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Nichols, Robert - Birth of a poem



Type of spiritual experience


A description of the experience

ROBERT NICHOLS. Birth of a Poem. Quoted from the Appendix to Harding: A.I.

At that moment, the newly-risen sun sent flickering over the long, low, smooth, glassy mounds of the rolling swells a series of elastic reflections which expanded and contracted and zigzagged and appeared and disappeared and reformed as they travelled in stately and regular motion toward me .

. . I became aware of an extraordinary physical exhilaration.

 "Of course!" I said to myself-"Arabic."

It was at that moment, as I now discern, that I understood I had only to yield to the emotion evoked by what I beheld to discover a poem, the potentiality of which existed not only in the characters propelled toward me but all around me, in the entire sea and sky and, more remotely, in my own solitude which, however, wasn't my unique loneliness as it had existed up to that moment  - the loneliness of Robert Nichols standing on an iron fo'c'sle- but the solitude of any figure beholding the miracle (and in a state to receive it as such) at any period in history.

As I realised this, the hieroglyphics upon the waters seemed to flash through me, that is to say, to pass through my body without occasioning any pain. They continued to do this. My eye dwelled upon the scene and the longer it dwelled - though but a moment passed - the more I was filled with an immense and pure emotion which was the reflection of what I saw, that is to say I was conscious of a regular and growing central excitement surrounded by an area of deep, tranquil and joyful satisfaction.

This was, I felt, as it should be - I was being told something.

Now the existence of this satisfaction, being simply due to the glory of the morning, might have merely remained a state of being for the expression of which words were neither sought nor found, because not felt to be needed, had not the character of the hieroglyphics given a special quality to the emotion possessing me. That change may roughly be defined as a change from the animal to the spiritual.

And when I ask myself why that change was effected, I can only reply that the answer lies in the fact that the reflections travelling toward me had the changing shapes that were theirs. Had the reflections been merely blobs of light, had they been written in a script with which I was acquainted, had they for instance formed a succession of capital letters - such as RKP followed by LZO followed by NQT - they would, I fancy, have added little, if indeed anything, to my animal pleasure. But they were recognisable, though not decipherable, as units having the peculiarities of a cursive script, rightly or wrongly taken by me to be Arabic and Arabic, I instantly grasped, of a peculiar kind-golden letters in a holy book...

I at the same or nearly the same instant apprehended that these figures weren't in a book but were, at that very moment .. being written on the sea by the sun, a being who was a poet. I did not say to myself "the sun is a poet" but l felt the emotion such a person as myself might be expected to feel were he to find himself in the presence of a being both capable of doing what I now beheld being done and accustomed to doing it.

There was then a fractional pause, a halt in my attention as if that attention didn't wholly apprehend what was presented to it, the halt in fact that precedes recognition. And just as the memory of a name...brings with it the memory of the circumstances in which this person was earlier met...what I may call the myth of this person-so on an instant there was presented to my consciousness a favourite picture-postcard I had twice or thrice bought at the British Museum.- Almost simultaneously there formed in my mouth the line

"The sun an ancient, serene poet."

The picture on the postcard-that of a poet, possibly Persian... and the line were indissoluble. They remain indissoluble to this day-in the sense that I cannot repeat the first line of the poem without seeing the picture on the postcard.'

The source of the experience

Nichols, Robert

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image


Observation contributed by: Neffy Limb