menu bar top (10k)



 Nature Mysticism
in the writings of Traherne, Whitman, Jefferies and Krishnamurti

Part 2
April 1995


Contents of Part 2

4. Selected 'Nature Mystics'
4.1. Thomas Traherne
4.2. Walt Whitman
4.3. Richard Jefferies
References for Part 2

4. Selected 'Nature Mystics'

4.1. Thomas Traherne

James and Underhill were unaware of the work of Traherne, as his mystical writings were not discovered until long after his death in 1674. The earliest publication (of the 'Dobell' poems) was in 1903 and followed by a prose collection in 1908 known as the Centuries. Further poems (unfortunately heavily edited by Traherne's brother Philip) were discovered at the British Museum shortly after, and more works found in 1964 and 1967. Zaehner rightly points out consonances in Traherne's work with Jefferies, Whitman and the Zen Buddhists, but it is Happold who devotes a whole chapter to him in his Mysticism. He comments:

    Though Thomas Traherne cannot be numbered among the great mystics, he demands a place in any anthology of mysticism. Nowhere else does one find a similar fusion of nature-mysticism and Christo-mysticism as exquisitely balanced, so that both are essential parts of his consciousness, neither being complete without the other [26].

At first glance Traherne's work makes one think of James' 'healthy-minded' label; there is in his work a seemingly endless recitation of the joyfulness of his soul's simplicity and abundance, as reflected in and engendered by the abundance of creation. One has to search quite hard for the 'sick-soul' correlates. Traherne emphasises the innocence of childhood and speaks of his emergence from 'unbeing' to life and the delight in the treasures of the senses (in particular sight) and the sense that all belongs to him (and at the same time to all other men and women: in turn they are also his treasures). We are presented with a conundrum: how is that a grown man can speak so clearly of a childhood innocence and bliss, one that we all recognise, however dimly, yet earnestly maintain it to be his present, adult, reality? One possibility is that he was gifted with a quite extraordinary memory for the childhood state, and furthermore that he was quite precociously gifted with wisdom at that age. More likely, in the context of mysticism, is that he travelled the same road as all of us: the gradual loss of innocence into a worldly-wise adult, then followed by a 're-birth' of some kind into the mystical awareness. (Douglas Harding provides an excellent analysis of this journey
[27]; Ken Wilber also provides us with the concept of the pre-trans fallacy lest we confuse the pre-adult with the post-enlightenment stages.) This fits with James' 'twice-born' idea (and of course with the Indian equivalent, dwiji), but is quite at odds with the 'healthy-mindedness' of his prose and poetry. Let us look first at typical Traherne passages. Here are the first four verses of 'The Salutation', the opening poem of the Dobell collection (all selections from the Penguin edition [28]):


These little limbs,
These eyes and hands which here I find,
These rosy cheeks wherewith my life begins,
Where have ye been? Behind
What curtain were ye from me hid so long!
Where was, in what abyss, my speaking tongue?


When silent I,
So many thousand years,
Beneath the dust did in a chaos lie,
How could I smiles or tears,
Or lips or hands or eyes or ears perceive?
Welcome, ye treasures which I now receive.


I that so long
Was nothing from eternity,
Did little think such joys as ear or tongue,
To celebrate or see:
Such sounds to hear, such hands to feel, such feet,
Beneath the skies, on such a ground to meet.



New burnish'd joys!
Which yellow gold and pearl excel!
Such sacred treasures are the limbs in boys,
In which a soul doth dwell;
Their organized joints, and azure veins
More wealth include, than all the world contains.

These verses introduce many of Traherne's themes: that it is blessed to be born (quite at odds with mainstream Christianity's concept of original sin), that the sense organs themselves are treasures (reminiscent of some Upanishadic and Tantric themes and practices); and that the objects of those senses are also treasures. He concludes the poem with this verse:

A stranger here
Strange things doth meet, strange glories see;
Strange treasures lodg'd in this fair world appear;
Strange all, and new to me.
But that they mine should be, who nothing was,
That strangest is of all, yet brought to pass.

