Lectures on some Seventeenth Century Poets: a study


Q wrote his preface to the Studies in Literature collection (1918), which contains ‘Some Seventeenth Century Poets’, on May 10, 1918, between the close of the second German offensive in France on April 29, and the opening of the third on May 27, with his son Bevil in almost continuous action on the Somme front. Vaughan himself had been a soldier, on the Royalist side, during the English Civil War and must have greatly rejoiced when the Cornish army of The Splendid Spur took Bristol in 1643. (It was at the battle of Bristol that Col. John Trevanion, who is mentioned in the novel, died. The Byrons were also present but survived. The poet Lord Byron was the grandson of Admiral Byron and Sophia Trevanion of Caerhays who married in 1748. It is possible that Vaughan, who was stationed in the march area to the north, was also at Bristol.)

Q gave his lectures on Donne, Herbert and Vaughan after the publication of Sir Herbert Grierson’s critical edition of Donne’s poems of 1912, but before Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems of the Seventeenth Century, Donne to Butler of 1921. Q preferred the term ‘mystical’ to ‘metaphysical’, but Grierson retained ‘metaphysical’ as poetry ‘inspired by a philosophical conception of the universe and the role assigned to the human spirit in the great drama of existence’ (Grierson, 1921, p. I). Grierson was a critic, Q a creative writer.

There was intellectual as well as military conflict at the time Q was delivering the lectures. The ideas of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital were helping to fuel a revolution in Russia, while at home socialism was replacing liberalism. Philosophers were beginning to doubt the validity of statements not open to empirical verification. The writings of Sigmund Freud were permeating society. In 1905, Albert Einstein had formulated a theory of relativity which was challenging the central pillar of Newton’s Principia of 1687, a work which had passed virtually every scientific test. 1919 would see Einstein vindicated. It must have been a strange time to lecture on mysticism, especially by one who had been reared in a scientific family. Yet it took him to the heart of controversies. Today it is easy to be seduced by the style and miss the profundity of the content.

In Victorian England (1936), G.M. Young argues (in the second part of the first section) that following the Napoleonic War the ‘purchasing capacity’ of those above the level of the ‘wage-earning’ nearly ‘doubled’, there was ‘vulgar pride in mere quantity’ and a fracturing of society through venal competitiveness. Conflict dominated men’s minds: ‘man against nature and reason against the traditions’. In Memoirs of the Life of Humphry Davy, John Davy incorporates his brother’s Political Reflections, 1816. These include an attack upon the ‘cadets of the aristocracy’ who had run the war, the corruption of the currency, the ruin of farming, the misery of the poor, foreign subsidies raised from ‘productive labour’ at home, and the absence of ‘gradual reform and progressive change’ (Davy, 1836, pp. 229-232). This parallels Q’s analysis in the ‘Shelley’ lecture. John Davy also includes two poems by his brother about Lord Byron, one from the year before Byron’s death and the other following the death in 1824. In the opening lines of ‘On the Death of Lord Byron’ Sir Humphry says:

                        ‘Gone is the bard, who, like a powerful spirit,
                        A beautiful and fallen child of light,’

continuing in the third stanza with:

                        ‘Now passing near those high and bless’d abodes,
                        Where beings of a noble nature move
                        In fields of purest light, where brightest rays
                        Of glory shine…’

and shining because:

                        ‘That unconsuming and ethereal blaze
                        Flowing from, returning to, Eternal Love.’

This might have been written for John Donne who saw himself very much as a ‘fallen child’ and for a similar reason (Davy, 1836, pp. 284–6).

Q believed that the seeds of the First World War were sown at the end of the Napoleonic War, with the ruling elites refusing the democratic demands of the people, resulting in society fragmenting into conflicting classes and groups. Although the 1832 Reform Act in Britain ameliorated the situation, it did so more in appearance than in reality. Voices of protest, such as those of Byron and Shelley, were silenced through exile. Others were drawn into the establishment, resulting in a loss of poetic vision. Conflict between classes gave rise to conflict-driven theories or theories in such fashion, as with the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’. All this inevitably led to 1914, another slaughter of the poets and a silencing of the prophetic voice by the forces of oppression and conformity. This is set out in Section 4 of Q’s first Shelley lecture.

