Candle of Vision/Chapter 9
IN all I have related hitherto imagination was not present but only vision.
These are too often referred to as identical, and in what I have written I have tried to make clear the distinction.
If beyond my window I see amid the manifolded hills a river winding ablaze with light, nobody speaks of what is seen as a thing imagined, and if I look out of a window of the soul and see more marvels of shining and shadow, neither is this an act of imagination, which is indeed a higher thing than vision, and a much rarer thing, for in the act of imagination that which is hidden in being, as the Son in the bosom of the Father, is made manifest and a transfiguration takes place like that we imagine in the Spirit when it willed, "Let there be light."
Imagination is not a vision of something which already exists, and which in itself must be unchanged by the act of seeing, but by imagination what exists in latency or essence is out-realised and is given a form in thought, and we can contemplate with full consciousness that which hitherto had been unrevealed, or only intuitionally surmised.
In imagination there is a revelation of the self to the self, and a definite change in being, as there is in a vapour when a spark ignites it and it becomes an inflammation in the air.
Here images appear in consciousness which we may refer definitely to an internal creator, with power to use or remould pre-existing forms, and endow them with life, motion and voice.
We infer this because dream and vision sometimes assume a symbolic character and a significance which is personal to us.
They tell us plainly, "For you only we exist," and we cannot conceive of what is seen as being a reflection of life in any sphere.
In exploring the ancestry of the symbolic vision we draw nigh to that clouded majesty we divine in the depths of our being, and which is heard normally in intuition and conscience, but which now reveals character in its manifestation as the artist in his work.
I had a gay adventure when I was a boy at the beginning of my mental travelling, when I met, not a lion, but a symbolic vision in the path.
I had read somewhere of one whose dreams made a continuous story from night to night, and I was excited at this and wondered whether I too could not build up life for myself in a fairyland of my own creation, and be the lord of this in dream, and offset the petty circumstance of daily life with the beauty of a realm in which I would be king.
I bent myself to this, walking about the country roads at night in the darkness, building up in fantasy the country of sleep.
I remember some of my gorgeous fancies.
My dream-world was self-shining.
Light was born in everything there at dawn, and faded into a coloured gloom at eve, and if I walked across my lawns in darkness the grasses stirred by my feet would waken to vivid colour and glimmer behind me in a trail of green fire; or if a bird was disturbed at night in my shadowy woods it became a winged jewel of blue, rose, gold and white, and the leaves tipped by its wings would blaze in flakes of emerald flame, and there were flocks of wild birds that my shouts would call forth to light with glittering plumage the monstrous dusk of the heavens.
Many other fancies I had which I now forget, and some of them were intuitions about the Many-Coloured Land.
After I had conceived this world, one night in a fury of effort I willed that it should be my habitation in dream.
But of all my dreams I remember only two.
In the first I saw a mass of pale clouds, and on them was perched a little ape clutching at the misty substance with its fingers and trying to fashion it to some form.
It looked from its work every now and then at something beyond and below the clouds, and I came closer in my dream and saw that what the ape was watching was our earth which spun below in space, and it was trying to model a sphere of mist in mimicry of that which spun past it.
While I was intent, this grotesque sculptor turned suddenly, looking at me with an extraordinary grimace which said clearly as words could say, "That is what you are trying to do," and then I was whirled away again and I was the tiniest figure in vast mid-air, and before me was a gigantic gate which seemed lofty as the skies, and a shadowy figure filled the doorway and barred my passage.
That is all I can remember, and I am forced by dreams like this to conclude there is a creator of such dreams within us, for I cannot suppose that anywhere in space or time a little ape sat on a cloud and tried to fashion it into planetary form.
The creator of that vision was transcendent to the waking self and to the self which experienced the dream.
For neither self took conscious part in the creation.
The creator of that vision was seer into my consciousness in waking and in sleep, for what of the vision I remember was half a scorn of my effort and half a warning that my ambition was against natural law.
The creator of that vision could combine forms and endow them with motion and life for the vision was intellectual and penetrated me with its meaning.
Is it irrational to assume so much.
Or that the vision indicated a peculiar character in its creator, and that the ironic mood was not alien to it nor even humour?
I am rather thankful to surmise this of a self which waves away so many of our dreams and joys, and which seems in some moods to be remote from the normal and terrible as the angel with the flaming sword pointing every way to guard the Tree of Life.
In this dream some self of me, higher in the tower of our being which reaches up to the heavens, made objective manifestations of its thought; but there were moments when it seemed itself to descend, wrapping its memories of heaven about it like a cloth, and to enter the body, and I knew it as more truly myself than that which began in my mother's womb, and that it was antecedent to anything which had body in the world.
