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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 15


A poet's life, any life, is a process of unfolding realization.....a responsibility for poetic values, poetry is a way not only of knowing but also of living in the world, straining towards feelings of consciousness in which what is outside is fused with what lies within the self. -Veronica Brady, South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1998, Introduction.

J.B. Priestly once wrote that "the true Shakespearian way of life was to combine a scepticism about everything with a credulity about everything."[1] What one might call this 'modern attitude' of having a theoretical uncertainty about even the surest of statements is, perhaps, "our greatest asset in adapting to our human situation."[2] In approaching history White began with the assumption that man's social evolution was due to the periodic intervention in human affairs of the creative force of the universe by means of the Founders of the great religions. White had examined this assumption in the light of the new evidence for this phenomenon provided by the Bahá'í Faith. This had been part of his investigation in the late forties and early fifties. White's approach to history was the same as his approach to religion. It was based on the scientific method. What White has to say in his poetic history, expressed over hundreds of poems in several volumes and chapbooks, can be verified, understood, only by individuals capable and willing to assume White's point of view. His views can only be understood and appreciated by those who have studied or are willing to study the history on which it is based. The element of historical subjectivity that resides in White's poetry is the same that resides in any other domain where the scientific method is applied. What White is saying in the field of religion is not so private, so mystic, so incommunicable as to be beyond scientific method. In exploring White's understanding of history I invite readers to study the historical configurations on which it is based. For, I would argue, it is virtually impossible to appreciate that element of his poetry which deals with history without knowing something about that history.

White's poetry, like the poetry of W.B. Yeats, is so filled with the people and places he cared about, the beliefs and issues he was involved with as an active publicist of the Cause he had identified himself with, that the events of his life seem curiously inevitable, as we find ourselves accepting unreflectively one striking event in his life and his poetry after another. White and his poetry are part of the tissue, the very warp and weft, of the Cause in the history of its Heroic and Formative Ages. White's way of writing, of talking, sounded like the way historian of modern poetry David Perkins described Yeats and his poetry: "the actual thoughts of a man at a passionate moment of life.....compelled to speak directly from his personal self, writing of the actual men and women in the actual world and in his own life."[3] With Yeats, White might have also written, as Yeats did in his epigraph to his volume of poetry Responsibilities in 1914, In dreams begin responsibility.[4] White put words down on paper, but his moment in history, his society, his milieux speaks through him. One could argue, and White seems to, that once written, once spoken, the poem belongs to those who read it and authorial intention and poetic ambiguities can not be resolved, although they can be discussed. The literary interpretations of readers are seen as announcements of who they are and what they believe. Readers shape the poem and are shaped by it. Misinterpretation and distortion by readers are unavoidable, to some extent.[5] At the core of poem after poem, though, is what Mark Turner calls "narrative imagining...... the fundamental instrument of thought."[6] Narrative imagining relies on the readers' capacity to project one story onto another, to organize the story of a life, say, in terms of a journey. The mind of the reader relies on the story to interpret "the simplest quotidian acts to the most complex literary achievements."[7] The mind of the poet relies on the story for a myriad purposes, often unknown to the reader. Perhaps White was trying, among other things, "to preach some kind of self-effacement to his own self-assertive age."[8] Perhaps humility was not natural to White, or to many of us. Perhaps it was, as he saw it, a mental need without which we would have difficulty seeing the world in its proper light.

In the beginning was the Story, the Word--and White leads us back to that Story and Word, into our Story, our Word: its sacred sites, its archtypes, its culture, its map, its truth and its engagement with moral law. Readers can tap into these eternal stories, find their relationship with them, their meaning, illuminate what endures in life, place the ephemeral in its proper perspective. White hounds us, tantalizes us, haunts us, with his rendition of the Bahá'í Story. He is often obscure, does not give us a definite shape, leaves us with an urgency in our drive to interpret, an urgency which is often a symptom of our lack of knowing, perhaps even our insecurity. White reminds us of where we are going and why. He gives his readers a range of vehicles to take themselves and their lives seriously. One of the vehicles is history. In an age when stories come at us until they are filling our eyes to overflowing and coming out of our ears in excess from a print and electronic media, White's Story, his interpretation of the Bahá'í Story has a particular and special significance. His recreation is memory and soul, so unlike the big television blockbusters which recreate history as spectacle, as body, which keep the eyes busy but leave the mind, in the end, amused and vacant. White's recreations help the Bahá'í community define who and what it is. Remembering is a "fragile, heroic enterprise,"[9] says former poet laureate Robert Pinsky and poetry can teach us about this enterprise. White is in the front lines of this fragile and heroic enterprise.

The Western Dreaming opens, for the Greeks and the Hebrews, on the plains of Troy and in a garden laid out by the very hand of God. And now, after several thousand years, we exist at a vast distance from the psychic universe of these Greek and Hebrew writers. The Dreaming that White is dealing with in his poetry is yet another severe historical landscape charged with the ethereal brightness of dramatic Persian mountainscapes, great expanses of naked rock, long green valleys and their rivers and deserts of searing heat, dust and inhospitable emptiness, stone and brick villages and some friendly and agreeable shores. White's poetic places of Dreaming also take readers on a journey to Israel, Europe and North America, at least some of the places and people there, where the history of the Bahá'í Faith went through its first century. We have come closer to this Dreaming than we were, in recent times, to Eden and Troy. There is no anachronism here, no abstruse language, no arbitary and mythical eschatology. Here is a Dreaming which was part of Western history just recently, was lived in just the other day. The steel of White's genius strikes the flint of history and of our times and gives that Dreaming a fresh spark and vitality. White would have agreed with poet and literary critic Sir Philip Sydney who saw poetry as superior in some ways to both philosophy and history, to the essential abstractness of philosophy and the essential concreteness of history. Poetry is free to roam in a vast empire of passion and knowledge which the poet tries to bind together.[10] Like Sydney, White saw poetry as the superior moral teacher. The poet could, by a fitting selection and organization of ideas and incident, achieve a reality more profound than that presented by quotidian experience.