In ‘Some Seventeenth Century Poets’, Q endeavours to present the alternative to conflict-driven theories and creative stagnation, an alternative based in order and harmony, rooted in mystical vision. This mysticism is more evident in Herbert and Vaughan than in the more intellectual, Donne. What is unusual about Q’s mysticism is its roots in science, revealing the family background in scientific investigation. Q is not speaking of mysticism in terms of higher states of consciousness or absorption in the All, but of becoming aware of the harmony of the Universe and our part in it. The enemy of this awareness lies in the power and authority of elites who wish to nullify creative thought and enforce received opinion and dogmatic certainties. This is a central argument in his writings on the Romantic poets, but he appears to have had to go back to the time before the English Civil War to illustrate his case most fully.

I John Donne

Q presents Isaak Walton’s Life of John Donne, written in 1640, nine years after the poet’s death, as the basis for his lecture. Sections I and II provide biographical information in date order.

Donne was born in 1573, with his father dying three years after. At twelve he was sent with his brother, a Catholic, to Oxford, and at 17 entered Lincolns Inn in London. To fully establish his Protestant credentials he joined in the expedition of the Earl of Essex to Cadiz in 1596. From there he continued on to Spain and Italy. When he returned he became secretary to Lord Elsemore (or Ellesmore), a position he lost on contracting a secret marriage to Anne More, the daughter of Sir George More. He was subsequently employed by Sir Robert Drury of Hawsted in Suffolk. A happy marriage cured him of profligacy and confirmed his religious convictions.

Q identifies a visionary experience, one which has caused embarrassment to contemporary biographers, as having effected the profoundest change in his nature. While on an embassy in Paris ‘I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms.’ Q’s Couch and Quiller forbears had similar visionary experiences. Donne later discovered that his vision reflected events at home while he had been away. In 1615, he took Holy Orders in the Anglican Church, becoming Dean of St. Pauls in 1621.

In Sections IV and V Q argues that Donne’s sermons surpass his verse because his ear was more attuned to prose than to poetry. However, what lay at the basis of his writings was mysticism, although mysticism of a less than perfect kind. From this observation in Section VI Q moves to a contemplation of Donne’s death, as Donne himself had contemplated it for years before its actuality. Q sees Donne’s greatest achievement in having his feet in the corruptions of the world but with hands on the doors of heaven.

II George Herbert and Henry Vaughn

The subjects of the second lecture were George Herbert (1593-1633) and Henry Vaughn (1621/2-1695), both of Welsh descent. Herbert represented Q’s ideal Anglican priest, possibly the person he had in mind when creating the Rev Samuel Raymond in The Ship of Stars (1899), although Raymond was no mystic. It is the mysticism of Donne, Herbert and Vaughan which Q is specifically interested in.

Q opens his lecture on Herbert and Vaughn by restating his theme as the relationship between poetry and mysticism, expanding fleeting references in earlier lectures. In Section I he explores man’s place in the universe and in Section II how a man apprehends his place.

In the second paragraph of Section I, Q makes a statement of belief, based on direct observation, that the universe is not a chaos driven by conflict, chance or randomness, which would make all logical thought impossible, but an order, a succession and a harmony. This necessitates a further belief in a divine purpose. The idea that the order is more apparent than real, like a sequence of numbers on a roulette wheel, is dismissed. The order is real, as is the universe itself, the product of an organising intelligence. It is therefore permeated with consciousness, which in Man becomes self-consciousness, something dead matter is not able to achieve. (Presumably, this can only be refuted by a self-conscious computer, something endlessly promised but never delivered.)

Writers from Plato to Milton have conveyed this sense of observed harmony in stories, parables and metaphor. This is followed by a quotation from Milton.

                                                            ‘Then listen I
                        To the celestial Sirens’ harmony
                        That sit upon the nine infolded spheres
                        And sing to those that hold the vital shears,
                        And turn the adamantine spindle round
                        On which the fate of gods and men is wound.
                        Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie,
                        To lull the daughters of Necessity,
                        And keep unsteady Nature to her law,
                        And the low world in measured motion draw
                        After the heavenly tune.’

Q notes with derision the tendency of modern materialists to dismiss such works with otiose phrases like ‘Modern astronomy has exploded…’

The reason man can discern this external harmony is because it reflects an internal harmony. As Henry Vaughn writes:

                        ‘I saw Eternity, the other night,
                        Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
                                    All calm as it was bright;
                        And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
                                    Driv’n by the spheres,
                        Like a vast shadow mov’d.’

