The poets are the seers of the race. Their best work comes from the intuitional heights where they dwell, conveying truths beyond reason, not understood even by themselves but merely transmitted through them. They are the few tall pines towering above the common forest to that extraordinary exaltation where they catch the earliest and latest sunbeams which prolong their day far beyond the limits below, and penetrating into the rare upper currents whose whisperings seldom descend to the crowd.
However diverse the forms of their expression, the heart of it is thoroughly harmonious. They are always prophets voicing a divine message received in the mount, and in these modern days they are almost the only prophets we have. Therefore it is not a mere pleasantry to collect their testimony upon an unusual theme. When it is found that, though working independently, they are in deep accord upon Reincarnation, the inevitable conclusion is that their common inspiration means something — namely that their gospel is worth receiving.
It may be objected that these poems are merely dreamy effusions along the same line of lunacy, with no real attachment to the solid foundations upon which all wholesome poetry is based; that they are kinks in the intellects of genius displaying the weakness of men otherwise strong. But so universal a feeling cannot be disposed of in that way, especially when it is found to contribute to the solution of life’s mystery. All the poets believe in immortality though unaided reason and observation cannot demonstrate it. Some inexperienced people deride the fact that nearly all poetry centres upon the theme of Love — the most illogical and airy of sentiments. But the deepest sense of the world is nourished by the certainty of these “vague” truths. So the presence of Reincarnation in the creed of the poets may give us courage to confide in our own impressions, for “all men are poets at heart.” What they have dared publish we may venture to believe and will find a source of strength.
It is well known that the idea of reincarnation abounds in Oriental poetry. But as our purpose is to demonstrate the prevalence of the same thought among our own poets, most of whom are wholly independent of Eastern influence, we shall confine our attention to the spontaneous utterances of American and European poets. We shall find that the great majority of the highest Occidental poets lean toward this thought, and many of them unhesitatingly avow it.
Our study will extend through four parts.
I. American Poets.
II. English Poets.
III. Continental Poets.
IV. Platonic Poets.
If any readers are familiar with other poetic expressions of reincarnation we would be obliged to them if they will kindly communicate the information to us.
Part I. Reincarnation in American Poetry
While sauntering through the crowded street
Some half-remembered face I meet,
Albeit upon no mortal shore
That face, methinks, hath smiled before.
Lost in a gay and festal throng
I tremble at some tender song
Set to an air whose golden bars
I must have heard in other stars.
In sacred aisles I pause to share
The blessing of a priestly prayer,
When the whole scene which greets mine eyes
In some strange mode I recognize.
As one whose every mystic part
I feel prefigured in my heart.
At sunset as I calmly stand
A stranger on an alien strand
Familiar as my childhood’s home
Seems the long stretch of wave and foam.
A ship sails toward me o’er the bay
And what she comes to do and say
I can foretell. A prescient lore
Springs from some life outlived of yore.
O swift, instructive, startling gleams
Of deep soul-knowledge: not as dreams
For aye ye vaguely dawn and die,
But oft with lightning certainty
Pierce through the dark oblivious brain
To make old thoughts and memories plain:
Thoughts which perchance must travel back
Across the wild bewildering track
Of countless aeons; memories far
High reaching as yon pallid star.
Unknown, scarce seen, whose flickering grace
Faints on the outmost rings of space.
—PAUL HAMILTON HAYNE.
The river hemmed with leaving trees
Wound through the meadows green,
A low blue line of mountain showed
The open pines betweenOne sharp tall peak above them all
Clear into sunlight sprang,
I saw the river of my dreams
The mountain that I sang.
No clue of memory led me on
But well the ways I knew,
A feeling of familiar things
With every footstep grew.
Yet ne’er before that river’s rim
Was pressed by feet of mine.
Never before mine eyes had crossed
That broken mountain line.
A presence strange at once and known
Walked with me as my guide,
The skirts of some forgotten life
Trailed noiseless at my side.
Was it a dim-remembered dream
Or glimpse through aeons old?
The secret which the mountains kept
The river never told.
—J. G. WHITTIER.
From “The Metempsychosis of the Pine”
As when the haze of some wan moonlight makes
Familiar fields a land of mystery,
Where, chill and strange, a ghostly presence wakes
In flower or bush or tree,Another life, the life of day o’erwhelms
The past from present consciousness takes hue
As we remember vast and cloudy realms
Our feet have wandered through:
So, oft, some moonlight of the mind makes dumb
The stir of outer thought: wide open seems
The gate where through strange sympathies have come
The secret of our dreams;
The source of fine impressions, shooting deep
Below the falling plummet of the sense
Which strike beyond all Time and backward sweep
Through all intelligence.
We touch the lower life of beast and clod
And the long process of the ages see
From blind old Chaos, ere the breath of God
Moved it to harmony.
All outward vision yields to that within
Whereof nor creed nor canon holds the key;
We only feel that we have ever been
And evermore shall be.
And thus I know by memories unfurled
In rarer moods and many a subtle sign,
That at one time and somewhere in the world
I was a towering pine.
The Poet in the East
The poet came to the land of the Fast
When spring was in the air,
The East was dressed for a wedding feast
So young she seemed and fair
And the poet knew the land of the East
His soul was native there.All things to him were the visible forms
Of early and precious dreams
Familiar visions that mocked his quest
Beside the western streams
Or gleamed in the gold of the clouds unrolled
In the sunset’s dying beams.