This verse brings out another oft-repeated theme: that all belongs to him. Leaving this point for a moment let us compare this extract to verse 5 of Wordsworth's 'Intimations of Immortality':

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
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 travels farther 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 [29].

There are some similarities (though we can be confident that Wordsworth would not have read Traherne): Wordsworth recognises the 'heaven that lies about us in our infancy' and the 'vision splendid'. But he is less optimistic: birth is a 'sleep and a forgetting'; the 'clouds of glory' that we trail have another origin than the wondrous world of the senses; and of course the 'shades of the prison-house' close in until the grown man sees his vision die away into 'the light of common day.' A closer look at Traherne's work does reveal however his own 'prison house.' In the Poems of Felicity collection the poems 'The Apostasy', 'Solitude', 'Poverty', and 'Dissatisfaction' show Traherne's 'fall' from his childhood state of innocence, trapped by what he calls 'custom', that is the ways of the (adult) world that value tinsel, lace and baubels above the stars, the light of the sun, and the air we breathe. In 'The Bible' and 'Christendom' we learn of his recovery and restoration to a state of grace.

As a nature mystic Traherne is not the purest example for two reasons. Despite the emphasis on the body and the senses, in particular sight, there is not that much description of Nature; stars and clouds feature, but streets, cities, and above all people count amongst his treasures. His love of creation rests on what is beyond creation, which is what we would expect to find in a nature mystic, but it is a Christian God and a Christian message that restores him to the innocence-in-adulthood that is the mark of the mystic.

Traherne shows us however a basic attribute that must be present in the nature mystic: an acceptance of the body, its sense-organs, and the divine nature of the world received through those senses when pure, that is freed from selfish desires. We cannot know with Traherne if he meets the tentative requirement postulated for a nature mystic at the beginning of this essay: is his mysticism triggered by Nature? He speaks of no specific mystical experiences, more of a continuum, and the attainment of this continuum only briefly hinted at through receiving the Gospel. If there is a Nature component in his mysticism, it is elemental in his case air and light, and it may be thanks to Mercer that we spot this at all. Perhaps Traherne's best prose on the subject is in the Meditations:

    By the very right of your senses you enjoy the world. Is it not the beauty of the hemisphere present to your sight? Is not the vision of the world an amiable thing? Do not the stars shed influences to perfect the air? Is not that a marvellous body to breathe in? To visit the lungs: repair the spirits: revive the senses: cool the blood: fill the empty spaces between the earth and heavens; and yet give liberty to all objects? Prize these first: and you shall enjoy the residue [30].

Prize these first: and you shall enjoy the residue! This could be Lao Tsu talking, though Traherne goes on to recommend a most un-Taoist insatiableness for life: 'It is the nobility of man's soul that he is insatiable'.

4.2. Walt Whitman

In contrast to Traherne, Whitman's world is devoid of Christianity or any religiosity as conventionally understood; in similarity to Traherne, Whitman's world is a divine treasure-house of which again he is the proprietor. I have made a long study of Whitman as mystic
[31] and will summarise this before dealing with nature mysticism in his work. We have seen that James complained of a cult growing up around Whitman, and of comparisons to Christ; Zaehner found him preposterous; and to many in his day he was an affront to Victorian values. Contemporary Western criticism of Whitman has become solely a literary affair, yet Whitman explicitly stated in Leaves of Grass that he intended to start a new religion [32], and this was taken seriously by many intelligent and sensitive contemporaries: perhaps it is America's greatest tragedy that Whitman was misunderstood and remembered merely as a poet.

