The English Mystics

By Gerald William Bullett | Go to book overview
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Chapter One
THE SUBJECT DEFINED

§ 1

T cannot be strictly defined, for the experience it treats of is beyond statement. Only poetry, or music, can say anything quite to the point, and they not directly but obliquely, in image and cadence, in sound and silence. Poetry is 'true' by virtue not of what it says but of what it is: to translate it into doctrine is to destroy the winged life. And poetry is the ultimate language of mysticism.

We are obliged, nevertheless, to ask what mysticism is, and to attempt an answer. To the Greeks, it seems, a 'mystic' was one to whom secret knowledge of 'divine mysteries' had been or was being imparted. In Victorian verse the word is used adjectivally as a whispering synonym for mysterious. Today, in the mouth of the militant secularist, it commonly means irrational, delusional, or merely silly. Let us begin by ridding ourselves of all these preconceptions; for the mysticism we are to examine here is not secret knowledge, is not supernaturalism, is not simple credulity, is not an enemy to reason. It is not even concerned with mystery, if by mystery is meant darkness or obscurity. If in its verbal deliverances it resorts much to symbolism, paradox, and even some apparent self-contradiction, that is not with intent to mystify but because what it seeks to report is beyond the compass of plain prose statement. But, so far from being enamoured of darkness, it is in its essence, so mystics believe, a mode of illumination. The claim can be neither allowed nor disallowed until we have heard the witnesses and considered their evidence.

The English mystics, then, are those men and women of

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