James De Mille as Mystic: a Reconsideration of Behind the Veil
by Patricia Monk
The posthumous publication of Jones De Milles poem on immortality Behind the Veil,1 lends it a faint air of irony, but even this has not proved, over the years since the poems publication, sufficient to attract readers or critics in large numbers. Nevertheless, the poem does, I believe, deserve serious attention, for although it can be shown to owe something to De Milles reading, particularly his reading of Richter, Tennyson, and the Romantics, it also demonstrates not merely considerable individuality of thought and feeling, but also a remarkable experience of religious mysticism. Consequently it provides new insight into the man who is most frequently known to Canadians only as the author of A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder, for close study of the poem shows him to be a much more thoughtful and complex personality than has previously been imagined.
On its publication in 1893, edited by Archibald MacMechan, the poem does not seem to have been widely or enthusiastically reviewed. Although MacMechans colleagues at Dalhousie praised it, 2 C.G.D. Roberts, who reviewed it for The Week, was guarded in his remarks:
The skill in execution which Roberts comments upon no doubt resulted from De Milles study and profession of rhetoric, which culminated in his publication of The Elements of Rhetoric4 two years before his death, although to dismiss Behind the Veil as a rhetorical exercise, as Roberts seems inclined to do here seems to me to be much too severe. Certainly, the formality of the stanza, rhyme scheme, and metre suggests the hand of a rhetorician. The poem consists of 125 stanzas of five (occasionally six) lines of unequal length (4-4-4-8-8 feet respectively, with the last foot of the second and of the fourth line incomplete), in a basically trochaic rhythm, rhyming ABABB. It is a difficult and sophisticated stanza form, and is perhaps not ideally suited to its purpose of narrative discourse. In the margin of the text appear a number of glosses which summarize the action, somewhat in the manner of Coleridges Rime of the Ancient Mariner. De Milles glosses, however, are rather more plain and matter-of-fact than Coleridges, and by reason of their obviously literary derivation they contribute to the impression of a studied rhetoric.
The subject, moreover, lends itself to the type of elevated treatment sometimes inaccurately identified as rhetorical. De Mille presents a vision of immortality described by a narrator who is permitted to journey into the world beyond the veil of mortality and is there instructed in its nature by one of the spirit inhabitants.5 The subject and its development (even allowing for the abruptness of the conclusion) are undoubtedly on the grand scale. Yet in spite of the formality of the verse and the grandiosity of the theme, De Mille makes it emphatically clear that he at least intends more than a rhetorical exercise. He prefaces the work with a quotation, in the original Greek, from Platos Apologia Socratis:
This seems to imply that he felt himself to be inspired in his poem. Certainly it would be possible to agree with Roberts that the emotion should perhaps be regarded as rhetorical if we assume that the poems emotion is the joy or wonder which might be expected in a discussion of the nature of immortality and human assurance of it through Christ. Such efforts as De Mille does make to present these emotions are, on the face of it, stilted and rhetorical. I would, however, argue that there is an essentially poetical emotion present which Roberts overlooks, and that it is of an unexpected nature, since De Mille offers us a vision of the overwhelming vastness and otherness of the Divine Nature, which evokes in him fear and dismay. To demonstrate this vision and De Milles response to it, it is necessary to examine in some detail his use of his literary knowledge in particular his knowledge of the writing of Jean Paul Friedrich Richter.
Influence is not easy to demonstrate to everybodys satisfaction. MacMechan had no doubts about saying, in 1890 in a lecture on De Mille, that in Behind the Veil De Milles thought is based on Richters prose (although in the version later printed in the Canadian Magazine he modifies this slightly to read in thought [Behind the Veil] owes something to Richters vision of immortality).7 The German Romantic philosopher-novelist, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, to whom MacMechan refers, wrote two works which might qualify as a vision of immortality. Although MacMechan does not specify either by title in the lecture, he does refer to it as a prose poem, which suggests that he had in mind the Traum über das All". According to J.W. Smeed, in Jean Pauls Dreams, this dates from 1820, towards the end of Richters life, and is one of a group of what Richter called Traumdichtungen, which were written at intervals during his literary career. Smeed also points out that De Quinceys translation of it (under the title of Dream upon the Universe, which appeared in the London Magazine in 1824), was one of the most popular works of Richter to appear in English.8 It is this translation which appears in The Campaner Thal and Other Writings which was published in Boston in 1864 as a part of a series of translations of Richters works.9 The Campaner Thal itself is the other piece which might qualify as the vision of immortality suggested by MacMechan for the source of De Milles ideas in Behind the Veil. But although it is certainly or the subject of immortality, its subtitle being Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (translated as Discourses on the Immortality of the Soul), it is not a prose poem, but a short tale in which the narrative acts as a frame for the discourses placed in the mouths of the various characters.