I know my own creation was divine.
Strewn on the breezy continents I see
The veined shells and burnished scales which once
Enclosed my being — husks that I had.
I brood on all the shapes I must attain
Before I reach the perfect, which is God.
For I am of the mountains and the sea
The deserts and the caverns in the earth
The catacombs and fragments of old worlds.
I was a spirit on the mountain tops,
A perfume in the valleys, a nomadic wind
Roaming the universe, a tireless voice.
I was ere Romulus and Remus were;
I was ere Nineveh and Babylon.
I was and am and evermore shall be
Progressing, never reaching to the end.
A hundred years I trembled in the grass
The delicate trefoil that muffled warm
A slope on Ida; for a hundred years
Moved in the purple gyre of those dark flowers
The Grecian woman strew upon the dead.
Under the earth in fragrant glooms I dwelt,
Then in the veins and sinews of a pine
On a lone isle, where from the Cyclades
A mighty wind like a leviathan
Ploughed through the brine and from those solitudes
Sent silence frightened.
A century was as a single day.
What is a clay to an immortal soul?
A breath, no more. And yet I hold one hour
Beyond all price, — that hour when from the sky
A bird, I circled nearer to the earth
Nearer and nearer till I brushed my wings
Against the pointed chestnuts, where a stream
Leapt headlong down a precipice; and there
Gathering wild flowers in the cool ravine
Wandered a woman more divinely shaped
Than any of the creatures of the air.
I charmed her thought. I sang and gave her dreams,
Then nestled in her bosom. There I slept
From morn to noon, while in her eyes a thought
Grew sweet and sweeter, deepening like the dawn.
One autumn night I gave a quick low cry
As infants do: we weep when we are born,
Not when we die: and thus came I here
To walk the earth and wear the form of man,
To suffer bravely as becomes my state,
One step, one grade, one cycle nearer God.
—T. B. ALDRICH.
One Thousand Years Ago
Thou and I in spirit land
One thousand years ago,
Watched the waves beat on the strand:
Ceaseless ebb and flow,
Vowed to love and ever love,
One thousand years ago.Thou and I in greenwood shade
Nine hundred years ago
Heard the wild dove in the glade
Murmuring soft and low,
Vowed to love for evermore
Nine hundred years ago.
Thou and I in yonder star
Eight hundred years ago
Saw strange forms of light afar
In wildest beauty glow.
All things change, but love endures
Now as long ago.
Thou and I in Norman halls
Seven hundred years ago
Heard the warden on the walls
Loud his trumpets blow,
“Ton amors sera tojors ”
Seven hundred years ago.
Thou and I in Germany,
Six hundred years ago.
Then I bound the red cross on
True love I must go,
But we part to meet again
In the endless flow.”
Thou and I in Syrian plains
Five hundred years ago
Felt the wild fire in our veins
To a fever glow.
All things die, but love lives on
Now as long ago.
Thou and I in shadow land
Four hundred years ago
Saw strange flowers bloom on the strand:
Heard strange breezes blow.
In the ideal love is real
This alone I know.
Thou and I in Italy
Three hundred years ago
Lived in faith and deed for God,
Felt the faggots glow,
Ever new and ever true
Three hundred years ago.
Thou and I on Southern seas
Two hundred years ago
Felt the perfumed even-breeze
Spoke in Spanish by the trees
Had no care or woe.
Life went dreamily in song
Two hundred years ago.
Thou and I mid Northern snows
One hundred years ago
Led an iron silent life
And were glad to flow
Onward into changing death,
One hundred years ago.
Thou and I but yesterday
Met in fashion’s show.
Love, did you remember me,
Love of long ago?
Yes: we kept the fond oath sworn
One thousand years ago.
—CHARLES G. LELAND.
The Final Thought
What is the grandest thought
Toward which the soul has wrought?
Has it the spirit form,
And the power of a storm?
Comes it of prophesy
(That borrows light of uncreated fires)
Or of transmitted strains of memory
Sent down through countless sires?
Which way are my feet set?
Through infinite changes yet
Shall I go on,
Nearer and nearer drawn
God of eternity?
How shall the Human grow,
By changes fine and slow,
To thy perfection from the life dawn sought?
What is the highest thought?
Ah! these dim memories,
Of when thy voice spake lovingly to me,
Under the Eden trees,
Saying: “Lord of all creation thou shalt be.”
How they haunt me and elude —
How they hover, how they brood,
On the horizon, fading yet dying not!
What is the final thought?
What if I once did dwell
In the lowest dust germ-cell,
A faint fore-hint of life called forth of God,
Waxing and struggling on,
Through the long flickering dawn,
The awful while His feet earth’s bosom trod?
What if He shaped me so,
And caused my life to blow
Into the full soul-flower in Eden-air?
Lo! now I am not good,
And I stand in solitude,
Calling to Him (and yet he answers not):
What is the final thought?
What myriads of years up from the germ!
What countless ages back from man to worm!
And yet from man to God, O! help me now!
A cold despair is beading on my brow!
I may see Him, and seeing know him not!
What is the highest thought?
So comes, at last,
The answer from the Vast. . . .
Not so, there is a rush of wings —
Earth feels the presence of invisible things.
Closer and closer drawn
In rosy mists of dawn!
