A Deep Sense of Portals Opening
In the course of 1902, the Westinghouse Company promoted Dunlop to Publicity Manager. But it was not only electricity that he was publicizing. For towards the end of the same year, the November issue of The Theosophical Review included an article by him, the first one he contributed to that journal. It was entitled ‘A Deep Sense of Portals Opening’ :
These words of Mr. Laurence Binyon’s are at once the most accurate and the most poetical description of a vital characteristic of the age. Everywhere, in all departments of life, the doors are being flung wide; currents of fresh air rush in upon us, bewildering in their exhilaration; our eyes are dazzled by the light of new landscapes: we divine in imagination vistas reaching far beyond our power of vision. In medieval days these doors were locked, and as a rule no troublesome access of curiosity assailed the dweller within walls: for him, certitudes lay on the other side a concrete heaven an concrete hell, which would, in God’s own time, be reached through the gateway of death. But we have broken through some of the barriers, and some have crumbled away, and the other side is strange and vast and vague unlike all the stories we had heard of it. Those who first looked out! shivered, afraid at the infinity they might never hope to penetrate, and longed for the old screen of beliefs to protect their naked souls against the blasts from the unknown.
In whatever direction we turn our eyes today, we find ourselves surrounded by the inexplicable, the mysterious. There was never an age in the history of man when he was more poignantly aware of the moving of strange presences in his midst. The door that opens on the material world reveals a multitudinous throbbing of life, from the minutest particle of dust to the remotest planet that strikes the soul with awe. New discoveries follow one upon another, but their explanation is lacking, and in the interim they flash with untold possibilities. Spiritual terms, we learn, are derived in the first instance from concrete objects; but the results of recent scientific experiments are so unprecedented that we are forced constantly to reverse this order, and describe them in spiritual terms.
The dazzling imagination of the Orient has never exceeded, in its catalogue of magic gems, the wonder of the newly discovered metals-radium, uranium, and others of their kindred—that radiate light all around them, continually, indefinitely, and yet are not consumed.’ The analysis of these emanations shows them to be composed of particles that are not ordinary atoms or molecules at all, but something very much smaller; and we are confronted with a new kind of matter, containing particles having a velocity about one-third that of light. And so, through a newly opened door, new mysteries of matter come pressing in upon us. The man of science recognizes that to give a name to these indwelling oceans does not imply that they have been explained or fathomed. The power we call electricity is as marvellous and inexplicable as the goddess named of old Diana of the Ephesians, and Professor Karl Pearson has written: ‘Force as a cause of motion is exactly on the same footing as a tree-god as a cause of growth.
This deep sense of portals opening is not confined to the poet and the scientist. It is a common experience of the ordinary man in his more gracious moods when he walks with Nature. The silence of a starry night has speech for him, and underneath the sound of ocean he perceives a silence. But weak souls are afraid alike of the silence and of the still small voice and they seek relief from tension in the clamour of the market-place, today more raucous and persistent than ever before. They wrap themselves in fold upon fold of luxury and raise thick superstructures above them: for the materialism of which we hear so much is in truth nothing but a barricade erected to keep out the terrible unknown which has assumed proportions at times threaten the reason, the emotions—the very soul.
And yet this mystery that we recognize round us is kinder to her votaries than she was in primeval and classic times. It is instructive to compare the modern attitude of man towards Nature with the ancient one. Mighty presences, when the moon was full, shook the Druid wood with awe; the Greek youth followed, through dappled tangle, the shine of Dryad limbs, snow-white, divine. Today we neither worship the god nor pursue the goddess. For we ourselves are the gods and goddesses. No one who has given careful attention to the trend of modern experience but is aware that we pass constantly, in the very streets, mortal creatures that have for brief moments tasted immortality. The annihilation of time is already accomplished; the armies that shall annihilate space are on the wing.