MacMechans remark, however, does not necessarily require a choice of the Dream as a source and rule out the other entirely, particularly as the internal evidence of the poem itself is against such a choice. This evidence suggests that De Mille was familiar with both the Dream and the Campaner Thal, and the appearance of both pieces in the one volume in an edition conveniently accessible to him supports this by making such a familiarity not only possible, but even (in view of MacMechans confident assertion) highly likely.10 It is with the internal evidence of Richters influence, however, that I am most concerned, for it is in the pattern of the parallels with and divergences from Richters work that De Milles individuality of thought and feeling appears most pronounced.
As a general rule, it might be useful to point out that whereas for the most part Richter and De Mille hold their theory in common, their differing personalities divide them sharply on their understanding of it. Enough similarities exist between their work to allow the conclusion that they have a common concept of immortality, a common cosmology, and a common image of the barrier between the mortal and the immortal. The feelings and moods which pervade the works (the Dream and Behind the Veil) arise from an interpretation of that theory by two very different temperaments; this temperamental difference may be characterized by saying (using the adjectives deliberately in their loosest and most popular sense) that Richter has a Romantic and De Mille a Victorian temperament.
The notion of immortality of some kind of personal survival after death can, of course, be traced back in most Western cultures as far as the earliest times from which written records survive.11 At all times, however, the concept seems to involve both the mode of immortality and the form in which the individual survives, although the details may change from culture to culture. Richter and De Mille are in agreement on both the mode of immortality and on the form of the survivor, although the grounds of their belief are not the same.
Richters vision of the mode of immortality is set out primarily in the Campaner Thal, and is dependent on the absolute difference of nature or quality between the Creator (God) and the creation (including humankind). This difference at once makes immortality necessary and dictates its mode as an asymptotic progress of the soul towards God. The argument for the difference of quality and for the consequent necessity of immortality is placed in the mouth of a character referred to as the Chaplain:
This mode of immortality, but without any qualification as regards mortality, is subsequently confirmed by the narrator: I believe in . . . an eternal ascension, but in no created culmination (CT, p. 37). The same eternal ascension or asymptotic progress of the soul towards God is also the immortality in Behind the Veil:
De Milles thought, however is less philosophically sharp than Richters. For although he says that souls move in infinite progression, his marginal gloss says that the highest joy is union with the Infinite (God), which suggests that he sees eventual union with God as a possible end to the infinite progression, and he does not, as Richter does (and must, to avoid undercutting his argument for the necessity of immortality) emphatically deny created culmination. De Mille simply relies on the constant reiteration of words such as forever, evermore, perpetual, and unceasing, to achieve the effect similar to that of Richters flat denial. Moreover, such a denial is not necessary, since an end to infinite progress, however illogical, would not destroy De Milles belief in immortality, since his belief depends not on Gods justice, as does Richters, but on His love:
In Richters Campaner Thal and Dream the sense of the downward movement of the Creators love for his Creation is missing, so that the dynamic movement of his universe is upward only, whereas De Mille sees a constant two-way movement.
There is, moreover, a crucial difference in their concept or definition of union, in the context of union with the infinite. Richters vision of the ultimate union is to see the upright shadows of the spirits sinking into the sea of light which is the All and by virtue of their increasingly rarefied nature dissolving into union with it and so ultimately losing their individual identity. By contrast, De Milles concept is of union as communion in which the identity of the individual is retained. The infinite progression towards union with the infinite is made in his vision by soul with soul in union wrought (st. 98), suggesting that the earthly sympathetic union (st. 64) which he has enjoyed with his beloved would have been, were they to have died and made the upward journey together, a foreshadowing of the ultimate union with God a personal union rather than an impersonal blending. Consequently, I think it is fair to say that even in their agreement on the mode of immortality, the two writers display characteristic differences of emphasis.
