James De Mille as Mystic: a Reconsideration of Behind the Veil

by Patricia Monk

     The posthumous publication of Jones De Mille’s poem on immortality Behind the Veil,1 lends it a faint air of irony, but even this has not proved, over the years since the poem’s publication, sufficient to attract readers or critics in large numbers. Nevertheless, the poem does, I believe, deserve serious attention, for although it can be shown to owe something to De Mille’s reading, particularly his reading of Richter, Tennyson, and the Romantics, it also demonstrates not merely considerable individuality of thought and feeling, but also a remarkable experience of religious mysticism. Consequently it provides new insight into the man who is most frequently known to Canadians only as the author of A Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder, for close study of the poem shows him to be a much more thoughtful and complex personality than has previously been imagined.

     On its publication in 1893, edited by Archibald MacMechan, the poem does not seem to have been widely or enthusiastically reviewed.  Although MacMechan’s colleagues at Dalhousie praised it, 2 C.G.D. Roberts, who reviewed it for The Week, was guarded in his remarks:

Behind the Veil is interesting in design, elevated in conception, and measurably skillful in execution; but its importance seems to me not wholly intrinsic. It is important as showing an additional and attractive direction in which De Mille’s activity found vent.  Its emotion should perhaps be regarded as rhetorical rather than essentially poetical; and for all its wealth of fancy and its frequent brilliancy of expression, it impresses me as being less the native utterance of a poet than the tour de force of a gifted and well-equipped prose writer.3

The skill in execution which Roberts comments upon no doubt resulted from De Mille’s study and profession of rhetoric, which culminated in his publication of The Elements of Rhetoric4 two years before his death, although to dismiss Behind the Veil as a rhetorical exercise, as Roberts seems inclined to do here seems to me to be much too severe.  Certainly, the formality of the stanza, rhyme scheme, and metre suggests the hand of a rhetorician. The poem consists of 125 stanzas of five (occasionally six) lines of unequal length (4-4-4-8-8 feet respectively, with the last foot of the second and of the fourth line incomplete), in a basically trochaic rhythm, rhyming ABABB. It is a difficult and sophisticated stanza form, and is perhaps not ideally suited to its purpose of narrative discourse.  In the margin of the text appear a number of glosses which summarize the action, somewhat in the manner of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  De Mille’s glosses, however, are rather more plain and matter-of-fact than Coleridge’s, and by reason of their obviously literary derivation they contribute to the impression of a studied rhetoric.

     The subject, moreover, lends itself to the type of elevated treatment sometimes inaccurately identified as “rhetorical”.  De Mille presents a vision of immortality described by a narrator who is permitted to journey into the world beyond the veil of mortality and is there instructed in its nature by one of the spirit inhabitants.5 The subject and its development (even allowing for the abruptness of the conclusion) are undoubtedly on the grand scale.  Yet in spite of the formality of the verse and the grandiosity of the theme, De Mille makes it emphatically clear that he at least intends more than a rhetorical exercise.  He prefaces the work with a quotation, in the original Greek, from Plato’s Apologia Socratis:

So again in the case of the poets also I presently recognized this, that what they composed they composed not by wisdom, but by nature and because they were inspired, like the prophets and givers of oracles; for these also say many fine things, but know none of the things they say.6

This seems to imply that he felt himself to be inspired in his poem.  Certainly it would be possible to agree with Roberts that the “emotion should perhaps be regarded as rhetorical” if we assume that the poem’s emotion is the joy or wonder which might be expected in a discussion of the nature of immortality and human assurance of it through Christ.  Such efforts as De Mille does make to present these emotions are, on the face of it, stilted and rhetorical. I would, however, argue that there is an “essentially poetical” emotion present which Roberts overlooks, and that it is of an unexpected nature, since De Mille offers us a vision of the overwhelming vastness and otherness of the Divine Nature, which evokes in him fear and dismay.  To demonstrate this vision and De Mille’s response to it, it is necessary to examine in some detail his use of his literary knowledge — in particular his knowledge of the writing of Jean Paul Friedrich Richter.

