As I sat one morning in my office at Vasanta Vihar, gazing with a ‘vacant eye’ at the lovely garden with its great trees and shrubs, flowers and lawns, all bathed in the golden sunlight pouring down from the blue sky, displaying to the eye every shade of green from the lightest and most delicate of the lawn and of the bushes and flowering plants, to the deep cool shade of the plant nursery in the distance, it was as if, for a moment, there was no space between the retina and the scene displayed. But then my gaze strayed and rested on a centipede slowly creeping across the threshold into the room. An unaccounted-for association of thoughts brought three pieces of writing together in my mind. Two were poems by Tennyson and Blake, and the third was a passage by Krishnamurti, which may be called a poem as well. All three are about living forms in nature (a tree, a flower and a fly) and each is arresting in its own way.
There is a Tree…
There is a tree by the river and we have been watching it day after day for several weeks when the sun is about to rise. As the sun rises slowly over the horizon, over the trees, this particular tree becomes all of a sudden golden. All the leaves are bright with life and as you watch it as the hours pass by, that tree whose name does not matter—what matters is that beautiful tree—an extraordinary quality seems to spread all over the land, over the river. And as the sun rises a little higher the leaves begin to flutter, to dance. And each hour seems to give to that tree a different quality. Before the sun rises it has a sombre feeling, quiet, far away, full of dignity. And as the day begins, the leaves with the light on them dance and give it that peculiar feeling that one has of great beauty. By midday its shadow has deepened and you can sit there protected from the sun, never feeling lonely, with the tree as your companion. As you sit there, there is a relationship of deep abiding security and a freedom that only trees can know.
Towards the evening when the western skies are lit up by the setting sun, the tree gradually becomes sombre, dark, closing in on itself. The sky has become red, yellow, green, but the tree remains quiet, hidden, and is resting for the night.
If you establish a relationship with it, then you have relationship with mankind. You are responsible then for that tree and for the trees of the world. But if you have no relationship with the living things on this earth you may lose whatever relationship you have with humanity, with human beings.
Flower in the Crannied Wall
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Thy summer’s play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing;
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath;
And the want
Of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
On first reading, all these pieces are very similar, displaying as they do, a deep feeling for the living forms and showing an empathetic spirit. However, on closer and more attentive reading, Tennyson’s poem shows some peculiar qualities that separate it from the other two. Does a poet who contemplates the beauty of a flower with deep feeling “pluck it out of the crannies” where it has grown? Can a poet, by an act of intellectual understanding of the flower’s structure, arrive at an ultimate understanding of “what God and man is?” When we ask these questions, we come to see what is peculiar in this poem. Outwardly, it has the form of a poem but its inward spirit is more analytic and scientific than poetic. Tennyson’s skill and mastery enable him to put his thoughts in poetic form and he almost carries it off. However, it is thought and not feeling which is at the heart of this piece. This becomes clear when we contrast this poem with some lines from Yeats’ ‘A Prayer for Old Age’:
God guard me from those thoughts men think
In the mind alone;
He that sings a lasting song
Thinks in a marrow-bone ...
‘Flower in a crannied wall’ is a hybrid, an uneasy mix of the scientific and poetic spirits. This understanding provoked me to write a ‘modernized’ version of Tennyson’s verse, with my centipede in the office as a subject:
Centipede on The Office Floor
Little centipede on the office floor,
I pick you up and hold you in my palm
You lie there coiled in the perfect Fibonacci spiral
And I hold you, genes and chromosomes and all
Little worm—but if I could understand
The mathematics of the strange Fibonacci form
And also how your synapses snap and axons fire
I would grasp your central nervous system entire
And what you are, neurons and all and all in all
And so know what God and man is.
However, tongue-in-cheek modernizations apart, we need to ask what exactly impelled Tennyson, in spite of his feeling for the delicate beauty of the flower, to pluck it and look at it in this analytic and theoretical way. We find that what prompts him to do this is a sense of wonder at the delicacy and intricacy of the structure of the flower. And the wonder in turn merges into a curiosity which is scientific in nature. He is impelled to ask what could be the reason why the flower was so delicately and intricately made, and where it fitted into the larger whole of the plant, “root and all, and all in all”, and even beyond that, in God’s own scheme of things. Here the poet has slipped into a ratiocinative frame of mind, reasoning in a teleological manner.
Teleology is a term derived from the Greek telos meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘end’ and logos meaning ‘reason’ or ‘science’. It is a term applied to any system attempting to explain a series of events in terms of ends, goals or purposes. Aristotle argued that according to this way of thinking, all nature reflects the purpose of an immanent final goal or telos . To describe this simplistically for instance, the final purpose or telos of the mango seed is to grow into a mango tree. The telos of the mango tree is to yield fruit for the nourishment of human beings and other beings. The telos of human lives is to realise the intentions for them of God or the Divine Transcendental source of all existence. The teleological argument for God or the Divine is that the wonderful order in nature could not exist but as a manifestation of a divine immanent purpose.
Now it becomes clear that Tennyson, struck by the wonderfully delicate design of the flower, is impelled to try and understand its place in the design of the plant, “root and all, and all in all”, in terms of this logic, and having thus understood the design of the plant, he hopes to take a giant teleological leap to understand God’s design in the Universe, and man’s place in it. It is another matter that this way of thinking had, by Tennyson’s time, lost much of the appeal it enjoyed in earlier times and had been replaced by more mechanical models of thinking like Darwin’s explanation of the evolution of species by the processes of random mutation and natural selection. We also have to note that Tennyson himself had cast doubts on the validity of the teleological argument, with his description of living beings feeding upon each other for their sustenance when he says in ‘In Memorium A.H.H.’, “Nature red in tooth and claw”,
And again he asks in the same poem,
Are God and Nature then at strife
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems
So careless of the single life.