They are in agreement, also, on the form in which the individual survives. Their common concept of this falls into Antony Flews third category of postulated spirit-natures, which he calls the shadow man. The doctrine of the shadow man, he says,
Both De Mille and Richter see the spirit nature as this type of astral body. Richters narrator describes it at the beginning of his journey through the universe:
Here it is clearly visualized as an insubstantial counterpart of the physical body, but constituted of light. De Milles narrator also leaves his body and travels in its non-material counterpart: like a Thought, a thing of Light / All my spirit darted up to an immeasurable height (st. 8). De Milles spirit forms, although they are less clearly visualized as anthropomorphic forms, are nevertheless still to some extent like the physical forms; this is demon strated by the Seers unhesitating recognition of the Loved and the Lost One in her spirit form (although this recognition is presumably made by his temporarily immortal sense, not by his ordinary mortal ones). The immateriality of De Milles spirit forms is also made clear, for De Milles Seer recounts that at his departure into the Invisible world, a sudden sharp convulsion / Seized me . . . / All mortality departed (st. 8). By way of contrast, however, it should be noted that whereas for Richter the Dreamers body simply sank down in ruins (p. 328), De Milles Seer has had to purge his body of grosser elements by prayer and fasting in order to reach the point of departure. Nevertheless, De Mille is clearly in agreement with Richter on the essentials: that the spirit form, although less substantial than the bodily form, consisting as it does of light, is still recognizably its counterpart. The philosophical arguments against the existence of such a kind of spirit form, which lead Flew to say that it must be dismissed as a blind alley, both Richter and De Mille seem prepared to ignore for artistic reasons.
Elsewhere, however, both Richter and De Mille seem to try to remain close to fact in their common cosmology. The eighteenth century was a time of great astronomical advance and in the early nineteenth century the accumulated knowledge had begun to spread out beyond purely scientific circles. One of the early inheritors of this knowledge is Richters Dream, which Smeed describes as a description of the astronomistst cosmos, imbued with metaphysical significance; he goes on to point out that the essay by Krüger which Richter cites in the preamble to the Dream was undoubtedly where he had read of William Herschels discoveries concerning the vastness of the universe, and had realized for the first time the huge, the almost unimaginable predominance of space over matter.13 Such sources as the Krüger essay would present what has been called a qualitative picture of the Galaxy as a flattened system of stars and nebulae, isolated in space [which had] emerged about 1785,14 and from which the 2,500 other nebulae of Herschels discoveries were visible. This is the picture of the organization of the cosmos in Richters Dream: the Dreamer and his spirit guide travel among the systems of the galaxy, through new cycles of heavens . . . (p. 331), or are confronted with intergalactic space:
But even the darkness of intergalactic space is not final, for further and bigger galaxies lie beyond, with further and bigger spaces between them. More over, in order to accommodate the infinite progression of immortality, the cosmos itself must be infinite in size. Impressed by the vast distances he has travelled, Richters Dreamer asks about the size of the universe:
The universe, in other words is infinite. However, when De Milles Seer on his journey through the Universe asks the same, or almost the same, question, he receives a subtly different answer:
The universe only seems to be infinite to the minds of its finite, created in habitants. The gradations of created being are infinite, but the set (from the infinite Creators point of view) is finite. Creation adds the Guide, foils the Spirit oer and oer, / And its progress ever onward passes thought for evermore. Like Richters Dreamer, the Seer has sped alone the skies where
which have convinced him of the almost unimaginable size of the universe. Also like the Dreamer, the Seer has confronted the vast barrier inconceivably extending (st. 34) beyond the galaxy he has seen so far, which is only the least among innumerable others, cumulated oer oer; but unlike the barrier in Richter, De Milles is as though Creation / Here in one stupendous object all remaining forms had blent (st. 35), and being less easily visualized, is consequently to that extent less effective. (Possibly at this point De Milles concept may owe more to Miltons vision of Chaos in Paradise Lost than to eighteenth-century astronomy).