     Influence is not easy to demonstrate to everybody’s satisfaction.  MacMechan had no doubts about saying, in 1890 in a lecture on De Mille, that in Behind the Veil De Mille’s thought “is based on Richter’s prose” (although in the version later printed in the Canadian Magazine he modifies this slightly to read “in thought [Behind the Veil] owes something to Richter’s vision of immortality”).7  The German Romantic philosopher-novelist, Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, to whom MacMechan refers, wrote two works which might qualify as a “vision of immortality”.  Although MacMechan does not specify either by title in the lecture, he does refer to it as a “prose poem”, which suggests that he had in mind the “Traum über das All".  According to J.W. Smeed, in Jean Pauls Dreams”, this dates from 1820, towards the end of Richter’s life, and is one of a group of what Richter called Traumdichtungen, which were written at intervals during his literary career.  Smeed also points out that De Quincey’s translation of it (under the title of “Dream upon the Universe”, which appeared in the London Magazine in 1824), was one of the most popular works of Richter to appear in English.8  It is this translation which appears in The Campaner Thal and Other Writings which was published in Boston in 1864 as a part of a series of translations of Richter’s works.9  The Campaner Thal itself is the other piece which might qualify as the “vision of immortality” suggested by MacMechan for the source of De Mille’s ideas in Behind the Veil. But although it is certainly or the subject of immortality, its subtitle being “Über die Unsterblichkeit der Seele” (translated as “Discourses on the Immortality of the Soul”), it is not a prose poem, but a short tale in which the narrative acts as a frame for the discourses placed in the mouths of the various characters.

     MacMechan’s remark, however, does not necessarily require a choice of the Dream as a source and rule out the other entirely, particularly as the internal evidence of the poem itself is against such a choice. This evidence suggests that De Mille was familiar with both the Dream and the Campaner Thal, and the appearance of both pieces in the one volume in an edition conveniently accessible to him supports this by making such a familiarity not only possible, but even (in view of MacMechan’s confident assertion) highly likely.10  It is with the internal evidence of Richter’s influence, however, that I am most concerned, for it is in the pattern of the parallels with and divergences from Richter’s work that De Mille’s individuality of thought and feeling appears most pronounced.

     As a general rule, it might be useful to point out that whereas for the most part Richter and De Mille hold their theory in common, their differing personalities divide them sharply on their understanding of it.  Enough similarities exist between their work to allow the conclusion that they have a common concept of immortality, a common cosmology, and a common image of the barrier between the mortal and the immortal. The feelings and moods which pervade the works (the Dream and Behind the Veil) arise from an interpretation of that theory by two very different temperaments; this temperamental difference may be characterized by saying (using the adjectives deliberately in their loosest and most popular sense) that Richter has a Romantic and De Mille a Victorian temperament.

     The notion of immortality — of some kind of personal survival after death — can, of course, be traced back in most Western cultures as far as the earliest times from which written records survive.11  At all times, however, the concept seems to involve both the mode of immortality and the form in which the individual survives, although the details may change from culture to culture.  Richter and De Mille are in agreement on both the mode of immortality and on the form of the survivor, although the grounds of their belief are not the same.

     Richter’s vision of the mode of immortality is set out primarily in the Campaner Thal, and is dependent on the absolute difference of nature or quality between the Creator (God) and the creation (including humankind).  This difference at once makes immortality necessary and dictates its mode as an asymptotic progress of the soul towards God. The argument for the difference of quality and for the consequent necessity of immortality is placed in the mouth of a character referred to as the Chaplain:

No immortality but that of moral beings can be discussed, and with them it is a postulate . . . of practical sense.  For as a full conformity of the human will to the moral law, with which the just Creator never can dispense, is quite unattainable by a finite being, an eternally continuing progress, i.e. an unceasing duration, must contain and prove this conformity in God’s eyes, who overlooks the everlasting course.  Therefore our immortality is necessary.  (CT, pp. 29-30)

This mode of immortality, but without any qualification as regards mortality, is subsequently confirmed by the narrator:  “I believe in . . . an eternal ascension, but in no created culmination”  (CT, p. 37).  The same “eternal ascension” or asymptotic progress of the soul towards God is also the immortality in Behind the Veil:

       Seest thou not, in long procession,
       Soul with soul in union wrought
       Move in infinite progression?
Seest thou not from that communion what an ecstasy is caught?
Yet the love of the All-Loving is a love surpassing thought.
                                                                               (st. 98)

