The Mysterious Voice


The mystical tradition in England is of mysterious origin. It must in some way be associated with those early intimations of the supernatural in the land of mist and ghosts; English is the language of vision. In its fourteenth-century sense “mystick” denotes spiritual allegory or symbolism, generally of a recondite nature, and is not directly related to the visionary imagination except as the token of a secret or hidden god. In the seventeenth century the term was applied to the nature of ancient or occult wisdom. “Mysticism,” in its now orthodox meaning, is also a seventeenth-century term. It is so powerful and persistent a force, however, that the medieval mystic Richard Rolle, among whose works belong The Fire of Love and The Form of Life, has been described as “the true father of English literature” and worthy of a “supreme place in the history of English prose.”He died when Chaucer was a child and Wycliff a student at Oxford, but chronology is less important than ontology. What Rolle invokes is “longis inspiracion of godd, vndirstandynge, wysdome and syghynge.” Rolle turned from Latin to English in the last ten years of his life, as if he were returning to the source of his inspiration; at the end he was travelling back to the beginning, and in his native speech celebrating the longings and aspirations that made him both hermit and visionary. If we cannot use the term “mystic” for Rolle, as an anachronism, then we may at least reintroduce the word “solitari” for his condition. It is certainly appropriate that his English meditative works were addressed to contemplatives like himself, who sought in silence and solitude the presence of God. Here again is one of the curious features of the English imagination: all the great religious works of the medieval period were written by and for “solitaries,” where we see a native individualism in its most poignant and persuasive form. These were no monastic productions, only the work of individual recluses. Theirs is the unheard melody within English music.

There had been Anglo-Saxon hermits, celebrated in saints’ lives and in popular legend, who were so characteristic of English Catholicism that in the sixteenth century Holinshed remarked: “The heremeticall profession was onely allowed of in Britaine.” This is a pious exaggeration but it contains an important truth. One of the first prose works in Middle English, written in the late twelfth century, is known as the Ancrene Riwle or Ancrene Wisse; it is a manual of living for three female recluses who lived in “cells” a few miles from Wigmore Abbey in Herefordshire.

It is an interesting work in many respects, not least for its erudition and for its incorporation of French “romance” elements within an overwhelmingly pious treatise. Like burgeoning Middle English itself, which in its exuberance manifests Latin and French influences as well as Anglo-Saxon repetition and alliteration, the narrative is of mixed tone. Female recluses were considered to be no longer of this world; the Mass for the Dead was celebrated before the anchorite was led in procession to her cell, whereupon all the ceremonies of the Burial Office were performed including the scattering of earth. She then lay prostrate upon her “bier” before being pronounced dead to the world. Yet the Ancrene Wisse is a moderate and gentle text, filled with the “sweetness” which has always been considered characteristic of English spirituality. It contains no ostentation or regimentation, and it is quite without extravagant piety; it is factual, intimate and domestic. There is an account of a child being comforted when his parent whips the object that hurt him, and of the way a man will tie a knot in his belt to remind him of a service he has promised to perform. Moderation is to be observed in penitential exercises, since the law of love is more important than the rigours of penance; you must pray, but you must also eat and dress properly. This shrewdness or practicality is wholly consistent with the great themes of English spirituality, and may even be said to characterise it.

So it is that “moderation” and “a robust note of common sense” can be attributed to the mystical writings of Richard Rolle,2 who in his solitary state chanted the song of divine love. He was in many respects eccentric, and at the beginning of his devotional life was considered by many to be mad, but the workings of the English imagination are to be found in lives as well as in letters. He was born at Thornton Dale near Pickering in Yorkshire, around the year 1300, and at the age of thirteen or fourteen was enrolled at Oxford University. He did not complete the course of seven years’ study but instead, in his own words translated from the Latin, “longed for the sweet delights of eternity.” He returned home, where above all else he desired the life of a hermit. So he asked his sister to meet him in an adjacent wood and bring with her two of her “over-dresses,” one white and one grey, as well as their father’s rain-hood; on their encounter he clothed himself in the white dress, cut off the sleeves of the grey dress and donned that before putting on his father’s hood. It says much for the power of the visual and dramatic imagination that he instantly became the “figure” or “type” of the hermit. The sister cried out, “My brother is mad! My brother is mad!”—whereupon, according to one hagiographical account, “he drove her from him with threats, and fled at once without delay.” He eventually found refuge in the house of a local landowner where he became hermit in residence with his own “cell” in the grounds. His patrons would bring visitors to him, for their gratification or edification, and on one occasion “he proceeded to give them excellent exhortations while at the same time never ceasing his writing—and all the while what he was writing was not the same as what he was speaking.” He eventually left this refuge and began a wandering ministry, before settling down as a recluse in the county of Richmond, where he acquired a reputation for sanctity and for the power of healing. One commentator has suggested that he was always possessed by the landscape of his childhood, that of the North Yorkshire moors and marshes, and has compared him with the Brontë sisters.There is indeed the same fervour, the same expansive longings, and the same musical cadence within his writing.

