The term, ‘Neoplatonism’, was coined by European scholars during the 19th century. However, the founder of this philosophy is the Egyptian Hellenist, Plotinus, who taught in Rome during the 3rd century C.E. The core of Plotinus’s philosophy is broken down into a tripartite cosmology consisting of the ‘one’, the ‘intellect,’ and ‘the soul’. All material existence, including ‘intellect’ and ‘soul’ emanate from the ‘one.’ Mankind seeks to escape material reality and be unified with the ‘one’. It is the cause of being for everything else in existence, and a cause for being within itself.
Plato’s Timaeus opens with a discrepancy between the eternal world and the physical world. The physical world is ephemeral, and it can only be perceived through estimation. The eternal world, however, is to be perceived by ‘reason’. The term for ‘intellect’ is ‘nous.’ And it helps answer the question why the ‘one’ in all its perfection would find the need to create anything other than itself.
In Neoplatonism, the ‘soul’ is generated by ‘the one’ but it has fallen into the material world. Subsequently, the ‘intellect’ and the soul want to break free of the material world and unite with the ‘one’. This is known as ‘henosis’. The ‘intellect’ finds elation through thought and meditation on the ‘one’. This is its purpose. Throughout literary history, the poet has frequently employed this cosmology in his poetry. In the following study, I will trace Neoplatonic elements, as set forth by Plotinus, in the poetry of Solomon Ibn Gavirol, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Ezra Pound and Kathleen Raine.
According to the Judeo-Arab poet, Solomon Ibn Gavirol, everything in existence may be divided into three parts: ‘matter’, ‘form’ and ‘will’. According to the Neoplatonist cosmology, ‘matter’ = ‘soul’/physical universe, ‘form’ = ‘intellect’ and self-reflection and ‘will’ = the ‘one’, the divine will that is guiding the cosmos. These three parts become united in the ideal ‘world of forms’, which is where the divine Godhead is found. Let’s look at the poem, “Three things Conspire”:
Three things conspire together in mine eyes
To bring the remembrance of Thee ever before me,
And I possess them as faithful witnesses:
Thy heavens, for whose sake I recall Thy name,
The earth I live on, that rouseth my thought
With its expanse which recalleth the expander of my pedestal,
And the musing of my heart when I look within the depths of myself.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, for ever and aye!
“Thy heavens, for whose sake I recall Thy name” (4) stands for ‘form’, or the ‘intellect’ which gives form and shape to the otherwise unintelligible ‘matter’, which stands for “The earth I live on, that rouseth my thought.” (5) These two entities, “the heavens” which are ‘intellect’ and ‘form’ together with “the earth” which is ‘matter’ and the ‘soul’, unite and give way to the ‘one’: “…the musings of my heart when I look within the depths of myself.” The phenomenon being referred to is ‘henosis’.
A core tenet of Neoplatonist philosophy is that the ‘one’ does not create, it emanates. Therefore, the ‘intellect’ is illuminated by the ‘one’ the way the moon emanates light from the sun. Take for instance the first stanza of the poem “The Sun”: “Like a bridegroom the sun/ Dons his robe that is spun/ Of light,/ Which from Thee emanated/ Yet in no wise abated/ Thy light.” (1-6). Ibn Gavirol wishes to replace the ‘one’ with his own concept of God, but nevertheless we see the Neoplatonic trope come to life. Notice the use of the word “emanated”. Again in the lengthy, liturgical poem known as Keter Malkut “XVI: The Sun” Ibn Gavirol writes, “So through the ministering Sun is revealed/ The grandeur and glory of the Lord…” (25-26).
Another key principle of Neoplatonism is the emphasis on the ‘soul’. The ‘soul’ might come to represent ‘matter’ and the physical universe. It is sometimes called the ‘word-soul’. While it is made of ephemeral matter, it comes into being by way of emanation from the ‘one’. Therefore it does contain a spark of ‘ideal form’ within it. The ‘soul’, with its divine spark, is locked in the mortal body of man. Ibn Gavirol plays with this idea in Keter Malkut “XXIX: The Soul”: “Thou hast imparted to it the spirit of wisdom/ And called it the Soul./ And of flames of intellectual fire hast Thou wrought its form,/ And like a burning fire hast Thou wafted it,/ And sent it to the body to serve and guard it,[…]” (4-7). Again here we see the soul’s descent from the realm of ideal forms down into the mortal body. The “flames of intellectual fire” represent what we call in Greek, ‘nous’ which means intellectual contemplation of the self, which is equivalent to prayer in Neoplatonism.
