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Emergence of a Bahá'í Consciousness in World Literature:
The Poetry of Roger White

by Ron Price

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Chapter 10

A Novella: A Sudden Music and The Shell and the Pearl


Perhaps it was in writing the poetry in honour of Emily Dickinson; perhaps it was the latest generation of martyrs that the Bahá'í world was experiencing in the early 1980s; perhaps it was a desire to get back to the Faith's origins since, in many ways, especially with the completion of the new seat of the Universal House of Justice in 1984, the Bahá'í community was going through another period of 'new beginnings'; perhaps it was just a simple desire to use a different form to express his creative output: but in 1983 and 1984 White wrote two books of prose. The first was a two hundred page novella, A Sudden Music, and the second was 'an account of the martyrdom of 'Ali-Asghar of Yazd,' The Shell and the Pearl. One was part fact and part fiction and the other a brief historical work. They were both written in memory of martyrs.

These were not the first pieces of prose that White had written, for he sprinkled prose pieces throughout his books of poetry, long pieces of several pages or shorter epilogues to many of his poems. Perhaps he was having some off time from poetry for he had written a great deal in the late seventies and early eighties. Only a serious examination of the White archive in Haifa and Toronto will answer this question. There is a charm in White's prose, not a sensuous or imaginative charm, at least not for me, but rather an intellectual charm. It comes from the texture of his style rather than its elements, not so much in the content but more in the turn of phrase, in the happy cast and flow of his sentences.

One of the objects of writing poetry, as Howard Nemerov once noted, is similar to making love, that is the perpetuation to immortality, although it is not what you think of at the time. Perhaps it was, then, that White had immortality on his mind which is not at all surprising, particularly after writing all those poems in homage to Emily Dickinson. Or it may be, again as Nemerov pointed out somewhat risquely, that "writing verses is like your relation with your bowels: first you can't and then you can and, then at last, you must(and then you reach for the paper)."1 Whatever, in 1983 and 1984 White published prose works and he was not to publish any poetry until 1992, a year before his passing.

A Sudden Music was set in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century and it is a poetic recreation of the first Bahá'í Centre in Europe. Ostensibly about a young American student, Althea Edison Benedict, and her awakening to the spiritual receptivity of the age, this delightful series of letters which White creates gives us an interpretation of the spiritual and of how to apply the Bahá'í teachings to the complex everyday life we have today at the beginning on the twenty-first century. In the process White gives his readers a vision, a window, into the lives of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and May Maxwell, the Mother teacher of the West who was asked by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to stay in Paris and in a few months established the first Bahá'í centre there.[2] White dedicates this book 'in memory of May Ellis Maxwell.'

Alex Aronson, in the first review of A Sudden Music, characterizes the book as the unfolding, the development, "of a spiritual commitment to an ideal that may, but need not, be called religious." "This ideal," he goes on, "embraces the moral, social and aesthetic life of humankind."[3] Aronson calls the book "most unfashionable." In this book White restores the grammar of belief and at the same time uses its conventional language infused with a new spirit. The novella moves at one level that of spiritual rebirth and as the story is told, art and artists constitute the raw material out of which a new Faith is born. White "finds meaning in the transcendental," Aronson concludes, "without ever becoming esoteric."[4] Indeed, I remember writing to White in the mid-1980s, congratulating him on writing a book with a remarkable everyday flavour even though it travelled on lofty spiritual planes with important issues for the mind and heart.

The Shell and the Pearl, on the other hand, tells the story of the martyrdom of 'Ali-Asghar of Yazd in 1891. It is one of the many and, to the average western mind, inexplicable stories of the incredible tenacity of faith which fill the record of Bahá'í history. 'Ali-Asghar had his head severed by a howling mob in the city of Yazd. The mob threw this severed head through the window of his home. His mother picked up the head, wiped off the dripping blood and threw it back to the street. While throwing it she is reported to have said:
What we have given to God we do not ask back.

Before White passed away he was to write many poems in memory of, inspired by, the many martyrs historical and contemporary that are part of the history of the Bahá'í Faith since 1844 and before. One can't help but think of two of White's poems that, in different ways, speak to the heroic, the martyr, the sudden music in which our own voice is raised in a spiralling 'Yes!' to the calls of service to this Cause.

The first poem, Conversation, begins with what could be the words of a typical westerner contemplating martyrs, martyrs to any cause; or they could be the words of an enthusiastic believer contemplating the relative indifference of those typical westerners who could not imagine dieing for any belief or cause.
The temperature of other minds-
How new and strange an awe!

Having spoken of that gap between minds and hearts, White goes on to describe the experience of that gap, that difference in temperature, in enthusiasm, in belief:
My own words chill and burn me
Chaffing my brain raw.

So intense are they, so heart-felt and emotionally laden, that
Moderate words from lips of guests
Alarm--as zephyr blown-
One whom extremes have nourished
But was not quite alone;

Thus, even 'moderate words' of friends and associates bring alarm to the believer because he can not understand how anyone can live without some sort of commitment, some passion for a cause, a belief. Such a believer has been 'nourished on extremes' not on moderation and the leisured pursuits of the middle class where entertainment is usually the focus of life, earning an income and attending to the responsibilities of family life and friends. Such a believer, however involved in the extremes of his commitment or, perhaps, because of the emotional and intellectual extremes that are part of this commitment, was never "quite alone.' In the case of the Bahá'í Faith this commitment tended to generate a high degree of people involvement involved as he or she was in building a new world Order.

