The Secret Fire: Tolkien, Swedenborg and the Mead of Poetry – Eleanor Schnarr

-A sermon delivered at Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge, MA-

Genesis 11:1-9

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth, and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.”*

Matthew 18:1-5

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”*

Emanuel Swedenborg, On Tremulation Ch. 1

“Now in regard to the finer motions which cause that we live, that we have the use of our senses and our thoughts, and that we possess the complete harmony or communication of all these things as one, it should be remembered that these motions are of a more subtle essence than those which have been examined by the learned. The geometry of these motions is closed to us and to our coarser senses, so that we can hardly be said to have come further than to the first step of the knowledge concerning them, many thousand steps still remaining before we will be able to ascend to any perfect knowledge. For all that which makes the being of a sense, is more subtle than the sense itself and what ever is effected by that sense, so that it seems that only a finer sense is able to form a judgment concerning a grosser one, but the latter cannot form any judgment regarding itself. The ear, for instance, cannot possibly know or feel what it is that is vibrating in its organ, or how one thing is moving against another, unless a more subtle organ reveals it. The thought. which mostly is kept in attention to the feelings of the external senses and in their collective center, is not of itself aware of that which constitutes its own motion and life. In any case the conclusion must be this, that those motions in which life resides are the most subtle of all motions, of a nature such as cannot be seen or comprehended by any comparison with the grosser forms of motion.”**

Today I want to talk to you about POETRY, and by poetry, I mean that inner awareness of meter and metaphor that inspires all CREATIVITY. I am going to be weaving together a few different ideas, but I largely developed this sermon around my reaction to reading Professor J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and to some degree, around how I see my own calling as a creative spiritual leader and a poet. And while, we’re going to go on a long conceptual journey together stay with me, I promise I have a point, and perhaps several points. The professor’s writings have always been places of comfort for me, and while I understand that calling them “scriptural” would probably not go over very well, they are certainly spiritual. And their spiritual nature reflects back on a long lineage of spiritual poetry that has come out of northern Europe, one that I very much identify as a part of. 

There is kind of, a meta question that reading the Professor’s stories provokes in me … what does a poetic spiritual calling look like? How does the myth maker, the artist, the poet fit into our expectations of spiritual usefulness and service. Can art, be a ministry? 

This is a particularity relevant question for Swedenborgians because Swedenborg himself was a creative, and a poet. The world has been blessed by his visionary capacities and graphomania and in fact from William Blake to Kavi Kant, to Heather Childs, our tradition has long been defined by Poets, working in all manner of media. 

But I’m not going to start this sermon with Tolkien, or with our Bible readings (we will get there), I actually want to start us with another sacred text that largely inspired the Professor’s writings. 

This text which I am about to read originates (by way of Iceland) from the same part of the world as Swedenborg, about six hundred years earlier – in the part of the pre-Christian Poetic Edda called the Skáld-skap-ar-mal (Old Norse – The Language of Poetry) there is a story about the gift of the “Mead of Poetry” – and I want to preface what I’m about to read by saying that – much like “Hinduism” European paganism is far from monolithic – but it might be noted that these were traditions dominated by female poets, called Volva – so at some point the Asatru religion comes into northern Europe and it encounters the indigenous Vanir pantheon and this story takes place when the Asa deities such as Odin and Frygg meet the Vanir deities such as Frejr and Freyja. And the whole story is framed as a conversation between Aegir, whose name is literally the old norse word for the sea, and Bragi, the god of poetry:  

And again said the ocean, “Whence did this art, which ye call poetry, derive its beginnings?” 

Bragi, the Lord of Poetry answered: “These were the beginnings thereof. The gods had a dispute with the folk which are called Vanir, and they appointed a peace-meeting between them and established peace in this way: they each went to a vat and spat their spittle therein. Then at parting the gods took that peace-token and would not let it perish but shaped thereof a man. This man is called Kvasir, and he was so wise that none could question him concerning anything but that he knew the solution. He went up and down the earth to give instruction to men; and when he came upon invitation to the abode of certain dwarves, Fjalar and Galarr, they called him into privy converse with them, and killed him, letting his blood run into two vats and a kettle. The kettle is named Ód-re-rir, and the vats Són and Bodn; they blended honey with the blood, and the outcome was that mead by the virtue of which he who drinks becomes a poet or scholar. The dwarves reported to the Æsir that Kvasir had choked on his own shrewdness, since there was none so wise there as to be able to question his wisdom.

