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The Musician and the Mystic

  From: Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism

The earthly artist, because perception brings with it the imperative longing for expression, tries to give us in colour, sound or words a hint of his ecstasy, his glimpse of truth. Only those who have tried, know how small a fraction of his vision he can, under the most favourable circumstance, contrive to represent. The mystic, too, tries very hard to tell an unwilling world his secret. But in his case, the difficulties are enormously increased. First, there is the huge disparity between his unspeakable experience and the language which will most nearly suggest it. Next, there is the great gulf fixed between his mind and the mind of the world. His audience must be bewitched as well as addressed, caught up to something of his state, before they can be made to understand.
Were he a musician, it is probable that the mystic could give his message to other musicians in the terms of that art, far more accurately than language will allow him to do: for we must remember that there is no excuse but that of convenience for the pre-eminence amongst modes of expression which we accord to words. These correspond so well to the physical plane and its adventures, that we forget that they have but the faintest of relations with transcendental things. Even the artist, before he can make use of them, is bound to re-arrange them in accordance with the laws of rhythm: obeying unconsciously the rule by which all arts "tend to approach the condition of music."
So too the mystic. Mysticism, the most romantic of adventures, from one point of view the art of arts, their source and also their end, finds naturally enough its closest correspondences in the most purely artistic and most deeply significant of all forms of expression. The mystery of music is seldom realized by those who so easily accept its gifts. Yet of all the arts music alone shares with great mystical literature the power of waking in us a response to the life-movement of the universe: brings us--we know not how--news of its exultant passions and its incomparable peace. Beethoven heard the very voice of Reality, and little of it escaped when he translated it for our ears.[121]
The mediaeval mind, more naturally mystical than ours, and therefore more sharply aware of the part which rhythmic harmony plays in the worlds of nature and of grace, gave to music a cosmic importance, discerning its operation in many phenomena which we now attribute to that dismal figment, Law. "There are three kinds of music," says Hugh of St. Victor, "the music of the worlds, the music of humanity, the music of instruments. Of the music of the worlds, one is of the elements, another of the planets, another of Time. Of that which is of the elements, one is of number, another of weights, another of measure. Of that which is of the planets, one is of place, another of motion, another of nature. Of that which is of Time, one is of the days and the vicissitudes of light and darkness; another of the months and the waxing and waning of the moon; another of the years and the changes of spring, summer, autumn and winter. Of the music of humanity, one is of the body, another of the soul, another in the connexion that is between them."[122] Thus the life of the visible and invisible universe consists in a supernal fugue.
One contemplative at least, Richard Rolle of Hampole, "the father of English mysticism," was acutely aware of this music of the soul, discerning in it a correspondence with the measured harmonies of the spiritual universe. In those enraptured descriptions of his inward experience which are among the jewels of mystical literature, nothing is more remarkable than his constant and deliberate employment of musical imagery. This alone, it seems, could catch and translate for him the character of his experience of Reality. The condition of joyous and awakened love to which the mystic passes when his purification is at an end is to him, above all else, the state of Song. He does not "see" the spiritual world: he "hears" it. For him, as for St. Francis of Assisi, it is a "heavenly melody, intolerably sweet."[123]
"Song I call," he says, "when in a plenteous soul the sweetness of eternal love with burning is taken, and thought into song is turned, and the mind into full sweet sound is changed."[124] He who experiences this joyous exaltation "says not his prayers like other righteous men" but "is taken into marvellous mirth: and, goodly sound being descended into him, as it were with notes his prayers he sings."[125] So Gertrude More--"O lett me sitt alone, silent to all the world and it to me, that I may learn the song of Love."[126]
Rolle's own experience of mystic joy seems actually to have come to him in this form: the perceptions of his exalted consciousness presenting themselves to his understanding under musical conditions, as other mystics have received them in the form of pictures or words. I give in his own words the classic description of his passage from the first state of "burning love" to the second state of "songful love"--from Calor to Canor--when "into song of joy meditation is turned." "In the night, before supper, as I my psalms sung, as it were the sound of readers or rather singers about me I beheld. Whilst, also praying, to heaven with all desire I took heed, suddenly, in what manner I wot not, in me the sound of song I felt; and likeliest heavenly melody I took, with me dwelling in mind. Forsooth my thought continually to mirth of song was changed, and my meditation to praise turned; and my prayers and psalm-saying, in sound I showed."[127]
The song, however, is a mystic melody having little in common with its clumsy image, earthly music. Bodily song "lets it"; and "noise of janglers makes it turn again to thought," "for sweet ghostly song accords not with outward song, the which in churches and elsewhere is used. It discords much: for all that is man's voice is formed with bodily ears to be heard; but among angels' tunes it has an acceptable melody, and with marvel it is commended of them that have known it." To others it is incommunicable. "Worldly lovers soothly words or ditties of our song may know, for the words they read: but the tone and sweetness of that song they may not learn."[128]
The mystic, as a rule, cannot wholly do without symbol and image, inadequate to his vision though they must always be: for his experience must be expressed if it is to be communicated, and its actuality is inexpressible except in some side-long way, some hint or parallel which will stimulate the dormant intuition of the reader, and convey, as all poetic language does, something beyond its surface sense. Hence the large part which is played in all mystical writings by symbolism and imagery; and also by that rhythmic and exalted language which induces in sensitive persons something of the languid ecstasy of dream. The close connection between rhythm and heightened states of consciousness is as yet little understood. Its further investigation will probably throw much light on ontological as well as psychological problems. Mystical, no less than musical and poetic perception, tends naturally--we know not why--to present itself in rhythmical periods: a feature which is also strongly marked in writings obtained in the automatic state. So constant is this law in some subjects that Baron von Hügel adopted the presence or absence of rhythm as a test whereby to distinguish the genuine utterances of St. Catherine of Genoa from those wrongly attributed to her by successive editors of her legend.[131] 


[121]I take from Hebert's monograph "Le Divin" two examples of the analogy between mystical and musical emotion. First that of Gay, who had "the soul, the heart, and the head full of music, of another beauty than that which is formulated by sounds." Next that of Ruysbroeck, who, in a passage that might have been written by Keats, speaks of contemplation and Love as "two heavenly pipes" which, blown upon by the Holy Spirit, play "ditties of no tone" (op. cit. p. 29).

[122]Hugh of St. Victor, "Didascalicon de Studio Legendi."      [123]"Fioretti." Delle Istimati. (Arnold's translation.)

[124]Richard Rolle, "The Fire of Love" (Early English Text Society), bk. i. cap. xv. In this and subsequent quotations from Rolle's Incendium Amoris I have usually adopted Misyn's fifteenth-century translation; slightly modernizing the spelling, and, where necessary, correcting from the Latin his errors and obscurities.

[125]Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xxiii. Compare bk. ii. caps. v. and vi.        [126]"Spiritual Exercises," p. 30.

[127]Op. cit., bk. i. cap. xv.         [128]Op. cit., bk. ii. caps, iii. and xii. Shelley is of the same opinion ("The Triumph of Life "):
"The world can hear not the sweet notes that move / The Sphere whose light is melody to lovers."

[129]"Subida del Monte Carmelo," I. ii. cap. xv.        [130]"De Mystica Theologia," i. 3.

[131]Von Hügel, "The Mystical Element of Religion," vol. i. p. 189.  

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