If man rejects the harmony within himself, he loses the sense of a greater harmony and becomes embroiled in conflict-driven observations.

It is important to realise that Q is not dealing with vague sensations or obscure ideas. By setting out the above he, by definition, rejects other common notions:

a. The universe is simply material and self-explanatory as in secular humanism;
b. The material universe is an illusion from which consciousness needs to be liberated;
c. The material universe is the product of an evil demigod as in gnosticism;
d. The universe is imbued with or sustained by an impersonal Spirit as in pantheism;
e. The existence of God and the divine is unknowable or irrelevant as in agnosticism or Buddhism.
f. Man and the universe and God are indivisible in a non-dual One, as in the Hinduism of Sankara.

In Section III of the lecture, Q develops his argument further, man experiences a spirit within the harmony of the universe which, like Jesus, he knows as ‘Father’ and recognises within the experience, like St. Paul, a sense of ‘adoption’.

In Sections IV and V, Q rejects the writings of those – Hegel, Comte and Bergson being specifically mentioned – who attempt to understand the universe in terms of an intellectual system. There can be no universal theory in words or symbols. Reality is not known through ratiocination but from the heart and through the prophetic poets. It is the oneness of man, the universe and God. What the scientist and the philosopher see as diversity, the poet and mystic see as a divine harmony. Q does not confuse this with non-duality or determinism; diversity is not lost in the All, because man retains free will, the right to refuse the divine purpose. Man is made in the image of God and is imbued with consciousness, so like Byron he can stand up and question the divine, as Q explains in Section VII of his Byron lecture of 1918.

Both of Q’s biographers, Brittain and Rowse, agree in identifying him as a practising and a believing Anglican. Donne, Herbert and Vaughan were orthodox post-Reformation Anglicans. How far Q’s lectures enlighten us on the orthodoxy of the time, apart from the specifically mystical, is open to question. The lectures do enlighten us in Q’s understanding of the mystical in relation to the poets. In the lecture of 1936, ‘Orthodoxy and Tradition’, Q investigates the difference between Anglican orthodoxy, with its creeds and dogmas, and an Anglican tradition which stretches back to the Early Church and outwards to a wider world. He places himself with the Anglican tradition but not within a specific orthodoxy. This is not the same, however, as Anglican latitudinarianism. Nor did he have any sympathy with vagueness and diffuseness of language. The seventeenth century poets said what they meant and meant what they said, as did the Romantics such as Byron and Shelley. If we are wise we listen.

Parallels with Einstein

In 1972, Banesh Hoffman, a former friend of Albert Einstein, and Einstein’s long-time secretary, Helen Dukas, collaborated on a biography of the physicist. About the time Q was writing his preface to Studies in Literature at Cambridge, with the guns of the Ludendorff offensive booming away across the channel, Albert Einstein was in Princeton speaking at a birthday celebration for the German physicist Max Planck. Einstein said that the job of a physicist is to determine the ‘universal laws’ of the ‘cosmos’. As ‘there is no logical path to these laws’, the physicist has to employ ‘intuition’ driven by a ‘longing to behold (cosmic) harmony’ using a ‘state of mind…akin to that of the religious worshipper or the lover’. The ‘laws’ can only be formulated on the basis of ‘deduction’ – the deductive not the inductive method! (Hoffman and Dukas, 1972, p. 222).

In 1928/9 he identified his views as emanating from the Dutch philosopher Spinoza and relating to ‘beauty’, ‘logical simplicity’ and ‘harmony’. There is no ‘personal God’ but a ‘supreme mind’, both ‘lucid’ and ‘beautiful’ (ibid., p. 225). Later in 1945, he used the term ‘Spinoza’s imminent God’ (ibid., p. 195). Hoffman makes it clear that Einstein based his theories on ‘faith and feeling and intuition’. ‘All science is based on faith’ not ‘cold logic’, nor on chance or randomness because as Einstein famously said ‘God does not play dice’ (ibid., p. 193) and all true ‘ideas come from God’ (ibid., p. 101). Apart from Einstein’s ‘determinism’ and his rejection of a ‘personal God’, there is remarkably little difference between the thinking of Q and Einstein; although there is much between Einstein’s thinking and that of other Cambridge scientists, especially those of the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’. In his thinking on the seventeenth century poets, Q is more of a scientist than a theologian.