However recent, the Bahá'í Dreaming can slip into history beyond our meaning. It is we who must recover our Dreaming. We have to discover our Story, our Stories, and connect them to our everyday lives. White is helpful here. He takes dozens of the stories from the precursors(1743-1843) of the Babi and Bahá'í Revelations right up into our own time in the last years of his life(1990-1992) before he was too sick to write--and puts his readers right in the picture. He holds the hands of his readers, sometimes gently, sometimes with an encouragement to 'come-up,' sometimes informing us that 'here is your hero,' 'here is your soul,' 'here is the work,' 'this is the spiritual point,' though he leaves his readers plenty of room to work it out themselves. All they can do is wait and work, follow the path, try not to worry, have faith and Be, Be like some or many of the souls, the people, White has given us in his poetry.

White gives us a neighbourhood to journey in for our Dreaming. Sometimes the path is too hard to walk on; sometimes on the path our tentative moves will be welcomed and our sure moves rebuffed. But for each of us, the Dreaming is particular and we must work out our own narrative vehicles for gaining access to the general sacred order that White gives us on page after page of his poems. But the big Story, when it strikes, is a metaphysical cyclone because it is particular to the individual, interpreted in a singular context and it surges up within us. Some of the Story, the Dreaming, is erudite, some simple and everyday. White's poetry is, at times, a complex virtuosity and, at other times, the essence of simplicity like the Story he is conveying. White provides what Dr. Johnson described in his preface to his edition of Shakespeare, namely, a place for the mind to repose "on the stability of truth." After the endless products of the mass media, what Johnson might have called "the irregular combinations of fanciful invention...and that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest," White creates for his readers "a golden world superior to the brazen world of reality,"[11] a world with a special kind of optimism, a world with:
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
Are given as our library--
We, star-affrighted, gaze to land.[12]

All roads in White's poetic journey converge at one spot: the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh and His life. Bahá'u'lláh is not the hero, like Achilles in that Greek Dreaming, simple and splendid. He is the eternal mystery, the enigma, but His life takes place in a precise historical time and place where the participants are real personages who were born, lived, suffered and died. They happened along once upon a time. This time the physical Story, the historical account contains a massive detail compared, say, with the account, the Dreaming, of the New Testament or The Iliad or Odyssey. White's stories seem to coalesce out of the primal mist, the clouds, the gold sparks of Babi-Bahá'í history going back over two hundred years to, arguably, say, 1793 when Shaykh Ahmad left his home to prepare the way for the Promised One.

White helps us to carry our stories within us, into the world and out of it. In the end it is often, not so much that we read White's poems but, rather, that they read us. Sometimes, as George Steiner says of Franz Kafka's works, White's poems "find us blank."[13] We turn away from his poems as we often turn away from the Revelation, from their potential for enchantment, for exuberance. We turn away from his invitation to explore our Dreaming. For in this world of confused alarms our sensory emporiums are so bombarded that the best that is written and thought eludes us as we settle for that which can not satisfy or appease the hunger.

White's poetry is, of course, more than Story. It is both praise and criticism of life, social analysis and psychological diagnosis. It is the expression, the result, of his search for unity. For many writers in the last decades of the twentieth century, this search for unity was constantly frustrated in its narrative, historical and subjective domains with the result that they often reduced history to autobiography and society to their own consciousness. Former and apparent blueprints for social change that many had found in religion or politics became increasingly delusory. As the expressions of social and political unity increased in the world so, too, did the expressions of fractured, divisive, violent and anarchous activity increase. When White started writing poetry the world's population had something less than three billion; when he finished nearly fifty years later, that population had become something less than six billion. To document the changes in that half century are not possible in the context of this essay. But White's history, his view of the past, is inseparable from the world he lived in and the changes it went through.

White's poetry is an expression of what for him was "true historical sense,"[14] of his existence among countless events and of his definition of history's landmarks, points of reference and its perspectives. In writing his poetry, his history becomes ours if we want to share it with him. Among the multiciplicty and immensity of it all White finds and preserves coherence, wholeness and unity. This, too, is our task. For we, too, must mold our historical and personal consciousnesses, our historical unity. We must make our own story into history, our multiplicities into a oneness, our narrative into a portion of that "mass of billions of local stories"[15] that is universal history. White offers to us a series of synthesizing mechanisms that help bring together history and our lives, the macro and the micro, as it is sometimes expressed today. White would have liked to achieve, as any poet would, what Johnson wrote in his life of the poet Gray: "Images which find a mirrour in every mind" and "sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Still, he left his mark. He gives us old knowledge, old history, rednered in new ways, the familiar made unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar, as one writer once put it.

