The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse
I have a lot of books. Though I’ve never taken an inventory, my library probably totals in the low thousands, everything from farming to mead making and distilling, literature and literary criticism, arts and crafts, science, biography, theology, philosophy, psychology, history, not to mention many obscure works on magic, alchemy, astrology, and other esoteric subjects. I wrote my dissertation on a number of poets, mystics, and alchemists—John Donne, Henry Vaughan and his alchemist identical twin Thomas, Jane Lead, Sir Kenelm Digby, and John Dee—so there’s my excuse.
Recently, I was interviewed by the very generous Piers Kaniuka for his Youtube channel, Resistance Recovery. We were scheduled to discuss my latest book, Sophia in Exile, but we also spent a good chunk of our conversation talking about the various manifestations of Romanticism—in the 18th century and with the hippies in the 20th, for example—and the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight movements of the 19th century came up as an example of resistance to the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the technocracies of its time.
When Marygrove College, where I used to work as a professor of English, philosophy, and religious studies, announced it would close at the end of the semester, the library started selling off its collection at 10 cents a piece. Tempt me not, Satan! I did my best to clear the joint. I loaded up on all kinds of books in my various disciplines. Among books by the great Continental philosophers and medieval mystics and theologians, I scored C.G. Jung’s Collected Works (though one volume is in absentia) and the 10-volume set of Donne’s Sermons—that was a good thing, too, because all of my notes from my dissertation research on the sermons were still inscribed in the margins. Don’t judge me: it was obviously all part of God’s plan. I meant to grab the collected works of Sigmund Freud, but the last day of the semester was a snow day and school was closed. I still have nightmares about it.
I have a number of collector’s items, though I used to have more. In my twenties I collected rare books. Let’s call it an investment strategy. Times were hard financially early in my marriage, however, so I ended up selling a lot of the books so we could buy stuff like, you know, food. But I still have a few treasures. I have first editions of Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism and W.B. Yeats’s A Vision and I have a collection of The Spectator from 1714 that I picked up twenty years ago in a junk shop in, I think, Niagara Falls, Ontario or someplace thereabouts.
But one of the more curious books I own is one I picked up at Marygrove for a dime. The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse was almost an afterthought. I write about poetry and mysticism, so I grabbed it as one might grab a candy bar at the grocery store checkout line. Impulse item. It sat on the shelf for a couple of years. Then I read it. Wow.
The book starts out, surprisingly, not with Cædmon, but with an incantation:
I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am the beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am the wild boar in valour,
I am the salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of a lance in battle,
I am the God who creates in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun?
Actually, Cædmon never appears. Which is odd.
The book, which was published in 1921, features many of the poets one would expect: Southwell, the Metaphysicals, Blake, Wordsworth, and Shelley (no Keats), Cardinal Newman, the Brownings, Tennyson, Whitman, George MacDonald, both Dante and Christina Rossetti, Hopkins, Francis Thompson, G.K. Chesterton, and John Masefield. It also includes some lesser known poets, such as the Roman Catholic nun Augusta Theodosia Drane, the Pre-Raphaelite Arthur W. E. O’Shaughnessy, Yeats’s one-time love interest Katherine Tynan, and the great Canadian poet Bliss Carman. But then it gets really weird.
The big surprise (for me, anyway) was to find so many poets of the Occult Revival and the Celtic Twilight included. I expected Yeats of course—though he only gets two poems! This was, to be sure, before his late flowering and some of his strongest poems, such as “The Second Coming,” “Lapis Lazuli,” and “Sailing to Byzantium.” Here he is represented by “The Rose of Battle” and “To the Secret Rose.” Also included are Yeats’s countryman, the visionary, poet, and social reformer Æ (George Russell) and Yeats’s co-editor of Blake, Edmond Ellis. Alongside these more conventional poets, however, were some real eye-openers.
The collection includes three poems by the (almost entirely unknown today) mystical Freemason W. L. Wilmshurst and work by esoteric historian A.E. Waite, not to mention offerings from William Sharp (also known under the nom de plume Fiona Macleod), the spiritualist Elsa Barker, the Irish pantheist Edmond Holmes, the aforementioned Evelyn Underhill, as well as—wait for it—the magician and all-round naughty person Aleister Crowley—who gets more space than Yeats!
This all kind of blew me away—this was the Oxford University Press, after all. So I checked into the editors, D.H.S. Nicholson and A.H.F. Lee. Both, it turns out, were members of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—which kind of shatters Oxford’s reputation for propriety and decorum. But this explains many of the others included in the collection—Yeats, Sharp, Underhill, Waite, Wilmshurst, and (I think Barker)—were also members of the Golden Dawn. And in the same lodge! Not much else is known about Nicholson, he seems to have been independently wealthy, but Lee was an Anglican priest.
Still, how did these guys swing the editing gig? The plot, as they say, here thickens. As I discovered, a young editor then at the Oxford University Press hired the editors for the job. His name: Charles Williams. That’s right: the Inkling—but the edgy Inkling. Williams, not surprisingly, also belonged to the Golden Dawn for a period, so The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse then becomes a kind of in-group project, the Esoteric Squad, so to speak.
Another interesting tidbit: Late in the book, which moves chronologically, in the section in which the Golden Dawn poets appear, two poems attributed to “Anonymous” appear. Usually in these kinds of collections, the anonymous poems appear in the beginning, derived as they are from “the dark backward and abysm of time” in which names often become lost to us. These two poems, “At the Feet of Isis” and “A Ballade of the Centre,” then are curiously placed and curiously attributed. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly evidence yet, but my money says they belong to none other than Charles Williams himself. Here’s the closing stanza of “At the Feet of Isis,” chock full of sophianicity:
Her feet are in the darkness, but Her face
Is in high Heav’n—all Truth inhabits there;
All Knowledge and all Peace, and perfect grace,
And in the wonder of Her joy they share
Who, blindly clinging to Her feet erstwhile,
Obtained the priceless gift—the vision of Her smile.
Tell me this isn’t by the same guy who wrote The Figure of Beatrice.
Amazing what a dime can purchase nowadays.
Not in the book: but it should be!
Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.