For both Richter and De Mille the cosmos is inhabited by spirits who make the space between the worlds their home. The treatment of inhabited space, however, is not identical. On the one hand, De Milles Seer is not only constantly accompanied by his spirit guide, but also discovers that All the wordless void was peopled by that spiritual host (st. 48) and these Intelligences bright (st. 45) are instantly visible to his new faculty of Absolute Knowledge. Richters Dreamer, on the other hand, is left alone when his spirit guide has vanished to its home in the unseen world of spirits (p. 333), and the guide remains almost the only spirit form that he actually sees. For when, preceding its disappearance, the guide urges him to see by intuition,15 he does not see immortal spirits against a background of the cosmos, as does De Milles Seer; instead, the Dreamers culminating vision is a symbolic representation of the nature of immortality in which individual souls are only upright shadows in the form of men (p. 332), blending into the sea of light:
This passage of Richters (as translated by De Quincey) is worth quoting at some length not merely because of its sheer magnificence, but also because that magnificence demonstrates De Milles independence of Richter at this point. De Mille offers no pallid imitation of the passage (as he might if he were merely using Richters thought as MacMechan suggests); he is simply indifferent to this type of effect. Space, to De Mille, is precisely that, and he uses the cosmos, with almost no symbolic overtones, as the background for a human drama; whereas to Richter, in its symbolic manifestation as light, space is the condition of another mode of human life, and consequently an integral part of the general human nature (albeit as yet a potential one for the individual). We may therefore conclude that with their common cosmology (as with their common understanding of the mode of immortality, though not of the spirit natures that inhabit it), the interpretations of the same theory by these two writers offer sufficient diversity of detail and emphasis to demonstrate unmistakably their characteristic difference of interest.
Their use of a common image is also marked by an underlying divergence of interest. Richters use of this image is characteristically sweeping in concept and exotic in presentation. Come, then, says his Dreamers spirit guide, and wait on me with thy flight, that I may show to thee the universe under a veil (p. 329). But it is not until the culminating vision of the universe as it is manifest to spirit sight is reached that the reader is allowed to understand what the veil is and what it covers
The eyes of the mortal see the universe as composed of stars and suns, surrounded by seas of darkness; the eyes of the immortal spirits see a sea of light in which float dark islands (the suns and planets); both, however, are equally looking at a mere appearance, since as created creatures they cannot see beyond creation. Only the Creator is outside creation and what veils him from his creatures is the absolute difference, already referred to, between creation and creator which necessitates immortality. The veil for Richter, then is the final mystery of the universe, hiding the face of God.16
If, in fact, De Mille read Richters Dream, the image of the veil of Isis may have brought up associations of the veil in other contexts, but beyond this general stimulus, De Milles treatment of the image of the veil has almost nothing in common with Richters. Indeed, beyond using it in his title, De Mille does not refer to it directly at all. The title-phrase, behind the veil, is explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as being used figuratively or allusively, chiefly after Hebrews 6:19; now commonly with reference to the next world. Both Hebrews 6:19 and 9:13 make reference to the veil of the Temple in Jerusalem, where it concealed the Tabernacle from the worshippers, and was entered only by the High Priest and by him only on the Day of Atonement; the veil, according to Matthew 25:51 (AV), was rent from top to bottom at the moment of Christs death. Certainly the religiousness of his family background would have made De Mille extremely familiar with these references and with their orthodox interpretation within the Baptist faith (in which he was largely brought up) and the Church of England faith (to which he later turned). In addition, the phrase may have gained in popularity from its use, which Christopher Ricks describes as having attracted much commentary, by Tennyson in In Memoriam:
This would also certainly have been known to De Mille whose reading of In Memoriam is attested by his comment on it in the Elements of Rhetoric. There is nothing in De Milles poem which is not reconcilable with these nearer sources than Richters Dream, and although the phrase behind the veil was less of a commonplace in the period in which he was presumably writing than it is now,18 it would nevertheless have been even then rather the use of an orthodox but fashionably current phrase, than a startling original invention. Both his concept and his presentation of the image are equally orthodox: plain, simple, and unexotic. The veil, he implies, is the veil of mortality and of the corporeal body. In the Introduction to the poem, the Seer relates how he fasted and prayed
Here the veil is simply the flesh which must be purged of its grosser elements so that the spirit nature which inhabits it can see and communicate with those on the other side. Later, in his narration of the events following his Loved and Lost Ones death, he refers again to
The veil in De Milles concept, then, cuts the mortal off from the immortal, the living from those in the afterlife. The use of the image in so orthodox a form demonstrates once again how far he is from Richters thought, even where they seem to have most in common.
