The Spice of Life and Other Essays/The Soul in Every Legend

I think it was that very fine and subtle writer, Vernon Lee, who lapsed into literary heresy by saying that a poet is always a pantheist. I could only accept this in the amended form that no poet, by any possibility, has ever been or ever will be a pantheist. It was precisely because Walt Whitman sometimes tried on principle to be a pantheist, that so great a genius just missed being a poet. Shelley did not miss being a poet; but he did miss being a pantheist. A deep imaginative instinct, beyond all his cheap philosophies, made him always do something which is the soul of imagination, but the very opposite of universalism. It made him insulate the object of which he wrote; making the cloud or the bird as solitary as possible in the sky. imagination demands an image. An image demands a background. The background should be equal and level, or vast and vague, but only for the sake of the image. In writing of the skylark Shelley compares that unfortunate wild fowl to a lady in a tower, to a star, to a rose, to all sorts of things that are not in the least like a skylark. But they all have one touch, the touch of separation and solitude. Now pantheism means that nothing is thus separated; that the divine essence is equally distributed at any given moment in all the atoms of the universe; and that he who would see it imaginatively must see it as a whole. I deny that this was done by Shelley the poet; whatever may have been done by Shelley the prig. When he heard the skylark speaking to him like a spirit out of heaven, I deny that he heard at the same moment the crowing of cocks, the screaming of cockatoos, the gobbling of turkeys, the cawing of rooks, the clucking of hens and the pandemonium of the parrot-house at the Zoo; or that for him, at that moment, all these things mingled in one harmony or music of the spheres.

I do not deny that the poet may write an ode to a parrot as well as to a skylark; or for that matter a serenade to a penguin or a pelican. But he will prefer the parrot outside the parrothouse. He will prefer the pelican in the wilderness. In short, he will aim at seeing the object against a background, as one sees a star in the sky or an island in the sea. He will aim at seeing the object in the strict sense of distinguishing the object. And this element of distinction would alone distinguish such a poet from the vulgar universality of the ordinary pantheist. For the rest, Shelley's poetry very seldom expressed Shelley's philosophy. When once he began to sing, he generally sang the creeds that he refused to say. In the skylark, for instance, he does not in the least proclaim the doctrine of Universal Nature or the Immanence of God. What he does proclaim is the doctrine of Original Sin, or the Fall of Man. When the skylark ceases merely to flutter and begins really to fly, to sweep and to soar; when the verse takes on the swing and powerful pulsation of great poetry, it is not even about the isolation of the bird but the stranger isolation of the man. "We look before and after . . . our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

But if we could scorn
Hate and pride and fear,
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear –

There the pantheistic poet is telling a tale not told by all the parrots in the Zoological Gardens; but rather by the Bird of Paradise that came with us out of the Garden of Eden.

Mr. Bernard Shaw, in a preface to one of his plays, advances a thesis in science and then propounds it as a thesis in philosophy. It might well be described as a progressive pantheism, as compared with the static pantheism more commonly associated with pantheists. The current criticism will probably be that it is all very well for Mr. Shaw to talk philosophy, but he knows nothing about science. To me this seems the exact contrary of the fact. He has always been very well equipped with facts in his scientific controversies; and his logic, of which I can judge better, seems to me very conclusive on the purely scientific question. He is strictly scientific in refusing the test of cutting off a mouse's tail, for instance, as affecting the question of acquired characteristics. As he very sensibly points out, an arbitrary amputation by somebody else is not an acquired characteristic at all; any more than we can talk of a man acquiring a railway accident. The Lamarckian suggestion is that the will counts; and nobody wills a railway accident. I think Mr. Shaw is entirely successful in his science; where I begin to doubt is precisely in his philosophy, and especially when he propounds it as a religion. And I doubt it because it ignores, as the more static pantheism ignores the same rather indescribable element which I can only call identity. I can only dimly describe it as the conviction that it is It.

