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."
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."
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."
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.
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
At the core of poem after poem,
though, is what Mark Turner calls "narrative imagining...... the fundamental
instrument of thought."
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
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."
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,"
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.
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
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
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,"
a world with a special kind of optimism, a
The hieroglyphics gouged in air
By an impatient fire-gloved hand
Are given as our library--
We, star-affrighted, gaze to land.
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
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
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."
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
White's poetry is an expression of what for him was "true historical sense,"
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
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
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.
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."
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
transforming influences. But it was a many-splendoured, many-sided, thing.
White knew that:
We court a miracle and see the
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:
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." 
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."
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."
White knew what the American historian
Charles Beard once wrote, that "the writing of history was an act of faith;"
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."
They must be whipped up and played in a special
For White the writing of poetry, and his particular take on history, is a
'dance of life,' 
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,
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
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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,"
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."
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
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.'
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
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.
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 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 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
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:
we may yet ourselves become
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,"
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
, 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
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
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
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.
Myth has a multivalent function
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."
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
, 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
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."
At the end of the poem Keith's sacrifice causes this anonymous narrator to
reexamine his own life orientation:
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
Perhaps some of White's skill resides in that strange ability, as William Blake
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.
Or as another poet, Browning, emphasized that
search should exceed his grasp
Or what's a heaven for.
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
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
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
For White, "the poem comes before the form," as Herbert Read described the
process, "in the sense that a form grows out"
of his attempt to say something. His poem becomes its own
universe with words "impressed like clay with the poet's invention,"
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
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
In this same poem,
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
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,
"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
Mortensen's permanent place in "Bahá'í history,"
Salman, the courier's courage,
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
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
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"
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
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
In a poem about Ruhiyyih Khanum White refers to "history's hunkered
spectre/brooding watchfully in the shadows."
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
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."
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."
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
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
---------------to virtue past (his)
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
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
In some ways the centre of history is a spiritual path, a journey. The
, White describes
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
among the Greeks and the wisdom literature of the prophets of the Old
. 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
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.
 Autobiography of John Cowper Powys
Picador, 1967, p.xvii.
William Hatcher, "Science and Religion,"
World Order,3, No.3
, Spring 1969, p.9.
David Perkins, A History of Modern
, Cambridge, Harvard, 1976-in William Pritchard, Lives of The
, Faber and Faber, London, 1980, p.58.
Wayne Booth in "How We Read: Interpretive
Communities and Literary Meaning," Falling Into Theory: Conflicitng Views on
, editor, David Richter, Bedofrd, NY, 2000, p.247.
Mark Turner, The Literary Mind
Oxford University Press, NY, 1996, pp.4-5.
Alan Richardson, "A Review of Mark Turner's
'The Literary Mind,'" Internet
, 17 June 2002.
Matthew Arnold, Matthew Arnold's Essays
, Dent, London, 1966(1906), p.viii-ix.
Robert Pinsky, "Poetry and American Memory,"
The Atlantic Monthly, Vol.284, No.4,
October 1999, pp.60-70.
David Daiches, Critical Approaches to
Literature, 2nd edition
, Longman, London, 1981(1956), p.67.
Roger White, One Bird, One Cage, One
George Steiner, 'A Note on Kafka's
Trial,' No Passion Spent
, Faber and Faber, London, 1996, p.251.
Michael Foucault in A Poetics of
Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction
, Linda Hutcheon, Routledge, NY,
Francois Lyotard in Pioneering Over
, Ron Price, Unpublished Manuscript: Appendices, p.21.
Somerset Maugham, Ten Novels and Their
, Mercury Books, London, 1963(1954), pp.19-20.
Louis Untermeyer, Lives of the Poets:
The Story of One Thousand Years of English and American Poetry
, Simon and
Schuster, NY, 1959, p.310.
Roger White, "In the Silent Shrine an
Ant," Another Song Another Season
Jane Austen, "Quotations on History,"
Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire
, Chatto and Windus, 1960, p.30.
., Chapter 16.
Charles Beard in "Faith of a Historian,"
Samuel Eliot Morison, American Historical Review
, January 1951,
Ira Bruce Nadel, Biography: Fiction,
Fact and Form
, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.
A.D. Hope in Native Companions: Essays
and Comments on Australian Literature: 1936-1966
, Angus and Robertson,
Sydney, 1974, p.132.
Karl Popper, The Poverty of
, 1957, p.150.
Geoffrey Barraclough, Main Trends in
, 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
, Obituary, March 14th, 2002.)
 Sociological Theory in Transition
editor M. Wardell, and S. Turner, Allen and Unwin, 1986, p.156.
Herbert Read, The True Voice of
Feeling: Studies in English Romantic Poetry
, Faber and Faber, London, 1958,
Charles Baudelair in Baudelair
Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, p.xiv.
Robert Langbaum, The Poetry of
: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition
Penguin, 1974(1957), p.132.
P.E. Easterling, "Character in
Sophocles," Greece and Rome
, Vol.24, 1977, p.121.
Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the
, Harmony Books, NY, 1993, p.18.
See his play Antigone
quotation is from A. Bonnard, Greek Civilization
: From the Antigone to
Arthus Koestler quoted in The Pheonix
and the Ashes
, Geoffrey Nash, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.50.
See Tudwig Tuman, Mirror of the
Divine: Art in the World Bahá'í Community
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1993,
Roger White, Another Song Another
Herbert Read, op.cit.
Allan Sekula, "The Traffic In
Photographs," Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photoworks-
, Halifax Nova Scotia, p.85.
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.)
For an interesting discussion of the
hero-star phenomenon in our culture see Silver, op.cit.
John Hatcher, The Nature of Physical
, Wilmette, 1987, pp.74-117.
This term was used by Mircea Eliade,
Images and Symbols,
Sheed and Ward, Kansas City, 1952, p.15.
Rollo May, The Courage To Create
G.J. McLeod Ltd., Toronto, 1975, pp.106-108.
Roger White, Letter to Bahá'í
, 15 April 1991, copy to the author.
William Blake, "Auguries of
Robert Browning, Collected
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of
: 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.
Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism,
Socialism and Democracy
, Harper and Rowe, NY, 1942, p.261.
Herbert Read, op.cit.
Herbert Read, op.cit.
52 Roger White, Another Song
Geoffrey Nash, The Phoenix and the
, George Ronald, Oxford, 1984, p.89.
Roger White, Another Song
Roger White, op.cit.
., p. 57.
Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization:
Spirit, History and Order in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh
, University Press
of Maryland, 2000, p.340.
Roger White, The Witness of
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal
, Secker and Warburg, London, 1951, p.291.
64 Roger White, Pebbles