Again, ‘Henosis’ is the Greek word for a mystical union or oneness, and again, Ibn Gavirol alludes to ‘henosis’ in the third stanza of the poem, “My Soul Shall Declare”, by way of a metaphor in which the eternal soul is trapped in the material body: “She serves Thee as handmaid while yet in the body,/ And the day she returns to the land whence she came,/ In Thee will she dwell, for in Thee is her being,/ Doth she rise, doth she sit, Thou art with her the same.” (9-12). In Keter Malkut “XXXI: The Soul” Gavirol comments that the ‘intellect’ and more importantly the ‘soul’ are good in nature: “For Thou hast placed the soul in the body to vivify it,/ And to teach and show it the path of life/ And to deliver it from evil;”(2-4) the poem continues: “…the spirit of wisdom/ Whereby man is divided from the beasts/ That he may ascend to a higher sphere./Thou hast him enclosed in Thy universe,…” (6-9). Here he is referring to “the universe” as part of the ephemeral, material world.
In his Biographia Literaria, the Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, claims that – not unlike Saint Augustine – he moved from belief in a Platonic trinity to a Christian trinity. However, his Neoplatonism – if there is any to be detected in his poetry – is not obvious. Philosophically, Coleridge blends the German Idealism of the 18th century with his Neoplatonic cosmology by stressing the good that emanates from the ‘one’. In the poem, “Constancy to an Ideal Object”, Coleridge writes about the properties of intellectual thought and how it is the higher part of the intellect to grasp the world of ideal forms:
Since all that beat about in Nature’s range,
Or veer or vanish; why should’st thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning Thought! that liv’st but in the brain? (1-4)
Recall that in Greek terms the word for intellectual reflection is ‘nous’. The “world of change” that the speaker is referring to is the ephemeral world of matter, the ‘word-soul’. The “constant” is the speaker’s “thought” that “liv’st but in the brain…” It is the ‘intellect’ which can grasp the unchanging world of ideal forms, even as it is set in the material soul and the body which like the earth is always changing and dying. So a ‘henosis’ occurs, a unification and marriage of the ‘intellect’ to the ‘one’.
Unlike Samuel Taylor Coleridge, modernist, Ezra Pound, was not interested in the ‘one’ but the ‘nous’, the ‘intellect’ or world of ‘abstract forms’. “Though man’s soul pass through troubled waters,/ Strange ways to him are open…” (4-5) writes Pound in the poem, “Canzon: The Spear”. Let’s take a look at the stanza entitled, “IV”:
Yet within my heart I gaze/ Upon my fair beyond the waters,
Meeems my soul within me prays / To pass straightaway beyond the waters.
Though I be always banished/ From ways and woods that she doth tread,
One thing there is that doth not fade, (22-28)
The gazing within the speaker’s own heart is an act of ‘nous.’ “The waters” are referring to the world of imperfect or abstract forms, and while the speaker cannot actually return to his creator in the world of ‘ideal forms’, he may glimpse it: “…my soul within me prays…”; the “One thing there is that doth not fade,” is the ‘one’, the world of ‘ideal forms’. In another poem from this collection, the phenomenon of ‘nous’ is even more intensely conceptualized: let’s read the opening stanza of “Canzone: Of Angels”:
He that is Lord of all the realms of light/ Hath unto me from His magnificence/ Granted such visions as has wrought my joy./ Moving my spirit past the last defence/ That shieldeth mortal things from mightier sight,/ Where freedom of the soul knows no alloy,/ I saw what forms the lordly powers employ;/ Three splendors, saw I, of high holiness, (1-8)
The “Lord of all the realms of light” is the ‘one’ from which emanates the ‘intellect’ and the ‘world-soul’. He admits that while the ‘one’ may gaze upon the ‘world of senses’, the ‘world of senses’ cannot gaze upon the ‘world of ideal forms’: “That shieldeth mortal things from mightier sight…”
From clarity to clarity ascending/ Through all the roofless, tacit courts extending
In aether which such subtle light doth bless/ As ne’er the candles of the stars hath wooed;
Know ye herefrom of their similitude. (9-13)
The “three splendors…of holiness” are the ‘soul’, ‘intellect’ and the ‘one’, or ‘matter’, ‘form’ and ‘will’; and “From clarity to clarity ascending” refers to the ‘nous’ or ‘intellect’ ascending back to the ‘world of ideal forms’ in a dialectical journey, after its fall into the world of ‘ephemeral matter’ or the ‘world-soul’ in the body.