Beyond their common cosmological theory, the divergence between the two becomes even greater. To a certain extent the differences of emphasis and detail in their interpretation of it already show the pressure of their differing temperaments. This temperamental difference, which I have already referred to as the difference between the Romantic and the Victorian turn of mind, can now, however, be more specifically defined as a divergence of both personal feeling and private aesthetics. A series of polarities can be shown to exist between the emotional and the rational personality, between the sensuous and the abstract imagination, and between the naturally religious and the orthodoxly religious believer. It is these polarities which distinguish De Milles vision even further from that of Richter.
The polarity between the emotional and the rational temperament is evident in the structure of the Dream and of Behind the Veil and in the presentation of the spirit guides which accompany their respective narrators. When MacMechan refers in his lecture on De Mille to Richters beautiful vision of Immortality, he uses the term vision somewhat loosely; in the Traumdichtungen of which the Traum über das All is one, Richter, according to Smeed, deliberately set out with the aid of images and sequences which possess much of the freedom of the dream, to express transcendental concepts.19 He therefore employs prose as best suited to produce the loose organization and pseudo-incoherence of free-association: we drift freely from image to image with little narrative guidance. It is moreover, clearly announced as a dream, not only by the title, but also from within; to the narrators reflections on astronomy succeed the following dream (p. 328). In this deliberate creation of a dreamlike structure, Richter seems, we may assume, to be asserting his freedom from the tyranny of rational argument: since the piece is presented as non-rational by its nature as a dream, he can not be required to defend its neglect of logic to rationalist critics.
De Mille, on the other hand, is a rationalist concerned to defeat rationalist critics; his poem is cast deliberately as a vision (that is, a dream in the more formal sense of the biblical dreams of prophecy) rather than an ordinary dream: of the kind Richter was trying to imitate. It is produced, more over, as a result of spiritual discipline (prayer, fasting, and mourning), for he has, as it were, to earn his Revelation (st. 2), and when he enters the Invisible . . . unfolded (st. 4), the spiritual sense he is granted is Knowledge, Absolute and True (st. 9). This vision is rationally structured inflections, each of which deals with a particular item of information which De Mille wishes to convey to the reader about the nature of immortality: the perpetuation of earthly happenings in §1, the structure of the universe as a habitation for immortal spirits in §2, the nature of immortal spirits in §3, and so on. Furthermore, De Milles narrative has an overall dramatic shape to it the search for and encounter with the spirit of the woman the Seer has loved and the reader is not only conscious of this narrative frame work, but also aware that everything is artistically subordinated to it. Even more than this, however, the formal precision of the verse assists materially in the presentation of a vision since it constantly provokes awareness of rational control.
The differing personalities of the two spirit guides reflect the same polarity of emotional and rational temperament. Richters spirit guide is hardly a personality at all: he says little and disappears without warning at the end, leaving the Dreamer alone, and what he does say is more to direct the Dreamers attention to what is around him than to explain its significance. He is as insubstantial as a personality, in fact, as he is physically. De Milles spirit guide for his Seer, however, is a very solid and reassuring personality. His function is to answer the Seers questions and to comfort his considerable distress, and his performance of these duties suggests that he was undoubtedly a minister and a university professor in his mortal days. Whereas Richters spirit guide, directing the Dreamers attention to things, some times seems to be no more than a technical device to move from one image to another, De Milles spirit guide, by the extent of his personality, is much more. At different times he comforts the Seers grief, prevents him from falling into despair, rebukes his habit of jumping to conclusions, and instructs him on the nature of Divine Love; he also shows himself to be self-sacrificing in that he has left a much higher position in the ranks of the immortals to assist those spirits who are just starting on the infinite progression from earth towards union with God. Consequently, in himself he reifies the kind of divine love about which he instructs the Seer, and which Richters Dreamer encounters only in a final vision of the Christchild.