There is not space here to defend this view in detail other than to point out the religious impact he had on people like R.M.Bucke, Anne Gilchrist, Edward Carpenter (an English social reformer and mystic), John Burroughs (a naturalist and one of Whitman's biographers) and Emerson. His personal magnetism and the power of Leaves affected people far and wide, including the unlikely figure of Bram Stoker. The confusion over Whitman lies in his deliberate obfuscation in Leaves: he confided to Carpenter that he had 'hidden his eggs in it like a furtive old hen'
[33]. It also lies in a Western audience largely unfamiliar at that time with Oriental mysticism, to which Whitman's work bears great resemblance, though no derivation. One only need to look at the work of three Indian scholars to recognise that Leaves easily takes its place alongside the Upanishads, the Vedas, and the Gita: O.K.Nambiar [34], V.K.Chari [35], and V.Sachitanandan [36] demonstrate this, and we also find corroboration in the works of Dorothy Mercer [37] and Romain Rolland [38].

The objections of Zaehner to Whitman can be dismissed on two ground I believe: firstly by lumping him with the Upanishads he does our argument a service, and secondly I don't believe that he had studied either Whitman's works or life closely enough. The second ground also applies to James, though we need to look more closely at his assumption of 'healthy-mindedness' in Whitman. (Underhill's assertion that Whitman was not a full-blown mystic is merely a matter of personal preference; no scholars' lists will ever agree on a definitive group of full-blown mystics.) It is fair to say the Leaves is optimistic on the whole, as is the work of Traherne, but it contains a sharp-eyed realism about the human condition as well (all the following extracts from Leaves are Jerome Loving's edition

    Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
    You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
    Out of the dark confinement! out from behind the screen!
    It is useless to protest, I know all and expose it.
    Behold through you as bad as the rest,
    Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
    inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash'd and trimm'd faces,
    Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.

    No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession, Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes, Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors, In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly, Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
    Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
    Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
    Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
    Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.

      (Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, v. 13)

How can one write about 'death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones' unless one has known it? And what a choice of words! Unlike with Traherne, we can draw on many contemporary accounts of Whitman to fill out our picture of him: the following passage is from Carpenter:

I have two portraits photographs which I am fond of comparing with each other. One is of Whitman, taken in 1890; the other, taken about the same time and at the same age (seventy years), is of an Indian Gnani or seer. Both are faces of the highest interest and import; but how different! That of Whitman deeply lined, bearing the marks of life-long passion and emotion; aggressive and determined, yet wistful and tender, full of suffering and full of love, indicating serenity, yet markedly turbid and clouded, ample in brow and frame and flowing hair, as of one touching and mingling with humanity at all points withal of a wonderful majesty and grandeur, as of the great rock (to return always to that simile) whose summit pierces at last the highest domain.

The other portrait, of a man equally aged, shows scarcely a line on the face; you might think for that and for the lithe, active form that he was not more than forty years old; a brow absolutely calm and unruffled, gracious, expressive lips, well-formed features, and eyes the dominant characteristic of his countenance dark and intense, and illuminated by the vision of the seer. In this face you discern command, control, gentleness, and the most absolute inward unity, serenity, and peace; no wandering emotions or passions flit across the crystal mirror of the soul; self-hood in any but the highest sense has vanished the self has, as it were, returned to its birthplace leaving behind the most childlike, single-hearted, uncensorious, fearless character imaginable.

Yet just here one seems to miss something in the last character the touch of human and earthly entanglement. Here is not exactly the great loving heart which goes a few steps on the way with every child of man; here is not the ample-domed brow which tackles each new problem of life and science. Notwithstanding evident signs of culture and experience in the past, notwithstanding vast powers of concentration in any given matter or affair when necessary, the face shows that the heart and intellect have become quiescent, that interest in the actual has passed or is passing away.

The impression of Whitman in this passage is born out by other contemporary accounts, but is also interesting in Carpenter's juxtaposition of two mystical types: the second being a fair account perhaps of an Indian sage like Ramana Maharshi. The passage also tells us the unique spiritual gifts that the West, and Whitman in particular, can bring to mysticism. The passage is also relevant to nature mysticism: a nature mystic cannot be one in which 'the interest in the actual has passed or is passing away.'

