Poetry after Plotinus: aesthetics and mysticism (Part III)

Enneads image


Part III (Modern Times)

When we come across poems in which ego is subdued, mystery is afoot, and a quality of eccentric beauty haunts, we should tip our hats to Plotinus.

Even a faintly discernible element of the mystical in a writer’s sensibility has a salutary effect on his or her relationship to and handling of language. Whatever the theme of a profound work, linguistic nuances will, if I’m right, associate its writer with the distant influence of Neoplatonism. This is especially so when the work in question is an aesthetic composition. A work’s depth and resonance accrue to the extent its writer has partaken, consciously or unconsciously, of language’s spiritual lexicon and numinous syntax. An exceptional artistic sensibility has elusive roots and an unusual opinion of time and being.

*     *     *

Modernity, more so than other eras, is a complex phenomenon. What are some distinguishing complexions?

Spinoza thought up a Totality of Substance — pantheism. Humans being human, we can’t do much with that kind of metaphysical suffocation in the everything-is-everything. We’re dualistic beings and were better pleased with Descartes. Philosophy being philosophy, it amused a continuum of thinkers to argue the finer points. Hume wanted a bridge between subject and object, perception and causality. Kant tired to build one. Schopenhauer installed invisible noumenal gargoyles along the bridge. Nietzsche and Darwin shoved God off the side, into the murky plasma of worn-out belief. Positivists condemned the structure altogether.

Materialism rose during modernity and with it, industrialization. Nihilism and technik, catastrophe and spectacle. We’ve been to the Moon, and now the Moon is depressed.

But a strain of the uncanny has persisted. As a reaction to the Enlightenment, Romanticism (a branch of early modernism) quietly flourished with a mystical aesthetic, an otherness. Works darkly glowing appeared from disquieted pens: Novalis and Kleist, Coleridge and Blake, De Quincey and Poe, Schumann and Mahler, the Brothers Grimm and the later Symbolists.



from Elevation

Beyond the griefs and endless woes
That weigh upon our cloudy years,
Happy the spirit strong that soars
To fields serene and luminous!

The one whose thoughts, like larks, take wing
Toward the boundless morning skies,
– Who, far below, can recognize
The speech of flowers and dumb things!

trans. Joanna Richardson


The ghost of Plotinus, despite attempts to out-think it, continued to have its intuitive, preternatural say. Emerson gave to Neoplatonism a distinctive, New England style. Bergson and Whitehead, Wittgenstein and Heidegger restored to philosophy whispers of mystic wonder. Freud opened up dreaming coordinates of the unconscious, with Jung scattering collective old images there. Debussy and Scriabin composed music intoning the ineffable. Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Wassily Kandinsky, and Yves Tanguy painted from spiritual palettes. Surrealism kept alive a dynamic of the strange, while Thomas Mann wrote a magic mountain adrift in the metaphysics of time.

All of Hermann Hesse’s works exist in the occult poetic shadows, so to speak, of a distant, luminous riddle. In evening hours, he would walk through country rain to catch a streetcar into the city, where he would lend an entranced ear to cathedral organ tones of sacred angst and yearning.

I am forced to think: How miserable, how paltry, how bad are the lives we lead! Which one of us would dare to stand forth like this composer before God and fate, with such cries of accusation and of gratitude, with such aspiring grandeur from so profoundly reverent a mind? Alas, one should live differently, one should be different, should spend more time under the sky and among the trees, keep more time for oneself to be closer to the beautiful and great mysteries.i

Similarly, others pursued fantastical haunting over de-spiritized convention. Franz Kafka hallucinated trials and castles. Bruno Schulz added a 13th month to our ordinary calender. Miguel de Unamuno wrote his paradoxical method of hopeless hope. Walter Benjamin inked his pageful ruminations about the mystical dialectic of past and present (both somehow within each) and a mystical dialectic of language and language as such (both somehow within each) – the unheard sounding of the world takes place, as Benjamin put it, within a “metaphysical acoustic.”  Jorge Luis Borges explored labyrinths. W.G. Sebald took us into the somehow beautiful dimensions of ennui, ruin, weltschmerz.


I'm Waiting for You

I’m Waiting for You — Yves Tanguy (1934)


Of course, anything serious and subtle can be turned into kitsch – hence, Theosophy. As far as I know, thank goodness, none of those “adepts” wrote any poems. The compulsion to convert rumors of a Hidden Flower into the clumsy, pretentious doctrine of a pseudo-spirituality persists, alas, to this day.