One dies to conquer Death
And to burst the awful tomb —
Lo, with his dying breath,
He blows love into bloom!
Love! Faith is born of it!
Death is the scorn of it!
It fills the earth and thrills the heavens above,
And God is love,
And life is love, and, though we heed it not.
Love is the final thought.
From “A Poem Read at Brown University”
But, what a mystery this erring mind?
It wakes within a frame of various powers
A stranger in a new and wondrous world.
It brings an instinct from some other sphere,
For its fine senses are familiar all
And with the unconscious habit of a dream
It calls and they obey. The priceless sight
Springs to its curious organ, and the ear
Learns strangely to detect the articulate air
In its unseen divisions, and the tongue
Gets its miraculous lesson with the rest,
And in the midst of an obedient throng
Of well trained ministers, the mind goes forth
To search the secrets of its new found home.
—N. P. WILLIS
To the above may be added the following which have already been printed in THE PATH: “Rain in Summer,” by H. W. Longfellow; “The Twilight,” by J. R. Lowell; “Facing Westward from California’s Shore,” and parts of “Leaves of Grass,” by Walt Whitman.
Part II. British Poetry
From “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 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.
Methinks I can remember when, a shade
All soft and flowery was my couch, and I
A little naked child, with fair white flesh
And wings all gold bedropt, and o’er my head
Bright fruits were hanging and tall balmy shrines
Shed odorous gums around me and I lay
Sleeping and waking in that wondrous air
Which seemed infused with glory, and each breeze
Bore as it wandered by, sweet melodies;
But whence, I knew not. One delight was there
Whether of feeling or of sight or touch
I know not now — which is not in this earth,
Something all-glorious and all beautiful,
Of which our language speaketh not, and which
Flies from the eager grasping of my thought
As doth the shade of a forgotten dream.
All knowledge had I, but I cared not then
To search into my soul and draw it thence.
The blessed creatures that around me played
I knew them all, and where their resting was,
And all their hidden symmetry I knew,
And how the form is linked into the soul,
I knew it all, but thought not on it then
I was so happy. And once upon a time
I saw an army of bright beaming shapes
Fair faced and rosy cinctured and gold winged
Approach upon the air. They came to me
And from a crystal chalice silver brimmed
Put sparkling potion to my lips and stood
All around me, in the many blooming shades,
Shedding into the centre where I lay
A mingling of soft light, and then they sang
Songs of the land they dwelt in; and the last
Lingereth even till now upon mine ear.
Holy and blest
Be the calm of thy rest
For thy chamber of sleep
Shall be dark and deep
They shall dig thee a tomb
In the dark deep womb
In the warm dark womb.
Spread ye, spread the dewy mist around him
Spread ye, spread till the thick dark night surround him.
Till the dark long night has bound him
Which bindeth all before their birth
Down upon the nether earth.
The first cloud is beaming and bright
The next cloud is mellowed in light
The third cloud is dim to sight
And it stretches away into gloomy night.
Twine ye, twine, the mystic threads around him
Twine ye, twine, till the fast firm fate surround him
Till the firm cold fate hath bound him
Which bindeth all before their birth
Down upon the nether earth.
The first thread is beaming and bright
The next thread is mellowed in light
The third thread is dim to sight,
And it stretches away into a gloomy night.
Sing ye, sing, the fairy songs around him
Sing ye, sing, till the dull warm sleep surround him
Till the warm damp sleep hath bound him
Which bindeth all before their birth
Down upon the nether earth.
The first dream is beaming and bright
The next dream is mellowed in light
The third dream is dim to sight
And it stretches away into gloomy night.
Then dimness passed upon me and that song
Was sounding o’er me when I woke
To be a pilgrim on the nether earth.
—DEAN ALFORD, 1850.
From “Cato’s Soliloquy on the Soul”
Eternity — thou pleasing, dreadful thought
Through what variety of untried being
Through what new scenes and dangers must we pass?
The wide, th’ unbounded prospect lies before me
But shadows, clouds and darkness rest upon it.
As in that world of Dream whose mystic shades
Are cast by still more mystic substances,
We ofttimes have an unreflecting sense
A silent consciousness, of some things past
So clear that we can wholly comprehend
Others of which they are a part, and even
Continue them in action, though no stress
Of after memory can recognize
That we have had experience of those things
Or sleeping or awake:
Thus in the dream,
Our universal Dream, of Mortal Life,
The incidents of an anterior dream,
Or it may be, Existence, noiselessly intrude
Into the daily flow of earthly things,
Instincts of good — immediate sympathies
Places come at by chance, that claim at once
An old acquaintance — single random looks
That bare a stranger’s bosom to our eyes;
We know these things are so, we ask not why
But act and follow as the Dream goes on.
—R. M. MILNES, (Lord Houghton).
From “The Mystic”
Who dreams not life more tearful than the hours
Since first into this world he wept his way
Earthward, may be called of God, man’s soul
In patriarchal periods, comet-like
Ranges, perchance, all spheres successive, and in each
With nobler powers endowed and senses new
Set season bideth.
—PHILIP TAMES BAILEY.
From “De Profundis”
Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep.
Where all that was to be, in all that was,
Whirled for a million aeons thro’ the vast
Waste dawn of multitudinous eddying light —
Out of the deep, my child, out of the deep,
Thro’ all this changing world of changeless law.
