Passingshadow.com - a commentary on Tennyson's poem, "The Ancient Sage".
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A THOUSAND summers ere the time of Christ From out his ancient city came a Seer
The Seer figure is possibly inspired by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, author of "Tao Te Ching" but in the context of this poem probably not much more than just a friendly nod of recognition between two humans whose life work consisted of figuring out what to do with the "seeming double of the single world". Reconciling matter and consciousness. Arguably everyone's life work, but not everyone is consciously so occupied.
Whom one that loved, and honour’d him, and yet
Was no disciple, richly garb’d, but worn
From wasteful living, follow’d—in his hand
A scroll of verse—till that old man before
A cavern whence an affluent fountain pour’d
From darkness into daylight, turn’d and spoke.
So, we see the old sage and the other figure who is repeatedly referred to as "son", but who doesn't look like the old sage and who loves but does not agree with him. Sounds like a parting of a father and son who disagree but who love each other and have given up on ever agreeing. Maybe it's a double personification of a conversation between his higher and lower mind. Tennyson used the word "son" very broadly in his poetry. Here he picks up the thread of the discussion: what to make of this "affluent fountain" that pours "from darkness into daylight", seemingly from a dark hole, or out of nowhere.This wealth of waters might but seem to draw
From yon dark cave, but, son, the source is higher,
Yon summit half-a-league in air—and higher,
The cloud that hides it—higher still, the heavens
Whereby the cloud was moulded, and whereout
The cloud descended. Force is from the heights.
The "Force is from the Heights" declaration is a central one, at least for non-materialists. it's a statement of the poem's overall theme which is the relationship between mundane physical material reality (the "wealth of waters") and the higher realms of consciousness, ("the heavens", symbolizing the "Nameless"); and is a statement that the unseen is more powerful and is the source of all the seen. Not just more powerful, but the only and constant source of all power, force and physical phenomena.
I am wearied of our city, son, and go
To spend my one last year among the hills.
What hast thou there? Some deathsong for the Ghouls
To make their banquet relish? let me read.
The old sage is really, really tired of contending with materialism and has decided to withdraw to the hills to prepare to die but is willing to have one more discussion with his materialistic "son" who loves him and is presumably beloved by him so he starts reading the poem the son has brought expressing his materialistic views and their ramifications.
“How far thro’ all the bloom and brake
That nightingale is heard!
What power but the bird’s could make
This music in the bird?
How summer-bright are yonder skies,
And earth as fair in hue!
And yet what sign of aught that lies
Behind the green and blue?
But man to-day is fancy’s fool
As man hath ever been.
The nameless Power, or Powers, that rule
Were never heard or seen.”
The opening materialist declaration. Okay, so the birdsong is lovely and so are the blue sky and green earth, but what does that have to do with silly and unnecessary notions about birds being more than birds, or skies or earth more than skies or earth or men more than men, or for nameless powers for which no one has ever been able to come up with any evidence, never mind any proof of their existence. You're just imagining things you apparently want to be true and kidding yourself into believing they are true.
If thou would’st hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice,
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise,
As if thou knewest, tho’ thou canst not know;
"If" in the above paragraph is a big one. The nameless
powers are never heard or seen by those who never listen or
look. If you listen and look within yourself, and persist
in doing so you may find yourself thinking things you don't
normally think. You may find the Nameless to be
conspicuous by His absence, i.e. you may sense a need for
something more than a material existence. And if there is
a need for something, might it not exist somewhere? Or you
may just be guilty of being "fancy's fool as man hath ever
been". I, your ancient sage, think you'll be a wiser
happier fool if you try to listen for the voice of the Nameless
but nobody will ever be able to tell either of us what to
do. The evidence for the existence of the Nameless, if
there is any, is sitting at the central altar in the Temple-cave
of your own self. I have based my decisions on my
experiences, you have to base your decisions on yours. The
"voice" is actually more felt than heard. Later in the poem
Tennyson offers a somewhat inconclusive answer to what the
source of the "voice" is: "That which knows, And is not known,
but felt thro’ what we feel Within ourselves is highest".
