DE NATURA DEORUM: “The Mystic Demystified: Making theistic language serve the religious naturalist” by John Halstead

De Natura Deorum is a semi-seasonal column where we explore the beliefs of Naturalistic Pagans about the nature of deity.

For the rest of this month, the theme here at HP is “Inspiration”.  Some of our contributors have shared their poetry, which got me thinking about how we religious naturalist use language, especially religious language.  The poem “The Mystic” by Don Marquis provides an interesting case study in the how religious naturalists use religious language.

Donald Robert Perry Marquis [pron. mar-kwis] (1878–1937), also known as Don Marquis, was an American poet, as well as a celebrated New York newspaper columnist, humorist, playwright and author. He was well-known in his day, mostly for his satire.  In 1922, Marquis published the poem entitled “The Mystic” in his collection, Poems and Portraits.  Marquis’ poem was later set to the tune of Sir Hubart Parry’s 1916 anthem “Jerusalem” (the unofficial anthem of England) by Janet Wyatt (1934- ).  It appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, as “Have I Not Known”, No. 337, which is where I first saw it.

1. Have I not known the sky and sea
Put on a look as hushed and stilled
As if some ancient prophecy drew close upon to be fulfilled?
Like mist the houses shrink and swell,
like blood the highways throb and beat,
the sapless stones beneath my feet
turn foliate with miracle.

2. And life and death but one thing are —
and I have seen this wingless world
cursed with impermanence and whirled
like dust across the summer swirled,
And I have dealt with Presences
behind the walls of Time and Place,
and I have seen this world star — bright,
shining wonderful in space.

When I first started attending the Unitarian church near my home, I made a point of searching through the hymnals for songs and lyrics that I resonated with my religious naturalist heart.  Wyatt’s hymn stood out to me because of the sense of mystery it evoked.  So I went looking for the origin of the words and discovered Marquis’ poem.  But when I compared Marquis’ poem and Wyatt’s lyrics, I was struck by the differences.  Specifically, Wyatt’s arrangement omits significant portions of Marquis’ poem.  Marquis’ full poem is set out below.  The omitted language is emphasized (bold).  Read through it once, omitting the emphasized language, and then read it again with the emphasized language.

Have I not known the sky and sea
Put on a look as hushed and stilled
As if some ancient prophecy
Drew on to be fulfilled?

And would it be so strange a thing,
Among the rainy hills of Spring,
A veritable god to see
In luminous reality?
To see him pass, as bursts of sun
Pass over the valleys and are gone?

Have I not seen the candid street
Grow secret in the blaze of noon,
Swaying before the Paraclete
Who weaves its being through his rune?

And would it be too strange to say
I see a dead man come this way?
Like mist the houses shrink and swell,
Like blood the highways throb and beat,
The sapless stones beneath my feet
Turn foliate with miracle;
And from the crowd my dead men come,
Fragrant with youth… and living mirth
Moves lips and eyes that once were dumb
And blinded in the charnel earth.

And I have dwelt with Presences
Behind the veils of Time and Place
And hearkened to the silences
that guard the courts of grace,
And I have dared the Distances
Where the red planets race—
And I have seen that Near and Far
and God and Man and Avatar

And Life and Death but one thing are—
And I have seen this wingless world
Curst with impermanence and whirled
Like dust across the Summer swirled,
And I have seen this world a star
All wonderful in Space!

There is an art to arranging a poem to music.  And arranging a hymn for religious naturalists and humanists requires a special nuance, I would think.  Of course, Wyatt may have had any number of reasons for her omissions.  No doubt, though, her intended audience was one factor.  The omitted language includes the words “God”, “Avatar”, and “Paraclete” (which is used in the New Testament and Septuagint for “comforter”), which would have been unacceptable to the humanists of her day.  Also omitted are the references to dead men walking and talking, which could be taken as an allusion to the Christian Resurrection.  Curiously, Wyatt leaves in the language about “Presences” beyond the veil of time and space, though she changes “dwelt” to “dealt”.

But Marquis’ poem is not unambiguously Christian or even theistic.  He does not say he saw a god or that he saw the dead rise, only that he has seen the sky and sea through a mystic’s eyes.  When nature is seen in this way, he asks, would it be any more wondrous to see a god or a miracle?  And though he speaks of God, it is not the monotheist’s God, which is a person, but the pantheist’s God, which is All.  Indeed, some of Marquis’ other writings (see links below) reveal him to have been very much a humanist.

So were’s my question: What is lost by Wyatt’s omission of the theistic language?  Is something essential to Marquis’ poem lost in Wyatt’s translation?  I think maybe so, though it is difficult to say what it is.  With the exception of the reference to “Presences”, Wyatt’s hymn is a beautiful expression of the experience of a religious naturalist.  Even the word “Presences” might be understood naturalistically as something like Brendan Myers’ “Immensities”.

But there is something in Marquis’ poem that is missing from Wyatt’s hymn.  Marquis connects the experience of the religious naturalist to the experience of the theist, and asks “Which is the miracle?”  “Both,” he seems to answer.  I don’t think that Marquis is trying to say that theophanies and miracles are as real as the sky and sea, but rather that the sky and sea are themselves theophanies and miracles.  And I don’t think he can say this as well without the theistic language.  I just wonder if we religious humanists sometimes cut ourselves off from a deeper experience out of a fear of theistic language.

For discussion: Which version did you like best?  Marquis poem or Wyatt’s hymn?  And why?

Here are some other short writings by Don Marquis which have a humanistic appeal:

The God-Maker, Man (“… Multiform are the tale’s variations, Time and clime ever tinting the dreams. Yet the motive, through endless mutations, The essence, immutable gleams. Though one may bow down ‘neath the Crescent, And one twirl the prayer-wheel of Buddh, And one vow the Nazarene present … Yet each of them glimpses a truth. …”)

Prophets (“… Man is evolving into another sort of being in the same manner, and it is only reasonable to suppose that this future species has had its individual forerunners, and will have others. This is the explanation of the Christs and the Buddhas. …”)

The Nobler Lesson (“… O futile, age-long talk of death and birth ! His life, that is the one thing wonder-worth : Not how he came, but how he lived on earth. …”)

The Cart and the Horse (“… There is a something superior to both brute force and conscious reason in man which has been responsible always for what we call his morality and for his various religions. This ‘something’—not to put a name upon that which has been called by a hundred names—has been responsible for human pursuit of ideals, has resulted in the various symbolical systems which we call religions. The creeds are not responsible for morality. The ‘something’—the God-in-man has been the creator of both morality and creeds—has shown man the need of his virtues and has impelled him to make symbols. …”)

In Mars, What Avatar? (“Do creeds of earth have any worth On yonder spinning star? Which godheads sway the Milky Way? In Mars, what Avatar? …”)

Collections of poetry by Don Marquis:

Poems and Portraits

Dreams and Dust

Last but not least, here’s a link to UU sermon entitled, “I Have Dealt With Presences”, which has an interesting take on the word “Presence” in Wyatt’s hymn.

The Author

John H. Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neo-Pagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation (palingenesis).  He is the author of the blogs, The Allergic Pagan at Patheos and Dreaming the Myth Forward at Pagan Square.

John currently serves at the managing editor here at HP.

See John Halstead’s other posts.

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One Comment on “DE NATURA DEORUM: “The Mystic Demystified: Making theistic language serve the religious naturalist” by John Halstead

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