And every phase of ever heightening life,
And nine long months of ante-natal gloom,
Tennyson also writes: —
For how should I for certain hold
Because my memory is so cold.
That I first was in human mould?It may be that no life is found
Which only to one engine bound
Falls off, but cycles always round.
But, if I lapsed from nobler place,
Some legend of a fallen race
Alone might hint of my disgrace.
Or, if through lower lives I came —
Tho’ all experience past became
Consolidate in mind and frame —
I might forget my weaker lot;
For is not our first year forgot?
The haunts of memory echo not.
Some draughts of Lethe doth await
As old mythologies relate
The slipping through from state to state
Moreover, something is or seems,
That touches me with mystic gleams,
Like glimpses of forgotten dreams —
Of something felt, like something here;
Of something done, I know not where;
Such as no language may declare.
In Shelley’s poems the ideas of pre-existence and many lives may frequently be met expressly or implied. The title over one of his songs of unrest “The World’s Wanderer” evidently alludes to himself, as do the lines in it
“Like the world’s rejected guest.”
The song of the spirits in “Prometheus Unbound” pictures vividly the human soul’s descent into the gloom of the material world:
To the deep, to the deep!
Through the shade of sleep
Through the cloudy strife
Of Death and of LifeThrough the veil and the bar
Of things which seem and are
Even to the steps of the remotest throne,
While the sound whirls around
As the fawn draws the hound
As the lightning the vapour
As a weak moth, the taper;
Death, despair; love, sorrow;
Time both; today, tomorrow;
As steel obeys the spirit of the stone
In the depth of the deep
Like the veiled lightning asleep
Like the spark nursed in embers,
The last look Love remembers,
Like a diamond which shines
On the dark wealth of mines
A spell is treasured but for thee alone,
Happy those early days when I
Shined in my angel-infancy
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white celestial thought;
When yet I had not walked above
A mile or two from my first love,
And, looking back, at that short space
Could see a glimpse of his bright face
When on some gilded cloud or flower
My gazing soul would dwell an hour
And in those weaker glories spy
Some shadows of eternity;
Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound;
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense.
But felt through all this flashy dress
Bright shoots of everlastingness.
Oh, how I long to travel back
And tread again that ancient track!
That I might once more reach that plain
Where first I left my glorious train;
From whence the enlightened spirit sees
That shady city of palm trees.
But ah! my soul with too much stay
Is drunk and staggers in the way
Some men a forward motion love,
But I by backward steps would move
And when this dust falls to the urn,
In that state I came, return.
Edmund W. Gosse treats the idea of Wordsworth’s “Intimations” in a way directly opposite to the older poet, in these verses:
To My Daughter
Thou hast the colors of the Spring
The gold of king cups triumphing
The blue of wood-bells wild,
But winter thoughts thy spirit fill
And thou art wandering from us still
Too young to be our child.Yet have thy fleeting smiles confessed
Thou dear and much desired guest
That home is near at hand.
Long lost in high mysterious lands
Close by our door thy spirit stands
In journey well nigh past.
Oh sweet bewildered soul, I watch
The fountains of thine eyes, to catch
New fancies bubbling there,
To feel one common light, and lose
The flood of strange etherial hues
Too dire for us to share!
Fade, cold immortal lights, and make
This creature human for my sake
Since I am nought but clay;
An angel is too fine a thing
To sit behind my chair and sing
And cheer my passing day.
I smile, who could not smile, unless
The air of rapt unconsciousness
Past with the fading hours;
I joy in every childish sign
That proves the stranger less divine
And much more meekly ours.
From “A Record”
None sees the slow and upward sweep
By which the soul from life-depths deep
Ascends, — unless, mayhap when free
With each new death we backward see
The long perspective of our race
Our multitudinous past lives trace.
THE PATH has already shown Browning’s expression of Reincarnation contained in Paracelsus. In his poem “One Word More” occur these lines also:
I shall never, in the years remaining
Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues
This of verse alone one life allows me
Other heights in other lives, God willing.
Similar glimpses of this thought occur in Byron, Pope, Coleridge, Swinburne and others, but it is difficult to select a continuous and complete wording of it in them.
III. Continental Poetry
Ever since the time of Virgil, whose sixth Eneid contains a sublime version of Reincarnation, and of Ovid, whose metamorphoses beautifully present the old philosophies of metempsychosis, this theme has attracted many European poets beside those of England. While the Latin poets obtained their inspiration from the East, through Pythagoras and Plato, the Northern singers seem to express it spontaneously, unless it came to them with the Teutonic migration from the Aryan cradle of the race, and shifted its form with all their people’s wanderings so that it has lost all traces of connection with its Indian source. The old Norse legends teem with many guises of soul-journeying. In sublime and lovely stories, ballads and epics, these heroic vikings and their kindred perpetuated their belief that the human individuality travels through a great series of embodiments which physically reveal the spiritual character. The Icelandic Sagas also delight in these fables of transmigration and still fire the heart of Scandinavia and Denmark. It permeated the Welsh triads, oldest of all European poetry, and among the early Saxons this thought animated their Druid ceremonies and their noblest literature. The scriptures of those magnificent races whom Tacitus found in the German forests, whose intrepid manliness conquered the mistress of the world, and from whom are descended the modern ruling race, were inspired with this same doctrine. The treasures of these ancient writings are buried away from our sight, but a suggestion of their grandeur is found in the heroic qualities of the nations who were bred upon it. The following selections are representative of the chief branches of Continental European. Boyesen, although an American citizen, is really a modernized Norwegian. Goethe stands for the Teutonic race, and Schiller keeps him good company though it is difficult to quote distinct evidence from the latter. Victor Hugo and Beranger speak for France, and Campanella represents Italy.
