occult, psychic or spiritual truth. This difference does not lie only in the particular phrases, it is focussed in them by the light and atmosphere of the entire poem, by the plane on which it moves. With a more simple economical beauty and energy than Thompson’s, the symbols of Sri Aurobindo take on a direct life, become themselves mystical states of being and consciousness instead of their hints and echoes. Thompson takes five lines to give us his Hound of Heaven:
Still with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbed pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet,
And a Voice above their beat —
five lines poetically necessary for building the constant mighty accumulating pursuit, but none of them has the sheer direct supernatural impetus of Sri Aurobindo’s
Wings of the angel, gallop of the beast!
It may be said that Thompson’s general meaning is more clear and in that sense his style is the more direct of the two. Yes, but the directness is not of the mystical species: it is nearer the intellect’s explanatory method. Sri Aurobindo is not devoid of that method; no poem of his is pure Dada, in fact no poem worth the name can abolish connection between its parts and dispense with being felt as a whole by the understanding. The intellect by itself may not be able to get the full “hang”, it must take the aid of the imagination, the visionary and the aesthetic powers; still, if the work has “form” it cannot be absolutely blank and chaotic in the impression made by its parts as well as by its totality on the intellect. The mind has many types of logic, it knows how to link section to section and embrace the linked sections as a single organic unit by means not always strictly argumentative a la Aristotle. It has also a Platonic dialectic, driven forward by pregnant analogies, suggestive similarities, picturesque parables in which the constructive artist with his harmonising eye and proportioning hand runs side by side with the abstract deducer. In poetry the Platonic dialectic keeps abstract deduction very much in the shade and develops the artistic sequence by devices not easily assimilable in prose: poetry often “argues” by alliteration and cadence, “clinches” by rhyme, at least by echo, and jumps from point to point by merging differences through metaphor and transferred epithet or even through transfigured punning. Its logic is more imaginative than intellectual, but logic it certainly has – a relation, a synthesis, a fusion, a unity.
In mystical poetry of the Aurobindonian order this logic goes further away from the intellectual method than in Thompsonian inspiration, and that extra distance is due to the planes from which Sri Aurobindo creates – planes of God-realisation held by his consciousness in their own substance and atmosphere instead of being reflected in normal human ignorance as happened with Thompson. Hence the mystical planes aremore direct in his work than in that Catholic poet’s and such a phenomenon makes for less kinship to intellectual directness since the contents of those planes are not quite like Nature and life as known to us, their behaviour is alien, their laws unexpected and the logic of their interconnection and harmony more difficult to grasp. However, it must be remembered that a greater mystical directness does not imply an inferiority in Sri Aurobindo’s intellect to Thompson’s: the intellect can be richer and mightier at the same time that one is more mystically direct but it will not deploy itself on its own level or cast its argumentative tendency on the poetic performance, it will surrender itself to the mystical consciousness and allow its resources and movements to be marshalled by that consciousness. Nor is the mystic’s distance from intellectual directness to be confused with the complicated density or obscurity resulting from a many-strained, multi-motioned play of the intellect as in Donn, Browning and sometimes Thompson. That distance consists simply in the revelation of secret presences and experiences straight from the hidden planes which are charged with the Superhuman and the Divine – the revelation that is carried to its closest and its widest by Sri Aurobindo in the still unfinished epic growing daily under his hand -Savitri.
Flame-Wind is a sort of half-way house between the mystical poetry of the past and the unique Aurobindonian afflatus. It is not an extreme example of the naked light of the occult, the psychic, the spiritual, and its meaning is brought out with a considerable degree of reliance on the mind’s ordinary method of speech. Its meaning, of course, is that Sri Aurobindo is for an integral union with the Divine, a wholeness fulfilling every part of him: he will not rest with a sudden dynamic realisation of the Spirit-seized mind ruling the body and driving the life-impulse with superhuman energy of thought and will, yet without those subtle delicate influences of the Divine that are received when the being is bent not only on God-knowing but also on God-loving, on playing the devotee and saint as well as the sage and prophet. This meaning, however, unfolds for all its reliance on the mind’s ordinary method of speech, less through a number of illustrative images concretising the ideas than through touches on our imagination from objects and beings belonging to other dimensions than the world from which a poet usually borrows his figures. The rhythm too has something of another space and time. All poetry imposes a new space and time on our world, mixing “unknown modes of being” with things that are familiar: that is why it is full of magic and mystery. Even a subtle fancy like Stephen Spender’s
Eye, gazelle, delicate wanderer,
Drinker of horizon’s fluid line
suggests a strange entity living in an uncommon world interpenetrating and exceeding the outward physical and even the inward mental to which we are accustomed, but neither the meaning nor the rhythm takes us deep into the mystical spheres that are contacted in their concrete substance and form by Sri Aurobindo’s poetry. That substance and form need not be always a definite symbol, a walking out into our midst by a hippogriff; it can just as well be a particular state of consciousness conveyed vividly by the impact of words plucked from the unknown and the deific, as in Sri Aurobindo’s phrase:
My soul unhorizoned widens to measureless sight.