Parallels with Sir Humphry Davy

Three portraits hung on the wall of Einstein’s study at Princeton, those of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, all religious men. Faraday was a close friend of Sir Humphry Davy and an associate of Davies Gilbert, who followed Davy as President of the Royal Society. Davy and Gilbert came from West Cornwall and it was through the influence of Gilbert, a scientist and a distinguished politician, that Davy became a lecturer at the Royal Institution in London, in 1801. Gilbert was a friend and relation of Thomas Bond of Looe, the AEneas Pond of Q’s The Mayor of Troy (1906). Jonathan Couch knew Bond well but appears to have had little or no contact with Gilbert.

An insight into the thinking of Davy comes from The Life of Humphry Davy by his younger brother John Davy, F.R.S. Humphry Davy came from one of four Penzance scientists bearing the name, all related, but was the only poet amongst them. An article from the West Briton of July 15, 1835, gives Mr. Pearce of Penzance as a pupil and friend of Humphry Davy. When Dr Richard Quiller Couch established a medical practice in the town a few years later, he married into the Pearce family. The Mr Pearce mentioned could well have been Richard’s father-in-law. Q spent a lot of time in Penzance with Richard’s descendants. The convergence of Q’s thinking to that of Davy is remarkable.

According to John Davy (1836, p. 16) his brother dabbled in materialism when young but soon dismissed it as giving any insight into the world of nature. Humphry ‘remained a very short time’ in the ‘cold region of materialism’ regarding the idea of ‘chance’ as inadequate to explain or ‘motion’. The natural world demands a ‘Supreme intelligence’ who is ‘active and intelligent’ (ibid., pp. 17-18). As regards scientific theory ‘scepticism…is what we ought most rigorously to adhere to’ (ibid., p. 69) because ‘Probabilities are the most we can hope for in our generalisations’ and any connection between facts can be no more than ‘approximations’ (ibid., p. 70). This is pure Jonathan Couch.

Davy makes a daring statement, but one also appearing in the thought of Einstein: the ‘Supreme Intelligence’ is capable of revealing ‘ideas to geniuses such as Newton’ (1836, p. 224). As he says in The Sons of Genius:

‘For those exist whose pure ethereal minds,
Imbibing portions of celestial day,
Scorn all terrestrial cares, all mean designs,
As bright-eyed eagles scorn the lunar ray.’

Davy is repeating a notion found in the seventeenth century poets that reality can only be discovered through purification, and a knowledge of the divine.

Davy saw the ‘creation’ and the ‘Creator’ as reflecting each other (ibid., p. 385), although such ideas invite the ‘irony and scoffs of the great materialists and atheists’ (ibid., p. 441), something Q must have become used to. He discerned the divine not just in the heavens, as did the psalmist, but in the ‘beauty, order and harmony which are conspicuous in the perfect chemistry of Nature’ (ibid., p. 470). Unlike Einstein, however, Davy rejected the idea of God as ‘a spirit, a principle, an energy’… ‘No; there is an intelligent cause, which is God’ (ibid., p. 437). Such a being cannot be truly known through the natural world but also through ‘Revelation’ (ibid., p. 427) and the experience of ‘goodness and mercy belonging to the Divine Mind’ (ibid., p. 388).

Davy discerned the divine not just in heaven, as did the psalmist, but in the ‘beauty, order and harmony which are conspicuous in the perfect chemistry of Nature’ (ibid., p. 470). Being a poet as well as a scientist, and a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, he saw genius not just in the scientist but in the poet. As he wrote to Coleridge, genius is not just the product of the intellect but of ‘creative energy’, ‘imagination…winged with fire’ and a mind ‘purified and exalted for noble affections and great works’ (ibid., p. 448-50). Excluded are those who peddle received opinions, who can only work within the theory and who crave for money. Among these are the ‘gross materialists and atheists’.

When Davy’s writings are taken as a whole it is clear that he did not work from the observation of nature to a belief in a divine being. His experience of the divine is expressed in very personal terms. Belief was based on experience, verified in the soul, not an intellectual idea found only in the intellect, requiring scientific verification.