Roger White is one of the finest wordsmith's to have written in English in the Bahá'í community in recent epochs. If you love literature, history and the Bahá'í Faith, I could do no better than suggest you patiently pursue poem after poem of what is an extensive opus and devour, as much as you can, White's delicious instances of wit, wisdom and sheer genius. Hagiographers may indulge the pleasing task of describing the religion they espouse as it descended from heaven arrayed in its native purity; a more melancholy and at the same time more joyous and intellectually satisfying duty falls upon the poet. The poet's task, certainly as White sees it, is to discover the inevitable mixture of humanity and ordinariness, vanity and weakness, heroism and virtue, which is associated with the subtle and complex system of action and conviction in the emerging world religion he was part of for nearly half a century. The given moment of history, to White, is something more than a mere circumstance. It is a moment he must seize as a moral, an aesthetic, fact. In seizing this fact, the reader is often required by White to do a little digging, exert some intellectual effort, exercise more than a little brain power and imagination. If the reader is not capable of giving something of himself he cannot get from White's poetry the best it has to give him. If that is the case he had better not read White's poetry, for there is no obligation to do so.[16]

White seems to have some of that "inexhaustible ardour for insight" that the poet William Blake evinced and "his sensibilities so heightened that ordinary events were translated into extraordinary ones."[17] The outward creation was certainly, from time to time anyway, a transparent shell through which White beheld the fiery secret of life and its burning ecstacy. It was a secret and an ecstacy that he had seen and experienced thanks to the teachings of the prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith and His
transforming influences. But it was a many-splendoured, many-sided, thing. White knew that:
We court a miracle and see the candles fail,,
The petals rust. What do our hearts avail?

No sword of vengenace cleaves us as we stand,
Our supplication brings no answering shout.
An ant crawls by persistent as our doubt
And in the comprehsnding hush we understand
Our mediocrity and godliness:[18]

White would have agreed with Jane Austen when she wrote: "Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing and hardly any women at all." [19] The record of the past has never been easy to render; in some basic ways the content of the social sciences in general is much more complex than the physical sciences and so the telling of history, in or out of poetic form, is a difficult task. It helps to know a great deal and it helps to have thought long and hard about it. So often it is in vain that with retrospective eye we can conclude a motive from the deed. For character is unstable, life at best only partly explainable and the individual only understandable to a degree. It is not surprising that for many, even the more informed, history still is what it was to Gibbon two and a half centuries ago: "little more that the register of the crimes, the follies and misfortunes of mankind."[20]

History for White was also, as Gibbon put it much later in that grand work, "a record of the transactions of the past for the instruction of future ages."[21] White knew what the American historian Charles Beard once wrote, that "the writing of history was an act of faith;"[22] that the historian, the poet, indeed, all of us, must makes certain assumptions, wind our emotions around these assumptions and proceed through life. As far as possible we must ground these assumptions in truth, in fact, but inevitably there is an act of faith involved somewhere in the process. White knew that facts about the past "are no more history," as historian of biography Ira Nadel expressed it in a light and perceptive way, "than butter, eggs and pepper are an omelette."[23] They must be whipped up and played in a special fashion.

For White the writing of poetry, and his particular take on history, is a 'dance of life,' [24]as the Australian poet A.D. Hope once defined the art of poetry. Some pedestrian or not-so-pedestrian person in Bahá'í history acquires a fresh, new, life with a compactness, an economy of language, a concern for things as they really happened, as the nineteenth century historian Leopold von Ranke would have expressed the recording of history. White does what Karl Popper advocates in his The Poverty of Historicism. He consciously introduces "a preconceived point of view" into his history" and writes "that history which interests" him,[25] but he does not twist the facts until they fit a framework of preconceived ideas, nor does he neglect the facts that do not fit in. Popper says that such an approach, that is the introducing of a preconceived point of view, should be seen as one that begins with a scientific hypothesis. Such a focus of historical interest, Popper emphasizes, is a historical interpretation. Of course, one should endeavour, as far as possible, to know the facts of history but, as Kant once argued, it is difficult if not impossible to know the facts, the reality, of things. The real use in knowing what happened in history lies in the interpretation of history's facts, its events.[26] The recreation of a life is one of the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform.

White gains access to meaning by interpreting events, arranging patterns, making descriptions, by actively engaging in practical rationality.[27] This is what is at the heart of hermeneutics and phenomenology, sub-disciplines in the social sciences that have grown up in the twentieth century and influenced philosophy and sociology among other fields. In the process he brings forth hidden meanings, messages, as it were, from the past and the reader engages in an endless chain of listening and some essential thinking. For hermeneutics and phenomenology are both science and art. They aim at the attainment of historically effective consciousness, at a dialogue with the past, with those who lived in that past and those who thought about that past. Understanding is the filter, the door, through which thought passes. White attempts to open that door. And, in the end, he achieves what the art critic and historian Herbert Read said that T.S. Eliot achieved in his poetic opus: an enlargement or intensification of the "very consciousness of the world in which we are vitally involved."[28] White writes each historical poem from "an exclusive point of view," as Charles Baudelair once said that biographical work must be written from, but also "from a point of view which opens the greatest number of horizons."[29]

White attempts to create a narrative, a concept of the Bahá'í narrative, which Bahá'ís can readily identify with. For without this identity time turns into an unsolvable conflict of voices of authority, an antimony. Understanding, to White, is bound and embedded in history and the meaning changes over time according to how it is received and read. Meaning can never be fixed. From his first chapbook in 1947 to his final published work in 1992, White gives his readers slice after slice of history, of his interpretation of a shared memory. It is useful for his readers to have read some of God Passes by, Nabil's Narrative or any one of a number of books that explore the history of the Bahá'í Faith. A sensitive appreciation of so much of White's poetry depends on some background knowledge of the belief system, the points in time and place that White is coming from, that all Bahá'ís are coming from. With this background the reader can often gain an insight, an understanding, of Bahá'í history and its teachings that many hours of patient reading of other volumes will not yield.