My spirit wrestles in anguish
With fancies that will not depart
A wraith who borrowed my sunbeam
Has hidden himself in my heart.The press of this ancient being
Compels me forever to do
The phantom deeds of a phantom
Who lived long ages ago.
The thoughts that I feel seem hoary
With weight of centuries bent,
My prestine creative gladness
In happier climes was spent.
My happiest words sound wierdly
With laughter bathed in dread,
A hollow ghost of laughter
That is loathe to rise from the dead.
My tear has its fount in dead ages
And choked with their rust is my sigh,
The haunting voice of a spectre
Will ne’er from my bosom die.
Perchance in the distant cycles
My soul from Nirvana’s frost
Will gather its scattered life beams
Rekindling the soul that I lost.
And then I may rise from my graveyard,
And freed at last, may try
The life of a nobler being
In the soul that shall then be I.
—H. H. BOYSEN
The Song of the Earth Spirits
In Goethe’s “Faust”
The soul of man
Is like the water
From heaven it cometh
To heaven it mounteth
And thence at once
It must back to earth
From Victor Hugo’s poem:
“To the Invisible One”
(A Celle Qui Est Voilee)
I am the drift of a thousand tides
The captive of destiny.
The weight of all darkness upon me abides
But cannot bury me.My spirit endures like a rocky isle
Amid the ocean of fate,
The thunderstorm is my domicile,
The hurricane is my mate.
I am the fugitive who far
From home has taken flight;
Along with the owl and evening star
I moan the song of night.
Art thou not too, like unto me
A torch to light earth’s gloom,
A soul, therefore a mystery,
A wanderer bound to roam.
Seek for me in the sea bird’s home,
Descend to my release,
Thy depths of cavernous shadows dumb
Illume, thou angel of peace!
As night brings forth the rosy morn
Perhaps ’tis heaven’s law
That from thy mystic smile is born
A glory I ne’er saw.
In this dark world where now I stay
I scarce can see myself;
Thy radiant soul shine on my way;
Duty’s my guiding elf.
With loving tones and beckoning hand
Thou say’st “Beyond the night
I catch a glimpse upon the strand
Of thy mansion gleaming bright.”
Before I came upon this earth
I know I lived in gladness
For ages as an angel. Birth
Has caused my present sadness.
My soul was once a heavenly dove
Thou who all power retains,
Let fall a pinion from above
Upon this bird’s remains!
Yes, ’tis my dire misfortune now
To hang between two ties
To hold within my furrowed brow
The earth’s clay, and the skies.
Alas the pain of being man
Of dreaming o’er my fall
Of finding heaven within my span,
Yet being but a pall;
Of toiling like a galley slave,
Of carrying the load
Of human burdens, while I rave
To fly unto my God;
Of trailing garments black with rust
I, son of heaven above!
Of being only graveyard dust
E’en though my name is — Love.
The Transmigration of Souls
In philosophic mood, last night, as I was idly lying,
That souls may transmigrate, methought there could be no denying;
So, just to know to what I owe propensities so strong,
I drew my soul into a chat — the gossip lasted long.
“A votive offering,” she observed, “well might I claim for thee,
For thou in being had’st remained a cypher but for me.
Yet not a virgin soul was I when first in thee enshrined.”
Ah, I suspected, little soul, thus much that I should find.”Yes,” she continued, “yes, of old — I recollect it now —
In humble Ivy was I wreathed round many a joyous brow.
More subtle next the essence was that I essayed to warm —
A bird’s, that could salute the skies, a little bird’s my form;
Where thickets made a pleasant shade, where Shepherdesses strolled
I fluttered round, hopped on the ground, my simple lay I trolled,
My pinious grew, while still I flew, in freedom on the wind.”
Ah, I suspected, little soul, thus much that I should find.
“Medor my name, I next became a dog of wondrous tact,
The guardian of a poor blind man, his sole support in fact.
A trick of holding in my mouth a wooden bowl I knew,
I led my master through the streets, and begged his living too.
Devoted to the poor, to please the wealthy was my care,
Gleaning as sustenance for one what others well could spare.
Thus good I did, since to kind deeds so many I inclined.”
Ah, I suspected, little soul, thus much that I should find.
“Next, to breathe life into her charms, in a young girl I dwelt;
There in soft prison softly housed, what happiness I felt!
Till to my hiding place a swarm of cupids entrance gained,
And after pillaging it well, in garrison remained.
Like old campaigners there the rogues all sorts of mischief did,
And, night and day, while still I lay in a little corner hid,
How oft I saw the house on fire I scarce can call to mind.”
Ah, I suspected, little soul, thus much that I should find.
“Some light on thy propensities may now upon thee break,
But prithee, hark! one more remark, I still,” says she, “would make.
‘Tis this — that having dared one day with heaven to make too free,
God, for my punishment resolved to shut me up in thee;
And, what with sitting up at night, with work and woman’s art,
Tears and despair — for I forbear, some secrets to impart,
A poet is a very hell for souls thereto consigned.”