The polarity of personality which sets Richter and De Mille apart in the structure of their work is matched by a polarity between Richters sensuous imagination and De Milles abstract one. Richter consistently prefers the concrete to the abstract: Two thoughts are the wings with which I move; the thought of Here, and the thought of There. And behold! I am yonder (p. 329), whereas De Mille prefers the abstract the motion of the Spirit with its Will alone agrees (st. 27). Richter also prefers the specific to the general: thy spirit can bear only earthly images of the unearthly, says the spirit guide to the Dreamer (p. 332). De Milles Seer, however, is not limited to earthly images, and his freedom is not presented in terms of image or appearance, but as mortal sense . . . grown immortal (st. 9), which, although it conveys a more general freedom, is at the same time somewhat vague, since it loses the implication, clearly present in Richter, that the unearthly might be too much for a spirit still earthbound. Richter, moreover, visualizes abstract concepts strongly: one heaven after another unfurled its immeasurable banners before us, and then rolled up behind us (p. 329), whereas De Mille is content to leave them in abstract terms: Systems evermore in creasing / Still succeeding . . . / Vast assemblages unceasing (st. 31). Here the word assemblages is too colourless to convey any visual image. Where De Mille does choose to visualize, his management of detail is excellent:
In this Description only, of all those m the poem, is there any suggestion of sensuous pleasure in light and its contrast with darkness, such as clearly in forms Richters culminating vision of the sea of light.
Curiously enough the contrast of imagination seems to have little to do with each mans feeling for the physical world. Richters hell, as described in others of the Traunrulichtungen, is born, according to Smeed, of revulsion against earthly life,20 and it is because of this revulsion that he calls earth a dirty clod21 and dismisses the solid heavenly bodies to a minor role in the spiritual universe: the murky planets . . . were but cradles for the infant spirits of the universe. Consequently, the upright shadows in the form of men become glorious only when they quitted these perishable worlds, and when they sank into the sea of light (p. 322). De Mille, by contrast, seems to have a tremendous affection for the earth: the spell of earth had bound me, says his Seer, and in the first section of the poem De Mille spends longer on the description of the beauty of the earth (a description which has no counterpart in Richter, whose Dreamer says quickly and apparently with relief, Soon there remained nothing visible of our system) than is strictly necessitated by his purpose of conveying in the perpetuation of the images that are projected out into space the idea that nothing of earth is lost. In Richter we see light travailing towards the earth, but nothing of earth goes outward. The spiritual progress of De Milles immortals, furthermore, is not contingent on their distance from the earthly and solid, for the rolling stars were where they congregated most (st. 48), and the spirit guide can descend (as it were) to the Seers level to attend to his problems and needs, as to the prims and needs of other spirits just leaving earth, without compromising his spiritual nature or status (st. 117, 120). Moreover, when Richters Dreamer is left alone by his spirit guide, he yearns not for the earth he has left, but for some sympathizing being (p. 333); but De Milles Seer, in spite of the continued presence of his syncthizing guide, still finds that a sad and homesick longing / All my momful soul possessed (st. 94), and to is a distinctly compassionate feeling about his return to his body, I, his guide tells him, thy heart still feebly flutters in its soulless tenement (st. 124), and this feeling persists in spite of the abruptness of the poems ending. The Seer, although his vision is described in much less concrete terms than the Dreamers, is essentially the more solidly anchored to what we think of as concrete reality.