He wrote originally in Latin, but his prose is imbued with a powerful native and alliterative spirit: “fervebunt fetentes formidine futura; formosus et fortisin feno falluntur . . .” When he returned to writing in English in the latter years of his life, he employed an idiom no less powerful and idiosyncratic. “To me it semys,” he wrote, “that contemplacion is Ioyfull songe of godis lufe takyn in mynde, with swetnes of aungell louynge.” The words “sweetness” and “song” are never far from his lips in a prose filled with polyphony, so that his readers may feel a “swetnes in thaire hert of the lufe withouten ende.” In his solitude he finds a language of praise and joyfulness, as if in the silence he could hear English music. His metaphor and his practice are of speech becoming song, the spoken words turning into poetry, as the soul is irradiated so strongly by the fire of love that “he or scho that feles it, that has it, and that loves God, syngand tharwyth.” Once more the “sweetness” of English spirituality is celebrated, in a delicate line which hovers between poetry and prose. The line of English melody runs continually so that when Richard Rolle writes, “My hert, when sal it brest for lufe? Than languyst I na mare,” he anticipates the tone and cadence of George Herbert’s “You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.” In The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse only four pages separate Richard Rolle from John Donne and the great seventeenth-century religious poets, providing textual evidence of continuity. When Rolle writes, “I stand in still mowrnyng,” in motionless sorrow, he anticipates T. S. Eliot’s “still and still moving,” as if the cadence of English music were itself motionless and continuous.

If the music of Rolle is characteristic, it simply reflects his spirituality. It has been described as affective individualism, marked by a “resolutely anti-intellectual character.”4 Thus, in his addresses to other solitaries, he avoids scholastic dogma and formal theology; he avoids, too, the penitential rigours of extreme pietism in favor of modest and moderate admonitions. His tendency is, if anything, towards dramatic re-enactment as if the spirit of the mystery play were abroad. With “the cros heuy & huge & so hard trust upon thi bak, that thou art cruyschid to hepe & schrinkist ther-vndir” we are led into the scene of the Crucifixion as by a guide. The practical event is more important than theological speculation, since “luf es hard as hel.”

There are hundreds of extant manuscripts of Rolle’s spiritual writings; he was venerated as a saint, although he was never canonised, and his cell in Pickering became the object of pilgrimage. Yet if his holiness has faded, his importance has not. He established a tradition and a tone which encompass the work of Traherne and of Herbert, of Crashaw and of Donne, of Vaughan and of Eliot.

Continuity is also to be found with the work of another medieval solitary, Walter Hilton, whose treatise on the stages of contemplative union with God has an image of music which is close to that of Rolle. The physical body is “bot as an instrument and a trumpe of the soule, in the whilke the sowle blowith swete notes of gostly louynges to Iesu.” It is an English music located beyond time in the mystic’s experience of eternity. Yet if there is one more significant image within the work of Walter Hilton, it is that of the journey or pilgrimage. It is an ancient topos, of course, but Hilton is the first to employ it extensively in English as a metaphor for spiritual enlightenment. He describes the dangerous and laborious journey of a pilgrim to Jerusalem, talking to others along the way, beset by evil spirits, resisting temptations, until he reaches his destination. It is hard not to recognize the resemblances between Hilton’s account and that of Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress. In Hilton’s narrative the soul or pilgrim glimpses his destination in “smale sodeyn liytinges that glideren out thurgh smale caues fro that citee,” while Bunyan’s Pilgrim is greeted outside the same city by “Shining Men” or “Shining Ones”; the space of three hundred years, between Hilton and Bunyan, vanishes in a moment. It is the moment, as small as a nut or a grain of sand, that according to Blake “Satan cannot find.” It contains the living imagination.

It has sometimes been suggested that Walter Hilton also composed the mystical treatise known as The Cloud of Unknowing, although the attribution is in dispute. Yet that treatise shares, with the texts of other English mystics, a distaste for the formal organisation of the devotional life; the narrator believes that he writes childishly and, like Chaucer, casts himself as the simpleton. It is a very English device. His style is direct and practical with the emphasis upon plain speaking. “Bot now thou askest me what is that thing. I schal telle thee what I mene that it is.” His exhortations use domestic and familiar images which, together with his “humorously shrewd observations,”5 allow a great intimacy of address. The “good gracyous God” is as healthful and as “plat & pleyn as a plastre.” There are occasions, however, when the author strikes a more plangent note; we might then be in the company of John Donne or Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Look up now,” he demands, “weike wreche, & see what thou arte. What arte thou, & what has thou deserved . . .” It is the same music.

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