Leaves, despite its earthy nature, was carefully edited and re-edited by Whitman over a lifetime to its present state, and James' impression of it as optimistic is right. The assumption that this comes from an epitome of naive healthy-mindedness is unfounded, as Whitman's life shows, but even more so from what he left out of Leaves. I believe that he was acutely aware of the power of the written word, and that many things that we can allow ourselves to say to intimate persons cannot be left in print. A recent compilation of Whitman's discarded writings shows him capable of an extreme perversity, at least in Respondez! of which this is an extract:

    Let the theory of America still be management, cast, comparisons!
    (Say! what other theory would you?)
    Let them that distrust birth and death lead the rest!
    (Say! why shall they no lead you?)
    Let the world never appear to him or her for whom it was all made!
    Let the heart of the young man still exile itself from the heart of the old man! and let the heart of the old man be exiled from that of the young man!
    Let the sun and moon go! let the scenery take the applause of the audience! let there be apathy under the stars!
    Let freedom prove no man's inalienable right! every one who can tyrannize, let him tyrannize to his satisfaction!
    Let churches accommodate serpents, vermin, and the corpses of those who have died of the most filthy of diseases!
    Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for none but fools!
    Let men among themselves talk and think forever obscenely of women! and let women themselves talk and think obscenely of men!

This poem goes on in this vein. However, we may be in danger of focusing too much on this aspect of Whitman: this poem was probably intended to provoke a response from the reader to an inversion of all of Whitman's teachings, perhaps motivated in a downhearted moment by the generally indifferent reception from the American public of his time. In all events it was removed from Leaves.

Turning now to some similarities with Traherne, we notice the same delight in the mere fact of birth and the blessed gift of life, expressed for example in this poem:



    To the garden of the world anew descending,
    Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
    The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
    Curious here behold my resurrection after slumber,
    The revolving cycles in their wide sweep having brought me again,
    amorous, mature, all beautiful to me, all wondrous,
    My limbs and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons, most wondrous,
    Existing I peer and penetrate still,
    Content with the present, content with the past,
    By my side or back of me Eve following,
    Or in front, and I following her just the same.

Unlike Traherne he does not say that he comes from dust; unlike Wordsworth that he trails clouds of glory from his Maker, but he simply descends to the garden of the world, curious for life. Traherne's own phrase is 'insatiable': it is these expressions of the love of life that must make the basis of the nature mystic, the via positiva, and which make both Traherne and Whitman shocking to some conventional religiosity. We know in fact of Whitman's great love of Nature, not just from Leaves, but from contemporary accounts. What makes Whitman unique is that people, ordinary common folk, are to him an equal delight. Traherne shows this, but as with all his work, it is at a relatively abstract level from which we find it hard to construct the person: with Whitman his written expressions of the eagerness of his loving curiosity for the million or so inhabitants of Manhattan is born out by all contemporary accounts as a fact of his life. We build up a picture of a real person, rugged like a George Fox, and bold to meet any man or woman to gaze into their depths and contact them, essence to essence; in addition we find the Christ-like yearning to find those that can 'hear' him Whitman was a fisher of men. And of women: the reference to Eve in the above poem is not a one-off literary flourish, rather it is part of the fabric of all his writings and his life I know of no other man in the history of literature who so consistently included the woman as well as the man. As well as this determined symmetry between male and female Whitman insists on the same for body and soul:

    I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
    And you must not be abased to the other.

    ('Song of Myself', v. 5)

    Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
    Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
    Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
    Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
    Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
    Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
    Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.

    (Song Of Myself, v. 3)

Traherne is less dogmatic about body and soul: he may celebrate one at one time, but at another tells us that without the other all is worthless. Wordsworth, as most other poets of a mystical inclination, is also less inclined to be as determinedly even-handed as Whitman.