De Mille’s thought, however is less philosophically sharp than Richter’s.  For although he says that souls “move in infinite progression”, his marginal gloss says that the “highest joy is union with the Infinite” (God), which suggests that he sees eventual union with God as a possible end to the infinite progression, and he does not, as Richter does (and must, to avoid undercutting his argument for the necessity of immortality) emphatically deny “created culmination”.  De Mille simply relies on the constant reiteration of words such as “forever”, “evermore”, “perpetual”, and “unceasing”, to achieve the effect similar to that of Richter’s flat denial.   Moreover, such a denial is not necessary, since an end to “infinite” progress, however illogical, would not destroy De Mille’s belief in immortality, since his belief depends not on God’s justice, as does Richter’s, but on His love:

       And for ever and for ever
       The Eternal One comes down,
       And in love He ceaseth never
To assist each aspiration . . . (st. 108)

In Richter’s Campaner Thal and Dream the sense of the downward movement of the Creator’s love for his Creation is missing, so that the dynamic movement of his universe is upward only, whereas De Mille sees a constant two-way movement.

     There is, moreover, a crucial difference in their concept or definition of union, in the context of union with the infinite.  Richter’s vision of the ultimate union is to see the “upright shadows” of the spirits sinking into the sea of light which is the “All” and by virtue of their increasingly rarefied nature dissolving into union with it — and so ultimately losing their individual identity.  By contrast, De Mille’s concept is of union as “communion” in which the identity of the individual is retained.  The infinite progression towards union with the infinite is made in his vision by “soul with soul in union wrought” (st. 98), suggesting that the earthly “sympathetic union” (st. 64) which he has enjoyed with his beloved would have been, were they to have died and made the upward journey together, a foreshadowing of the ultimate union with God — a “personal” union rather than an impersonal “blending”.  Consequently, I think it is fair to say that even in their agreement on the mode of immortality, the two writers display characteristic differences of emphasis.

     They are in agreement, also, on the form in which the individual survives. Their common concept of this falls into Antony Flew’s third category of postulated spirit-natures, which he calls “the shadow man”. The doctrine of the shadow man, he says,

is the claim that a person is a kind of shadow man, sufficiently human and corporeal to overcome the problem of identification with the familiar flesh and blood person and at the same time sufficiently ethereal and elusive to have no difficulty in escaping unnoticed from the ordinary earthly body which is destined to be burned or buried. This view is found in some of the Christian fathers (for instance, Tertullian in De Anima). A similar view is also held by some modern spiritualists — “the astral body” detaches itself at death to proceed on its “journey to the summerland”.11

Both De Mille and Richter see the spirit nature as this type of astral body.  Richter’s narrator describes it at the beginning of his journey through the universe:

Methought my body sank down in ruins, and my inner form stepped out apparelled in light:  and by my side there stood another form which resembled my own, except that it did not shine like mine, but lightened [i.e. flashed (like lightning)] unceasingly. (Dream, pp. 328-329)12

Here it is clearly visualized as an insubstantial counterpart of the physical body, but constituted of light.  De Mille’s narrator also leaves his body and travels in its non-material counterpart:  “like a Thought, a thing of Light / All my spirit darted up to an immeasurable height” (st. 8).  De Mille’s spirit forms, although they are less clearly visualized as anthropomorphic forms, are nevertheless still to some extent like the physical forms; this is demon strated by the Seer’s unhesitating recognition of “the Loved and the Lost One” in her spirit form (although this recognition is presumably made by his temporarily “immortal” sense, not by his ordinary mortal ones).  The immateriality of De Mille’s spirit forms is also made clear, for De Mille’s Seer recounts that at his departure into the Invisible world, “a sudden sharp convulsion / Seized me . . . / All mortality departed” (st. 8).  By way of contrast, however, it should be noted that whereas for Richter the Dreamer’s body simply “sank down in ruins” (p. 328), De Mille’s Seer has had to purge his body of grosser elements by prayer and fasting in order to reach the point of departure. Nevertheless, De Mille is clearly in agreement with Richter on the essentials:  that the spirit form, although less substantial than the bodily form, consisting as it does of light, is still recognizably its counterpart.  The philosophical arguments against the existence of such a kind of spirit form, which lead Flew to say that it “must be dismissed as a blind alley”, both Richter and De Mille seem prepared to ignore for artistic reasons.