Mr. Shaw suggests that we should all pool our legends and treat them all equally as legends; that is, as allegories. This, I fancy, is very much what was really done by the Neo-Platonists and other syncretists of the pagan sunset on the Mediterranean. They made a pool of all the legends; and it was rather a stagnant pool. Indeed the Mediterranean itself would henceforth have been little more than a stagnant pool, but for the wind of the spirit that blew on it from Bethlehem and Calvary; that is from real places alive with stories at least believed to be real. When the new world found something to follow, it had to be a man and not a myth, a tragedy and not a mummery. If the new world finds a new religion now, it is much more likely to be in Spiritualist miracles and a Spiritualist plan of heaven and earth, all to be believed s down to the last detail, than in the weary impartiality of the pool of the Neo-Platonists. That pool may be a sea into which all religions ultimately run. It is certainly not a spring in which any religions originally rise. We shall never make a new legend by advertising for an allegory. The great myth comes from men who believe they have found a great truth, at least at first and that a vivid and final truth. If there be, as I believe, such a central truth, this is the only way in which men can receive that truth. But even if it be only a delusion, this is the only way in which it can be denied.

In short, it is not enough for a religion to include everything. It must include everything and something over. That is it must include everything and include something as well. It must answer that deep and mysterious human demand for everything; even if the nature of that demand be too deep to be easily defined in logic. It will never cease to be described ,in poetry. We might almost say that all poetry is a description of it. Even when you have only natural religion, you will still have supernatural poetry. And it will be poetic be, cause it is particular, not because it is general. The new priest may proclaim, "The sea is God, the land is God and the sky is God; but yet there are not three Gods, but one God." But even if the old priest be silenced, the old poet will always answer, "God is in a cave; God is in a stable; God is disguised and hidden. I alone know where he is; he is herding the cattle of Admetus; he is pouring out the wine of Cana." The new republic may make the philosophical declaration, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all trees were evolved equal and endowed with the dignity of creative evolution." But if in the silence that follows we overhear the poor nurse or the peasant mother telling fairy-tales to the children, she will always be saying, "And in the seventh garden beyond the seventh gate was the tree with the golden apples", or "They sailed and sailed till they came to an island, and in the island was a meadow, and in the meadow the tree of life."

Now according to the old rationalistic criticism, it was enough to say of a fancy that it was fanciful. It was enough to say that a religion was a romance, and a romance a delusion. But men like Mr. Shaw have already left that behind, in the years of wandering starting from the Dublin of the Protestants and the Darwin of the Professors. They already realized that there is "a soul in every dogma", that religion cannot be left out of account, that rationalism cannot be left in control. Now if we are to look sympathetically for the soul in every dogma, surely we must look for that something in the soul which makes it clothe itself in every case in a particular and personal body. If this particularism always stubbornly recurs even in poetry, how can it be left out of philosophy? What is the meaning of this incurable itch to give to airy nothing, or still more airy everything, a local habitation and a name? Why is it always something at once odd and objective, a precious fruit or a flying cup or a buried key, that symbolizes the mystery of the world? Why should not the world symbolize the world? Why should not a sphere sufficiently represent universalism; so that the faithful might be found adoring a plum-pudding or a cannon-ball? Why should not a spiral sufficiently represent progress; and the pious bow down before a corkscrew? In practice we know that it would be impossible to dissociate a Christmas pudding from the sacramental specialism of Christmas; and the worship of the corkscrew, that hieratic serpent, would probably be traced to the mysteries of Dionysius. In a word, why are all mysteries concerned with the notion of finding a particular thing in a particular place? If we are to find the real meaning of every element in mythology, what is the real meaning of that element in it? I can see only one possible answer that satisfies the new more serious and sympathetic study of religion, even among sceptics; and that is that there really is something to which all these fancies are what forgeries are to a signature; that if the soul could be satisfied with the truth it would find it a tale as particular, as positive and as personal; that the light which we follow first as a wide white star actually narrows as we draw nearer to it, till we find that trailing meteor is something like a light in a window or a candle in a room.