What though does Whitman contribute to our delineation of a nature mysticism? In Leaves, Whitman's celebration is so comprehensive, and so inclusive of man's arts and industries, that Nature, in the modern sense of it being in opposition to industrial and urban life, does not stand out. It is a comment of his to R.M.Bucke (his other chief contemporary biographer) that gives us an interesting insight into his attitude to writing on Nature (Bucke had suggested writing about a magnificent waterfall):

    "All such things need to be at least the third or fourth remove; in itself it would be too much for nine out of ten readers. Very few care for natural objects themselves, rocks, rain, hail, wild animals, tangled forests, weeds, mud, common Nature. They want her in a shape fit for reading about in a rocking-chair, or as ornaments in china, marble or bronze. The real things are, far more than they would own, disgusting, revolting to them." Whitman adds: "This may be a reason of the dislike of Leaves of Grass by the majority." [42]

In Leaves the descriptions of nature are often in the form of lists, but effective in spite of that. There is a prose description in Specimen Days that perhaps comes closest to telling us how Whitman really sees nature:

    1 September: I should not take either the biggest or the most picturesque tree to illustrate it. Here is one of my favorite now before me, a fine yellow poplar, quite straight, perhaps ninety feet high, and four feet thick at the butt. How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing. How it rebukes by its tough and equable serenity in all weathers, this gusty-tempered little whiffet, man, that runs indoors at a mite of rain or snow. Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don't, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get. ('Cut this out,' as the quack mediciners say, and keep by you.) Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of these voiceless companions and read the foregoing, and think.

    One lesson from affiliating a tree perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherencey, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude towards each other, (even towards ourselves,) than morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage humanity's invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.) [43]

Part of this passage is quoted in Mercer's Nature Mysticism. Whitman gives us another glimpse of how he related to trees in the following passage:

    10 - 13 October [1881]: I spend a good deal of time on the Common, these delicious days and nights every mid-day from 11.30 to about 1 and almost every sunset another hour. I know all the big trees, especially the old elms along Tremont and Beacon streets, and have come to a sociable-silent understanding with most of them, in the sunlit air, (yet crispy-cool enough), as I saunter along the wide unpaved walks. Up and down this breadth by Beacon street, between these same old elms, I walk'd for two hours, of a bright sharp February mid-day twenty-one years ago, with Emerson, then in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm'd at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual [44].

It was an endless pleasure for Whitman to simply be in nature, spending time in the countryside, enjoying the ordinary as much as any spectacular scenes like canyons or great waterfalls or brilliant sunsets. Bucke saw that natural things gave Whitman a pleasure that ordinary people never experience, and credited him with above-average hearing and sense of smell (though this is probably unlikely: Whitman may have just been more alert to his sensations). Whitman's opinion of Thoreau (whom he knew) was interesting: he suspected that the romantic view of nature expressed in Thoreau's Walden and in his life was not so much from 'a love of woods, streams, and hills, ... as from a morbid dislike of humanity. I remember Thoreau saying once, when walking with him in my favorite Brooklyn "What is there in the people? What do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?"' This is echoed in a passage from Thoreau himself:

    "I walk towards one of our ponds, but what signifies the beauty of Nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them." [45]

Whitman then is perhaps unusual in his love of nature as an encompassing love, not a turning away from the human and man-made. 'The Lesson of a Tree' is telling us how to let nature instruct us in our human sphere, and in the foundations of our being; it is teaching us a sobriety, a willingness to allow the important things to mature at their own mysterious pace, and not to apply the modern haste to our foundations. Beyond this lesson, and it is fundamental to Whitman's teachings I think, there is also the sheer exuberant delight in nature, and also an almost painful wonder at it:

    As I have walk'd in Alabama my morning walk,
    I have seen where the she-bird the mocking-bird sat on her nest in the briers hatching her brood.
    I have seen the he-bird also,
    I have paus'd to hear him at hand inflating his throat and joyfully singing.
    And while I paus'd it came to me that what he really sang for was not there only,
    Not for his mate nor himself only, nor all sent back by the echoes,
    but subtle, clandestine, away beyond,
    A charge transmitted and gift occult for those being born.

    ('Starting from Paumanok' v. 11)

Whitman's mysticism is too broad, too Vedantic, to be confined to nature mysticism, though our understanding of it greatly increased by him. It is Jefferies however for whom the epithet 'nature mystic' may have been invented.

