In 1902, a Canadian medical doctor Richard Bucke published Cosmic Consciousness. The publication was an attempt to make sense of a personal mystical experience he underwent at the age of 35 in relation to similar mental states he found had been experienced by others, including the poet Alfred Tennyson.
"The person, suddenly, without warning, has a sense of being immersed in a flame, or rose-colored cloud, or perhaps rather a sense that the mind is itself filled with such a cloud of haze.
Simultaneously or instantly following the above sense and emotional experiences there comes to the person an intellectual illumination quite impossible to describe. Like a flash there is presented to his consciousness a clear conception (a vision) in outline of the meaning and drift of the universe. He does not come to believe merely; but he sees and knows that the cosmos, which to the self conscious mind seems made up of dead matter, is in fact far otherwise—is in very truth a living presence. He sees that instead of men being, as it were, patches of life scattered through an infinite sea of non-living substance, they are in reality specks of relative death in an infinite ocean of life. He sees that the life which is in man is eternal, as all life is eternal; that the soul of man is as immortal as God is; that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love, and that the happiness of every individual is in the long run absolutely certain. The person who passes through this experience will learn in the few minutes, or even moments, of its continuance more than in months or years of study, and he will learn much that no study ever taught or can teach."
Bucke called this experience ‘cosmic consciousness’ and was of the opinion that, although a rare occurrence now, it would become more common during the next stage of human evolution and incorporate all aspects of human unity and Love. He said the first stage of mental evolution was the appearance of the simple consciousness of animals - awareness at the basest level of existence, which was followed in human evolution by the collective consciousness of humanity, an awareness of existence with purpose, incorporating the divine in seminal forms such as art, literature and music.
It is worth considering why Tennyson was included in Bucke’s list of outstanding personalities who have expounded visions of what he called a ‘drift of the universe’ pointing to humanity’s final stage of conscious existence in universal harmony. It seems that this was an original idea of Tennyson’s derived from his conviction that humankind surely had a better future than constant warring and conflict. This thought is a salient feature of his later poems, where he presents the view that as yet we are only partially made to accomplish the necessary social adaptations required to live harmoniously in the late Victorian age of plenty. But, he concludes in his poem 'The Making of Man' that evolution will eventually ensure the survival of aggression- free humanity well within the period calculated for the running down of the solar system.
Where is one that, born of woman, altogether can escape
From the lower world within him, moods of tiger, or of ape?
Man as yet is being made, and ere the crowning Age of ages,
Shall not æon after æon pass and touch him into shape?
All about him shadow still, but, while the races flower and fade,
Prophet-eyes may catch a glory slowly gaining on the shade,
Till the peoples all are one, and all their voices blend in choric
Hallelujah to the Maker 'It is finish'd. Man is made.'
The historical background is that Tennyson was the first British Poet Laureate who had to face up to Nature in the context of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was published in 1859 when Tennyson was age 50. He accepted Darwin’s thesis, but much of his poetry has been interpreted as questioning how Homo sapiens can exist in an unfeeling universe without spiritual consciousness.
From boyhood he had the capacity to put himself into “a kind of waking trance” in which
“…out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being…. and this is not a confused state but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, and the loss of personality, if so it were, seemed no alteration but the only true life”.
This seems to be an intense expression of the feelings we all have when on a starry night we ask, “Who am I”? and promptly loose our grasp on our own identity against the incomprehensible scale of the developing cosmos.
Tennyson makes a statement about our continuity with the depths of cosmic time in the poem De Profundis, which significantly was begun after the birth of his first son in 1852.
It starts with human gestation as a ‘nine long months of antenatal gloom’ through which life flows:
From that true world within the world we see,
Whereof our world is but the bounding shore,
He goes on to confirm our cosmic selfhood:
The universe is the infinite One
Who made thee inconceivably Thyself
Out of his whole World-self and all in all
A decade later he was bemoaning how little science had to say about the meaningfulness of human life in relation to the wild flux of planetary energy:
I stood on a tower in the wet,
A new year and old year met,
And winds were roaring and blowing;
And I said, “O years, that meet in tears,
Have you aught that is worth the Knowing?