A question of what you feel drawn to. Experience runs
deeper than understanding, sort of like the sky is higher than
the anthill. (Although, even though experience may be one
of the, if not the greatest gift offered by a material world it
is not something to be worshiped. It only gets you as far
as "the blind men and the elephant". Experiences can
expand and improve and be shared among experiencers even if it
is usually with words about the experiences which are often "unshadowable
in words, Themselves but shadows of a shadow-world."
Hopefully this sharing of experience, though highly imperfect
will result in improved knowledge; and not just improved
knowledge of ways to eradicate those who have experienced a
different part of the elephant.) So don't let
flawed understanding, especially second or third-hand or
group/consensus understanding trump your own experience.
Of course you can look at what others say, but the decision to
let somebody else decide is still your decision and you'll still
reap what gets sown.
That sees and stirs the surface-shadow there
But never yet hath dipt into the abysm,
The Abysm of all Abysms, beneath, within
The blue of sky and sea, the green of earth,
Knowledge is an ephemeral thing. How can something be called "knowledge" that is always waiting to be proven wrong? It betrays its true character when shown to be wrong by reflexively responding with "I thought...", not "I knew". (Unless it's something wrong that is shown to be right; then it's "I knew it!") It deals in superficial surface effects that are constantly changing and will always be changing; not in anything that is absolute in the "nameless" sense. It deals only with artifacts and phenomena; not their "abysmal" transcendent source. Human knowledge is only a small part of the big picture so as such can never be complete, or "dip into the abysm".And in the million-millionth of a grain
Which cleft and cleft again for evermore,
And ever vanishing, never vanishes,
To me, my son, more mystic than myself,
Or even than the Nameless is to me.
I guess this is Tennyson looking at the question of what I think used to be called "the continuity of matter"; that matter was always there no matter how small you sliced and diced it. He came along before the Model T was invented, never mind before quantum physics and computers and must have not thought of matter as made up of smaller things but as an absolute thing that would always be there no matter how you subdivided it. And this seemed to puzzle and perhaps trouble him. He could accept the infinity of the "Nameless" and maybe even sort of experienced it from time to time, and he intuitively sensed his own claim to some kind of infiniteness but for uncouth chunks of matter, pieces of the "phantom shore", "shadow world" and "dream world" he lived in to have something kind of eternal about them seemed to not fit into the big picture. Here again is the struggle between his knowledge and his experience. It seems to me that he struggled a lot between being a creature of what he intuitively, directly experienced (his occasional "loss of self" mystical experiences) and being a creature of the materialistic, institutionally religions world he grew up in and lived in. His church would probably object to being called "materialistic", but although it had no shortage of "forms of Godliness", I suspect that Tennyson found that it didn't entirely "speak to his condition". Yet he apparently had a strong and deep affiliation with it.And when thou sendest thy free soul thro’ heaven,
Nor understandest bound nor boundlessness,
Thou seest the Nameless of the hundred names.
This must refer to the above (and below) mentioned transcendent, mystical experiences Tennyson had even as a child, and maybe were why he (and others) resisted the tidal waves of materialistic culture that were (and still are) sweeping through the science, religion and society in which he lived. Or I suppose he could be talking about death.And if the Nameless should withdraw from all
Thy frailty counts most real, all thy world
Might vanish like thy shadow in the dark.