The ocean asked: “In how many ways are the terms of poetry variously phrased, or how many are the essential elements of the skaldic art?” 

To which Bragi replied: “The elements into which all poetry is divided are two.”

 The ocean asked: “What two?” 

Bragi said: “Metaphor and meter.” (VS.96)

Metaphor and meter, correspondence and tremulation – as the story progresses, the mead  gets retrieved from these bad evil dwarves by the Allfather in the form of an eagle and as he flies back to Asgard the mead of poetry gets sprinkled all over the world, from the Rishis chanting the Vedas in India, to the epic poets of Greece and Rome, king David strumming on his lyre, tribal storytellers in millions of villages, painters, lovers, leaders and visionaries all cued into the same secret fire. And an important property of the mead of poetry is it’s liquidity – it is made to flow, to move and tremble, to be shared, inherited and enjoyed. It falls on people of every religion, in every nation and in every age. So this is a different way of conceptualizing “the Word” – it is the word as substance, as intoxicant, as flow.

JRR Tolkien was both a devout Catholic, and one who was able to apply the abstract theological principles of his Christian faith to both new and very ancient narratives drawn from pagan poetry like Beowulf and the Eddas. He seems to have taken the same approach as the Volvas, when two opposing pantheons clash, when there is discord in the music, we turn to Poetry to find harmony and truth. Like Kvasir, he managed the heroic task of bringing these traditions together in a way which launched an entire genre of literature. This means that storytelling and poetry can exist as a nexus between Christianity, paganism and the living creative. A conversation which operates through a dynamic of affirmation and integration of meter and metaphor rather than dominion and rigidity of thought. And as a creative, Tolkien’s stories tell us about the potential and the danger of relying too much upon our own ego driven “creativity”, his villians, like their creator are often artists or craftsmen who forget the infinite source of all their capabilities, but his heroes, are almost always poets. 

The Professor opens the Silmarillion, the mythic history of his Elven race with the image of Eru Illuvatar, the One, bringing into being, the “holy ones, or the Ainur, “who were the offspring of his thought” and he teaches them how to sing the music of creation and as I read this I think about this story as a masterful retelling of the birth of the mind before we develop our capacity for language:

Then Ilúvatar said to [the Ainur]: ‘Of the theme that I have declared to you, I will now that ye make in harmony together a Great Music. And since I have kindled you with the Flame Imperishable, ye shall show forth your powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will. But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song.’

Then the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and

trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void. 

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

Like the story of Arda and Middle Earth, Swedenborg’s own creative journey began with harmonics, vibrations or as he called them, “Tremmulations”. Our thirty-year-old preceptor looks at the human nervous system and he observes that it self-organizes according to frequency and harmonic tremulations – the brain IS music, it is poetry. You, me, JRR Tolkien, Emanuel Swedenborg, the apostles, the prophets, the volvas and the rishis, were all equipped, anatomically with a harmonic center that entangles with the heart and the unified field. Swedenborg saw, at that very young age, that everything external in our sensory system, has its cause in something more subtle and internal and profound. The poetry of our consciousness is metaphor and harmony, flowing out of us like blood and honey. And when we tap into this deep well of interoception we can taste a drop of the mead of poetry on our tongues. It flows through religion and epoch and race and geography because the mead of poetry is an embodied, conscious reality, not a cultural or a religious one. 

Dare I speak of the secret fire?

Neuroscientists say that when we are born we are completely synesthetic – meaning all of our senses are blended together. A new-born human cerebrum does not have separate areas for vision and hearing and motion rather the cortex starts out as a completely integrated system and gradually builds up inhibitory areas that stop feedback and isolate neural networks– so it’s all just vibes when you’re a baby. 

There’s a saying that goes: “the creative adult is the child who survived”, also true – synesthetic adults have undeveloped brains – this isn’t a bad thing – we literally can see the remnants of this neo-natal type of networking in adult Synesthetes – people who perceive colors in sounds et cetera – and if you want to practice honing in on your synesthetic awareness, there are grapheme-color synesthesia coloring pages in your bulletins. 