Before speaking of the complete and sustained outburst of this style, with its “overhead” uniqueness in Savitri, it will perhaps not be out of place to look at a poem conveying the Yogic process of which a part is the coming down of the new inspiration from its spiritual altitudes. Descent is written in Sapphics, the only experiment in English comparable to those of Swinburne and John Aldington Symonds. The classical Sapphic quatrain has in three lines a spondee and a dactyl between a single trochee at the beginning and two at the end, while the fourth line is a dactyl followed by either a spondee or a trochee. Swinburne uses often a trochaic instead of a spondaic foot and introduces a few other minor variations here and there; Symonds does likewise but he mostly keeps a spondaic close in the last line. Sri Aurobindofollows Swinburne rather than Symonds, adding, however, the privilege of a more marked modulation anywhere of the dactyl in the first three lines by an anti-bacchius, cretic or molossus; at one place he substitutes their terminal trochee with a spondee and the dactyl of the last line with a cretic; at one or two points he employs elision to get his effect right. The values he ascribes to his syllables are, of course, quantitative according to the system illustrated at length in his hexameters. We have in Descent, therefore, not a strict imitation of the Greek pattern but a living response to it by English prosody without sacrificing the basic spirit and rhythm-movement of the original.
Over and above technical departures there is also one in the lyrical quality which demands notice. Swinburne and Symonds retain, almost throughout, Sappho’s poignant picturing tone, at once simple in expression and rich in sound-texture. Sri Aurobindo, though preserving the gorgeous-sounding yet clear-phrased power of Sappho, introduces in the poignancy and the picturisation another note which is due not alone to the theme and experience being different. Sappho was passionate in a piercingly human way of love; Sri Aurobindo the mystic and the Yogi has turned the cry of the heart towards the mystery of God, but this difference in the emotive trend need not diminish any essential warmth and indeed with an integral Yogi like Sri Aurobindo it does not; what is non-Sapphic in his verse is not the mysticising of the lyricism so much as on occasion a style that is Pindar rather than Sappho. A general Pindaresque atmosphere is not inconsistent with the Sapphic style: Pindar is intensely religious, a priest of the God’s when he is not intensely secular, a celebrant of games and feasts, but that is a matter of temperament and it can express itself in a style of severe douceur, of grave delicacy, as in Simonides among the Greeks and Wordsworth among the English and as in Sappho herself at certain moments when she is more the artist conscious of self-consecration to the divine Muse than the lover shaken by the human beauty of an Anactoria. The non-Sapphic element in Sri Aurobindo’s poem is not just the religious temperament of Pindar but something of the grandiose uplift and triumphant crash of sound that is in Pindar’s odes. Blended as it is with Sri Aurobindo’s usual self-mastery this magnitude and momentum goes free of the intricate violence of word and image accompanying it in Pindar, balancing it fearfully on the verge of the grotesque and the monstrous and even at times toppling it over. The best of Pindar’s style and Sappho’s is in Descent, coloured by a mystical experience of the “overhead” type:
All my cells thrill swept by a surge of splendour,
Soul and body stir with a mighty rapture,
Light and still more light like an ocean billows
Over me, round me.
Rigid, stone-like, fixed like a hill or statue,
Vast my body feels and upbears the world’s weight;
Dire the large descent of the Godhead enters Limbs that are mortal.
Voiceless, thronged, Infinity crowds upon me;
Presses down a glory of power eternal;
Mind and heart grow one with the cosmic wideness;
Still are earth’s murmurs.
Swiftly, swiftly crossing the golden spaces
Knowledge leaps, a torrent of rapid lightnings;
Thoughts that left the Ineffable’s flaming mansions
Blaze in my spirit.
Slow the heart beats rhythm like a giant hammer’s;
Missioned voices drive to me from God’s doorway
Words that live not save upon Nature’s summits,
All the world is changed to a single oneness;
Souls undying, infinite forces, meeting,
Join in God-dance weaving a seamless Nature,
Rhythm of the Deathless.
Mind and heart and body, one harp of being,
Cry that anthem, finding the notes eternal,
Light and might and bliss and immortal wisdom
Clasping for ever.
Read aloud, the poem shows a pervading overhead tone which forms an overwhelming mass in stanzas four and five. Their poetic quality is on a par with the two stanzas in Symonds’s translation, where Sappho’s crystalline keenness finds an English equivalent: hearing Anactoria “silverly” laughing Sappho’s heart quivers and her voice is hushed:
Yea, my tongue is broken and through me and through me
‘Neath the flesh palpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see my eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn
Caught by pains of menacing death I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.
If physical passion could have a mysticism of its own, it is well nigh here, rendering in terms of sensuality the Aurobindonian
Light and still more light like an ocean billows
Over me, round me.
The “roaring waves” in Sappho’s ear, which bring her the love-trance and afterwards the music whereon her experience floats through the ages, transfigure themselves on Sri Aurobindo’s plane into “a torrent of rapid lightnings” by which knowledge of the deathless Divine leaps on the human consciousness and by whose thronged and glittering invasion the revelatory speech of the overhead spiritual is born:
Missioned voices drive to me from God’s doorway
Words that live not save upon Nature’s summits,
These three lines make a most magnificent picture, Vedic and Upanishadic in its symbolism and the sound-strokes of the words leave reverberations that are mantric: the impulsion of the supreme Spirit is poetised in language and rhythm which are themselves received from the immense Overworld known to the ancient Rishis. They are the most apt and most inwardly representative summing-up possible of the afflatus that creates Sri Aurobindo’s Savitri and of the impression left by that afflatus on the sensitive reader.