     Elsewhere, however, both Richter and De Mille seem to try to remain close to fact in their common cosmology.  The eighteenth century was a time of great astronomical advance and in the early nineteenth century the accumulated knowledge had begun to spread out beyond purely scientific circles.  One of the early inheritors of this knowledge is Richter’s Dream, which Smeed describes as “a description of the astronomistst cosmos, imbued with metaphysical significance”; he goes on to point out that the essay by Krüger which Richter cites in the preamble to the Dream was undoubtedly where he “had read of William Herschel’s discoveries concerning the vastness of the universe, and had realized for the first time the huge, the almost unimaginable predominance of space over matter”.13  Such sources as the Krüger essay would present what has been called “a qualitative picture of the Galaxy as a flattened system of stars and nebulae, isolated in space [which had] emerged about 1785”,14 and from which the 2,500 other nebulae of Herschel’s discoveries were visible.  This is the picture of the organization of the cosmos in Richter’s Dream:  the Dreamer and his spirit guide travel among the systems of the galaxy, “through new cycles of heavens . . .” (p. 331), or are confronted with intergalactic space:

the heavens above us appeared to be emptied . . . and I trembled at the thought of the illimitable dungeon of pure, pure darkness which here began to imprison the creation (p. 330)

But even the darkness of intergalactic space is not final, for further and bigger galaxies lie beyond, with further and bigger spaces between them.  More over, in order to accommodate the infinite progression of immortality, the cosmos itself must be infinite in size.  Impressed by the vast distances he has travelled, Richter’s Dreamer asks about the size of the universe:

I said to the Form at my side, “O Spirit! has then this universe no end?” And the Form answered and said, “Lo! it has no beginning.” (p. 330)

The universe, in other words is infinite.  However, when De Mille’s Seer on his journey through the Universe asks the same, or almost the same, question, he receives a subtly different answer:

— Are there bounds to things created?”—  “None, that
                    finite minds discern.”
— Was there ever a beginning?” — “None that finite
                    minds may learn . . .”  (st. 43)

The universe only seems to be infinite to the minds of its finite, created in habitants. The gradations of created being are infinite, but the set (from the infinite Creator’s point of view) is finite.  “Creation” adds the Guide, “foils the Spirit o’er and o’er, / And its progress ever onward passes thought for evermore”.  Like Richter’s Dreamer, the Seer has “sped alone the skies” where

Still there came in swift succession
Vaster forms, in vaster groups, with mightier accessories;
Grander worlds in larger numbers . . . (st. 33)

which have convinced him of the almost unimaginable size of the universe.  Also like the Dreamer, the Seer has confronted the vast barrier “inconceivably extending” (st. 34) beyond the galaxy he has seen so far, which is only the least among “innumerable others, cumulated o’er o’er”; but unlike the barrier in Richter, De Mille’s is “as though Creation / Here in one stupendous object all remaining forms had blent” (st. 35), and being less easily visualized, is consequently to that extent less effective.  (Possibly at this point De Mille’s concept may owe more to Milton’s vision of Chaos in Paradise Lost than to eighteenth-century astronomy).

     For both Richter and De Mille the cosmos is inhabited by spirits who make the space between the worlds their home.  The treatment of inhabited space, however, is not identical.  On the one hand, De Mille’s Seer is not only constantly accompanied by his spirit guide, but also discovers that “All the wordless void was peopled by that spiritual host” (st. 48) and these “Intelligences bright” (st. 45) are instantly visible to his new faculty of Absolute Knowledge.  Richter’s Dreamer, on the other hand, is left alone when his spirit guide has “vanished to its home in the unseen world of spirits” (p. 333), and the guide remains almost the only spirit form that he actually sees. For when, preceding its disappearance, the guide urges him to see “by intuition”,15 he does not see immortal spirits against a background of the cosmos, as does De Mille’s Seer; instead, the Dreamer’s culminating vision is a symbolic representation of the nature of immortality in which individual souls are only “upright shadows in the form of men” (p. 332), blending into the sea of light:

Immediately my eyes were opened; and I looked, and I saw as it were an interminable sea of light, — sea immeasurable, sea unfathomable, sea without a shore.   All spaces between all heavens were filled with happiest light:  and there was a thundering of floods:  and there were seas above seas, and seas below the seas:  and I saw all the trackless regions that we had voyaged over:  and my eye comprehended the farthest and the nearest:  and darkness had become light, and the light darkness:  for the deserts and wastes of the creation were now filled with the sea of light, and in this sea the suns floated like ash-gray blossoms, and the planets like black grains of seed. Then my heart comprehended that immortality dwelled in the spaces between the worlds, and death only amongst the worlds.  Upon all the suns there walked upright shadows in the form of men:  but they were glorified when they quitted these perishable worlds, and when they sank into the sea of light:  and the murky planets, I perceived, were but cradles for the infant spirits of the universe of light. (p. 332)

