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Mysticism in English Literature   By: (1869-1942)

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Mysticism in English Literature


Caroline F. E. Spurgeon

"Many are the thyrsus bearers, but few are the mystics"


Mysticism in English Literature


The variety of applications of the term "mysticism" has forced me to restrict myself here to a discussion of that philosophical type of mysticism which concerns itself with questions of ultimate reality. My aim, too, has been to consider this subject in connection with great English writers. I have had, therefore, to exclude, with regret, the literature of America, so rich in mystical thought.

I wish to thank Mr John Murray for kind permission to make use of an article of mine which appeared in the Quarterly Review , and also Dr Ward and Mr Waller for similar permission with regard to certain passages in a chapter of the Cambridge History of English Literature , vol. ix.

I am also indebted to Mr Bertram Dobell, Messrs Longmans, Green, Mrs Coventry Patmore and Mr Francis Meynell for most kindly allowing me to quote from the works respectively of Thomas Traherne, Richard Jefferies, Coventry Patmore, and Francis Thompson.


April 1913.


I. Introduction

Definition of Mysticism. The Early Mystical Writers. Plato. Plotinus. Chronological Sketch of Mystical Thought in England.

II. Love and Beauty Mystics

Shelley, Rossetti, Browning, Coventry Patmore, and Keats.

III. Nature Mystics

Henry Vaughan, Wordsworth, Richard Jefferies.

IV. Philosophical Mystics

(i) Poets. Donne, Traherne, Emily Brontë, Tennyson.

(ii) Prose Writers. William Law, Burke, Coleridge, Carlyle.

V. Devotional and Religious Mystics

The Early English Writers: Richard Rolle and Julian; Crashawe, Herbert, and Christopher Harvey; Blake and Francis Thompson.



Mysticism in English Literature

Chapter I


Mysticism is a term so irresponsibly applied in English that it has become the first duty of those who use it to explain what they mean by it. The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1911), after defining a mystic as "one who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding," adds, "whence mysticism (n.) (often contempt)." Whatever may be the precise force of the remark in brackets, it is unquestionably true that mysticism is often used in a semi contemptuous way to denote vaguely any kind of occultism or spiritualism, or any specially curious or fantastic views about God and the universe.

The word itself was originally taken over by the Neo platonists from the Greek mysteries, where the name of [Greek: mystês] given to the initiate, probably arose from the fact that he was one who was gaining a knowledge of divine things about which he must keep his mouth shut ([Greek: myo] = close lips or eyes). Hence the association of secrecy or "mystery" which still clings round the word.

Two facts in connection with mysticism are undeniable whatever it may be, and whatever part it is destined to play in the development of thought and of knowledge. In the first place, it is the leading characteristic of some of the greatest thinkers of the world of the founders of the Eastern religions of Plato and Plotinus, of Eckhart and Bruno, of Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel. Secondly, no one has ever been a lukewarm, an indifferent, or an unhappy mystic. If a man has this particular temperament, his mysticism is the very centre of his being: it is the flame which feeds his whole life; and he is intensely and supremely happy just so far as he is steeped in it.

Mysticism is, in truth, a temper rather than a doctrine, an atmosphere rather than a system of philosophy. Various mystical thinkers have contributed fresh aspects of Truth as they saw her, for they have caught glimpses of her face at different angles, transfigured by diverse emotions, so that their testimony, and in some respects their views, are dissimilar to the point of contradiction. Wordsworth, for instance, gained his revelation of divinity through Nature, and through Nature alone; whereas to Blake "Nature was a hindrance," and Imagination the only reality... Continue reading book >>

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