4.3. Richard Jefferies

Richard Jefferies was a contemporary of Whitman, though born in 1848 when Whitman was already thirty-one; he died young, five years before Whitman, in 1887. He was born in England, the son of a farmer struggling against the industrial age, and was a journalist and writer by profession, much as Whitman. That he is considered as a mystic is due to his book The Story of My Heart [46], which was published in 1883. The Story of My Heart is as unique and different from the rest of the world's mystical literature as the Tao Teh Ching, or Leaves of Grass at times there is an extraordinary parallel with Whitman, and at other times he seems to say the opposite. Jefferies' love of nature runs along the same stream as Whitman's thoughts in 'The Lesson of a Tree', only he describes his raptures at greater length, and in terms of the empowering of his 'soul life'. Again and again he describes how he seeks solitary moments away from his family and work, and climbs a local hill, or seeks the sea, and strides across the human-remote countryside or beach in order to wrest the nourishment for his soul-life from nature; or he lies under a tree or by a brook and stares up at the sky and lets it fill him. His book is a careful prose, and in great contrast to Whitman's free verse, but he sings of nature, and, oddly for a Victorian Englishman, the body too:

    There came to me a delicate, but at the same time a deep, strong and sensuous enjoyment of the beautiful green earth, the beautiful sky and sun; I felt them, they gave me inexpressible delight, as if they embraced and poured out their love upon me. It was I who loved them, for my heart was broader than the earth; it is broader now than even then, more thirsty and desirous. After the sensuous enjoyment always come the thought, the desire: That I might be like this; that I might have the inner meaning of the sun, the light, the earth, the trees and grass, translated into some growth of excellence in myself, both of the body and of mind; greater perfection of physique, greater perfection of mind and soul; that I might be higher in myself [47].

For Jefferies his mysticism is one of longing, a desire that he calls his 'single thought' or prayer, and the beauty of nature raises it to the highest degree. Unlike those that run away from the human to nature, Jefferies finds the human body to be the sum of all beauty in nature:

    Not only in grass fields with green leaf and running brook did this constant desire find renewal. More deeply still with living human beauty; the perfection of form, the simple fact of forms, ravished and always will ravish me away. In this lies the outcome and end of all the loveliness of sunshine and green leaf, of flowers, pure water and sweet air. This is embodiment and highest expression; the scattered, uncertain, and designless loveliness of tree and sunshine brought to shape. Through this beauty I prayed deepest and longest, and down to this hour. The shape the divine idea of that shape the swelling muscle or the dreamy limb, strong sinew or curve of bust, Aphrodite or Hercules, it is the same. That I may have the soul-life, the soul-nature, let the divine beauty bring to me divine soul. Swart Nubian, white Greek, delicate Italian, massive Scandinavian, in all the exquisite pleasure the form gave, and gives, to me immediately becomes intense prayer [48].

If Whitman can bring one to walk down the street looking at people that pass one in a new way a kind of curious touch to each person then Jefferies can cause one to see in them the distillation of sun, rain, and air on trees and their 'designless loveliness'; a new gift to us.

Where Whitman is at pains to praise the body and the soul equally, letting neither 'abase' itself before the other, Jefferies is quite sure that the soul is higher, more important, and that the soul or the spirit is entirely lacking in nature, in the rocks, trees and sky, where Whitman sees 'God's handkerchief' dropped at every corner. Jefferies goes further: he comments on the immense inhospitability of nature, the very sun that sends him into raptures burns and kills, the very sea is an undrinkable poison. It is a baffling contrast to Whitman at first, and is not easily resolvable; however we can leave it for now as a mark of the genuine expression of a mystic: that it is unique, and will not agree with another's tale of the ultimate. We can also find references in his book to having lived a hard life; one has the impression that he was as poor as Whitman, and as unpractised in economics, but his situation was worse, for he had a wife and children to support. The sheer hardness of extracting a living in Victorian England for a man so averse to the material spirit of that age may have found expression in his views on the in-humanness of nature: he even mentions all the hideous sea creatures, and finds dogs and horses alien to him. Yet his soul is never so uplifted as under a tree! Or by the sky or sea; rarely can you find such an extensive and sensitive relaying of a rapture with nature.

