Not long ago I had occasion to search in the literatures, past and present, for hints bearing out the idea of rebirth. I found many scattered among the writings of thoughtful men and women of all ages and all climes, but to my surprise these hints occurred with the greatest frequency in the writings of the poets, and among the highly acclaimed ones too. So much so that it became a matter of amazement to me that people had not accepted this truth from poets they evidently admired and quoted so readily. I came to the conclusion that it was a case of "Och, puir body, she's wanderin' noo." Scots must forgive me for retelling it.
An old widow lay dying and had called her sons around her. "There's auld Andrew McDunn," she breathed, "he's owing us two pound for milk. Dinna forget it. And there's Donald Menzies — him that bought a hundred-weight o'taties frae us last Michaelmas. He hasna paid up yet."
The sons, low-voiced, whispered in sad admiration: "What a grand brain! What a memory! Clear tae the last."
The chronicle of debtors continued, and the names were duly noted down by the eldest son. Then reluctantly came the reminder: "And dinna let me forget, we owe Lizzie Cameron a shilling I borrowed last market day."
A glance of dismay passed between the brothers. The careful auditor closed his notebook with a sigh. "Och, puir body, she's wanderin' noo," he said.
Is not this the judgment of the world on that which it does not want to hear? Let a man prove himself ever such a genius in science, art, or literature, he will be applauded while he remains constant to accepted tradition. But should he dare to announce a discovery outside the bounds of proven theories, his assertion will be looked at for many years with distrust, perhaps ridicule, and he will lay himself open to the charge of weak-mindedness.
One could go back to the bards of antiquity, to the sages of Egypt, Greece, Rome, or to those poets of India and China whose works are more profound and often more beautiful than any our modern civilizations can show. But space limits us to a more recent survey. Reincarnation: It may astonish us, but there is scarcely a letter of the alphabet which does not lend an initial to some great name that affirms this belief. Let me mention a few, and substantiate my claims with a quotation here and there.
AE — George W. Russell — the late Irish poet, writer, and statesman, who says:
To those who cry out against romance, I would say: You yourself are romance. You are the lost prince herding obscurely among the swine. The romance of your spirit is the most marvelous of stories. Your wanderings have been greater than those of Ulysses.
Sir Edwin Arnold, best remembered for his poem on the life and teachings of Buddha, The Light of Asia.
Matthew Arnold, William Blake, Robert Bridges, and Robert Browning who writes in "One Word More" (xii):
I shall never, in the years remaining, / Paint you pictures, no, nor carve you statues, / Make you music that should all-express me; / So it seems: I stand on my attainment. / This of verse alone, one life allows me; Verse and nothing else have I to give you. / Other heights in other lives, God willing: / All the gifts from all the heights, your own, Love!
There is Coleridge; and Walter de la Mare makes one of his characters say:
Perhaps in this odd shuffle of souls and faces, I am that mother, and most frightfully anxious you should not give in. . . . What worlds we've seen together, you and I. And then — another parting. . . . It has all, my one dear, happened scores of times before, mother and child and friend — lovers that are all these too, like us. -- The Return
To continue the list: John Drinkwater, Dryden, Lessing, Victor Hugo, and many, many more. Not least of them is Goethe at whose shrine both Carlyle and Emerson worshipped. He opens his "Song of the Spirits over the Waters":
The soul of man is like to water; / From Heaven it cometh, / To Heaven it riseth, / And then returneth to earth, / Forever alternating.
Susan Glaspell's name can be included. W. H. Henley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Richard Jeffreys, and Kipling. Longfellow's Rain in Summer contains these memorable lines:
Thus the Seer, / With vision clear, / Sees forms appear and disappear, / In the perpetual round of strange, / Mysterious change / From birth to death, from death to birth, / From earth to heaven, from heaven to earth; / Till glimpses more sublime / Of things unseen before, / Unto his wondering eyes reveal / The Universe, as an immeasurable wheel / Turning forevermore / In the rapid and rushing river of Time.
