The Mystic Poet. Where does he go to?

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on January 21, 2011 at 9:33 AM


The Mystic Poet. What does he hope for? And what does he hope for us: to go

           “Down the passage which we did not take

            Towards the door we never opened

            Into the rose-garden” ?


       And once in the rose-garden what would we find there - the laughter of children, as TS Eliot would have it?


        There is no doubt that though Eliot was Roman Catholic he had a certain empathy with Buddhism. The Four Quartets are interwoven with the influence of its teachings. But where does this get us as poets and readers of mystic poetry? Is the mystic poet bound to fail in his attempt to describe the ineffable? In Burnt Norton Eliot is obsessed with the concept of Time. The mystic’s moments of enlightenment, if they have any reality at all, take place outside the parameters of Time. This is what the mystic would claim. But he’s immediately in trouble when he tries to express it. Plain language will not do. His best chance is metaphor – the children’s laughter in the rose-garden – a trinity of joy, purity and beauty.

           The mystic poet attempts to rationalise those out-of-the-world experiences which give rise to what the Sufi prefers to call: glimpses of eternity, a union with the undiscribable while still on earth. And for once science is on his side. Supposing the rose-garden is to be entered through the ‘door we never opened’’; in fact one of the eleven dimensions scientists are now telling us need to exist in order to rationalise the exotic world of particle physics; one of the infinite number of parallel universes mathematicians proselytise to unbelievers.

            Supposing the mystic is somehow able to slip in and out of these universes just as the electron appears to do. To be in two places at the same time. If electrons belonging to the atoms of the mystic’s flesh can do it, then why not the mystic ? But how might that work exactly ? What follows is one poet’s conception of Time which may or may not help to explain how the mystic poet might actually be on to something.

            There is a notion that our experience of what we perceive to be reality comprises of a succession of timeless moments. This stands or falls on the premise that Time is nothing more than a necessary function of the human brain, a way of measuring change. It would not therefore be a Platonic Absolute existing in a self-sufficient state. What we can safely say about Time is that it is a necessary constituent of our experience of the natural world. All mass develops and ages, even if not always apparent - mountains for instance. The idea of Time depends on the awareness of procession. The practical needs of our existence demand it. The instant that one state becomes another Time is manifest.

              Within the parameters of human experience Time would seem to be ever-progressing so that there can be no knowledge of anything which does not change. That which we claim in everyday speech to be the present can in fact only be the past recalled. There is always a time delay between the recording of sense data and its receipt and acknowledgement by the brain. The reverberations of the first stroke of a clock at midnight arrive in the mind after the event. It takes time for neurons to deliver the impulse of message. When the brain is aware of midnight, the bell hammer is already coming to rest ready to strike again.

               There is also a similar visual delay. When we see the bell struck we are looking at the past, exactly as we look at a sun which we know to be already eight minutes older than as we see it. No one disputes this. Because the cogs of the brain take time to turn we can never experience the instant. For practical purposes this is rarely, if ever, a problem of course.

               However, if Time is ever-progressing there would appear to be no place for the present, all existence being a state of flux. From this one might deduce that everything that is, whether matter or thought, develops and at no point stands still long enough to come into existence. To postulate that matter exists in a changing or evolving state is a contraction in terms. To ‘be’ implies immobility, a steady state or stasis where nothing is happening. To say that something ‘is’ is not to say that it ‘is becoming’. The atom cannot exist in a state of becoming. It either is or it isn’t. It cannot ‘become’ in and out of being. To argue that everything we know exists in a state of becoming is therefore to say that nothing exists at all.

              Matter not only exists but, from the point of its self-creation some 14 billion years ago, it changes from moment to moment, and thereby hangs the nub of the argument. Change implies a difference between one state and another but these states of non-change or is-ness must exist for matter to come into being. Within them there can be no progression. It follows then that, if there is no change of state, these states must be outside of Time, the concept of Time being completely reliant on the acknowledgement of change or variation.

               Furthermore, it can be said that these changeless, timeless states are states of presence which we loosely call ‘now’. And each now moment must create and destroy itself before another can exist subtly at variance to its predecessor. The fact that each has a successor and predecessor implies time passing. Therefore, if change is the acknowledged difference between ‘now’ moment and another ‘now’ moment then change implies a progression of states of creation

at such speed that the slowness of the human brain can only record procession. The difference from one state from another creates the concept of time passing.

              Analogous to this is the movie film: a rapid succession of coherently different stills which deceives the brain so that it registers motion. The still is timeless because within the still there is no change, nothing happens: “the still point of the turning world”(Burnt Norton). Each succeeding still captures a similar scene but slightly changed from its predecessor. When the reel of film is run, the brain cannot register each still individually because the information comes too fast. It notes only the aggregate of the many changes. The stills do not change themselves, they arrive in a changed state. This is to say that existence cannot be and become in the same moment. It cannot ‘be’ becoming. It cannot ‘become’ being.