Ah, I suspected, little soul, thus much that I should find.
A Sonnet on Caucasus
I fear that by my death the human race
Would gain no vantage. Thus I do not die.
So wide is this vast cage of misery
That flight and change lead to no happier place.
Shifting our pains, we risk a sorrier case:
All worlds, like ours, are sunk in agony:
Go where we will, we feel; and this my cry
I may forget like many an old disgrace.
Who knows what doom is mine? The Omnipotent
Keeps silence; nay, I know not whether strife
Or peace was with me in some earlier life.
Philip in a worse prison we hath pent
These three days past — but not without God’s will,
Stay we as God decrees: God doth no ill.
The largest inspiration of all Western thought is nourished by the Academe. Not only idealism but the provinces of philosophy and literature hostile to Plato are really indebted to him. The noble loftiness, the etherial subtlety, the poetic beauty of that teaching has captivated most of the fine intellects of mediaeval and modern times and it is impossible to trace the invisible course of exalted thought which has radiated from this greatest Greek, the king of a nation of philosophers.
Adopting Emerson’s words “Out of Plato come all things that are still written and debated among men of thought. Great havoc makes he among our originalities. We have reached the mountain from which all these drift boulders were detached. The Bible of the learned for twenty-two centuries, every brisk young man who says fine things to each reluctant generation is some reader of Plato translating into the vernacular- his good things * * How many great men nature is incessantly sending up out of the night to be his men — Platonists! the Alexandrians, a constellation of genius; the Elizabethans, not less; Sir Thomas More, Henry More, John Hales, John Smith, Lord Bacon, Jeremy, Taylor, Ralph Cudworth, Sydenham, Thomas Taylor. Calvinism is in his Phaedro. Christianity is in it. Mahometanism draws all its philosophy, in its hand book of morals, the Akhlak-y-Jalaly, from him. Mysticism finds in Plato all its texts. “We know not how much of the world’s later poetry is due to the suggestion and nurture of the poet-philosopher. But in closing our studies of the poetry of Reincarnation it may be of interest to group together the avowed Platonic poets.
Most illustrious of all the English disciples of this master, in the brilliant coterie of “Cambridge Platonists,” was Dr. Henry More whom Dr. Johnson esteemed “one of our greatest divines and philosophers and no mean poet.” Hobbes said of him that if his “own philosophy was not true he knew none that he should sooner adopt than Henry More’s of Cambridge;” and Hoadley styles him “one of the first men of this or any other country.” Coleridge wrote that his philosophical works “contained more enlarged and elevated views of the Christian dispensation than I have met with in any other single volume; for More had both the philosophical and poetic genius supported by immense erudition.” He was a devout student of Plato. In the heat of rebellion he was spared by the fanatics. They pardoned his refusal to take their covenant and left him to continue the philosophic occupations which had rendered him famous as a loveable and absorbed scholar. He wove together in many poems a quaint texture of Gothic fancy and Greek thought. His “Psychozoia” or “Life of the Soul,” from which the following verses are taken is a long Platonic poem tracing the course of the soul through ancient existences down into the earthly realm. Campbell said of this work that it “is like a curious grotto whose labyrinths we might explore for its strange and mystic associations.” Dr. More was an intimate friend of Addison and long a correspondent of Descartes.
Platonic Poets on Reincarnation
From Henry More’s “Philosophical Poems” (Psychozoia).
I would sing the pre-existency
Of human souls and live once o’er again
By recollection and quick memory
All that is passed since first we all began.
But all too shallow be my wits to scan
So deep a point and mind too dull to climb
So dark a matter. But thou more than man
Aread, thou sacred soul of Plotin dear
Tell me what mortals are. Tell what of old they were.A spark or ray of divinity
Clouded with earthly fogs, and clad in clay
A precious drop sunk from eternity
Spilt on the ground, or rather slunk away.
For then we fell when we ‘gan first t’essay
By stealth of our own selves something to been
Uncentering ourselves from our one great stay
Which rupture we new liberty did ween
And from that prank right jolly wits ourselves did deem.
Show fitly how the pre-existing soul
Enacts and enters bodies here below
And then entire unhurt can leave this moul
In which by sense and motion they may know
Better than we what things transacted be
Upon the earth, and when they best may show
Themselves to friend or foe, their phantasmy
Moulding their airy arc to gross consistency.
Milton imbibed from his college friend Henry More an early fondness for the study of Plato, whose philosophy nourished most of the fine spirits of that day and he expresses the Greek sage’s opinion of the soul in his Comus:
The soul grows clotted by oblivion
Imbodies and embrutes till she quite lose
The divine property of her first being;
Such as those thick and gloomy shadows damp
Oft seen in charnel vaults and sepulchres
Lingering and setting by a new made grave
As loth to leave the body that it loved.
Milton’s Platonic proclivities are also shown in his poem “On the Death of a Fair Infant:”
Wert thou that just maid, who once before
Forsook the hated earth, O tell me sooth,
And came’st again to visit us once more?
Or were thou that sweet smiling youth?
Or any other of that heavenly brood
Let down in cloudy throne to do the world some good?
Or wert thou of the golden-winged host,
Who having clad thyself in human weed,
To earth from thy prefixed seat did’st post,
And after short abode fly back with speed
As if to show what creatures heaven doth breed.