The Harmony of Creation

The threads running through the writings of Davy, Einstein and Q are quite remarkable: that the universe is a harmony and not random; that it is the product of intelligence; that we can know the created world and the Creator because we possess something divine within ourselves; and that certain individuals can free themselves from conventional and received opinion sufficiently to access divine ideas. Whether the divine is personal or impersonal is a point of difference. Q explains in Section I that the ideas of order and harmony run through the great writers of the past, from Plato to Milton. However, because these writers expressed themselves in parables, story and metaphor, materialistic moderns have tended to dismiss them with otiose phrases such as ‘Modern astronomy has exploded…’.

In Section II of the lecture on ‘Herbert and Vaughn’, Q confronts the problem of how dead matter attained consciousness of itself in man. This is explained in the notion of God, man and the universe being one, hence all are imbued with consciousness. Man can perceive the harmony of the Universe because a similar harmony resides within himself. He claims to see this idea in the poetry of Vaughan.

                        ‘I saw Eternity, the other night,
                        Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
                                    All calm as it was bright;
                        And round beneath it, Time, in hours, days, years,
                                    Driv’n by the spheres,
                        Like a vast shadow mov’d.’

Yet man has the propensity to follow shadows rather than the light, particulars rather than universals, and notions such as chance and randomness rather than order and harmony, resulting in conflict-driven theories.

The images found in Section III, the circulation of the blood, the stars of the sky and the relation of eye and brain, reveal Q’s family background in medicine and science. The body and the universe share the same rhythm and harmony – disharmony bringing sickness and death! He takes a step beyond Einstein in seeing this harmony not in terms of an impersonal divinity but as a personal God, using the term used by Jesus, ‘Father’. On July 25, 1827, the following appears in Davy’s ‘On the Fall of the Traun’.

                        ‘E’en as I look upon thy mighty flood,
                        Absorb’d in thought, it seems that I become
                        A part of thee, and in thy thundering waves
                        My thoughts are lost, and pass to future time,
                        Seeking the infinite, and rolling on
                        Towards the sea eternal and unbounded
                        Of the all-powerful, omnipresent mind!’

Davy was not an ‘intellect on a stick’ doing experiments and thinking he was discovering the nature of things, but a full human being employing all his faculties.

In Sections IV and V, Q warns us that we cannot reason our way to God or construct a philosophical system – as with Hegel, Comte and Bergson – to explain the world in which we live. Q explicitly rejects Paley’s ‘Evidences’, presumably William Paley (1743-1805), Natural Theology; or Evidence of the Existence of Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature, published in 1802. Q agrees with Davy for the need of revelation: ‘Revelation, without which true religion must have become extinct on earth;’ (Davy, 1836, p. 427). In Section VI, Q puts it slightly differently, seeing man as having a soul which is capable of receiving a direct revelation if the path of the mystic is followed. He takes Mary as an example of this process: ‘Be it done unto me according to thy word’. Q then uses the phrase ‘a wise passiveness’ from Wordsworth before quoting from ‘Tintern Abbey’.

                        ‘While with an eye made quiet by the power
                        Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
                        We see into the life of things.’

Davy, who knew Wordsworth personally, would have been familiar with the poem. Q echoes Einstein in believing ‘logic’ to be inadequate to a full understanding of reality.

Q’s Scientific Perspective

The scientific perspective underlying Q’s writings derive from a Couch tradition dating back to Dr. Jonathan Couch F.L.S., of Polperro, Q’s grandfather. Dr. Thomas Quiller Couch states that his father knew ‘how to observe’ and deplored ‘loosely-observed facts’ and ‘deductions prematurely drawn’, emphasising ‘doubt’ as a precondition to claiming ‘fact’. Although Jonathan Couch was familiar with the inductive method, his voluminous writings show factual but no theoretical statements. He avoided the problem of the inductive method exposed by David Hume and noticed by Bertrand Russell. His empirical observations never resulted in general statements which are not open to observation and which can be supported by but never established by testing. Jonathan Couch did not deny universal laws because he saw common-sense observation supported by a belief in the ‘external author’ whose ‘divinity…stirs within us’, a divinity known by direct experience in the soul. Jonathan was a Wesleyan and this is Wesley’s teaching as well as his own experience.