Poetry is an asylum for the ghosts of old mystic symbols. Moods of existence, having to do with paradox and apotheosis, reveal themselves in rare poems, even today. Earlier in our modern era, Emily Dickinson lifted poems into regions of mortality and patient ecstasy. Dylan Thomas composed incantatory lines of mystic presence. Alexander Alexandrovich Blok’s metaphysical plaints were imbued with a supple lyricism – written melancholy as an aesthetic elevation. In Germany, Georg Trakl and Rainer Maria Rilke wrote poems sensitive to and mysterious with a quality of otherness.


Georg Trakl


Very bright tones in the thin winds,
They sing the distant mourning of this day,
That makes us dream after never-felt showers
Completely filled with unimaginable smells.
Like mementos to lost companions
And quiet echo of delights sunken in night,
The foliage falls in the long ago abandoned gardens,
Which sun themselves in the silence of paradise.
In the bright mirror of the clarified floods
We see the dead time strangely animate itself
And our passions in the bleeding
Lift our souls to more distant heavens.
We go through deaths newly transformed
To deeper tortures and deeper delights,
Where the unknown deity governs –
And we are completed by eternally new suns.

trans. Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt

Trakl’s poem is a harrowing of vision into beauty. Such a poem is a treasure that language bequeaths to itself from out of its own eerie matrix. A morbid imagination, in the throes of being, conjures hallucinatory images. Profane spirit and sacred duration are reconciled. This poem is an aesthetic delirium of the finest vintage.


Rainer Maria Rilke

Rose, oh pure contradiction

Rose, oh poor contradiction, joy
of being No-one’s sleep under so many

trans. Stephen Mitchell

Again, the rose! It blooms the drowsy immanence of Plotinus’s One, which is a no-one or no-thing. The rose whispers its symbolic shape of presence and abyss, speaks into our own somnolence. This poem goes rather deep – art for spirit’s sake.

Other poems also have a trace of that something else, bestowing on the lines an exemplary artistic condition.


Anna Akhmatova

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.

trans. Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward

The stubborn mystery of hope is found here. Against nightmare and death, Akhmatova sets beauty and wonder. This Acmeist poem, grounded in quotidian things, is not as levitating as a Symbolist poem. Yet perhaps because of that – those “dirty houses” — the marvelous has a greater torque of strangeness. That wild secret of childhood is too strong for time and maybe even death.


Wallace Stevens

To The Roaring Wind

What syllable are you seeking,
In the distances of sleep?
Speak it.

I think poetry reaches a kind of zenith when the metaphysical and the lyrical come together. It’s rare for anything to seem or be surreal. When it happens in a poem, a vastness opens. The shade of Schopenhauer even stirs in this noumenal image. Whatever reality is, it’s farther than any solid saying. The poet, sensing a mystical consonance, interrogates eternity.


Elizabeth Bishop

In memory of Marjorie Carr Stevens

Each day with so much ceremony
begins, with birds, with bells,
with whistles from a factory;
such white-gold skies our eyes
first open on, such brilliant walls
that for a moment we wonder
“Where is the music coming from, the energy?
The day was meant for what ineffable creature
we must have missed?” Oh promptly he
appears and takes his earthly nature
instantly, instantly falls
victim of long intrigue,
assuming memory and mortal
mortal fatigue.

More slowly falling into sight
and showering into stippled faces,
darkening, condensing all his light;
in spite of all the dreaming
squandered upon him with that look,
suffers our uses and abuses,
sinks through the drift of bodies,
sinks through the drift of classes
to evening to the beggar in the park
who, weary, without lamp or book
prepares stupendous studies:
the fiery event
of every day in endless
endless assent.

The Neoplatonist idea of emanation is here. The One (the No-one) falls through stages of being, into time and substance. And sometimes, we catch the remnant visionary gleams.


Wisława Szymborska

Miracle Fair

Commonplace miracle:
that so many commonplace miracles happen.

An ordinary miracle:
in the dead of night
the barking of invisible dogs.

One miracle out of many:
a small, airy cloud
yet it can block a large and heavy moon.

Several miracles in one:
an alder tree reflected in the water,
and that it’s backwards left to right
and that it grows there, crown down
and never reaches the bottom,
even though the water is shallow.

