The Path – July 1887

THE POETRY OF REINCARNATION IN WESTERN LITERATURE: I — E. D. Walker

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.

REINCARNATION IN AMERICAN POETRY

PART I.

PRE-EXISTENCE

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.

A MYSTERY.

The river hemmed with leaving trees
     Wound through the meadows green,
A low blue line of mountain showed
     The open pines between

One 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.

                         BAYARD TAYLOR.

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.

                         BAYARD TAYLOR.

THE METEMPSYCHOSIS.

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
               To thee,
               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.

                         MAURICE THOMPSON

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.


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