In spite of Hume the inductive method was generally accepted in Jonathan’s time, and still seems to be today amongst some. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) Popper denies the possibility of inferring ‘universal statements from singular ones’. Whereas singular statements can be verified or falsified on the basis of empirical observation, universal statements cannot and no amount of testing overcomes the problem. A good theory is a universal statement that is better supported by observations, at a particular moment in time, than all other competing theories. He would claim evolution to fall into this class. However, it has to be open to open to revision or abandonment if a competing theory proves more successful. Scientists who claim their theories to be fact are self-deceived.

According to the argument of Popper, Q is correct in using the term ‘Darwinian hypothesis’ rather than the unqualified term usually employed. The basis of Q’s three lectures on ‘Some Seventeenth Century Poets’ is itself a scientific hypothesis regarding the nature of the universe, man’s place within it and the fact of consciousness. Q regarded his synthesis to be that of poets, philosophers and scientists from the time of classical civilisation. Far from inventing, he was simply explaining through Donne, Herbert and Vaughn a perennial philosophy.

Q concludes Section VI with two observations: mystics are invariably sanguine individuals because ‘Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8): the mystical vision can only be expressed in symbols, which presents a problem for the literally minded. In Section VII, Donne is described as a partial mystic because he was a restless individual whose mind tended to inappropriate symbols and images.

The same cannot be said for the saintly George Herbert whose biographical details come in Section VIII. In most lectures the biographical details would have opened the disquisition, but Q appears to have seen an initial setting out of his ground as a necessary obligation. The biographical details are based on Walton’s ‘Lives’, because Q always believed in getting back as close as possible, in all his historical works, to the actual time.

Section IX provides biographical details for Vaughn and explains Vaughn’s poetical debt to the earlier Herbert. The final paragraph is presented as an afterthought, but includes the most, or at least one of the most important, possibly devastating, points in the whole lecture: All great literature is based on mysticism and without it literature dies!

One suspects that this is exactly what Q considered was happening in his own time, with the First World War, the death of the poets on the Western Front and the coarsening of society at home as the cause. This decline in creative vision is the theme of the preface to the 1928 Duchy Edition of The White Wolf. It paralleled in certain respects what happened at the close of the Napoleonic War. Even in his lectures on seventeenth century poets Q is making contemporary points. This in part explains their popularity amongst the student body. 

III Traherne, Crashaw and Others

The third lecture is titled ‘Traherne, Crashaw and Others’ but begins with a quotation from Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. Section I is about the nature of the child, a question Q explored in novels such as The Ship of Stars (1899) and Shining Ferry (1905), and which concerned him as a member of the Cornwall Education Committee.

As an Anglican we can assume that Q held the human person to be body, soul and spirit, as in scripture and the Fathers of the Church. This distinguishes him from certain academics of his time and since who dismissively talk of the soul as ‘the ghost in the machine’ and reduce the human person to the purely material; to what can be determined by scientific testing, or what they believed that testing to be. It is important to see Q’s lectures in the context of the Cambridge University of the period. At the centre of this was the problem of knowledge, with Positivism in the ascendant. Science was largely governed by a belief in induction of inductive inference, that singular statements, the result of observation or experiment, can generate universal statements, or hypotheses and theories. Yet in 1919 clear evidence emerged of the validity of Einstein’s theories based on deduction, which works the other way around. A theory is proposed with predictions that can be empirically tested, as with the bending of light during an eclipse which showed the superiority of Einstein’s over Newton’s theory of light. Q’s Cambridge lectures were not given in a void.

In Section IV of his second lecture, Q had referred to Hegel, Comte and Bergson. Hegel (1770-1831) believed in a spirit-soul which at the death of an individual returns to the Absolute. August Comte (1798-1857) believed everything had to be explained by scientific method, presumably induction. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) rejected scientific materialism, including Darwinian evolution, positing a creative impulse or élan vital which imposes itself upon matter, with a duality between matter and consciousness. He was influenced by William James who denied that there was a specific entity termed soul, only a series of connections. As with many of Q’s Cambridge associates, these philosophers were looking at the world from a non-Christian perspective. Matter, soul and consciousness were central concerns.

Even in early Christianity the nature of the soul was a contentious issue, as J.N.D. Kelly explains in the first section of Chapter XIII of Early Christian Doctrines (1980). The catechetical school of Alexandria, which was influenced by middle Platonism, and of whom Origen (c.185-c.254) was an exponent, saw the soul as the rational entity in man, with the body as a product of a lower sensible world. Origen believed the soul to have pre-existed the body to which it became attached at birth. However, he rejected the Manichean notion of the soul needing liberation from the material body as matter is inherently evil. The school interpreted the first five chapters of Genesis, and the violence of the Old Testament, allegorically, with the consequence that their descendants had little problem with what Q in his lecture calls the ‘Darwinian hypothesis’.