An everyday miracle:
winds weak to moderate
turning gusty in storms.

First among equal miracles:
cows are cows.

Second to none:
just this orchard
from just that seed.

A miracle without a cape and top hat:
scattering white doves.

A miracle, for what else could you call it:
today the sun rose at three-fourteen
and will set at eight-o-one.

A miracle, less surprising than it should be:
even though the hand has fewer than six fingers,
it still has more than four.

A miracle, just take a look around:
the world is everywhere.

An additional miracle, as everything is additional:
the unthinkable
is thinkable.

trans. Joanna Trzeciak

Szymborska’s poem examines the wonder of presence and the privilege of experience. Nihilism hasn’t enough muscle to overcome the impossible being actual. Everything is much too weird for the suicide’s noose, razor, revolver, or poison. Even the eerie volume inside a mirror would mourn our precipitate desertion.


Tomas Tranströmer

April and Silence

Spring lies desolate.
The velvet-dark ditch
crawls by my side
without reflections.

The only thing that shines
is yellow flowers.

I am carried in my shadow
like a violin
in its black case.

The only thing I want to say
glitters out of reach
like the silver
in a pawnbroker’s.

trans. Robin Fulton

The weight of human substance and consciousness can become burdensome. And the tips of our tongues tremble a dream of arrival, homecoming, transcendence.


Adam Zagajewski

Mute City

Imagine a dark city.
It understands nothing. Silence reigns.
And in the quiet bats like Ionian philosophers
make sudden, radical decisions in mid-flight,
filling us with admiration.
Mute city. Blanketed in clouds.
Nothing is known yet. Nothing.
Sharp lightning cleaves the night.
Priests, Catholic and Orthodox alike, rush to shroud
their windows in deep blue velvet,
but we go out
to hear the rain’s rustle
and the dawn. Dawn always tells us something,

trans. Clare Cavanagh

Zagajewski’s poems are always listening. The traumas of history mingle in the background. Myriad instances of quotidian amazement parade in the foreground. In the middle distance, this poet is listening, to his surroundings and for a mystical Echo. Always listening.


from Joseph Brodsky’s poem New Life 

                         Ultimately, one’s unbound
curiosity about these empty zones,
about their objectless vistas,
is what art seems to be all about.

trans. Brodsky and David MacFadyen

Those empty zones of nature and perception mirror a farther dimension, perhaps – one holding the inscrutable mystic weight of the word “is.” Art lives as a modifying of experience into a condition of wounded rhapsody, transmuting time into a symbolic otherness. Exemplary poems continue to appear from the pens of even non-religious mystics. Those poets are serious about aesthetics and the tangent of echoes. We can hear in their lines the timbre of an Old Bell.

From ancient visioning to Medieval grafting to modern haunting, Plotinus’s consciousness has effloresced remarkably. Poetic imagining has been enriched by his intuitions and conceptions. Supple metaphors continue to flow from the mysterious heart of language into the sensibilities of aesthetic poets. Today, we come across certain poems in which an earlier mystical boldness has been softened into lines of quiet wonder and search. What was for Plotinus a method of gradual self conditioning toward the ineffable and for Medieval mystics an ecstatic transmuting of scripture has become for poets and readers of poems today a possibility of trance — a virtual and troubled transcendence through language. That’s not something to be lightly dismissed.

I’ll give Adam Zagajewski the last word:

The sublime today is chiefly a perception of the world’s mysteries, a metaphysical shudder, an astonishment, an illumination, a sense of proximity to what cannot be put into words.ii



Part I (Ancient Times)

Part II (Medieval Times)


i Hermann Hesse, “Old Music (1913)” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, Theodore Ziolkowski ed., Denver Lindley trans. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1974) 17 – 18

ii Adam Zagajewski, “The Shabby and the Sublime,” from A Defense of Ardor, Clare Cavanagh trans.(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2004) 33


Posted by Tim Buck



4 thoughts on “Poetry after Plotinus: aesthetics and mysticism (Part III)

  1. “We’ve been to the Moon, and now the Moon is depressed.” Yours is a post communicating subtle concepts, not without a sense of humor. 🙂

    I just finished reading A Defense of Ardor. Here is another Zagajewski quote, regarding the poet:

    “The thoughts he hopes to express seem at times not to be part of any language; they roar within him like another element, alongside air, water, and fire.”


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