Recently, Layla mentioned how much she enjoyed the mellotron that permeates many of Julian Cope’s albums and live performances. One source suggests that this may also be same mellotron that is played by Thighpaulsandra on a number of Coil albums – certainly the mellotron is used to excellent effect on Astral Disaster, particularly on the visionary Sea Priestess:
This prompted me to revisit an idea that came up while we were working on the first Hawthonn album. Obviously the album explored themes surrounding Jhonn Balance’s resting place at Bassenthwaite, and the symbol of the hawthorn tree was particularly important. While exploring associations with the hawthorn, S.: of the Psychogeographical Commission mentioned that there was a legendary connection with Merlin.
Shortly afterward, while browsing through a book of selected poems by Edwin Muir (1887-1959), I discovered this short early poem:
O Merlin in your crystal cave
Deep in the diamond of the day,
Will there ever be a singer
Whose music will smooth away
The furrow drawn by Adam’s finger
Across the meadow and the wave?
Or a runner who’ll outrun
Man’s long shadow driving on,
Break through the gate of memory
And hang the apple on the tree?
Will your magic ever show
The sleeping bride shut in her bower,
The day wreathed in its mound of snow
and Time locked in his tower?
The imagery in the opening lines was immediately appealing in their simultaneously simple language and mythic qualities – what was this crystal cave, and where is the diamond of the day? I had discovered Muir’s work through the work of Kathleen Raine, who considered him to have an intimate connection with the type of symbolic consciousness that to her typified true poetry. However, the subsequent lines of the poem felt somewhat naïve to me, and an attempt to begin working with the poem in the context of our Hawthonn project never really progressed beyond playing around with the first couple of lines. However, Layla’s interest in mellotron sounds prompted us to pick the poem up again and use it to get a feel for the sonic palette in question:
But, this isn’t the end of the story. Having worked a little more closely with the whole text of the poem, I was drawn to dwell on the particular symbols that occur within it. Looking at other critical opinions, Stephen Knight mentions Muir’s Merlin as an environmental educator – here it seems that Muir is putting forth a vision, asking Merlin if we might ever redress the environmental impact of man on earth (“the furrow drawn by Adam’s finger”). In contemplating the symbols of the poem, I had already drawn similar conclusions about the underlying theme – the restoration of paradise. Not only is there the erasure of the “furrow drawn by Adam’s finger”, but the symbol of the apple being returned to the tree also points toward the myth of the fall and restoration of Eden (- and also plays on the possible etymology of Avalon, “Isle of apple trees”). Eden, it seems, was a vivid symbol in Muir’s inner life: Kathleen Raine’s essay on Muir describes a traumatic relocation as a child, from Orkney where his father scraped a living as a farmer, to even worse poverty in Glasgow’s ‘precise imagery of hell’. Finally, the bride with her bower felt to me to intuitively point toward an idea of restoration, based on the cabalistic image of the bride as the symbol of Malkuth (the created world), which is depicted in Robert Fludd’s diagram of the Tree of Life as residing beneath the leaves of the cosmic tree. Time is also evidently a concern of the poem – indicated by both the lengthening shadow and ‘Time locked within his tower.’ It seems that Time is the counterpart of Eden in Muir’s mythos:
I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two day’s journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. No wonder I am obsessed with Time. (Quoted here)
Perhaps the only way a restoration of paradise could ever be effected would be to liberate Time – the impossible task of turning the clock backward. Or could we realise that Eden can be restored in some poetic sense if we ourselves move away from a linear view of Time – to enter into an appreciation of the mythic time implied by dream, legend, ancestry, vision, mystical revelation and symbol.
It is evident, from the questioning voice of the poem, that Merlin here is the seer: withdrawn from the lives of man, as in the Didot Perceval romance:
I shall make my dwelling-place outside your house, where I shall live and prophesy as Our Lord shall instruct me. And all who see my dwelling-place will call it Merlin’s esplumoir.
The esplumoir has been something of an Arthurian enigma, generally agreed to mean ‘moulting cage’, an allusion to a possible meaning of Merlin’s name: ‘hawk’. As a place of retreat, it may also be likened to the castle of glass (a crystal cave, perhaps) to which other legends have Merlin either retreat to, or imprisoned in. Whether we are supposed to have any faith in Merlin’s answers to these questions is, I suppose, a question to be answered by the reader’s sympathies.
Following Romantic traditions, Kathleen Raine believed that the ‘true’ purpose of poetry was not to record autobiographical incidents or particular emotions, but to convey a form of ‘symbolic’ knowledge to readers: to a form of symbolic imagery, which points toward a transcendent reality. For Raine, the symbols possessed a living quality insofar as they have general meanings, but also particular meanings, unfurled as the artist engages with them imaginatively, exploring their complexities, subtleties and possibilities through his or her work (see my post on Cecil Collins and Peter Redgrove for descriptions of this approach within a creative context). Despite its brevity, Muir’s poem overflows with such symbols, and the more enigmatic of them, such as ‘the diamond of the day’ and ‘day wreathed in its mound of snow’ seem to capture the imagination with their subtly counterintuitive imagery. While contemplating the ‘diamond of the day’ recently, I myself felt struck by a sudden sense of revelation that the diamond and crystal cave were not conceived of as being physical places, but a temporal ones, conterminous with our own time; I was further taken by a sense of the numinous presence of Merlin and his prophesies operating within such nonlinear time, as well as a feeling for the pattern of myth beneath the surface of our mundane lives welling up within my breast. There was a moment of otherness: everything was lucid, and the sun shone brightly upon the otherwise mundane street. Such an experience develops, of course, from a willing and sympathetic engagement with the symbolic. It is perhaps the product of what Arthur Versluis (in his brilliant monograph Restoring Paradise) refers to as ‘hieroeidetic knowledge‘, which is an experience central to the artistic implications of Western Esoteric thought, and one that Raine implicitly recognises in her favouring of the ‘symbolic’ over the rational. Such knowledge plays out in the imaginative field between the mundane and ‘transcendental’, and according to Versluis is also preparatory to gnostic experiences amongst those readers that Versluis describes as ‘initiated’. If poetry can change consciousness in such a way through a contemplation of the complex webs of mythical, religious and cultural associations contained within the symbols (akin to the use of the same sorts of symbols in cabala and Lullian Art, which Versluis associates with a tradition of ‘libric gnosis’), and if such a symbolic poetry of consciousness can present – if not a fully blown transcendent experience – then at least a restored sense of the ‘visionary gleam’, then perhaps Merlin’s magic has served its purpose.