Thereby to set the hearts of men on fire
To scorn the sordid world and unto heaven aspire.
In the old library of poetry known as Dodsley’s Collection, is a Miltonic poem by an anonymous Platonist which is very interesting and as it is difficult of access we quote the best part of it:
In Imitation of Milton
Now had th’ archangel trumpet, raised sublime
Above the walls of heaven, begun to sound;
All aether took the blast and fell beneath
Shook with celestial noise; th’ almighty host
Hot with pursuit, and reeking with the blood
Of guilty cherubs smeared in sulphurous dust,
Pause at the known command of sounding gold.
At first they close the wide Tartarian gates,
Th’ impenetrable folds on brazen hinge
Roll creaking horrible; the din beneath
O’ercomes the war of flames, and deafens hell.
Then through the solid gloom with nimble wing
They cut their shining traces up to light;
Returned upon the edge of heavenly day
Where thinnest beams play round the vast obscure
And with eternal gleam drives back the night.
They find the troops less stubborn, less involved
In crime and ruin, barr’d the realms of peace,
Yet uncondemned to baleful beats of woe,
Doubtful and suppliant; all the plumes of light
Moult from their shuddering wings, and sickly fear
Shades every face with horror; conscious guilt
Rolls in the livid eye-ball, and each breast
Shakes with the dread of future doom unknown.
‘Tis here the wide circumference of heaven
Opens in two vast gates, that inward turn
Volumnious, on jasper columns hung
By geometry divine; they ever glow
With living sculptures, they arise by turns
To imboss the shining leaves, by turns they set
To give succeeding argument their place;
In holy hieroglyphics on they move.
The gaze of journeying angels, as they pass
Oft looking back, and held in deep surprise.
Here stood the troops distinct; the cherub guard
Unbarred the splendid gates, and in they roll
Harmonious; for a vocal spirit sits
Within each hinge, and as they onward drive,
In just divisions breaks the numerous jars
With symphony melodious, such as spheres
Involved in tenfold wreaths are said to sound.
Out flows a blaze of glory: for on high
Towering advanced the moving throne of God.
Above the throne, th’ ideas heavenly bright
Of past, of present, and of coming time,
Fixed their immoved abode, and there present
An endless landscape of created things
To sight celestial, where angelic eyes
Are lost in prospect; for the shiny range
Boundless and various in its bosom bears
Millions of full proportioned worlds, beheld
With steadfast eyes, till more arise to view,
And further inward scenes start up unknown.
A vocal thunder rolled the voice of God
Servants of God! and virtues great in arms
We approve your faithful works, and you return
Blessed from the dire pursuits of rebel foes;
Resolved, obdurant, they have tried the force
Of this right hand, and known almighty power;
Transfixed with lightning down they sunk and fell
Into the fiery gulf and deep they plunge
Below the burning waves, to hide their heads.
For you, ye guilty throng that lately joined
In this sedition, since seduced from good,
And caught in trains of guile, by sprites malign
Superior in their order; you accept,
Trembling, my heavenly clemency and grace.
When the long era once has filled its orb,
You shall emerge to light and humbly here
Again shall bow before his favoring throne,
If your own virtue second my decree:
But all must have their races first below.
See, where below in chaos wondrous deep
A speck of light dawns forth, and thence throughout
The shades, in many a wreath, my forming power
There swiftly turns the burning eddy round,
Absorbing all crude matter near its brink;
Which next, with subtle motions, takes the form
I please to stamp, the seed of embryo worlds
All now in embryo, but ere long shall rise
Variously scattered in this vast expanse,
Involved in winding orbs, until the brims
Of outward circles brush the heavenly gates.
The middle point a globe of curling fire
Shall hold, which round it sheds its genial heat;
Where’er I kindle life the motion grows.
In all the endless orbs, from this machine;
And infinite vicissitudes that roll
About the restless center; for I rear
In those meanders turned, a dusty ball,
Deformed all o’er with woods, whose shaggy tops
Inclose eternal mists, and deadly damps
Hover within their boughs, to cloak the light;
Impervious scenes of horror, till reformed
To fields and grassy dells and flowery meads
By your continual pains. Here Silence sits
In folds of wreathy mantling sunk obscure,
And in dark fumes bending his drowsy head;
An urn he holds, from whence a lake proceeds
Wide, flowing gently, smooth and Lethe named;
Hither compelled, each soul must drink long draughts
Of those forgetful streams, till forms within
And all the great ideas fade and die:
For if vast thought should play about a mind
Inclosed in flesh, and dragging cumbrous life,
Fluttering and beating in the mournful cage,
It soon would break its gates and wing away:
‘Tis therefore my decree, the soul return
Naked from off this beach, and perfect blank
To visit the new world; and wait to feel
Itself in crude consistence closely shut,
The dreadful monument of just revenge;
Immured by heaven’s own hand, and placed erect
On fleeting matter all imprisoned round
With walls of clay; the etherial mould shall bear
The chain of members, deafened with an ear,
Blinded by eyes, and trammeled by hands,
Here anger, vast ambition and disdain,
And all the haughty movements rise and fall,
As storms of neighboring atoms tear the soul,
And hope and love and all the calmer turns
Of easy hours, in their gay gilded shapes,
With sudden run, skim e’er deluded minds,
As matter leads the dance; but one desire
Unsatisfied, shall mar ten thousand joys.
