And would it be so strange a thing, Among the rainy hills of Spring, A veritable god to see In luminous reality?

READINGS: Matthew 7:3-5
Venus enthroned from the De Rerum Natura

Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.

In 1922, Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878–1937) published the poem entitled “The Mystic” in a collection called Poems and Portraits.  His poem was later set to the tune of Sir Hubert Parry’s 1916 anthem “Jerusalem” by Janet Wyatt (1934- ).  It appears in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, as “Have I Not Known”, No. 337: 

   1. Have I not known the sky and sea
    Put on a look as hushed and stilled
    As if some ancient prophecy
    drew close upon to be fulfilled?
    Like mist the houses shrink and swell,
    like blood the highways throb and beat,
    the sapless stones beneath my feet
    turn foliate with miracle.

    2. And life and death but one thing are —
    and I have seen this wingless world
    cursed with impermanence and whirled
    like dust across the summer swirled,
    And I have dealt with Presences
    behind the walls of Time and Place,
    and I have seen this world star — bright,
    shining wonderful in space.

Here is the original version of the poem with the sections omitted printed in bold:

    Have I not known the sky and sea
    Put on a look as hushed and stilled
    As if some ancient prophecy
    Drew on to be fulfilled?

    And would it be so strange a thing,
    Among the rainy hills of Spring,
    A veritable god to see
    In luminous reality?
    To see him pass, as bursts of sun
    Pass over the valleys and are gone?

    Have I not seen the candid street
    Grow secret in the blaze of noon,
    Swaying before the Paraclete
    Who weaves its being through his rune?

    And would it be too strange to say
    I see a dead man come this way?

    Like mist the houses shrink and swell,
    Like blood the highways throb and beat,
    The sapless stones beneath my feet
    Turn foliate with miracle;
    And from the crowd my dead men come,
    Fragrant with youth . . . and living mirth
    Moves lips and eyes that once were dumb
    And blinded in the charnel earth.

    And I have dwelt with Presences
    Behind the veils of Time and Place
    And hearkened to the silences
    that guard the courts of grace,
    And I have dared the Distances
    Where the red planets race—
    And I have seen that Near and Far
    and God and Man and Avatar

    And Life and Death but one thing are—
    And I have seen this wingless world
    Curst with impermanence and whirled
    Like dust across the Summer swirled,
    And I have seen this wor
ld a star
    All wonderful in Space!

From “Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy” by Bernard Williams (Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 1-2)

Two currents of ideas are very prominent in modern thought and culture. On the one hand, there is an intense commitment to truthfulness--or, at any rate, a pervasive suspiciousness, a readiness against being fooled, an eagerness to see through appearances to the real structures and motives that lie behind them. Always familiar in politics, it stretches to historical understanding, to the social sciences, and even to interpretations of discoveries and research in the natural sciences.
          Together with this demand for truthfulness, however, or (to put it less positively) this reflex against deceptiveness, there is an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself: whether there is such a thing; if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective or something of that kind; altogether, whether we should bother about it, in carrying on our activities or in giving an account of them. These two things, the devotion to truthfulness and the suspicion directed to the idea of truth, are connected to one other. The desire for truthfulness drives a process of criticism which weakens the assurance that there is any secure or unqualifiedly stateable truth. Suspicion fastens, for instance, on history. Accounts which have been offered as telling the truth about the past often turn out to be biassed, ideological, or self-serving. But attempts to replace these distortions with "the truth" may once more encounter the same kind of objection, and then the question arises, whether any historical account can aim to be, simply, true: whether objective truth, or truth at all, can honestly (or, as we naturally put it, truthfully) be regarded as the aim of our inquiries into the past. Similar arguments, if not quite the same, have run their course in other fields. But if truth cannot be the aim of our inquiries, then it must surely be more honest or truthful to stop pretending that it is, and to accept that . . . : and then there follows some description of our situation which does without the idea of truth, such as that we are engaged in a battle of rhetorics.
          We can see how the demand for truthfulness and the rejection of truth can go together. However, this does not mean that they can happily co-exist or that the situation is stable. If you do not really believe in the existence of truth, what is the passion for truthfulness a passion for? Or--as we might also put it--in pursuing truthfulness, what are you supposedly being true to? This is not an abstract difficulty or just a paradox. It has consequences for real politics, and it signals a danger that our intellectual activities, particularly in the humanities, may tear themselves to pieces. 



And would it be so strange a thing,
Among the rainy hills of Spring,
A veritable god to see
In luminous reality?

A few weeks ago I gave an address with an explicit, religious naturalist theme and for the service I chose the hymn “Have I Not Known” from the current American Unitarian Universalist hymnal with a lyric by Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878–1937) and set, by Janet Wyatt (b. 1934), to Parry’s glorious tune “Jerusalem”. I chose it of course because it resonated appropriately with both my general theme and my own religious sensibilities. 