England's illustrious poet laureate, the late John Masefield, is definite on the matter in his poem, 'A Creed." It begins:
I hold that when a person dies / His soul returns again to earth; / Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise, / Another mother gives him birth. / With sturdier limbs and brighter brain / The old soul takes the road again.
. . . . .
All that I rightly think or do, / Or make, or spoil, or bless, or blast, / Is curse or blessing justly due / For sloth or effort in the past. / My life's a statement of the sum / Of vice indulged, or overcome.
ending with these stirring words:
So shall I fight, so shall I tread, / In this long war beneath the stars; / So shall a glory wreathe my head, / So shall I faint and show the scars, / Until this case, this clogging mould, / Be smithied all to kingly gold.
Milton does not disregard the idea. O'Shaughnessy and Rossetti carry the names on through alphabetical order to Sir Walter Scott not an author one easily connects with this thought; yet in a letter to a friend he writes:
Yesterday, at dinner-time, I was strangely haunted by what I would call the sense of pre-existence, viz. a confused idea that nothing that passed was said for the first time; that the same topics had been discussed and the same persons had stated the same opinions on them. . . The sensation was so strong as to resemble what is called a mirage in the desert . . .
Shakespeare, the greatest poet of our age, remarks in a sonnet (lix):
If there be nothing new, but that which is / Hath been before, how are our brains beguiled, / Which, labouring for invention, bear amiss / The second burthen of a former child!
Shelley, like Scott, declared his belief in reincarnation in one of his letters. Tennyson had more intuition perhaps than any other English poet; again and again he touches on various phases of the archaic wisdom-teaching. He speaks of many lives in his "In Memoriam," and in "The Two Voices" deals not only with the idea of rebirth but answers the old question, "Why do we not remember our past lives?"
As old mythologies relate, / Some draught of Lethe might await / The slipping thro' from state to state.
. . . .
But, if I lapsed from nobler place, / Some legend of a fallen race / Alone might hint of my disgrace;
. . . .
Or if thro' 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.
. . .
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.
Wordsworth's fine lines in his "Intimations of Immortality" are too well known to need repeating here.
The last poet from whose works I will quote is one of whom Katherine Tingley in the early 1920s wrote: "In the course of time, when your children or your grandchildren are grown up, Walt Whitman will be placed at the head of all the poets of the last century." In that free outpouring of his spirit, "Song of Myself," he says:
I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over, / My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths, / Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern, / Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years.
. . . .
The clock indicates the moment — but what does eternity indicate? / We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers, / There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them.
Births have brought us richness and variety, / And other births will bring us richness and variety.
. . . .
I am an acme of things accomplished, and I an encloser of things to be.
A very comprehensive statement of evolution, spiritually understood, is it not — "I an encloser of things to be" — the idea of ever-continuous unfoldment. We get a glimpse of the extent of that vista in this verse:
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be fill'd and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.
. . . .
And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths, / (No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)
I think these few examples from relatively modern poets show that the ancient idea of reincarnation is rooted in the heart of poetic genius.
On September 22, 1937, London playgoers visited the Royalty Theatre to see the premiere of J. B. Priestley's play "I Have Been Here Before." And it was to the intuitive knowledge of a poet that Priestley turned for an introduction to his theme. For the audience read on the backs of their programmes the opening verse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Sudden Light":
I have been here before, / But when or how I cannot tell; / I know the grass beyond the door, / The sweet keen smell, / The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.
In passing, let us note that one of Britain's foremost authors and dramatists drew crowded houses over a period of months — for a play which not only put forward reincarnation as a serious explanation of life's dramas, but linked it effectively with the concept of karma, the setting in motion of causes in some past life, whose effects bring about their due results.
All who are not out-and-out materialists accept the fact that the poets of today — the real poets, not the mere rhymesters — are the teachers of tomorrow, that it is their lot to shadow forth in verse and drama the ideas that man in time comes to welcome. Genius and intuition go hand in hand, and the mind of the poet has ever been the instrument through and upon which Truth has played her noblest themes.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1985. Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press)
Sunrise Back Issues Menu