Matthew Arnold once wrote that the Greek dramatist Sophocles saw life whole, with its moral and emotional meaning inside it.[30] The modern world, the modern condition, on the other hand acknowledges no publicly accepted moral and emotional Truth, only perspectives toward it. But like Sophocles, White believed in submission to divine law as the fundamental basis for both individual motivation and social cohesion. To put it another way, both writers strongly believed that religion should play a very large part in the way society should be organized. Both writers had "a delicate sense of the complexity of experience,"[31] a sense of the tension between public interaction and private life and a clarity of vision that came from the world of myth. "Myths were a living body of meaning," for both Sophocles and White, "that illuminated the essential processes of life."[32] For each writer, of course, the mythic base is different. Sophocles was, arguably, the last major thinker, certainly the last Greek dramatist of the fifth century BC, to see the "need for a law-a divine law-above the state and its holders of power."[33] For both White, and Sophocles, this mythic base, this common world view or cosmology and its accompanying moral and spiritual system, provides the ethos, the overall dramatic context, the external standard, the very structure for something ennobling for the community, something that contributes to its well-being. Without this commonality, people live with incompatible ends and develop political systems in which the end justifies the means. As Ivanov contests in Koestler's Darkness at Noon: `The principle that the end justifies the means is and remains the only rule of political ethics.'[34] Perhaps Ivanov puts the case a little too strongly but we get the drift and it appeals to our skepticism about partisan politics.

This is partly why White sought to draw his readers away from his personality. Indeed, he was downright embarrassed with the whole notion of drawing attention to himself. This was utterly alien to what he was trying to achieve as an artist, a poet. The voice that spoke in his art was not that of his limited personality, but rather of a soul who had identified himself with divine and eternal truth.[35] Indeed, "the slightest whisperings of self," the whole pursuit of self-expression, was, for White, done in the context of the upturned mirror of his soul in which the light of the will of God and His teachings were reflected, at least that is how he envisaged the process.[36] This process helped produce, over time, White's voice. What underlies White's success, indeed all success in poetry, is voice. It gives us confidence in what he says. It is poetry's decisive factor. It is continuous and accumulates as he writes and as you read.

Some things in life must be savoured slowly. White's poetic history is one of these. The first poem in White's first major book of poetry[37] Martha begins with a conversational, a casual, tone as if the poet was speaking to this famous Bahá'í teacher, as if he was writing her a letter:
Have patience, Martha,

White is informal but serious as he continues with thirty lines of graphic description which includes his depiction of Martha Root's inner mental state and her motivational matrix in the years after World War I when the apocalyptic images ineffaceably etched there-
the poisoned air
the towers afire
the maimed trees
the human pyre

sent her "hurtling in exquisite arc/across the blackening sky,". And so she did 'hurtle' for two decades between the wars before she died in Hawaii in 1939. Her life became:
..........a solitary warning cry
against engulfing dark
and ultimate night.

The darkness was so great during these inter-war years when millions perished in Stalin's and Hitler's fiery death camps that Martha's efforts, however heroic, are described by White as follows:
Your eyes were dippers
used against the fire,

Apparently insignificant, her efforts, he goes on:
purchased brief respite
that on the ramparts might arise
the legioned guardians of light.

These 'legioned guardians' began to arise in the teaching Plans that the Guardian initiated just two years before Martha died so that, by the 1960s, thousands would arise 'on the ramparts.' By the time White was to write this poem and by the time its first readers would enjoy his succinct and pithy summation of her life there were indeed "legioned guardians of light." White advised Martha, still addressing her in that colloquial and informal tone, to:
Be patient:
we may yet ourselves become
God's gadabouts,
meteoric, expire
in conflagrant holy urgency.

And so in five lines, the last five of White's first poem in his first major book of poetry, White gives his readers a vision, a direction, for their own lives, linked as it is with the greatest Bahá'í teacher of the Formative Age. He was not trying to renew "a decadent civilization,"[38] as Ezra Pound had tried to do and unsuccessfully as he admitted in his epic poem The Cantos, written over more than half a century. But there is no doubt that White was trying to play his part, by the time he wrote this poem in the late 1970s, as one among millions of his co-religionists, in the construction of the new world Order associated with the Faith he had joined some thirty years before. The part he played, par excellence, was the writing of a long series of statements, a dialectic, a development, a form, which attempted to lead the mind to some conclusion, to some affective condition, a quality of personal being judged by the action it leads to. But the language he used, poetic language, was largely one of indirection and symbolism.