Fiona Macleod hears the grasses whisper, and the green lips of the wind chant the blind, oblivious rune of time: ‘Time never was, time is not.’ Emerson bids us live like the roses, above time. The annihilators of time have recently been reinforced by valiant champions who have endeavoured, from different points, to undermine that convention which we are used to call the past. Mr. W.B. Yeats seeks his inspiration out of olden times; but only because the Idea lived then a fuller life, and it is his will to reimbue it anew with vitality. But that the past is not past to him is exquisitely shown in these lines:
When my arms wrap you round,
I press My heart upon the loveliness
That has long faded from the world.
Maeterlinck is still more emphatic on this point. Few utterances in modern times have been more pregnant with suggestion than his little essay on ‘The Past.’ ‘So long as the life in our mind and character flows uninterruptedly on,’ he says, “so long will the past remain in suspense above us … and, like the clouds Hamlet showed to Polonius, adopt the shape of the hope or fear, the peace or disquiet, that we perfect within us.’
Not only, therefore, can we hold a living past in our arms; not only can we shape and change events that have happened, and so count ourselves, to some extent, kings over time; but the penalty of age, the ancient tragedy of so many lives, is removed every day farther away from us. Most of us number among our acquaintance some of those who can never grow old, because they live close to that which is eternally young, and even the most blasé have the secret of growing young with every spring.
This new attitude of man towards Nature has prompted a new method in literature for its expression – the method of identification. Where sympathy is intense, the sympathizer becomes one with the object of sympathy; and we are gods today because we have learned how to absorb ourselves completely in the mystery of the world, the immortality of the seasons. Formerly the manifestations of Nature were regarded as satellites circling round a human centre of things; now our whole endeavour is to break bonds, and leaving our personalities aside, to enter into a larger, wider existence. So T.E. Brown writes:
Do ye not understand
How the great Mother mixes all our bloods?
O breeze! O swaying buds!
O lambs! O primroses! O floods!
The waterfall no longer haunts us like a passion; but we are ourselves become the passion of the waterfall. Marvellous inspiration awaits poetry along these lines, but its flight is yet too tentative to have given life to more than passing flickers of expression. These flash out in all manner of unexpected directions. ‘I am a bit of the shore,’ says Edward Carpenter in his strangely unequal book Towards Democracy, ‘I am a little arm of the sea … Suddenly I am the ocean itself; the great soft wind creeps over my face.’ Matthew Arnold reserves the identification till after death. ‘How sweet,’ he says,
My sister, to maintain with thee
The hush among the shining stars,
The calm upon the moonlit sea.
This ecstasy of absorption in Nature is a new feature in literature, as in life. The Celtic poets approach it with a consciousness and a comprehension lacking in the work of other races. To them it is a mystic union—not the mere transference of self from one material plane to another, but the bringing into harmony of the material and the spiritual plane. Fiona Macleod expressly states that all that is best in modern poetry is due to the spiritual identification of the two worlds of the outward mortal, and the spiritual immortal.’ She listens, for the wisdom that is beyond all books, to the words of those who live very close to the core of the mystery; some of her wonderful lyric runes are translations from the songs of the fisherfolk of the Hebrides, and her tales are strange and lovely with Gaelic lore. Mr. W.B. Yeats tells us, in verse, in lecture, in essay, of the inner vision of the peasants in remote parts of Ireland; vision, which sees through the deception of the material object to the spirit it hides. “Those that are blind have a way of seeing things,’ said a native to Mr. Yeats, and have the power to know more, and to do more, and to guess more, than those that have their sight.’ Not long ago an emphatic enunciation, by several voices, of the supreme importance of spiritual emotion in poetry was prompted by Mr. Stephen Phillips’s article in The Dome, wherein he makes complaint of the materialism of present-day poetry, attributing it to the lack of ‘some great compelling thought–some rapturous and passionate purpose’.
Poets thus strive to penetrate the mystery that is round us by listening to catch a murmur from the lips of those who live near its source; or by projecting themselves into the mystery-identifying themselves with it, that in intimate communion they may surprise its secrets.