Be that as it may, what we need to note is that Tennyson is no longer speaking as a poet responding with his whole being to the being of the flower, but has detached himself from it, and has lapsed into a scientific, analytical and philosophical mode of thinking. Moral: Philosophy and poetry do not mix well.
At this point I found that the angels of serendipity which brought these three poetic pieces together in my mind at the same time, were assiduously at work again and ensured that I was present when a Krishnamurti video was being played in Vasanta Vihar, and I heard him say, “First of all, observation is not analysis. When you observe a flower, you see the beauty, the quality, the colour, the perfume, the untouchable beauty of it. And after that you can analyze. You can look at the flower, tear it to pieces, if you want to—I hope you won’t—tear it and look at it. The analyser thinks he is separate from that which is analyzed. That is the whole psychology that the analysis is separate from the analyzer.” Here, Krishnamurti points out the difference between the analytic-synthesizing scientific approach and that of poetic receptivity.
‘Observation’, as opposed to ‘analysis’, is what Blake spoke about when he wrote, “The grateful receiver bears a plentiful harvest”. But to reap the harvest of beauty, one has to be open to receive it and not analyse the beautiful object. (Strangely and coincidentally Van Gogh, another great artist, also said, “Painting harvests eternity”.)
All this is not to suggest that the scientific approach to Nature is inhibitive of the feeling for beauty or of the life of the spirit, but only that its aims are different. In fact no less a person than Einstein has said, “I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research” and “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science”. And Paul Dirac, one of the founding figures in the field of nuclear physics, said “It is more important to have beauty in the equations than to have them fit the facts.”
However, even though Einstein’s deep cosmic feeling may be the fons et origo (source and origin) of scientific research, the beauty that is referred to here is an intellectual beauty such as is described in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem ‘Euclid Alone has Looked on Beauty Bare’, in which she says,
Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace
This is an abstract beauty which the mathematician apprehends. The mathematician qua mathematician and the scientist qua scientist do not respond to the whole of their experience of life with whole of their being, but in an oblique indirect way through the intellectual faculty in an analytical quantitative mode. In science, certain aspects of our experience are abstracted out and dealt with in terms of concepts which have a specialized meaning and have little to do with human life as it is lived ‘inside the skin’ of human beings. They have nothing to do with our experience of the world full of meaning, which our living faculties of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell bring us. For instance, in the Newtonian science of the dynamics of moving bodies, the terms ‘motion’ and ‘movement’ do not refer to the sensations we have when we move about walking or running or travelling in a vehicle. They belong to a network of abstract concepts such as ‘inertia’, ‘rectilinear inertial motion in a straight line’, ‘mass’, ‘force’, ‘gravitational attraction’, ‘acceleration’, etc., the relations between which are described in a few ‘simple’ formulae like F = m x a, and which can explain and predict all movements of masses of bodies in astronomical and terrestrial space. In the science of thermodynamics which studies heat and other forms of energy, ‘heat’ is not what we experience when we come near a fire, but a quantity measured in terms of joules, and temperature readings. Light is not that which reveals to us the colourful scenes and objects in the space before us when we open our eyes, but is described as electromagnetic waves of different wavelengths and frequencies. Taste and smell are not the sensations we have when we eat a peach melba ice cream or smell a rose, but are only chemical compounds acting on our taste buds and olfactory organs. Moral: Science and Poetry do not mix well.
All this is not to imply that Science and its offspring Technology have no impact on our daily lives, for that would be too absurd. We live enmeshed in the World Wide Web woven by science and technology which have (seemingly) delivered tremendous power into the hands of humanity. It is a truism that this is a double edged power. It gives us robotic laparoscopic surgery, life-saving organ transplants and much else on the one hand, but also the horrors of modern warfare including Hiroshima, the weaponry for terrorism, global warming, and much else on the other. All these forms of outer power do nothing to bring clarity to our minds. Only the inward look of observation can do that. And poetry and other forms of art which have originated from that inner vision can also help us to gain inner clarity.
Be that as it may, we now turn with some sense of relief to Krishnamurti and Blake. As we read the pieces by Krishnamurti and Blake, and begin to listen to the cadence of their voices, we move with them into the hearts of that beautiful tree and the tiny fly about which they write. We can feel with Krishnamurti as he enters into the life of the tree and lives and breathes with it, following its changing moods as they change through the day with the rising and setting of the sun. As the tree spreads its peaceful presence all around, the commonality of all living forms, including all humanity of which one is a part, is felt, and we begin to understand what is meant by the statement, “If you establish a relationship with the tree, then you have a relationship with mankind”. Beauty’s action, as Shakespeare says, may be, “no stronger than a flower”, but this tree has shown that this action is very strong indeed.
In Blake’s poem it is death, and not the presence of a living being that brings home to us the commonality of all living beings. It is the death of that humblest of life-forms, the common fly, whose life has been brushed away by a thoughtless hand, that shows the fragility and transience of all life, including that of human beings; and it is in the realization of fragility and transience that all are united. But that leads to no melancholy conclusion, for in a typically ebullient Blakean way he is happy to live or die with the fly and happy to dance and drink and sing as the fly is happy in his summer’s play. This is surely one of Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ in which he celebrates the joy of life.
‘And that is the note on which this article ends along with another ‘adaptation’, this time of Blake.
Centipede on the Office Floor
Little worm, little being
My heedless heel
Has crushed away
Your thoughtful life
As you wound your pensive way
Across our human floor.
Am I not a worm like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I work
And wonder and think
Till some mindless virus
Should enter me
And I sink.
Would you not prefer
With Blake to work and wonder
And breathe and think
Rather than with Tennyson
And the philosopher-poets
To analyze and theorize