As the nervous system is fed data from the sense organs it reacts by pruning away the unused connections – this means that as we grow what Is actually happening is the cortex is shrinking and we become more cognitively efficient, but also more rigid and less creative, we start to develop… an EGO and whatever creativity we have left has to fit within the confines of that ego. 

 To the ancient Asatru the ego that destroys creative innocence was represented by Fjalar and Galarr, the evil dwarves who murder the first poet – to Swedenborg it was the Proprium – which I spoke about last time and to Tolkien it was the Ainur Melkor who brought discord and darkness into the music of Illuvatar. When creativity becomes egotistic it becomes more about dominion than reception and we forget our inherent connection to the ONE, and we actually become less creative. We think that we can become poets by murdering other poets. We clutch onto our Silmarils like trophies, and our gripping fingers block their light. 

In Biblical mythology, we are given the story of the tower of Babel, to illustrate the growth of the mind and the birth of creative independence and I find this so – poetic – because inventing languages was kind-of Tolkien’s thing. And it begs the question, what are we doing with these weirdly significant bursts of audible air choked through our larynxes, how much of our suffering is dependent on the way that we have trained ourselves to use language, to build a world of judgements and others. Would it not be better to remain in a state of mute innocence, our minds an embryonic cacophony, a meaningless ecstasy of nature, devoid of cognition or identity. Brain as smooth and yielding as molded gelatin. But that would not be freedom, and it would not be poetry. 

Poetry CANNOT exist without conflict, discord, ignorance and arrogance. The original music of Illuvatar was not the final and most beautiful theme, for that he needed Melkor. In our Eddic story, Kvasir, the first poet had to be murdered so that his energy could go out into the world and become usable. Note the parallels with the life of Jesus who had to suffer through the horrors of the human struggle in order to become glorified. If we had no variety in human language, we would not be human on a very fundamental level and from this perspective, the myth of the tower of Babel is the story of a miracle. Swedenborg himself could never have written Divine Love and Wisdom as a thirty-year-old Natural philosopher, he needed to go through some temptation first, even Christ himself had to experience human pain to become Christ. 

I’m not saying that suffering makes us HAPPY; I’m saying that it can make us POETS. And poets can change the world.   

 One language dies every fortnight, hey that’s a word we don’t use anymore. By the next century nearly half of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken on Earth will likely disappear. Professor Tolkien did his part to combat this trend by inventing fifteen of them, which is better than I’m doing. Like a growing human brain, as a collective, we are constantly pruning ourselves, self editing and, in a way, trying to undo the fall of Babel. So tell me, when we all speak the same and look the same and worship- or don’t worship the same, will that give us heaven? Is art a triviality? Is poetry a decadence? Is beauty not the point?

The poet’s job is to work against this materialism, this dominion of averages, by rekindling that secret fire, reconnecting the external and the internal and having the superhuman humility to bring meter and metaphor out of discord. Wherever the story started, by whatever inspired lips it has been carried this far, it will be continued only with the direct, internal awareness, that we all exist in and as harmony. When Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me for of such is the kingdom of heaven” he was inviting us to become poets.

So I charge you, this week, go make some ugly art, fill in your synesthesia worksheets, don’t think about it too much, write a bad poem, sing off key, make up a new word and then forget it, play. Make something beautiful, and then give it back to GOD. 

And thus may we all live in harmony.


*New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

**Swedenborg, Emanuel. On Tribulation. Bryn Athyn: Swedenborg Scientific Association. 2005

Eleanor Schnarr, artist mystic, poet and theologian, is the field intern at the Cambridge Swedenborg Chapel. An accomplished artist and writer, she has taken clerical initiation in the Saiva Siddhanta Hindu sampradaya and is on the path towards ordination in the Swedenborgian Church of North America. Her ministry and creative practice revolves around the teaching and development of the ‘Sacred Systems of Interoception’ across wisdom traditions from around the world, Systems which serve as tools to open up the interior senses and connect us with a higher reality. Through her work with the Swedenborg Chapel, she will be offering a series of sermons which will explore more of these deeply human ideas and practices in the coming months.

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