contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Romanticism

STEPHEN BATCHELOR: THE EVERYDAY SUBLIME

Stephen Batchelor explores his view that “the mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it”. For me, this discussion has a resonance beyond the ranks of ‘secular Buddhism’. The passage below is from his book After Buddhism: rethinking the Dharma in a secular age (1). I am attracted to his view of ‘the everyday sublime’ and for me at least, its relevance extends well beyond Batchelor’s specific context.

“Meditation originates and culminates in the everyday sublime … [It] is about what is happening to this organism as it touches the environment in this moment. I do not reject the experience of the mystical. I reject the view that the mystical is concealed behind what is merely apparent, that it is anything other than what is occurring in time and space right now. The mystical does not transcend the world but saturates it. ‘The mystical is not how the world is,’ noted Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1921, ‘but that it is.’

“As understood by Edmund Burke and the Romantic poets, the sublime exceeds our capacity for representation. The world is excessive: every blade of grass, every ray of sun, every falling leaf is excessive. None of these things can be adequately captured in concepts, images, or words. They overreach us, spilling beyond the boundaries of thought. Their sublimity brings the thinking, calculating mind to a stop, leaving one speechless, overwhelmed with either wonder or terror. Yet for we human animals who delight and revel in our place, who crave security, certainty and consolation, the sublime is banished and forgotten. As a result, life is rendered opaque and flat. Each day is reduced to the repetition of familiar actions and events, which are blandly comforting but devoid of an intensity we both yearn for and fear.

“To experience the everyday sublime requires that we dismantle the perceptual conditioning that insists on seeing ourselves and the world as essentially comfortable, permanent, solid, and ‘mine’. It means to embrace suffering and conflict rather than to shy away from them, to cultivate the embodied attention that contemplates the tragic, changing, empty and impersonal dimensions of life, rather than succumbing to fantasies of self-glorification or self-loathing. This takes time. It is a life-long practice.

“The ordinary sublime is our ordinary life experienced from the perspective of the fourfold task [NB Batchelor’s reframe of the Buddhist four noble truths JN].  …

  • An open-hearted embrace of the totality of one’s existential situation
  • A letting go of the habitual restrictive patterns of thought and behavior triggered by that situation
  • A conscious valorization of those moments in which such reactive patterns have stilled
  • A commitment to a way of life that emerges from such stillness and responds empathetically, ethically and creatively to the situation in hand.

“Understood in this way, meditation is not about gaining proficiency in technical procedures claimed to guarantee attainments that correspond to the dogmas of a particular religious orthodoxy. Nor is its goal to achieve a privileged, transcendent insight into the ultimate nature of reality, mind, or God. In the light of the fourfold task, meditation is the ongoing cultivation of a sensibility, a way of attending to every aspect of experience within a framework of ethical values and goals.

…..

“As a sensibility, meditation enables us to cultivate an understanding of moment-to-moment experience much as we develop an appreciation of art or poetry or nature. Grounded in the body and the senses, we value an open-mindedness to what is unfamiliar, probe our sensorium with relentless curiosity, listen attentively to what others have to say, are willing to suspend habitual attitudes and opinions, and questions what is going on instead of simply taking things for granted. The disengagement of meditation is not an aloof regard (or disregard) but a perspective that engenders another kind of response to what is happening. And it begins with the breath, our primordial relationship to the fabric of the world in which we are embedded.”

  • Stephen Batchelor After Buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2015

HANES TALIESIN (THE CAULDRON OF CERIDWEN)

The Sage Ceridwen was the wife

Of Tegid Voel, of Pemble Mere:

Two children blessed their wedded life,

Morvran and Creirwy, fair and dear;

Morvran, a son of peerless worth,

And Creirway, lovely nymph of earth:

But one more son Ceridwen bare,

As foul as they before were fair.

She strove to make Avagddu wise;

She knew he never could be fair:

And, studying magic mysteries,

She gathered plants of virtue rare:

She placed the gifted plants to steep

Within the magic cauldron deep,

Where they a year and day must boil,

‘Till three drops crown the matrons toil.

Nine damsels raised the mystic flame;

Gwion the Little near it stood:

The while for simples roved the dame

Through tangles dell and pathless wood.

And when the year and day had passed,

The dame within the cauldron cast

The consummating chaplet wild,

While Gwion held the hideous child.

But from the cauldron rose a smoke

That filled with darkness all the air:

When through its folds the torchlight broke,

Nor Gwion, nor the boy, was there.

The fire was dead, the cauldron cold,

And in it lay, in sleep uprolled,

Fair as the morning-star, a child,

That woke and stretched its arms and smiled.

What chanced her labours to destroy;

She never knew, and sought in vain

If ‘twere her own misshapen boy,

Or little Gwion, born again:

And vexed with doubt, the babe she rolled,

In cloth of purple and of gold,

And in a coracle consigned

Its fortunes to the sea and wind.

The summer night was still and bright,

The summer moon was large and clear,

The frail bark, on the springtide’s height,

Was floated into Elphin’s weir:

The baby in his arms he raised:

His lovely spouse stood by, and gazed,

And, blessing it with gentle vow,

Cried “TALIESIN!” “Radiant brow!”

And I am he, and well I know

Ceridwen’s power protects me still:

And hence o’er hill and vale I go,

And sing, unharmed, what’er I will.

She has for me Time’s veil withdrawn:

The images of things long gone,

The shadows of the coming days,

Are present to my visioned gaze.

And I have heard the words of power,

By Ceiron’s solitary lake,

That bid, at midnight’s thrilling hour,

Eyri’s hundred echoes wake.