Here he points out the importance of "the Nameless" to the existence of the material world. The "Nameless", whose absence would make the material world "vanish like thy shadow in the dark". Or as physicist Thomas Campbell would say, like what happens to a VR world when the computer is switched off. Only he probably wouldn't include the word "like".“And since—from when this earth began—
The Nameless never came
Among us, never spake with man,
And never named the Name”—
Right, and would you be kind enough to show me one fossilized fragment of "the Nameless", one good photograph of him, one piece of anything that he obviously had anything to do with, or anything at all? Maybe the collected fragments of the original ten commandments from Mt. Sinai would do.Thou canst not prove the Nameless, O my son,
Nor canst thou prove the world thou movest in,
Thou canst not prove that thou art body alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art spirit alone,
Nor canst thou prove that thou art both in one:
Thou canst not prove thou art immortal, no
Nor yet that thou art mortal—nay my son,
Thou canst not prove that I, who speak with thee,
Am not thyself in converse with thyself,
This gets back to the
"Knowledge is the swallow on the lake" problem above. Are
you going to look for proof of anything, in a world where
knowledge isn't possible? Lets see, "what are we and where
did we come from?", "what is this place?", "why are we here?";
"I don't know", "I don't know", "I don't know". Seems a
bit strange. Seems even stranger that it should feel
strange. And you probably don't know anybody who
knows. Tom Campbell points out that these are classic
hallmarks of a virtual world. Maybe Tennyson was
predicting Massive Multiplayer Online Games! Or maybe this
is just another way of saying "we are all one".
Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise,
Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt,
And cling to Faith beyond the forms of Faith!
She reels not in the storm of warring words,
She brightens at the clash of ‘Yes’ and ‘No,’
She sees the Best that glimmers thro’ the Worst,
She feels the Sun is hid but for a night,
She spies the summer thro’ the winter bud,
She tastes the fruit before the blossom falls,
She hears the lark within the songless egg,
She finds the fountain where they wail’d ‘Mirage’!
What you are asking for never was, would or could be in the cards. Basically, this boils down to "your only option is to believe whatever you believe". And you will probably be right, at least for you. Is this more of "man being fancy's fool as ever man hath been"? The cards can't say. A key phrase in the above paragraph is "beyond the forms". If you go there, you're no longer in a material world. No longer in Kansas. You're in a transcendent place, outside the deck of cards. (Well, where you always are and always have been, but that's a digression.) Pursue whatever you think sounds interesting.“What Power? aught akin to Mind,
The mind in me and you?
Or power as of the Gods gone blind
Who see not what they do?”
For a materialistic human, "mind" is the heights from which force descends and yes, everybody has one except maybe the Gods. Most sages (ancient or otherwise) seem to think that they have that, and more. High minds, low minds, non-dual minds, you name it. Materialistic minds frequently complain of symptoms of blindness. So if we're going to imagine this "power", this alleged deity, it's not surprising if some of "us" sneaks into our vision of "it". Does this God of yours have intelligence like mine? Or is he just all powerful and all blind. (The issue of "goodness" hasn't even occurred to anybody yet, or questions about how much of God might exist in man. Even with his own transcendent experiences Tennyson seems to personally relate more readily to the darkness in man than to that of God which is in every man, though he does talk about a "world-prophet in the heart of man".) Yes, I can see how your God may exist considering the scope and character of the mess I see in my material world. It would probably take a God (or Gods) to create such horrible, vast, various and profound misery.But some in yonder city hold, my son,
That none but Gods could build this house of ours,
So beautiful, vast, various, so beyond
All work of man, yet, like all work of man,
A beauty with defect——till That which knows,
And is not known, but felt thro’ what we feel
Within ourselves is highest, shall descend
On this half-deed, and shape it at the last
According to the Highest in the Highest.
Here Tennyson maybe shows a bit of the conflict he was experiencing in his own life and mind. This answer, coming from Tennyson seems to me a bit strange, but maybe it shouldn't. In response to the young materialist's assessment that "this world totally and absolutely sucks" Tennyson reaches for something that allegedly "some in yonder city hold". Would that be the church? Respectable society? Godfearing citizens? He doesn't say "okay here's what I think". I get the impression Tennyson deeply put up with the church rather than deeply depended on it. Maybe both. Anyway, his answer is "yes, it's not perfect but that's because it's a work in progress and some day it will all be perfected". This "shadow world", "phantom shore", "illusion" will all be perfected? Okay. He's hurling a large chunk of popular opinion and church doctrine at the atheist while he tries to come up with something better. The real answer comes later in the poem. It's we who are the problem and the solution, not our world.