There is an authenticity here, something behind and beyond the text, the life of Martha as we know it in the extant biographies and histories, beyond and behind the representation or embodiment of Martha Root in the photos of her that are part of our history. White undertakes to reveal a Martha Root who is doing more than looking past the camera into the distance with an air of weighty seriousness, of farsightedness, a look which might strike some viewers as anachronistic or too detached. Indeed there is no visual image consistent with White's written portrait. There are many and whatever image one could find would produce radically different interpretations.

Even the face of Martha, usually characterized as photographs of faces are by its ability to convey the essence of an individual, her innermost nature and qualities, its seemingly direct portrayal of the individual, of Martha and her life, a vivid representation of the living being who was Martha Root, a truthful picture, a genuine likeness, not just how she looks but what she is, leaves us asking 'who is the Martha we look at and how may we know it'? Martha's public persona was, as White notes in the epilogue to this poem, as a dowdy girl, unattractive and unfashionably dressed, some might say plain. But, White says later in the poem, we "cease to care/whether virtue be photogenic."

There has been a strong belief in the West since the early years after the invention of photography, that the face and head are "the outward signs of inner character."[39] The human face engrosses a large share of our thoughts, perhaps the largest share of all, and White dismisses this tendency which is part of our celebrity or image culture in its application to Martha Root. If Martha is to be transformed into anything it will have little to do with the star or celebrity status of the western media industry.[40] What he projects onto our consciousness is not a photograph, a visual image. If anything it is an idea, a thought, that he foregrounds, not the visual, in the complex configuration that goes to make up Martha Root, the hero. Martha does not fall from hero to star with its concomitant emphasis on the visual. White confirms her heroic status.[41]

Indeed, it may be more accurate to say that White clarifies Root's mythic status. For there is an essential metaphorical nature to Bahá'í history, as John Hatcher as describes in such a straightforward way in his book The Nature of Physical Reality.[42] Myth has a multivalent function[43] in this conception of history. "To limit an image" writes Eliade, "to the concrete terminology, the physical form, is to mutilate it." In this view of history--and the poetry White writes--based on this history, the reader must be creative, must think, must participate, must transcend the physical and move in a world of abstract thought. He or she must engage in what is often called 'the analogical process.' Martha, in a poem like this, "becomes a mirror that reflects insights," as Rollo May once wrote in discussing myth and its function and her experience gives us "structural undergirding to (our) beliefs."[44] To put this another way, physical reality, in this case Martha Root, is a veil that is one remove from the spiritual reality she represents. And we must use our individual judgement and discernment to properly utilize this myth, this metaphor, this spiritual reality, to free us from blind adherence to dogma, to a physical reality and, thus, to participate wisely in the physical reality that is our daily life.

In a second poem, the next one in Another Song, A Letter to Keith, White continues with his colloquial, conversational idiom. We learn a great deal about this attractive Bahá'í woman who made an outstanding contribution of service to the Cause and who was the West's first martyr. But this poem is no factual biography, no story of a life. It is a graphic recreation not an impartial account. White is a poet with a belief in a compelling vision, a principle, a dogma containing a great emotional and spiritual potency at its source and in its history. White possesses a technical virtuosity and he plots meticulously as he encourages his readers to think for themselves. We see this in his clever and witty poem, his piece of dramatic invention, based on the life of Keith Ransom-Kehler.

The poem begins by placing the reader right at the heart of the issue White is exploring:
Why did you do it, Keith,
And you a looker?
Not your usual religious dame
in need of a good dentist
and a fitted bra.

In White's response to a letter criticizing his poem's "stereotypical thinking about religious women as rigidly pietistic," women "lacking in pulchritude who seek spiritual consolation as compensation." White says "no slight was intended to any woman." He continues in that same letter indicating that he sought "to place in the mouth of the narrator of the poem, a fictitious peer of Keith's, a man holding attitudes perhaps typical of his time and place, words of grudging and bewildered admiration for a townswoman of his acquaintance, whose heroic example of authentically-experienced faith forces him to reappraise those very prejudices against religious women which he unsuccessfully masks behind an uneasy, heavy-handed humour."[45]

At the end of the poem Keith's sacrifice causes this anonymous narrator to reexamine his own life orientation:
I'm bawling,
me a grown man,
three sons and a wife in the grave
and not what you call sentimental.

White concludes his letter by saying that "we cannot lose hope that even the narrator of "A Letter to Keith" will grow to recognize the perniciousness of the philosophy that governs the world of semblances." White wrote, again in that same letter, that "I do not underestimate the power of slights of cause hurt." And I'm sure he did not, having had his share of slights in life, a share that I'm sure contributed in interesting and complex ways to his poetic opus. It is a rare event for readers to possess an interpretation of a poem given by this poet and had not a letter to the editor been critical of White and his poem in the first place this opinion, this defence of his poem and his intentions in writing it, would not exist. I can not think of another commentary on a poem as extensive as this, at least not in White's published works.

Perhaps some of White's skill resides in that strange ability, as William Blake expressed it,
To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of (his) hand
And eternity in an hour.[46]

Or as another poet, Browning, emphasized that
.....a man's search should exceed his grasp
Or what's a heaven for.[47]

White's poetic pieces of history are based on the view that human phenomena must be interpreted. They don't just speak for themselves. Social reality has become, in recent decades, very complex. The analysis of this social reality by various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences has become interdisciplinary and has expanded at a dazzling rate. The critical literature is now burgeoning. It has become impossible to read it all, in any of the disciplines.[48] As one of the twentieth century's great social analysts Joseph Schumpeter once put it, even before this late twentieth century burgeoning of analysis: to make a judgement about human affairs, even one of the smallest moment, would require much study, much examination.[49] And I would add, more study than most of us are prepared, or desire, to invest. It simply takes too much time and the disciplined exercise of our rational faculty. And there are so many issues.