Science enough, and exploring,
Wanderers coming and going,
Matter enough for deploring,
But aught that is worth the Knowing?”
Seas from my feet are flowing,
Waves on the shingle pouring,
Old year roaring and blowing,
And new year blowing and roaring.
Nevertheless, we are part of this flux and in The Ancient Sage he articulates a systems analysis of the human self positioned between, and continuous with, the highest level of the Nameless cosmos and the lowest sub-atomic ‘Abysm of all Abysms’.
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;
For Knowledge is the swallow on the lake
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,
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.
Tennyson had been reading Lao-tse, the 7th century Chinese founder of Taoism and remarked that the poem expressed, “what I might have believed about the deeper problems of life ‘A thousand summers ere the birth of Christ’” The key elements of Taoism, with respect to its sacred scripture are that "Man takes his norm from earth; earth from heaven; heaven from Tao; the Tao (the path) from itself." In modern parlance, we are related to soil, climate, flora, fauna, and all the chemical and physical planetary laws, which operate throughout the universe. Tennyson when contemplating Earth swinging in a vast cosmos deliberately speaks up for the idea of the mental perfectibility of man that will evolve from cosmic orderliness and interrelatedness. His poetry actually describes the state of ‘samadhi’ in Buddhist and Hindu literature. In these religious contexts samadhi is a term that describes a state of mind in which the consciousness of the experiencing subject becomes one with the experienced object
It was Tennyson’s thinking along these lines that came to mind a few days ago when I read Mick Brown’s account of an interview with Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the Moon (‘Telegraph Magazine’, 3rd November, 2007). On the return journey having completed the Apollo 14 landing the craft was ‘falling’ through space rotating gently to keep it in thermal balance.
“Every two minutes as you looked out you would see the earth, the moon and the sun, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens out of the windows. You could see the whole solar system. And the star systems are ten times as bright and ten times as numerous in space.
It was the recognition that the molecules in the body of the spacecraft and in my partners had been prototyped or maybe even manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. This suddenly became damn personal. It wasn’t intellectual- it was visceral. And it was accompanied by this sense of… wow! Ecstacy, that I’d never experienced before.
It was “… seeing things in their glory and their separateness, but experiencing them internally and viscerally as part of you”
“You can’t turn back when you’ve had this experience”.
During his return to Earth, Edgar Mitchell clearly experienced a personal expansion of the scope of human identity throughout the universe. Like Tennyson, he saw himself as an outcome of cosmic development, a human selfhood that is part of a wider cosmic whole, related, metaphysically, to the selfhood of the universe as a subsystem nested within ever-wider subsystems right up to the level of the selfhood of the universe.
In the last decade of his life Tennyson tried to use evolution as an attitude and a belief to produce a structural coherence to his life’s work. This cosmic perspective invests an individual life with a meaning in relation to the fate of all other selves in the universe. The same idea re-emerged as a set of ecological intuitions in the 1980s in the concept of ‘deep ecology’, which says we are in some sense ‘one with Nature’ and that everything is connected with everything else. The philosopher Freya Mathews has eleborated a new metaphysics of interconnectedness as a basis for an ecological world view of Nature informed by value. Knowing that the “ecological self” is a product of the cosmos by which it is sustained advocates a strong, submersing, sense of interconnectedness with nature and feeling of love for all other selves. This is claimed to be a logical extension of our natural self-love, which expands once we recognize “the involvement of wider wholes in our identity”. Thus we are held to flourish when we live in a way that affirms the biological and physical systems of Nature in which we are nested and where all other selves flourish. This is a necessary step towards a ‘conservation culture’ that understands and represents our interconnectedness with Nature as a legitimate outreaching of heart and spirit towards safeguarding those other selves that fall within our grasp as conservationists.
From Tennyson, Bucke and Mitchell we get the message that science is not enough to reinstate human beings in a web of spiritual and teleological relations with the natural world and restore our respect for Nature.
Tennyson: Culture and Nature https://www.culturalecology.info/tennyson
Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati https://www.holysmoke.org/wb/wb0174.htm
Mathews, F. (1991) The ecological self, Routledge