Having chosen it, as I often do with a hymn new to me — especially one I like — I did a little research about the lyric and its author. What I found out very nearly made me change my mind about using it but, since it continued to strike me as particularly well-suited to the overall message I was trying to pass on to you that week, I promised you that I would return to the hymn at another time — that time has arrived.

I’ll come to it and its author in a moment but, firstly, I need to look at the passage you heard earlier from the opening chapter of Bernard Williams’ book, “Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy”. To a religious tradition such as our own, rooted as it is in the Radical Enlightenment, truth is, of course, a vitally important concept and that is why in the order of service (where I outline how and why we have a period of conversation in the service) you will find the words saying that “In doing this we are affirming but one orthodoxy, namely, a love of truth that is a sincere desire to understand how the world is and our place in it.” But, as Williams succinctly and clearly shows, along with our demand for truthfulness (or, as he puts it our “reflex against deceptiveness”) in the modern age  and especially in the realm of history there has developed “an equally pervasive suspicion about truth itself.” We have become more and more inclined to ask ourselves “whether there is such a thing” and, “if there is, whether it can be more than relative or subjective or something of that kind. Altogether today we want  to ask “whether we should bother about it, in carrying on our activities or in giving an account of them.”

This pervasive suspicion has helped create a situation today in which some people are by now quite prepared shamelessly to make up things or lie about the past — or simply allow themselves to believe such made up histories offered to them by another. This is, of course, especially visible at the moment in the realm of politics and we here are rightly concerned that this practice should be challenged and stopped. But, on this matter, as you will soon see, we must surely take care to heed Jesus’ teaching to take the log out of our own eyes before we try to take the speck out of our neighbour’s (Matthew 7:3-5).

With this thought in mind let’s now turn to Don Marquis who was a celebrated New York newspaper columnist and humorist in the early decades of the last century and who also took time to write what we can call “serious poetry”. Looking through some of his verse in his books “Dreams and Dust” (1915) and “Poems and Portraits” (1922) I get a strong sense that, religiously speaking, he was a kind of Pantheist with Epicurean sensibilities, which is most certainly to be a certain kind of religious naturalist. (I also detect something of the religious attitude found in the Book of Ecclesiastes and the great 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam). To recap, with regard to pantheism, at its most general, it

“. . . may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe” (Source).

With regard to Epicureanism, it holds a materialist world view in which everything is made of atoms, including the gods and the soul. It is, if you like, a kind of deistic polytheism where, although the gods exist, living in the inaccessible interstices of space and time, they take absolutely no notice of humans and do not intervene in any way in our lives. For Epicurus the only real, positive ethical influence the gods can ever have upon us is experienced when we deliberately choose to imitate them and come to live ourselves in a state of “ataraxia” — i.e. unperturbed and calm without a fear of either supernatural forces or death. To many people — from the third century BCE unto our own age — this is, to all intents and purposes, atheism by another name; as too, of course, is Pantheism.

But, if atheism it is, the point is that a Pantheism with Epicurean sensibilities is a highly unusual form of it in that it is not at all frightened to speak of the gods in its poetry nor is it frightened to honour the gods in their various temples and holy places as both Epicurus and Lucretius are said to have done and, as one of his poems called “The God-Maker, Man” reveals, as Don Marquis also did. He writes:

For all of the creeds are false, and all of the creeds
        are true;
  And low at the shrines where my brothers bow,
        there will I bow, too;

  For no form of a god, and no fashion
  Man has made in his desperate passion
  But is worthy some worship of mine; —
  Not too hot with a gross belief,
    Nor yet too cold with pride,
  I will bow me down where my brothers bow,
    Humble—but open-eyed!

Such external religious activities are deemed acceptable because of the social cohesion, poetic insight wisdom and beauty they, potentially at least, can bring to human, civic and personal life. But, and this is vital, an Epicureanly inclined Pantheist can only do these things insofar as they continue to remain, as Don Marquis said, “Humble—but open-eyed” — i.e. critically alert but poetically sensible, able to hold fast to the realisation that the gods can do nothing to them, that they must not fear them, and that they must never, ever allow superstitious forms of religion to creep back into their hearts and minds.

Anyway, the full version of Marquis’ “Have I Not Known” — “The Mystic” — reads to me as a poem written very much in the spirit of the great Roman, Epicurean poet Lucretius, whose own poem, “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura), even as it teaches a thorough-going materialism begins with a beautiful, poetic paean of praise to the goddess Venus:

     Mother of Aeneas and of his Rome, and of gods
and men the joy, dear Venus, who underneath the gliding
heavenly signals busies the seas with ships and makes
earth fruitful (for only through you are living things conceived
and because of you they rise up to bask in the light of the sun):
from you the harsh winds flee and the skies’ black storm clouds scatter
at your approach; for you the intricate earth sprouts flowers,
wide ocean roads subside into gentle smiling, and furthest
reaches of heaven glow serene in response to your prompting.

