Friday, 27 July 2012

Amergin, Keats and Dōgen, Poets and Mystics

I am Wind on Sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Bull of Seven Fights,
I am Vulture on Cliff,
I am Dewdrop,
I am Fairest of Flowers,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am Lake on Plain,
I am a Mountain in a Man,
I am a Word of Skill,
I am the Point of a Weapon (that poureth forth combat),
I am God who fashioneth Fire for a Head.

R.A.S. MacAllister's translation from Lebor Gabala Erenn (Irish Texts Society, 1941)

So sang Amergin Glúingel, poet of the Milesians, when he first placed his right foot on the soil of Ireland. In Wales, the medieval bard Taliesin claimed to have been many things, animals, wild and domestic, the tools of farmers and smiths:

I was a blue salmon,
I was a dog, a stag,
I was a roebuck on a mountain,
I was a block, I was a spade,
I was an axe in the hand,
I was an auger [held] in tongs,
for a year and a half.
I was a speckled cockerel
covering the hens in Eidyn;
I was a stallion at stud,
I was a fiery bull. 

( Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock)

Some people see these proclamations as evidence of shamanic practices, shape-shifting or time-travelling, while scholars studying the Taliesin texts have sought to demonstrate that they are not the work of an early druidic bard but rather of a medieval professional poet promoting a mystique about the knowledge and talents of his profession, incorporating learning derived from such diverse sources as medieval science, folklore, biblical and continental texts.

But can we see these particular utterances of Amergin, (‘Born of Song’) and Taliesin (‘Radiant Brow’) in poetic terms as exemplifying the ability or skill of the poet to inhabit other bodies, other times and situations through his imagination or mystical experience?
Famously John Keats described the chameleon poet who has no colour of his own but takes on those of others, whether good or bad:
The poetical character... is not itself — it has no self — it is every thing and nothing — It has no character — it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it fair or foul, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated. — It has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philospher, delights the camelion poet.
It does no harm from its relish of the dark side of things any more than from its taste for the bright one; because they both end in speculation. A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity – he is continually in for – and filling some other Body – the Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute – the poet has none; no identity – he is certainly the most unpoetical of all God’s creatures. [1]
Keats is even able to imagine how an inanimate object might experience its existence, telling his friend Richard Woodhouse that he could conceive of a billiard ball taking a sense of delight in 'its own roundness, smoothness, volubility and the rapidity of its motion’.
Coleridge wrote in a letter of 1819 that he too experienced "a sort of transfusion and transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the object" and nearer our own time T. S. Eliot has described how the poet continually surrenders himself to something more valuable (in this case an awareness not only of the time in which he lives but also the presence of the past, an experience of the timeless and the temporal) and asserts that  ‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.’ (Tradition and the Individual Talent)

There are some similarities between this ‘progress of the artist’ and the Buddhist way. The 13th century Chinese Buddhist Dōgen said:

To study the Way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
To be enlightened by all things
is to remove the barriers between one’s self and others.

But, although Dōgen himself was a poet, he taught that the Way led beyond language to a state of being fully present and enlightened. The way of the poet and the way of the mystic share steps on the journey but lead to a different place. When I was 16, sitting by a tree-lined lake with my cat, I had the classic mystical experience that we are all One. This was no conscious musing or reaching after meaning; there were no pictures, no words at the time, it was a sudden, unexpected and involuntary shift of perception - one which hasn’t recurred  to date, although I suspect that my sense of the world and my being-in-the-world has been informed by it. But it's an experience that is impossible to put into words beyond 'We are all One'; impossible to describe of what that consists, how it feels, how it looks - because it is outside the usual bounds of perception and therefore of our usual modes of description which rely upon the senses. We may try to use words to describe it further, but in my experience they taint and dilute it.

In her essay Two Secrets: On Poetry’s Inward and Outward Looking [2], Jane Hirshfield considers poetry’s relationship with the outer world. She suggests that poems which carry reflective and indirect meanings take one of three stances: the subjective in which a ‘human-centered consciousness [is] dominating’; the reflective in which ‘the poet and the outer world stand face to face in mutual regard’ and the objective in which ‘the poet becomes an intermediary, a medium through whom the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness may speak’.

But is it possible for the world of objects and nature beyond human consciousness to speak to the poet and for the poet to communicate it to others? As Hirshfield herself says, ‘The earth does not speak our language’ (and Wittgenstein thought “if a lion could talk, we could not understand him”). Miriam Gamble points out in her review of Ruth Padel’s recent poetry collection Mara Crossingthat ‘Padel tussles…with the paradoxical truth that we can gain access to other perspectives only by filtering them through the networks of our own’. We cannot ‘conjure the experience of animals without sinning through usurpation’.

I think there are two ways in which we endeavour to engage with the consciousness of other beings and objects. One is through a mystical communion with nature, with aspects of reality that are normally beyond human perception – an experience which is beyond words and is often corrupted if an attempt is made to communicate it in language. The other is through the imagination.

What is the imagination? It is the faculty which gives “the power to visualize and build mental images; dream about things that have never happened; feel intuitively; and reach beyond sensual or real boundaries” (Elementary Art - Glossary of Art Terms) Colderidge defined the Primary Imagination as “the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. James Volant Baker thought that for Coleridge, "the creative act… is a godlike-act-of-power and causing-to-be, imagination being the divine potency in man”. (James Volant Baker, Sacred River: Coleridge’s Theory of the Imagination) The Primary Imagination says Coleridge, is the necessary imagination as it "automatically balances and fuses the innate capacities and powers of the mind with the external presence of the objective world that the mind receives through the senses".

I am God who fashioneth Fire for a Head” said Amergin, the pronouncement often taken to mean that he is the god who kindles the fire of creative imagination. But is that what he said? The original says “Am dé delbas do chind codnu" and codnu is obscure. It may be a plural form of the noun conn / cond which could mean a 'protruberance, bulge'; so 'horns, antlers', or it could mean 'intelligence, sense', or even 'chief, leader, sensible person'. The meaning ‘fire’ (tene) only comes from a later gloss on the text. Dennis King has questioned, could the line read "I am a god who shapes/creates horns/antlers for the head" - which might link it, perhaps, with Cernunnos, the antlered god. John Carey (The Celtic Heroic Age), meanwhile, translates the line as “I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler”. Problems of translation are not only between nature and ourselves…

But if Amergin is saying that he is a god that shapes intelligence or sense (meaning), then that is perhaps not a bad way of describing the consummate poet who uses his imagination to engage with the external world and filter his vision through language and form to his or her audience, enabling us to expand our perception of the world, its diversity and its wonders.

[1]   Selected Poems and Letters of John Keats, edited with commentary by Robert Gittings, Heinemann, 1966, p 87
  [2] Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, by Jane Hirshfield, Harper Perennial, 1998, pp 127-152