He was at a loss to the human bustle and apparent purposelessness of the great throng of people viewed from the steps of the Royal Exchange in Victorian London, and railed against the work-ethic that prevented people from having time to reflect and be with nature (he shared this with both Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau).

Jefferies presents us with contradictions so much the better! But in his attitude to the eternal, he is quite classical in his discoveries, and unusually honest in admitting that he doesn't know what happens after death. He knows that this moment is eternal however; he is not worried that death may dissolve him completely, body and soul, for all of that is not now. In the following passage he is lying on the grass by a tumulus, the burial-place of a warrior of some two thousand years previous:

    Realising that spirit, recognising my own inner consciousness, the psyche, so clearly, I cannot understand time. It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it. The years, the centuries, the cycles are absolutely nothing; it is only a moment since this tumulus was raised; in a thousand years more it will still be only a moment. To the soul there is no past and no future; all is and will be ever, in now. For artificial purposes time is mutually agreed on, but there is really no such thing. The shadow goes on upon the dial, the index moves round upon the clock, and what is the difference? None whatever. If the clock had never been set going, what would have been the difference? There may be time for the clock, the clock may make time for itself; there is none for me.

    I dip my hand in the brook and feel the stream; in an instant the particles of water which first touched me have floated yards down the current, my hand remains there. I take my hand away, and the flow the time of the brook does not exist for me. The great clock of the firmament, the sun and the stars, the crescent moon, the earth circling two thousand times, is no more to me than the flow of the brook when my hand is withdrawn; my soul has never been, and never can be, dipped in time [49].

(This last sentence alone puts him on an equal footing with the Buddha!) Jefferies shares Whitman's easy dismissal of all past religion; he does not make a big thing about it, but perhaps goes even further than Whitman in finding no consonance whatsoever between any previous writings and his experience. As a journalist, and one who spent time in the British Library, he would had access to Eckhart or The Cloud of Unknowing, or other mystical works; but perhaps the Christian language of these hid the similarities with his experience. We are probably better off that he had to struggle to find his own words; perhaps the only one he uses that we might recognise is the word 'prayer', and he only uses it for lack of something better. Jefferies' book is as explicit as Whitman's is implicit, yet there is not the slightest hint that Jefferies saw himself as a teacher, perhaps making the book an added delight.

Zaehner makes a sensitive analysis of Jefferies, but prefaces it with a reminder that nature mystics may be easily led to describe their experiences in terms of God (Jefferies does not in fact) though '"'God' here is clearly not the God of the Bible but the pantheistic God against which Protestant Christians instinctively react"
[50]. To a non-Christian this is a baffling statement no matter how often it is repeated or explained; equally baffling is Zaehner's attempt to distinguish Jefferies' Nature from that of the scientists, the one imaginary and the other somehow 'real'. For a Catholic to find that science's view of Nature contradicts Jefferies, rather than complements it, is absurd: does he seriously believe then that by the same token science does not contradict Catholicism? Yet Zaehner needed to find a resolution between Jefferies raptures and his pessimism and this was his solution.

Happold includes a chapter on Jefferies in his Mysticism and introduces it with the comment that Jefferies combined nature-mysticism with soul-mysticism (the latter being the equivalent of Zaehner's monistic mysticism, or jnani in Indian thought)
[51]. Happold also makes the comment that had Jefferies been acquainted 'with the wide stream of mystical tradition, he would doubtless have written differently'. As pointed out earlier he had the opportunity, and we simply do not know whether he deliberately avoided reading and referring to them, as in the case of Krishnamurti. However Happold also agrees that we are the richer for it!