(Proem to Book One of Lucretius’ "On the Nature of Things", trans. by David R. Slavitt, University of California Press, 2008)

Lucretius’ language is not a million miles from Marquis’, even as the latter imagines a god rather than a goddess moving across the spring landscape:

Have I not known the sky and sea
Put on a look as hushed and stilled
As if some ancient prophecy
Drew on to be fulfilled?

And would it be so strange a thing,
Among the rainy hills of Spring,
A veritable god to see
In luminous reality?
To see him pass, as bursts of sun
Pass over the valleys and are gone?

But with the exception of the (perhaps deliberately left in) clue contained in the word “Presences”, all this rich, Epicurean, Lucretian, pantheistic religious naturalism, is lost in the version we sang and this point brings me back to Bernard Williams’ words because it seems to me that the presentation of Don Marquis’ words in the American hymnbook cuts strongly against our professed belief in the need for truthfulness and, I hope, reminds us of our strong dislike of being deceived. And deceived we are because the credits below the published music read as follows:

Words: Don Marquis, 1878-1937, ©1946 Doubleday & Company
Music: Charles Hubert Hastings Parry, 1848-1918, arr. by Janet Wyatt, b. 1934.

Surely truthfulness demands it is made clear to us that the words of Don Marquis have been significantly modified and altered by Janet Wyatt? Such an honest admission would at least alert the attentive reader to the need to check whether or not the hymn does, in fact, properly represent Marquis’ views. I realise most readers won’t take the time to check this, especially if they simply happen to like and resonate with sentiments of the version they have just sung.

[In passing, let me be truthful here and say that even I do not check every hymn I sing — although I most certainly did today and so should you — especially our opening hymn by the famous Unitarian polymath, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809–1894). At least in our English green hymn-book it notes the lyric is taken “from” Holmes, but even that’s not sufficient because other substantive changes have silently been made — see below.] 

Anyway, a careless reader could easily sing Wyatt’s version of Marquis’ verse and think that his religious views lined-up nicely, thank-you very much, with those of some mid to late twentieth-century Unitarian Universalists. But truthfulness demands I make it clear, as I have just done, that this is not at all the case.

Truthfulness and truth also demand that I alert you to the fact that within certain sections of the liberal religious tradition there has always exists a strong, revisionist tendency which is prepared silently to alter texts from the past to make it seem as if their authors always believed like certain modern Unitarians and Universalists. From where I stand this seems to me to be a very slippery, downward slope, one which it cuts against truthfulness and truth every step of the way.

Truthfulness and truth also demands that I try to indicate why Janet Wyatt might have chosen to omit the lines and words she did, namely, “God”, “Avatar”, and “Paraclete” (the comforter, i.e. the Holy Spirit), why she might want to remove the reference to dead men walking and talking, and why she might have left in place the mention of “presences” beyond the “veil” (which she renders “wall”) of time.

I cannot find any biographical references to Wyatt online but, knowing the history of the wider Unitarian and Universalist movement in both the USA and here in the UK, it seems reasonable to suggest that she might have made these changes to enable the publication of a hymn which contained at least a hint of an Epicureanly inclined Pantheistic, or religious naturalist outlook that wouldn’t instantly be rejected by the hard-core, reductionist and occasionally cloth-eared humanism that, from the 1930s on into the 1990s, was so dominant within the US or British Unitarian movement and which so often wanted to excise from its communities any use of theistic, polytheistic or religious naturalist language (and even when, as in Epicurus', Lucretius' and Spinoza's cases, the use of religious language was being employed in an ultimately wholly humanistic/naturalistic/atheistic contexts). Anyway, I’d hazard a guess that Wyatt felt able to leave in place that allusive mention of “Presences” beyond the veil (now wall) of time and space (notice, too, her easily missed change of the word “dwelt” to “dealt” in connection with this) because she was hopeful this tiny glimmer of religious naturalist language would be let through as mere poetry in a way the explicit mention of “God”, “Avatar”, “Paraclete” and walking and talking dead men would not. If I am right in thinking this then in one sense we should be thanking Wyatt because that one remaining word — “Presences” — was the clue that sent me off on a journey which has been able to bring before you Don Marquis’ actual words for your consideration today.

Finally, for the moment anyway, truthfulness and truth demands that as a community we take time to acknowledge all the ways we have often been ourselves a little too willing silently to dissemble and present words from past authors in untruthful, “biassed, ideological, or self-serving” ways just as we have recently — and rightly — been accusing our illiberal religious and political opponents of doing.

If we are ever properly going to challenge those truth and truthfulness obscuring specks in our opponents’ eyes then we must, as a matter of urgency also attend to the obscuring logs that are, alas, to be found in our own.