The Path October 1887

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

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:

PRE-EXISTENCE.

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.
Eterne alteration
   Now follows, now flies
And under pain, pleasure,
   Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
   Heart-heaving alway;
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, &c.


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