And finally, in the last stanza, White concludes:
One who conversed in accents
Tempered tongues disown-
The delirium of fever,
the chink of frozen bone.[5]

As anyone who has spent many years serving any cause, any commitment, with a passionate intellectual and emotional attachment, particularly a commitment like the Bahá'í Faith with the obligation to extend its base by teaching it to others they meet in their various walks of life, will find the above words so apt. There is something about the "temperate tongues" of others which "disowns" the "accents" which the believer wants to share. the result for the believer is that he or she often feels "the delirium of fever/The chink of frozen bone." A book on martyrdom is one such example. This is a booklet, only twenty-six pages, for the believer. The typical person with a more 'temperate tongue' would, for the most part, be estranged, bemused, puzzled by such a phenomenon as someone like 'Ali-Asghar 'refusing to recant his faith in the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh' and, therefore, being martyred.[6] Such a reader would experience 'a new and strange sense of awe.' It is unlikely that he or she would feel nourished by such a reading, although some have been known to be strangely attracted by such an extreme.

The early years after the revolution in Iran in 1979 were years of great persecution. White's book, The Shell and the Pearl, was part of the response of the Bahá'í community to this persecution. The Bahá'í response to the persecution, particularly in Yazd, was characterized by an "unconventionally positive stress-belief pattern."[7] It was not White's purpose to outline the response of Bahá'ís in the 1980s. A distinctive quality of personal behaviour, though, can be seen in the response of the Bahá'ís continuing a tradition going back to 'Ali Asghar's mother. The fundamental nature of social groups becomes apparent during times of social conflict and stress.

White gives a detailed but succinct account of the martyrdom of 'Ali Asghar drawing on a range of sources from Bahá'í history since the 1890s. By 1984 when he published The Shell and the Pearl Yazd had become again a centre of extensive martyrdoms yet again. There were dozens of Bahá'ís who had lost their lives in the five year period 1978 to 1983 in Iran and White drew on these accounts[8] to write the poetry he did. For this book, though, the focus was on 'Ali Asghar.

The second poem is quite explicit about the martyr:

The martyr may not choose his food
But gourmand won't complain
If cup holds only suffering
And plate be heaped with pain.

The tart fare, tribulation,
His appetite but whets,
Each lavish course a banquet whose
Swift passage he regrets.

Consumed is each least morsel-
Crumb, stem, stone, rind and all,
the victuals of love's festal board
Were ever sugared gall.

Were final wine a scarlet brew
He'll drain the keg, if able,
And rising long embrace sweet Host
Who sets so rich a table.[9]

It is not my intent to write an extended analysis of the Shell and the Pearl, but only to draw the attention of readers to some of the prose works of Roger White. In the process, though, of referring to this small twenty-six page booklet I would like to draw the attention of readers to White's many poems with martyrdom as their theme. Like this poem, of great beauty and intensity, White may come as close as anyone can to providing an intellectual perspective that may move cynical and sceptical reader with their broadly liberal-humanist perspectives.

It is not my intention to go into great detail in summarizing the content of A Sudden Music, rather I would simply like to draw the readers' attention to several quotations from this book, quotations which throw light on the thorny problems we all face in our individual and community lives. They are taken somewhat at random from A Sudden Music, but they capture something of the flavour of what White is writing.

1. On spiritual principles: "Attempting to apply a divine principle," says White is "usually a creative and dangerous act...." He refers to it as one of those "iffy things."(p.88)

2. On domineering personalities and ego: "I have grown alarmed at the subtle way one comes to think of the impersonal power of the Cause as being one's own power." (p.156)

Some one-liners:

3. All that reason destroys, hope must recreate. (p.175)

4. Analysis is the disease of this century.(p.103)

5. God achieves through our innocence what we cannot achieve through our calculation. (p.102)

6. On Meeting 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "The plane of words and appearances is not the plane one truly and most productively meets Him."(p.109)

7. On goals and aspirations: "Exposure to perfection reduces one's aspirations to size.(p.98)

8. On the spiritual and the physical: "There is something false about a spiritual life that denies being rooted in our physical existence."(p.62)

9. On courtesy: Regrettably "courteousness...seals people in as effectively as a suit of armour....they become models of mediocrity, smug and sage and cowardly."(p.48)

10. On suffering: "It can spring from many sources but it means nothing unless it is faced heroically and triumphed over."(p.48)

11. On emotions: "Emotions are so untrustworthy and I detest the inner turmoil they cause." (p.40)

12. On the inspiration of poets:(he should know) I shall forever remain suspicious of the real cause of the inspiration of poets."

And so some snippets of White's prose-aphorisms. For the next seven years White continued to serve at the Bahá'í World Centre before retiring to Vancouver in May 1991 where he stayed for two years before passing away. While in Vancouver he published his final major work Occasions of Grace and two smaller books of poetry, The Language of There and Notes Postmarked The Mountain of God. All three came out a year before he passed away. And so White continued to work rendering the highest service a Bahá'í can do and which he defined in A Sudden Music as: always doing "the thing under his nose that needed doing."(p.71)

[1] H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Bahá, George Ronald, Oxford, 1971, p.73.
[2] Alex Aronson, "Resoring The Grammar of Belief," World Order, Spring/Summer 1985, p.65.
[3] ibid.,p.67.
[4] Roger White, One Bird, p.119.
[4] Roger White, The Shell and the Pearl, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.1.
[5] F.T. Bethel,"A Psychological Theory of Martyrdom: A content Analysis of Personal Documents of Bahá'í Martyrs of Iran Written Between 1979-1982," US International Union, 1980.
[6] See World Order, Winter 1983-4: A Congressional Hearing and a Senate and House Debate.
[7] Roger White, One Bird, p.95.
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