The standard view of the Greek Fathers was ‘creationism’, not to be confused with twentieth century creation science. The soul was created by God at the moment of conception, extending through the body although specifically located. Pelagius, the British monk whose heresy Q mentions in Section I, held this view. Tertullian advocated traducianism, where body and soul are derived from the parents, to Augustine the means whereby original sin is transmitted. Augustine and Pelagius came into direct conflict over the subject of original sin. The Protestant Reformers were stridently Augustinian. In Section III of ‘Traherne’, Q has a swipe at his Calvinist relations, the Fords of Newton Abbot. The Wesleyan Couches were anti-Calvinist and anti-Pelagian.

Lecture III, ‘Traherne, Crashaw and Others’, opens with nine lines from ‘Intimations of Immortality’ which relate to the origin of the soul.

                        ‘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:’

Later we learn that it comes ‘From God, who is our home:’. The ‘Soul’ had a pre-existence in ‘God’, was united with the body at conception, and longs to return to its ‘home’. The teaching of Origen of Alexandria. According to Q, standard opinion sees Vaughan’s poem ‘The Retreat’ as the source of the image.

                        ‘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.’

It is possible but not likely that the Anglican Vaughan was following Origen and the doctrine of pre-existent souls. It is more likely for him to be contrasting the innocence of childhood with the corruption of adulthood, a standard motif in seventeenth century religious poetry, as it is with the Greek Fathers. As John Climacus says in Step One of The Ladder of Divine Ascent: ‘among children no evil is found…until at last they come upon passion.’ (1982, p.76)

After the quotation from Vaughan Q obliquely refers to the doctrine of original sin and the Fall of Man by quoting from Milton’s Paradise Lost. John Milton was a supporter of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentary forces which opposed those of Q’s heroes in The Splendid Spur. Milton’s work is contrasted with the views of Pelagius, who denied original sin and, according to Kelly, believed man capable of accomplishing ‘the divine will by his own choice’ (1980, p. 5), a belief held by contemporary liberal Protestants. Q avoids becoming enmeshed in a controversy by moving sideways into Darwin’s theory of evolution, a conflict-driven theory with little room for innocence.

From Darwin Q goes on to give a further example of innocence found in seventeenth century writings, Dr. South’s Human Perfection: or Adam in Paradise. A lengthy quotation opens with the ‘image of God in man’ found in the ‘soul’, an idea not inimical to that of an inner harmony in the soul which looks to the divine harmony. However, Q deplores South’s tendency to speculative ideas based on the first three chapters of Genesis but which cannot be derived from them. Q was no friend of those who wished to generalise from the particular, even more so when the particulars were improperly observed. However, the fact Q was wishing to establish was a seventeenth century belief in ante-natal existence, a belief later developed by Wordsworth. Section I concludes with a lengthy quotation from the Platonist John Earle, who suggests that the ‘soul is as yet white paper’ in the child and ‘knows no evil’, but is subsequently corrupted by experience. However, and here is Platonism, if the child can ‘put off his body’, he will know ‘Eternity without a burthen’ and ‘heaven’ again. This looks like the idea of matter being inferior to the soul, and from which the soul requires release. Whether Donne, Herbert and Vaughan believed in ante-natal existence is a different question and somewhat unlikely.

In Section II of the lecture, Q claims a continuity between the ideas of John Earle and Thomas Traherne. It is also claimed that Traherne followed in the steps of Herbert and Vaughan. Traherne, however, appears to be ploughing his own furrow. Firstly, the creation is seen as good and not inferior as it is the product of a good God. In this he reflects Dr South rather than John Earle. Secondly, he appears to be following the creationist line. If the first line of the poem quoted is taken literally, however, he is claiming both soul and body descended from the creator, although Angels have no physical body, so the creationist position holds.

                        ‘How like an Angel came I down!
                                    How bright are all things here!
                        When first among His works did I appear
                                    O how their Glory me did crown!
                                                The world resembled his Eternity
                                                            In which my soul did walk;
                                                And everything that I did see
                                                            Did with me talk.’