              This further leads to the apparently absurd conclusion that the past and future never have and never will exist: the past being now moments recalled, and the future an expectation of now moments based on a knowledge of those already experienced. But within this deduction there lies a paradox, for though these moments of constant state presence must be outside of Time, they also have a beginning and an end experienced in Time; or to put it another way - within the celluloid adhesions between each still . Eliot describes it thus in the Four Quartets:

"To be conscious is not to be in Time

But only in Time can the moment in the rose garden

The moment in the arbour where the rain beat,

The moment in the draughty church at smokefall

Be remembered; involved with past and future."

             We cannot imagine what coheres these now moments (that is, the celluloid as it were) but because it appears to exist ulterior to earth time, it is where the mystic presumes himself to be in moments of enlightenment  The Buddhist monk’s Nirvana perhaps. Somehow his consciousness (for he is aware and remembers) locks on to this changeless state, this

“ . . . abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation”.

              Among the first words of the Four Quartets Eliot concludes,

"But to what purpose

Disturbing the dust on the bowl of rose-leaves

I do not know."

             and despite all that follows in East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding he fails to get beyond this statement of ignorance, an ignorance utterly accepted by our Buddhist monk who has no truck with theogonies or doctrines of martyrdom and redemption.

            As a poet living in the shortening half of his life I can honestly say that I have never experienced moments of enlightenment. I have never been in the rose-garden. But I am prepared to accept that others have; and what is so fascinating about the times we live in is that the science may hold the key to a rational explanation. If a scientist can discover exactly where the electron goes when it makes its legendary leap out of existence, and then back again, he may have the answer ? For perhaps where the electron goes, the mystic follows.

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Reply Peter Kay
9:12 AM on August 3, 2011 
Mr Humphreys and Mystic verse: Watch Out, Mayfly!

Mr Humpheys has here an erudite monograph that invites refutation.
Mr Humphreys opens his argument by considering the work of T.S. Eliot and asserting, ?There is no doubt that?Eliot was Roman Catholic?? Well, yes, there is more than doubt because Eliot was not Roman Catholic. He was Anglo-Catholic, and that is not the same thing at all. To labour the point may seem otiose as Mr Humphreys passes quickly on to Buddhism, but the initial wrongness, its contiguousness to the reality, is demonstrably pars pro toto of the piece.
?Is the mystic poet bound to fail in his attempt to describe the ineffable?? is interesting and revealing wording. Mr Humphreys has not asked of an attempt ?to word the ineffable? as such a logical impossibility would render further discussion futile. His choice of ?describe? allows him to take his argument to a further stage by stepping to the side of the issue. The point that needs to be addressed is how what Mr Humphreys calls ?the ineffable? stands in relation to the words of those Mr Humphreys calls ?mystic poets?. But no: as with the initial mis-categorisation, Mr Humphreys is, once more, beside the point.
Surprisingly, having written, and, one senses, with a tone of disapproval, that Eliot is ?obsessed with time? (why not ?inspired by time??) Mr Humphreys now disappears into nine paragraphs of abstract speculation on the nature of?er,?time. Erudition here is worn lightly but is, again, wholly to the side of the issue.
In his close, Mr Humphreys does return to the subject of mystic poetry (so, in his end is his beginning) and reveals why his piece has taken this eccentric diversion: ?I have never experienced moments of enlightenment. I have never been in the rose garden.? Ah, now we see. Having asked initially whether a writer can by any means convey a sense of timelessness, Mr Humphreys now reveals that writers may have been doing so all over the place for centuries for all he knows but he would not be aware of their achievements even if they had grown teeth and bitten him on the bum. That is why he has stepped aside and written about something else for most of the article.
No, Mr Humphreys, if you have been to San Jose, you do not need to ask the way. But, if you have not been there, you will not find it by discussing the principles of cartography.
Marvell?s lines are the test:

Annihilating all that?s made
To a green Thought in a green shade.

To risk the cliché, either you get it or you don?t. Mr Humphreys admits that he doesn?t and so has happily used a microscope to look for the smell of hay.
One knows the saying ?killing to dissect?. If ?the timeless moment? is like a mayfly, a thing of brief but intense life, seen by few but attestably there, then Mr Humphreys has decided to search for the elusive beauty armed with a heavy club of reason. Watch out, mayfly!
Reply Nigel Humphreys
6:58 AM on January 22, 2011 
Niel Humphreys says...
Hmmm... poetry and quantum physics, talk about unusual bedmates. Fascinating stuff though, I wonder what Prof Brian Cox would make of this.

Thank Niel. Brian Cox is yet another in a long line of BBC mayfly pundits on a massive ego trip more fascinated by the corona of new quasi-celebrity status than his own subject. I find him intensely irritating to watch. When are they going to change his nappies? He'll be a white dwarf by next year like the others.
Reply Niel Humphreys
2:45 PM on January 21, 2011 
Hmmm... poetry and quantum physics, talk about unusual bedmates. Fascinating stuff though, I wonder what Prof Brian Cox would make of this.