For White, "the poem comes before the form," as Herbert Read described the process, "in the sense that a form grows out"[50] of his attempt to say something. His poem becomes its own universe with words "impressed like clay with the poet's invention,"[51] in a poetic tradition that began, Herbert Read outlines, with the imagists in 1908, the year 'Abdu'l-Bahá was released from confinement in prison in Akka.

White recognizes the complexity, the interdependence and the mystery of reality I refer to above in the following poem, The Appointment.52 I have discussed this poem before in an earlier chapter, but it is worth quoting again because what we have here is some of White's philosophy of history:
There is another kind of clock
its cogwheels fixed
in the unknowable convolutions
of God's mind,
perhaps our galaxies
its smallest jewels,
a clock that marks
some celestial piecing
of eternity,
one that runs silently,
fluidly forward or back,
cancelling our time,
its tick perpetual,
attuned to the omniscient
and eternal heart.

The cornerstone of the Bahá'í philosophy of history is a belief in progress through providential control of the historical process. At the heart of this philosophy is the concept of an ever-advancing civilization. There is none of the historical pessimism and the contemptus mundi of the old religions. White's poetry and his Faith extends to humankind an immense hope and confidence in the future, indeed, that there will be a blissful consummation to man's evolution.[53] In this same poem, The Appointment, White quotes the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "From this temple, thousands of temples will arise." Progress is not only the law it is the prerogative of the divine ordering of history; or, as White adds near the end of the poem, the words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "The Temple is already built!" The essential mystery of this divine ordering is echoed in the last two lines of the poem:
what clock or calendar keeps Him
and Who He is.

This teleological view of history, where "intervention/rises up to melt our mathematics/or intersect our schemes," or, in the poem The Pioneer,[54] "The future is inestimably glorious," White expresses in poem after poem his view of man and his view of history. To White, man is a composite being with a higher and a lower nature, with an angelic and an animal side. Only through the exercise of his spiritual faculties can a harmonious and beneficial world be created. We see Siegfried Schopflocher's generosity,[55] Fred Mortensen's permanent place in "Bahá'í history,"[56] Salman, the courier's courage,[57] the spiritual qualities of a host of others: Thomas Breakwell, Juliet Thompson, several martyrs, people spread throughout his hundreds of poems.

It is White's view that the revealed Word fundamentally affects the development of social and cultural reality. Indeed the Cause of all creation and the source of all attributes is the Primal Will which is manifested by the Manifestation of God. All aspects of civilization are the result of the expression of this Primal Will in the world of creation through the utterance of the Word, or Logos. This interaction is perpetual and continuous. The following poem illustrates my point. White makes the narrator of the poem, Lullaby,58 an old woman who is telling bedtime stories to children. She is telling the story of the day she saw them take Bahá'u'lláh in chains to the Siyah-Chal. It was years before and she had come

--------------as a young girl into the service of his wife
--------he was led through the rabble of the streets.
A strange sight indeed--like seeing a white rose
in a swarm of gnats. He walked in cream-like majesty

She describes how she was about to throw a small pebble at him but, in shame and fear, she turned and fled and hid the pebble. Years later, as she is telling this story, she says:
it was enough to have seen that face.
Perhaps I should have cast it, but my hand was stayed.
I took it as an omen.
It grows, I think, more white each year
The silly amulet of an old fool, I suppose,
but when I am ill or sad it comforts me
So there you have it; it was his eyes, you see.
It was as though they gazed beyond us to another world.

Although this is a somewhat humble way of illustrating the whole notion of the evolution of civilization that is at the heart of White's view of history, in its simplicity it makes its point. The evolution, the progress, the development of civilization, one of the many complex issues in the social sciences and an issue that has found several major theoretical constructs to support various interpretations, answers or explanations is explained in the Bahá'í teachings by religion or, more specifically, the Manifestation of God. Economics, conflict, reason, power, great men, all find their place in various systems of explanation. White places the source of development of society squarely on the person of the Manifestation of God; this is the cause and all else is effect. By implication, then, "only those who are not interested in political power or worldly glory are worthy"[59] of this Cause and its message. There are so many illustrations in White's poems which illustrate what I am saying here. I leave it to the readers to do their own exploration.

How does White express this interpretation of history in his poems? What are the various stresses and strains that point to this reality, this philosophy of history?

In a poem about Ruhiyyih Khanum White refers to "history's hunkered spectre/brooding watchfully in the shadows."[60] This 'helpmate' drowns, in the last two lines of the poem, "in scarlet helplessness/at the marble column's foot." With Balyuzi "Pain had softened the aristocratic outline" and his "will pinned furiously to one awesome purpose."[61] And again: "the panorama of the mountain/must not blind one to the pebble." White talks of "improvising our lives from movies and pulp fiction."[62]
I could list many more takes on history, on society, on life and its meaning but, somehow, they do not carry the weight of several individual poems examined in full. I shall close this essay with a discussion of these several poems. For they each provide points of intensity at which the force of the emotions fuse the utterance, or at least attempt, to a glowing heat. For me, White provides poetry of this kind frequently. He is deeply concerned with our moral sensibility but not in any narrow evangelistic sense with its accompanying moral superiority. He comes at us and makes his greatest impress due to the intellectual-aesthetic content of his work more than its moral, its religious, appeal. "Intellectual assent in literature," wrote Lionel Trilling, "is not quite the same thing as agreement."[63] Our pleasure often comes from White's intellectual cogency, his artistic and emotional power, even when we don't agree with him.