There are some, however, who hold that we cannot master the hidden things of Nature by enlarging the circumference of our personality to embrace it; but that the function of both science and poetry is, by figure, and cipher, and formula, and metaphor, so to diminish Nature that it becomes easily manipulated. Mr. Collin, in his interesting paper in Ethical Democracy, is the best exponent of this view. ‘Foreshortening,’ he says, ‘is our only weapon of defence against the enormity of time and space.’
Against this it should be urged that figure, cipher, and formula, though supremely useful up to a certain point, leave out the living factor that permeates every atom of the universe; and that metaphor, though often flashing in its insight, must be, to a large extent, inexact. We find in Mr. Collin’s essay a reversion to the old error that strove to fit all the phenomena of the universe into human dimensions.
Many aver that the function of the man of science is to specialize, that of the poet to generalize. The one gives the patient research, the careful examination of detail, the weighing and testing of minute evidence; the other approaches the facts illuminated by a sense of their awe and mystery, and with his gift of insight groups and interprets them. ‘Original research, says one writer, ‘is practically incompatible with great and comprehensive thought.’ It is of course a commonplace to point out that all important discoveries have been the result of the laborious following-up of daring dreams; but it is only fair to add that in most cases the man of science has contained within himself the poet; and that the poet’s most marvellous deductions have so far been drawn, not from the facts of original research, but from the facts of the universe—the times and the seasons unrolled before his eyes.
The discoveries of science are nonetheless justly obtaining more and more place in poetry. Among modern poets, Mathilde Blind has dealt extensively with evolution, and both Francis Thompson and William Watson find hurtling words to describe the wonders of the sidereal universe. But there is no revelation here, no new light; they only say beautifully and with ornamentation what has already been baldly stated.
Maeterlinck is perhaps the foremost example of the poet whose generalizations may materially assist the progress of knowledge. His hand has opened to us the portals of the hive, and he has revealed with delicate intuition and all the cautious hesitation of wisdom, mysteries as strange, as incomprehensible, as beautiful as any that wait by the gates of our life. No formal analysis, we feel, could come so near the absolute truth ac observation, conducted with a transcendental sympathy, and … development kept within the rigid bounds of fact. Science will surely follow along the path of this insight; and yet perchance the deepest rid human existence may yield up their secrets in the honied byways of the hive.
Ruskin is another instance of one who approaches fact from its side. His statements are steeped in emotion, and glow with that passion for righteousness that possessed his soul. He is more tumultuous, more magnificent than the Belgian, less exquisite, less quiet, and diametrically opposed to him on certain points of philosophy. For Ruskin states, with almost unnecessary emphasis, that it is our bounden duty to make up our minds concerning the mystifications that surround us. He says, for instance, with reference to immortality: ‘Man must either hereafter live or hereafter die; fate may be bravely met, and conduct wisely ordered, on other expectation; but never in hesitation between ungrasped hope and unconfronted fear.’ Surely this is an untenable position. There is no data to go on that can absolutely convince the reason; and many lack the sense of certitude that brings conviction to the soul. Maeterlinck’s attitude is far more logical. He says in effect: these subjects are mysteries; infinite patience may disclose little by little glimmers of meaning to future ages; but it is not for us to say either yea or nay. ‘In all questions of this kind,’ says Maeterlinck, ‘it is far less important to prove things than it is to awaken and inspire in men a certain grave and courageous respect for all which remains still inexplicable in their laws, and in the ensuing results. common human action, in their subjection to what appear to be general laws, and in the ensuing results.
We hear from various quarters lamentations for the barriers that are being broken down, for the prop of old faiths removed, for all anciently accepted certainties that are gone forever. But here indeed is no cause for sorrow, but instead for exultation. On all sides the portals opening let in great draughts from the unknown, that intoxicate us with the thought of the strange lands and seas they have traversed, that stimulate to exploration, that throb with remote possibilities. For to live with an ever-present sense of the mysteries about us is both humbling and elevating, giving us kinship with the minutest atom, and raising us to the stature of gods.