Here I must return to those imaginations I had walking about the country roads as a boy, and select from these, as I have done from vision, things upon which the reason may be brought to bear.
It is more difficult, for when there is divine visitation the mortal is made dark and blind with glory and, in its fiery fusion with the spirit, reason is abased or bewildered or spreads too feeble a net to capture Leviathan, for often we cannot after translate to ourselves in memory what the spirit said, though every faculty is eager to gather what is left after the visitation even as the rabble in eastern legend scramble to pick up the gold showered in the passing of the king.
By the time I was seventeen or eighteen my brain began to flicker with vivid images.
I tried to paint these, and began with much enthusiasm a series of pictures which were to illustrate the history of man from his birth in the Divine Mind where he glimmered first in the darkness of chaos in vague and monstrous forms growing ever nigher to the human, to men beasts and men birds, until at last the most perfect form, the divine idea of man, was born in space.
I traced its descent into matter, its conflict with the elements, and finally the series ended in a pessimistic fancy where one of our descendants millions of years hence, a minute philosopher, a creature less than three inches in height, sat on one of our gigantic skulls and watched the skies ruining back into their original chaos and the stars falling from their thrones on the height.
Most of these pictures were only the fancies of a boy, but in considering one of the series I began to feel myself in alliance with a deeper consciousness, and that was when I was trying to imagine the apparition in the Divine Mind of the idea of the Heavenly Man.
Something ancient and eternal seemed to breathe through my fancies.
I was blinded then by intensity of feeling to the demerits of the picture, but I was excited in an extraordinary way over what I had done, and I lay awake long into the night brooding over it.
I asked myself what legend I would write under the picture.
Something beyond reason held me, and I felt like one who is in a dark room and hears the breathing of another creature, and himself waits breathless for its utterance, and I struggled to understand what wished to be said, and at last, while I was preternaturally dilated and intent, something whispered to me, "Call it the Birth of Aeon."
The word "Aeon" thrilled me, for it seemed to evoke by association of ideas, moods and memories most ancient, out of some ancestral life where they lay hidden; and I think it was the following day that, still meditative and clinging to the word as a lover clings to the name of the beloved, a myth incarnated in me, the story of an Aeon, one of the first starry emanations of Deity, one pre-eminent in the highest heavens, so nigh to Deity and so high in pride that he would be not less than a god himself and would endure no dominion over him save the law of his own will.
This Aeon of my imagination revolted against heaven and left its courts, descending into the depths where it mirrored itself in chaos, weaving out of the wild elements a mansion for its spirit.
That mansion was our earth and that Aeon was the God of our world.
This myth incarnated in me as a boy walking along the country roads in Armagh.
I returned to Dublin after a fortnight and it was a day or two after that I went into the Library at Leinster House and asked for an art journal.
I stood by a table while the attendant searched for the volume.
There was a book lying open there.
My eye rested on it.
It was a dictionary of religions, I think, for the first word my eye caught was "Aeon" and it was explained as a word used by the Gnostics to designate the first created beings.
I trembled through my body.
At that time I knew nothing of mystical literature and indeed little of any literature except such tales as a boy reads, and the imaginations which had begun to overwhelm me were to me then nothing but mere imaginations, and were personal and unrelated in my mind with any conception of truth, or idea that the imagination could lay hold of truth.
I trembled because I was certain I had never heard the word before, and there rushed into my mind the thought of pre-existence and that this was memory of the past.
I went away hurriedly that I might think by myself, but my thoughts drove me back again soon, and I asked the librarian who were the Gnostics and if there was a book which gave an account of their ideas.
He referred me to a volume of Neander's Church History, and there, in the section dealing with the Sabaeans, I found the myth of the proud Aeon who mirrored himself in chaos and became the lord of our world.
I believed then, and still believe, that the immortal in us has memory of all its wisdom, or, as Keats puts it in one of his letters, there is an ancestral wisdom in man and we can if we wish drink that old wine of heaven.
This memory of the spirit is the real basis of imagination, and when it speaks to us we feel truly inspired and a mightier creature than ourselves speaks through us.
I remember how pure, holy and beautiful these imaginations seemed, how they came like crystal water sweeping aside the muddy current of my life, and the astonishment I felt, I who was almost inarticulate, to find sentences which seemed noble and full of melody sounding in my brain as if another and greater than I had spoken them; and how strange it was also a little later to write without effort verse, which some people still think has beauty, while I could hardly, because my reason had then no mastery over the materials of thought, pen a prose sentence intelligently.
I am convinced that all poetry is, as Emerson said, first written in the heavens, that is, it is conceived by a self deeper than appears in normal life, and when it speaks to us or tells us its ancient story we taste of eternity and drink the Soma juice, the elixir of immortality.