The final polarity which sets Richter and De Mille apart is that between the naturally religious and the orthodoxly religious believer. The distinction I am making here is perhaps best clarified by pointing out that a naturally religious believer is one who can say, as Richter does, Then my heart comprehended that immortality dwelled in the spaces between the worlds (p. 332, my emphasis). An orthodoxly relgious believer, on the other hand, is one for whom religion is revealed", and thus consciously understood. De Mille represents his Seer in his grief as being supported by such a conscious understanding of the existence of life after death: Dead she is not, but Immortal . . . . / Soft amid the storm of sorrow came this still consoling thought (st. 74, my emphasis). This difference is partly the consequence of the difference between the emotional temperament of Richter and the rational one of De Mille, and does not necesarily imply that De Milles belief is any less sincere than Richters. It does, however, involve in the believer a radically different type of response to the religious implications of his under standing of the afterlife. Richters Dreamer experiences an episode of spiritual comfort and assurance which is without any moral implication or qualification; the sheer size of the universe induces in him, it is true, a spasm of loneliness: I am too solitary in the creation itself, he tells his guide, and after the departure of his guide he feels the need for the presence of some sympathizing being. But even so the anxiety and loneliness he experiences are far less than the sense of inadequacy and fear experienced by De Milles Seer. The latters experiences are qualified by moral considerations, as is made very clear in his response to the idea that all earthly things are projected in images across the universe for ever, for he immediately thinks of his sinfulness: a thought stood black before me / Shall Infinity for ever write the records of my sin? (st. 26), a question which is, however, not actually put to the spirit guide. The idea of spiritual inadequacy is repeated later in his address to the guide: Son of Heaven, full well thou knowest / What a thing of nought am I . . . (st. 103). Consequently, the journey behind the veil is for him an experience of spiritual chastening, comparable to that of Caleridges narrator in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and it is possible that the marginal glosses, the idea of which De Mille borrowed from Coleridge, are used not merely as literary decoration but as a hint of this parallel in the theme.
Richters Dreamer, moreover, at the end of his vision of the sea of light, realizes that in sight of this immeasurability of life, no sadness could endure, but only joy that knew no limit (p. 332). Vast as it is the universe has no room for sadness, and the final point of the Dreamers experience is that the joy of immortality (induced by his vision of the Christchild) should inform his mortal life:
By contrast, De Milles Seer finds that his mortal grief is intensified in the spirit world:
At the end of the poem De Milles Seer, therefore, takes refuge in his body which will, by its coarser nature, protect him from the anguish of his inability to communicate with the Loved and Lost One in the afterlife. The point, however, seems to be not that immortality is worthless because it will not reunite him with his beloved, but rather that he still has to develop spiritually to a point where he seeks the highest joy (of union with God), rather than its pale imitation (union with another created being). In this there is a marked contrast between the Dreamer and the Seer a contrast which is further emphasized by the manner of their entry into the spirit state. On the one hand, the Dreamer slips naturally into the joyous state of the afterlife just as he slips naturally in his sleep into the dream in which that afterlife is revealed to him. On the other hand, the Seer, who has had to discipline his body to obtain his vision of the afterlife, experiences that afterlife as a further disciplining of the soul (through the guides instruction). The polarity thus indicated emphasizes De Milles orthodox, conscious understanding of religion as opposed to Richters natural religiousness.
This polarity is further emphasized by the difference in emotional colouring between the two pieces. The key to Richters Dream is joy, especially at the end when, at the final vision of the Christchild, the Dreamer is seized with a sudden rapture of joy such as passes all understanding (p. 333), and throughout the piece there are several startlingly beautiful images of joy and wonder, such as the return of light after the darkness of the intergalactic gulf:
At the climatic moment of Behind the Veil, however, when the Guide announces to him, Lo, before thee, bright and splendid,/ Moves thy Loved One", the Seer finds that all his being sinks by sudden fear oppressed (st. 78), and throughout the poem he is repeatedly overwhelmed by fear and despair, imaged by his comparison of himself to the fear-bewildered stranger . . . / Reeling oer the marge of ruin, for So I reeled, and seemed descending to a fathomless abyss (st. 91). Indeed, even when his initial fear of his beloved in her spirit form is overcome, he is still bewildered by her pure celestial glow (st. 79). The final impression of the Seer is of a man whose belief was rudely clobbered (to quote Peanuts) and sorely in need of the Divine Love, the assurance of which has been described to him but which he has been unable to take in emotionally.