The rank of beings, that shall first advance
Drink deep of human life; and long shall stay
On this great scene of cares.
From all the rest That longer for the destined body wait,
Less penance I expect, and short abode
In those pale dreamy kingdoms will content;
Each has his lamentable lot and all
On different rocks abide the pains of life.
The pensive spirit takes the lonely grove;
Nightly he visits all the sylvan scenes,
Where far remote, a melancholy moon
Raising her head, serene and shorn of beams,
Throws here and there her glimmerings through the trees.
The sage shall haunt this solitary ground
And view the dismal landscape limned within
In horrid shades, mixed with imperfect light.
Here Judgment, blinded by delusive sense,
Contracted through the cranny of an eye,
Shoots up faint languid beams to that dark seat,
Wherein the soul, bereaved of native fire,
Sets intricate, in misty clouds obscured.
Hence far removed, a different being race
In cities full and frequent take their seat,
Where honour’s crushed, and gratitude oppressed
With swelling hopes of gain, that raise within
A tempest, and driven onward by success,
Can find no bounds. For creatures of a day
Stretch their wide cares to ages; full increase
Starves their penurious soul, while empty sound
Fills the ambitious; that shall ever shrink,
Pining with endless cares, while this shall swell
To tympany enormous. Bright in arms
Here shines the hero, out he fiercely leads
A martial throng his instruments of rage;
To fill the world with death, and thin mankind.
There savage nature in one common lies
And feels its share of hunger, care and pain,
Cheated by flying prey; and now they tear
Their panting flesh; and deeply, darkly quaff
Of human woe, even when they rudely sip
The flowing stream, or draw the savory pulp
Of nature’s freshest viands; fragrant fruits
Enjoyed with trembling, and in danger sought.
But where the appointed limits of a law
Fences the general safety of the world,
No greater quiet reigns; the blended loads
Of punishment and crime deform the world,
And give no rest to man; with pangs and throes
He enters on the stage; prophetic tears
And infant cries prelude his future woes;
And all is one continual scene of gulf
Till the sad sable curtain falls in death.
Then the gay glories of the living world
Shall cast their empty varnish and retire
Out of his feeble views; the shapeless root
Of wild imagination dance and play
Before his eyes obscure; till all in death
Shall vanish, and the prisoner enlarged,
Regains the flaming borders of the sky.
He ended. Peals of thunder rend the heavens,
And chaos, from the bottom turned, resounds.
The mighty clangor; all the heavenly host
Approve the high decree, and loud they sing
Eternal justice; while the guilty troops,
Sad with their doom, but sad without despair,
Fall fluttering down to Lethe’s lake and there
For penance, and the destined body wait.
Shelley’s Platonic leanings are well known. The favorite Greek conceit of pre-existence in many earlier lives may frequently be found in other poems besides the “Prometheus Unbound” quoted in part II of our series.
The last stanza of “The Cloud,” is Shelly’s Platonic symbol of human life:
I am the daughter of earth and water
And the nursling of the sky
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of heaven is bare
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph
And out of the caverns of rain
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.
Another poem entitled “A Fragment,” certainly refers to pre-existence:
Ye gentle visitants of calm thought
Moods like the memories of happier earth
Which come arrayed in thoughts of little worth
Like stars in clouds by weak winds enwrought.
Coleridge has embodied his Platonic view of pre-existence in this sonnet, “Composed on a homeward journey; the author having received intelligence of the birth of a son”:
Oft o’er my brain does that strange fancy roll
Which makes the present (while the flash doth last)
Seem a mere semblance of some unknown past,
Mixed with such feelings as perplex the soul
Self questioned in her sleep; and some have said
We lived, ere yet this robe of flesh we wore.
O my sweet baby! when I reach my door
If heavy looks should tell me thou art dead
(As sometimes through excess of hope, I fear)
I think that I should struggle to believe
Thou wert a spirit, to this nether sphere
Sentenced for some more venial crime to grieve;
Did’st scream, then spring to meet Heaven’s quick reprieve,
While we wept idly o’er the little bier.
In Emerson, the Plato of the nineteenth century, the whole feeling of the Greek seems reflected in its most glorious development. Many of his poems clearly suggest the influence of his Greek teacher, as his “Threnody” upon the death of his young son, and “The Sphinx” in which these two stanzas appear:
To vision profounder
Man’s spirit must dive;
His aye-rolling orb
At no goal wilt arrive;
The heavens that now draw him
With sweetness untold
Once found for new heavens
He spurneth the old.
Now follows, now flies
And under pain, pleasure, —
Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
Forth speed the strong pulses
To the borders of day.
Many of the church hymns glow with the enthusiasm of Platonic pre-existence, and are fondly sung by Christians without any thought that, while their idea is of Biblical origin, it has been nourished and perpetuated by the Greek sage, and directly implies reincarnation. For instance:
“I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”
“Heaven is my fatherland, heaven is my home.”
Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe, the friend of Bishop Ken and of Dr. Isaac Watts, has left this allusion to pre-existence in
A Hymn on Heaven
Ye starry mansions, hail! my native skies
Here in my happy, pre-existent state
(A spotless mind) I led the life of Gods,
But passing, I salute you, and advance
To yonder brighter realms, allowed access,
Hail, splendid city of the almighty king
Celestial salem, situate above, etc.