The poem, The Gift, is based on an experience Curtis Kelsey had in 1921 when 'Abdu'l-Bahá called him into his room in Haifa and sitting opposite Him, 'Abdu'l-Bahá just looked at Curtis for several minutes in silence. Later in life when Curtis experienced difficulties that face would appear to him. White writes the following sonnet:
With that face given to me had I need
Of other gift? With those eyes holding mine
The shrivelled earth lost power to incline
Me to its shimmering mirage, to heed
Its ashy course, its dimming stars' design--
In one long glance the light of sun was mine!
Embossed on all my days this best of gifts,
A compelling image me to virtue past my reach.
Thus comforted, upheld, the frail heart lifts
To meet the imprinted living goad again
And pluck sweet victory like the low-hung peach.
His countenance held heaven's very plan.
That message read, what other need I scan?

The 'shimmering mirage,' the 'ashy course' of earth and the 'dimming stars' design' that White alludes to is a reflection of a view of life, expressed in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, that 'the world is like a vapour in the desert which the thirsty dreameth to be water but when he comes upon it he finds it to be mere illusion.' This is not to say that we should not strive in this earthly life; indeed, as White points out in the first line of the sestet, the image of the face of 'Abdu'l-Bahá rising in Curtis Kelsey's brain challenges him
---------------to virtue past (his) reach

The torments and stimulants, the goads, of life must be met day after day and we must strive to "pluck sweet victory like the low-hung peach," however illusory life may be in an ultimate sense. And finally, the reader is brought face to face with the core of the meaning of the poem, a core beyond the dichotomy of meaning and illusion, in the poem's penultimate line: "His countenance held heaven's very plan." This was 'the gift' that is the title of the poem. Curtis had no need for any other gift after 'Abdu'l-Bahá had given him the gift of 'his visage' whenever he was in need. History rests, as White says in so many different ways in his poems, on the interaction of a combination of several interrelated factors: the Manifestation of God and his Covenant, here expressed in the person of "Abdu'l-Bahá, individual striving and a detachment from the results of striving, here expressed by the sense of the illusoriness of life.

One important part of White's view of history, White's view of some essential perspectives on the meaning of history and of our own individual histories, is found in the poem Distinction.64
With every breath to celebrate breath's source:
Was merely this the perspicuous distinction,
To be as choiceless candle hastening extinction,
Burning with single purpose its brief course
Mindful of the wick, the hand that set the flame,
The oxygen it drinks to speed its end,
Casting its light for stranger and for friend
Nor caring were one beautiful, another plain?
The faithless mind contrives a thousand ways
To fit distraction to our fleeting days
Yet sorrows for the unnamed thing we lose.
What use were lungs unless in every breath
Life's source be remembered? Were all else death?

The purpose of our history, our life, White says is that "With every breath" we "celebrate breath's source," that we burn "with single purpose" and that we remember life's source with every breath in such a way that our days are not filled with distraction. He asks the question, perhaps rhetorically, whether we would consciously choose such a way of life, whether we would have it any other way. This is the route out of the misery and woe, the darkness and the coldness which fill this vale. This is part of that full participation in this earthly life that will, in time, bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. This full participation, this singleness of purpose is, for Bahá'ís, the building of a new society. The new man and the new society can not come about without personal effort. A spiritual rebirth must occur in the individual and a transformation of society in a new world Order. We all must become that "choiceless candle hastening extinction" as we work toward that rebirth and that transformation.

In some ways the centre of history is a spiritual path, a journey. The Journey, White describes[65] can often feel like "folly" and "a dim/Dangerous progress over untracked land/Ambushed with bogs in which illusions mire." The whole poem describes the dangers, the problems, the inevitabilities of the journey. "Reason is soon victim and then desire," he informs us, if we don't already know. In a powerful series of statements about the nature of the journey, as well as several other important 'journey poems,' White's poetry becomes part of a literature in the western intellectual tradition going back to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey among the Greeks and the wisdom literature of the prophets of the Old Testament. For the history of specific individuals and the history of a people both occupy the stage in White's history and his stage is a rich and engrossing one for the reader, if the reader will but give himself to White's poetry.

In the end, any poem's success depends on the reader participating in the emotional life of the person/people/persona/event in the poem. Given the little we know about White's personal history and given his own oft' expressed emphasis on his poetry as the only significant and useful basis for really knowing him, our appreciation of his work must lie squarely on his poetry--and, of course, on Bahá'í history. This, ultimately, is the value of Roger White, the value to the intellectual and community life of Bahá'ís around the world both now and in the future. In this sense Roger White has played and will play an important part in keeping history alive and well in our hearts and minds.