Jefferies' active and almost aggressive search through Nature is paralleled in some way by that of Thoreau. The picture we have of Traherne and Whitman is that of a passive almost indolent enjoyment of Nature; Whitman, though always keen to be out of doors in a field, wood, or mountain, is never searching. Thoreau in contrast would stride for hours through the woods and fields of Concord: Reginald Lansing Cook in his interesting analysis of Thoreau as nature mystics says this of him:

    He realised that it was wise to be outdoors early and late, travelling far and earnestly in order to recreate the whole body and to perceive the phenomena of the day. There was no way of knowing when something might turn up. He had noticed that when he thought his walk was profitless or a failure, it was then usually on the point of success, "for then," he surmised, "you are that subdued and knocking mood to which Nature never fails to open." One late August day, in 1851, when it appeared to him that he had walked all day in vain and the world, including field and wood as highway, had seemed trivial, then, with the dropping of sun and wind, he caught the reflex of the day the dews purifying the day and making it transparent, the lakes a rivers acquiring "a glassy stillness, reflecting the skies." His attitude changed, and he took what Keats called "the journey homeward to habitual self." He exulted in the fact that he was at the top of his condition for perceiving beauty [52].

Read Part 3 in HTML format
34k text


References for Part 2

[26] Happold, F.C. Mysticism - a Study and and Anthology, Penguin Books, London, 1970, p. 367
[27] see for example Harding, D.E. On Having No Head - Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, London: Arkana, 1986
[28] Traherne, Thomas, Selected Poems and Prose, London: Penguin, 1991
[29] Wordsworth, William, 'The Prelude' in Poetical Works, Oxford University Press, 1990, verses 356 - 380, p. 460
[30] Traherne, Thomas, Selected Poems and Prose, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 194
[31] King, Mike, Krishna, Whitman, Nietzsche, Sartre Essays in Applied Mysticism, unpublished.
[32] Whitman, W. Leaves of Grass, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1990, 'Starting From Paumanok', vs. 7 and 8.
[33] Carpenter, Edward, Days with Walt Whitman, London: George Allen, 1906, p. 43
[34] Nambiar, O.K. Maha Yogi: Walt Whitman - New Light on Yoga, Bangalore: Jeevan Publications, 1978
[35] Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1976
[36] Sachitanandan, V. Whitman and Bharati: A Comparative Study, Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras: The MacMillan Company of India Ltd., 1978
[37] for example Mercer Dorothy, 'Walt Whitman on Reincarnation' in Vedanta and The West, IX Nov/Dec 1946
[38] Rolland, Romain, Prophets of the New India, London, Toronto, Melbource, Sidney: Cassell and Co., 1930, p.273
[39] Whitman, W. Leaves of Grass, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1990
[40] Carpenter, Edward, Days with Walt Whitman, London: George Allen, 1906, p. 49
[41] Abrams, Sam, The Neglected Walt Whitman: Vital Texts, New York, London: Four Walls Eight Windows 1993, p. 60
[42] Bucke, R.M. Walt Whitman, Philadelphia, 1883, p. 61
[43] Whitman, Walt, Specimen Days, London: The Folio Society, 1979, p. 118
[44] Whitman, Walt, Specimen Days, London: The Folio Society, 1979, p. 240
[45] Thoreau, Henry, Walden and Other Writings, Bantam, 1962, p. 16
[46] Jefferies, R. The Story of My Heart, MacMillan St Martin's Press, London 1968
[47] Jefferies, R. The Story of My Heart, MacMillan St Martin's Press, London 1968, p. 56
[48] Jefferies, R. The Story of My Heart, MacMillan St Martin's Press, London 1968, p. 17
[49] Jefferies, R. The Story of My Heart, MacMillan St Martin's Press, London 1968, p. 30
[50] Zaehner, R.C. Drugs, Mysticism and Make-Believe, Collins, London 1972, p. 50
[51] Happold, F.C. Mysticism - a Study and and Anthology, Penguin Books, London, 1970, p. 384
[52] Cook, Reginald Lansing, 'The Nature Mysticism of Thoreau' in The Concord Saunterer, Middlebury, Vermont: Middlebury College Press, 1940, p.9


menu bar bottom (10k)