I to Diganwy’s towers have sped,

And now Caer Lleon’s halls I tread,

Demanding justice, now as then,

From Maelgon, most unjust of men.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829. It is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales. Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the Taliesin’s winning entry and concerns his mysterious birth. It differs somewhat from the version presented 20 years later by Lady Charlotte Guest, whilst being a recognisable if variant presentation of the same tale. The audience “shouted with delight” at this song, which wins the contest for Taliesin and entitles him to a boon from Arthur.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: AVALLENNAU MYRDDIN (MERLIN’S APPLE TREES)

Fair gift to Merlin given

Apple trees seven score and seven;

Equal all in age and size;

On a green hill-slope, that lies

Basking in the southern sun

Where bright waters murmuring run.

Just beneath the pure stream flows;

High above the forest grows;

Not again on earth is found

Such a slope of orchard ground:

Song of birds, and hum of bees,

Ever haunt the apple trees.

Lovely green their leaves in spring;

Lovely bright their blossoming:

Sweet the shelter and the shade

By their summer foliage made:

Sweet the fruit their ripe boughs hold,

Fruit delicious, tinged with gold.

Gloyad, nymph with tresses bright,

Teeth of pearl, and eyes of light,

Guards these gifts of Ceido’s son,

Gwendol, the lamented one,

Him, whose keen-edged, sword no more

Flashes ‘mid the battle’s roar.

War has raged on vale and hill:

That fair grove was peaceful still.

There have chiefs and princes sought

Solitude and tranquil thought:

There have kings, from courts and throngs,

Turned to Merlin’s wild-wood songs.

Now from echoing woods I hear

Hostile axes sounding near:

On the sunny slope reclined,

Feverish grief disturbs my mind,

Lest the wasting edge consume

My fair spot of fruit and bloom.

Lovely trees, that long alone

In the sylvan vale have grown,

Bare, your sacred plot around,

Grows the once wood-waving ground:

Fervent valour guards ye still;

Yet my soul presages ill.

Well I know, when years have flown,

Briars shall grow where ye have grown:

Them in turn shall power uproot;

Then again shall flowers and fruit

Flourish in the sunny breeze,

On my new-born apple trees.

This is my second poem drawn from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829 and based (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin. The Bard Taliesin has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales by winning a Bardic contest at the court of the High King, Arthur. Victory entitles him to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Merlin, also a contestant. The audience response is described thus: “this song was heard with much pleasure, especially by those of the audience who could see, in the imagery of the apple trees, a mystical type of the doctrines and fortunes of Druidism, to which Merlin was suspected of being secretly attached, even under the very nose of St. David”. In a future post I will also present Taliesin’s winning entry.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy. Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, and also recommends the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog in Merionethshire for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

POEM: GORWYNION GAUAV (THE BRILLIANCES OF WINTER)

Last of flowers, in tufts around

Shines the gorse’s golden bloom:

Milk white lichens clothe the ground

‘Mid the flowerless heath and broom:

Bright are holly-berries, seen

Red, through leaves of glossy green.

Brightly, as on rocks they leap,

Shine on sea-waves, white with spray:

Brightly in the dingles deep,

Gleams the river’s foaming way;

Brightly through the distance show

Mountain summits clothed with snow.

Brightly where the torrents bound,

Shines the frozen colonnade,

Which the black rocks, dripping round,

And the flying spray have made:

Bright the ice drops on the ash

Leaning o’er the cataract’s dash.

Bright the hearth, where feast and song

Crown the warrior’s hour of peace,

While the snow storm drives along,

Bidding the war’s worst tempest cease:

Bright the hearth flame, flashing clear

On the up-hung shield and spear.

Bright the torchlight of the hall

When the wintry night winds blow;

Brightness when its splendours fall

On the mead-cup’s sparkling flow:

While the maiden’s smile of light

Makes the brightness trebly bright.

Close the portals; pile the hearth;

Strike the harp; the feast pursue;

Brim the horns; fire, music, mirth,

Mead and love, are winter’s due.

Spring to purple conflict calls

Swords that shine on winter’s walls.

This poem comes from The Misfortunes of Elphin written by Thomas Love Peacock in 1829.  The story is (very loosely) based on the last part of the Hanes Taliesin, in which the Bard Taliesin he has to free his patron Prince Elphin from imprisonment by Maelgon, the ruler of North Wales.  Taliesin has to win a Bardic contest at the court of the High King Arthur and thus be able to ask for Arthur’s support. Elphin is indeed liberated, through Arthur’s arrangement of a prisoner exchange. The poem above is presented as the work of Prince Llywarch, one of the contestants. It is well received: “Llywarch’s song was applauded, as representing a series of images with which all present were familiar, and which were all of them agreeable”.  It treats winter as, among other things, a period of respite from warfare. In future posts I will also present the entries of Merlin and the winner Taliesin.

Thomas Love Peacock was a slightly older contemporary of the Romantic poet Shelley and a close friend from 1812 until the latter’s departure for Italy in 1816. Indeed they continued to correspond, in letters that have been preserved, giving us valuable information about Shelley’s life in Italy.  Peacock too wrote poetry and within The Misfortunes of Elphin he offers a characteristically Romantic view of Awen as “the rapturous and abstracted state of poetical inspiration”, also recommending the triad: “the three dignities of poetry: the union of the true and the wonderful; the union of the beautiful and the wise; the union of art and of nature”. Peacock travelled in Wales and lived in Maentwrog, Merionethshire, for a time. I have used Peacock’s spellings of proper names throughout.

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