[1] Autobiography of John Cowper Powys, Picador, 1967, p.xvii.
[2] William Hatcher, "Science and Religion," World Order,3, No.3, Spring 1969, p.9.
[3] David Perkins, A History of Modern Poetry, Cambridge, Harvard, 1976-in William Pritchard, Lives of The Modern Poets, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.58.
[4] ibid., p.62.
[5] Wayne Booth in "How We Read: Interpretive Communities and Literary Meaning," Falling Into Theory: Conflicitng Views on Reading Literature, editor, David Richter, Bedofrd, NY, 2000, p.247.
[6] Mark Turner, The Literary Mind, Oxford University Press, NY, 1996, pp.4-5.
[7] Alan Richardson, "A Review of Mark Turner's 'The Literary Mind,'" Internet, 17 June 2002.
[8] Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.viii-ix.
[9] Robert Pinsky, "Poetry and American Memory," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol.284, No.4, October 1999, pp.60-70.
[10] David Daiches, Critical Approaches to Literature, 2nd edition, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.67.
[11] ibid.,p.87.
[12] Roger White, One Bird, One Cage, One Flight, p.69.
[13] George Steiner, 'A Note on Kafka's Trial,' No Passion Spent, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p.251.
[14] Michael Foucault in A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Linda Hutcheon, Routledge, NY, 1988, p.162,
[15] Francois Lyotard in Pioneering Over Four Epochs, Ron Price, Unpublished Manuscript: Appendices, p.21.
[16] Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their Authors, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), pp.19-20.
[17] Louis Untermeyer, Lives of the Poets: The Story of One Thousand Years of English and American Poetry, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1959, p.310.
[18] Roger White, "In the Silent Shrine an Ant," Another Song Another Season, p.113.
[19] Jane Austen, "Quotations on History," Internet, 2002.
[20] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chatto and Windus, 1960, p.30.
[21] ibid., Chapter 16.
[22] Charles Beard in "Faith of a Historian," Samuel Eliot Morison, American Historical Review, January 1951, p.261-275.
[23] Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
[24] A.D. Hope in Native Companions: Essays and Comments on Australian Literature: 1936-1966, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1974, p.132.
[25] Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, 1957, p.150.
[26] Geoffrey Barraclough, Main Trends in History, Holmes and Meier Pub. Inc., NY, 1978, p.9. The whole hermeneutical approach to human thought and institutions expounds a vision of philosophy inseparable from poetic, artistic and historical culture. Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of the founders of hermeneutics, sees the poet as "the voice of a culture."(The Times, Obituary, March 14th, 2002.)
[27] Sociological Theory in Transition, editor M. Wardell, and S. Turner, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p.156.
[28] Herbert Read, The True Voice of Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry, Faber and Faber, London, 1958, p.100.
[29] Charles Baudelair in Baudelair, Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, p.xiv.
[30] Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition, Penguin, 1974(1957), p.132.
[31] P.E. Easterling, "Character in Sophocles," Greece and Rome, Vol.24, 1977, p.121.
[32] Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, Harmony Books, NY, 1993, p.18.
[33] See his play Antigone. This quotation is from A. Bonnard, Greek Civilization: From the Antigone to Socrates, 1959.
[34] Arthus Koestler quoted in The Pheonix and the Ashes, Geoffrey Nash, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.50.
[35] See Tudwig Tuman, Mirror of the Divine: Art in the World Bahá'í Community, George Ronald, Oxford, 1993, p.116.
[36] ibid.,p. 117.
[37] Roger White, Another Song Another Season, p.3.
[38] Herbert Read, op.cit., p.137.
[39] Allan Sekula, "The Traffic In Photographs," Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photoworks- 1973-1983, Halifax Nova Scotia, p.85.
[40] The transposition of the star system from movies to literature was also well established and strongly lamented by 1937.( Brenda Silver, Virginia Woolf: Icon, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, p.88.)
[41] For an interesting discussion of the hero-star phenomenon in our culture see Silver, op.cit., p.18.
[42] John Hatcher, The Nature of Physical Reality, Wilmette, 1987, pp.74-117.
[43] This term was used by Mircea Eliade, Images and Symbols, Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, 1952, p.15.
[44] Rollo May, The Courage To Create, G.J. McLeod Ltd., Toronto, 1975, pp.106-108.

[45] Roger White, Letter to Bahá'í Canada, 15 April 1991, copy to the author.
[46] William Blake, "Auguries of Innocence."
[47] Robert Browning, Collected Works.
[48] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History: Vol.10, Oxford UP, NY, 1963, p.38 and Vol. 1, p.46. Toynbee points out that Lord Acton was the last person who was able to read everything in a field of knowledge before trying to write his book but, in reading everything, he did not publish. This was in the 1890s.
[49] Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Harper and Rowe, NY, 1942, p.261.
[50] Herbert Read, op.cit., p.140.
[51] Herbert Read, op.cit. pp. 101-115.
52 Roger White, Another Song, p.30.
[53] Geoffrey Nash, The Phoenix and the Ashes, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.89.
[54] Roger White, Another Song, p.39.
[55] Roger White, op.cit., p.47.
[56] ibid., p. 57.
[57] ibid., p.58.
58 ibid., p.94.
[59] Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, University Press of Maryland, 2000, p.340.
[60] Roger White, The Witness of Pebbles, p.4.
[61] ibid., p.12.
[62] ibid., p.15.
[63] Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination, Secker and Warburg, London, 1951, p.291.
64 Roger White, Pebbles, p.23.
[65] ibid., p.51.
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