Paradoxically, however, the very extremity of their difference on this issue becomes a signal that the essence of the two visions is identical. Both men have glimpsed the holy what Rudolph Otto defines as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, which evokes both fear and desire in the beholder.22 Richter has glimpsed one aspect of it, that which evokes desire (and the rapture of joy which he records); De Mille has glimpsed the other the tremendum, which evokes fear, not because it is menacing or even ugly, but simply by virtue of its otherness. So that although Richter and De Mille have only a loose relationship on the purely human and literary level (since widely differing temperments separate their interpretations of a common cosmological theory), this gives way on the spiritual level to a shared mysticism and a common vision of the mysterium. Moreover, the recognition of the centrality of the mysterium to De Milles poem provides a resolution for the several self-contradictions or paradoxes in the poem which are otherwise hard to reconcile. For De Mille writes a poem distinguished by its formality of structure and rational discourse, yet prefaces it with a quotation which defines poetic inspiration as non-rational. He presents the apparently joyous and inspiring theme of immortality and the spirit life in a narrative in which they appear to become a source rather of fear and dismay than of joy and wonder. And in a poem whose cosmology is clearly designed to represent, as a tribute to the Creator, an astronomically accurate picture of the size and magnificence of the universe, almost all De Milles warmth of feeling is apparently reserved for the vision of the earth itself and for the mortal bodies that inhabit it. Moreover, the grief which is portrayed and which is made the more unbearable for the Seer by the fact that life after death will not reunite the lovers, does not appear (from the little that is known about him) to have any foundation in De Milles own life. Left unreconciled, such a series of contradictions could add up merely to what Cogswell has called a bad poetical exercise in rhetoric.23 Reconciled, however, in terms of a vision of the mysterium, they fall into place as a series of attempts to recognize, comprehend, and accept the fear and the desire evoked in the creature by the vision of the creator.
The reconciliation is not total, but nevertheless most of the major difficulties can be answered. The formal precision of the verse, for example, emerges as an attempt to control an overwhelming experience, and is perhaps rather overdone, since what is intended to control ends up by almost totally concealing that experience; the vision must be brought under some degree of control, however, as much to allow the visionary to cope with it, as to enable him to communicate it to others. Furthermore, the Seers apparently naive mistakings of lesser spirits for the Infinite also fall into place as repeated attempts to keep things down to manageable proportions; the Seer is already overwhelmed by the spirit guides appearance in all its majestyto assume that this is the Infinite protects him, as it were, from having to face the knowledge that something even greater and more overwhelmingly majestic exists. Moreover, since the Seers understanding of the joy and wonder of immortality and Divine Love is evidently clouded by his much more immediate emotional encounter with the otherness of the Divine Nature, the Divine Love must be asserted consciously in the poem; yet such a conscious (and, I believe, genuine) affirmation is insufficient to balance out the visionary impact of the other, and hence appears merely as a rather ponderous sermon on the subject. The warmth of feeling reserved for the earth also seems less strange in this context, for the earth is now seen as that part of the created universe which can be praised uninhibitedly because its relatively small size and its familiarity set it within the Seers capacity to comprehend and love. On the other hand, a grief which has left no observable trace in De Milles own life-history (if indeed it ever had a biographical source) is, by force of its association with the spirit universe, itself magnified to cosmic proportions. These reconciliations, therefore, which bring apparent paradoxes into a comprehensible pattern, offer the critic and the general reader an opportunity to take a new and less dismissive view of the poem.
Behind the Veil is, consequently, a surprising, even a startling poem, if it is looked at closely, although it must be admitted that in purely poetic terms it is not a wholly successful one. Just as surprising is the character of James De Mille which, in so far as the poem (and especially its persona-narrator, the Seer) can be said to represent the writer in some way, emerges from its pages. It is hard to reconcile either the sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued social critic who wrote the Strange Manuscript, or the sober and respectable Dalhousie professor who wrote The Elements of Rhetoric, with the religious mystic whose vision is recorded in Behind the Veil. The solemn Victorian gentleman who stares from the frontispiece of the published version of the poem is not as straightforward as he looks, and the fiction of the Strange Manuscript may prove less strange than the fact of Behind the Veil.