In the poem, “An End of the World”, the late-contemporary, British poet, Kathleen Raine, presents a series of paradoxes. Firstly, the theme of ‘telos’ or ‘ends’ is contrasted by the eternality of the ‘ideal world of forms’ which has penetrated the ‘abstract world of forms’ or the ‘physical world of matter’ in a state of ‘henosis’. “Nothing is changed/ Not the river’s course, the dynamos’ or the trams/ The chimneys and the housetops are as always/ But the world is ended.” (1-4). Why at the end of the world should the aerial view of “housetops” and “chimneys” remain as unchanging, undying? Perhaps they remain in the memory of the speaker, belonging to the ‘intellect’. “The single leaf among the myriad leaves/ Veiled with all nature’s intersecting ways,/ The little labyrinth, is traced, is plain/ The quest is ended.” (9-12). The “single leaf among the myriad leaves” comes to symbolize the unity of the ‘one’ divided into a tripartite structure consisting also of ‘intellect’ and ‘soul’. “The little labyrinth” is the phenomenon of multiplicity in the ‘one’: “The single star among the myriad stars/ Stands stedfast at the end of night/ Over love’s earthly house/ Distance is ended.”(13-16) Like “the single leaf”, “the single star among the myriad stars” refers to the dialectical journey from the world of ‘ideal forms’ to the world of ‘ephemeral matter’ and back again. “Distance is ended” writes Raine. “The single grain of infinitesimal dust,/ The mote in the lamplight enters the field of vision,/ Is seen, is recognized, is known/ As the unique one”. (17-20) The “lamplight” emanates from the source, the ‘one’ and illuminates “the field of vision” which is the ‘intellect’ in a state of ‘nous’. In another poem, “Rock”, Kathleen Raine writes:
My ephemeral substance lay in the veins of the earth from/ the beginning,
Patient for its release, not questioning/ When, when will come the flowering, the flowing,
The pulsing, the awakening, the taking wing/ The long longed-for night of the
bridegroom’s coming. (11-15)
The “bridegroom’s coming” represents the marriage of the ‘one’ to its creations, the ‘intellect’ and ‘world-soul’ in the act of ‘henosis’. The Neoplatonic theme of the soul’s fall and descent from the world of ‘ideal forms’ to the world of ‘ephemeral matter’ is alluded to in the poem: “…where in nightmare I fall crying/ ‘Must I travel fathomless distance for ever and ever?’” (19-20)
- Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions. 1817. Online retrieval.
- —. “Constancy to an Ideal Object”. 1828. Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/43972.
- Ibn Gavirol, Solomon. “Keter Malkut XVI: The Sun”. Selected Religious Poems of Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Tr. Israel Zangwill. 1923. Sacred Texts, http://sacred-texts.com/jud/sig/index.htm.
- —. “Keter Malkut XXIX: The Soul”.
- —. “Keter Malkut “XXXI: The Soul”.
- —. “My Soul Shall Declare”.
- —.“The Sun”.
- —. “Three Things Conspire”.
- Plato. “Timaeus”. Tr. Benjamin Jowett. 360 BCE. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/timaeus.html.
- Plotinus. “The Six Enneads”. Tr. Stephen Mackenna and B.S. Page. The Internet Classics Archive. http://classics.mit.edu/Plotinus/enneads.html.
- Pound, Ezra. “Canzon: The Spear”. Canzoni of Ezra Pound. 1911. Online retrieval.
- —. “Canzon: Of Angels”.
- Raine, Kathleen. “An End of the World”. Poetry Magazine, March 1947. Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=24670.
- —. “Rock”. Poetry Magazine, April 1952. The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=25943.