In a prose passage Traherne identifies the ‘divine light wherewith I was born’ as the one illuminating his understanding of the ‘Universe’, again paralleling Q’s notion of a harmony within and a harmony without. Interestingly, if the ‘Universe’ can only properly be understood through the assistance of ‘divine light’, the knowledge gained through science can only be partial. It is interesting to compare this with two lines from Sir Humphry Davy’s ‘The Sons of Genius’.

                        ‘By science calmed, over the peaceful soul,
                        Bright with eternal Wisdom’s lucid ray,’

These are not lines Charles Darwin would feel happy with!

Q continues his exploration of the writings of Traherne by leaving verse for prose. Traherne claims the memory of a ‘divine light’ apprehended in the ‘womb’ as the light illuminating the ‘Universe’ following his birth. Corn, trees and sky are presented as reflections of the divine glory. This is contrasted with a reference to Calvinism which Q uses to divide the Traherne into two parts. Unfortunately, the contrast in inappropriate. Calvin also saw the natural world as reflecting the divine glory. There are lyrical passages in ‘The Institutes of the Christian Religion’ equal to anything in Traherne. Calvin was not only sensitive to natural beauty but also wanted to protect himself from imputations of Platonism or Gnosticism, and to emphasise that Man is without excuse in rejecting the creator. The contrast between Calvin and Traherne is regarding original sin and original innocence. Traherne identifies society as the source of corruption: ‘I was corrupted, and made to learn the dirty devices of this world.’ There is no evidence in Calvin or Traherne’s prose of belief in ante-natal experience. Q’s writings on the religious poets of the seventeenth century show a degree of theological weakness not evident in his political, historical, scientific and educational writings. Commentating on one of the rare sermons delivered by Q in Cambridge, ‘The Old Cambridge’ considered Q ‘deficient in theological equipment and…in knowledge of church history’ (Brittain, 1980, p. 95).

In Section IV of the lecture, Q turns to five minor poets: Sir John Davies, Phineas Fletcher, Henry King, William Habington and Christopher Harvey. All possessed a certain poetic competence but lacked genuine mystical inspiration. Q sees great poetry as a union of competence and inspiration. Q moves on in this section to discuss a genuine mystic but one who followed too closely the forms of the time and whose inspiration was strangled. Lastly, in Section VI, he looks at Richard Crashaw, a Catholic poet of variable quality.

Sections IV to VI are of moderate interest except for the first paragraph of IV, where Q returns to the two principles of mysticism, the major harmony of the universe and the minor harmony of the human soul. The soul recollects the harmony of the universe and wishes to be reunited. The purpose of Christ’s coming to earth was to seek the lost of the Kingdom of God. As Quarles expresses it:

                        ‘My blood so red
                                    For thee was shed,
                        Come home again, come home again;
                        My own sweet heart, come home again!
                                    You’ve gone astray
                                                Out of your way,
                        Come home again, come home again.’

Q appears to view Christ’s coming to earth as not so much for salvation as for restoration. In this he reflects Origen of Alexandria, who believed all things would ultimately be restored.

Q’s vision may not be totally orthodox but it is comprehensive. It explains the nature of the universe, the nature of consciousness and how matter becomes conscious of itself, and how that consciousness is capable of grasping universal harmony. He is challenging those that claim the world to be a product of chance, randomness and conflict. Q did not see the challenge to himself simply in terms of scientists or philosophers. He noticed, as the preface to The White Wolf  (1902) demonstrates, that others were endeavouring to reformulate literature on the basis of chance, randomness and conflict. In fact, novelists, composers and artists were trying to produce works on such a basis, with random notes or strokes of paint or unaccountable circumstances, which never resolve themselves into order or meaning.

In the final section of the lecture, numbered VII, Q expresses the desire for the mystical vision, too pure for himself and most others, to be rooted in the ordinary and mundane, the reality of Don Quixote, Mr. Pickwick, Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, who strut and caper across the stage of life, living lives of action rather than contemplation. This is particularly necessary, if mysticism is the root of creativity, and literature was to recover from the ravages of war and political corruption following what was then termed the Great War.


Bibliography: Lecture on some Seventeenth Century Poets

Walton's Lives.

Walton, I.
Walton's Lives. The Life of John Donne.