This passage of Richter’s (as translated by De Quincey) is worth quoting at some length not merely because of its sheer magnificence, but also because that magnificence demonstrates De Mille’s independence of Richter at this point.  De Mille offers no pallid imitation of the passage (as he might if he were merely using Richter’s thought as MacMechan suggests); he is simply indifferent to this type of effect. Space, to De Mille, is precisely that, and he uses the cosmos, with almost no symbolic overtones, as the background for a human drama; whereas to Richter, in its symbolic manifestation as light, space is the condition of another mode of human life, and consequently an integral part of the general human nature (albeit as yet a potential one for the individual). We may therefore conclude that with their common cosmology (as with their common understanding of the mode of immortality, though not of the spirit natures that inhabit it), the interpretations of the same theory by these two writers offer sufficient diversity of detail and emphasis to demonstrate unmistakably their characteristic difference of interest.

     Their use of a common image is also marked by an underlying divergence of interest.  Richter’s use of this image is characteristically sweeping in concept and exotic in presentation.  “Come, then,” says his Dreamer’s spirit guide, “and wait on me with thy flight, that I may show to thee the universe under a veil” (p. 329).  But it is not until the culminating vision of the universe as it is manifest to spirit sight is reached that the reader is allowed to understand what the veil is and what it covers

The suns we but as spinning wheels, to planets no more than weavers’ shuttles, in relation to the infinite web which composes the veil of Isis; which veil is hung over the whole creation, and lengthens as any finite being attempts to raise it.   (p. 332)

The eyes of the mortal see the universe as composed of stars and suns, surrounded by seas of darkness; the eyes of the immortal spirits see a sea of light in which float dark islands (the suns and planets); both, however, are equally looking at a mere appearance, since as created creatures they cannot see beyond creation.  Only the Creator is outside creation and what veils him from his creatures is the absolute difference, already referred to, between creation and creator which necessitates immortality.  The veil for Richter, then is the final mystery of the universe, hiding the face of God.16

     If, in fact, De Mille read Richter’s Dream, the image of the veil of Isis may have brought up associations of the veil in other contexts, but beyond this general stimulus, De Mille’s treatment of the image of the veil has almost nothing in common with Richter’s.  Indeed, beyond using it in his title, De Mille does not refer to it directly at all.  The title-phrase, “behind the veil”, is explained by the Oxford English Dictionary as being used “figuratively or allusively, chiefly after Hebrews 6:19; now commonly with reference to the next world”.  Both Hebrews 6:19 and 9:13 make reference to the veil of the Temple in Jerusalem, where it concealed the Tabernacle from the worshippers, and was entered only by the High Priest and by him only on the Day of Atonement; the veil, according to Matthew 25:51 (AV), was “rent from top to bottom” at the moment of Christ’s death.  Certainly the religiousness of his family background would have made De Mille extremely familiar with these references and with their orthodox interpretation within the Baptist faith (in which he was largely brought up) and the Church of England faith (to which he later turned). In addition, the phrase may have gained in popularity from its use, which Christopher Ricks describes as having attracted much commentary, by Tennyson in In Memoriam:

O life as futile, then, as frail!
     O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
     What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.17

This would also certainly have been known to De Mille whose reading of In Memoriam is attested by his comment on it in the Elements of Rhetoric.  There is nothing in De Mille’s poem which is not reconcilable with these nearer sources than Richter’s Dream, and although the phrase “behind the veil” was less of a commonplace in the period in which he was presumably writing than it is now,18 it would nevertheless have been even then rather the use of an orthodox but fashionably current phrase, than a startling original invention.  Both his concept and his presentation of the image are equally orthodox:  plain, simple, and unexotic.  The veil, he implies, is the veil of mortality and of the corporeal body.  In the Introduction to the poem, the Seer relates how he fasted and prayed

Till the flesh grew faint and feeble, and the spirit rose in might,
And the Invisible stood unfolded to my spiritual sight. (st. 4)

Here the veil is simply the “flesh” which must be purged of its grosser elements so that the spirit nature which inhabits it can see and communicate with those “on the other side”.  Later, in his narration of the events following his Loved and Lost One’s death, he refers again to

Wearing down my mortal nature ’mid a thousand doubts and fears
That so I might find communion with the Spirits of the Spheres.
      (st. 76)

The veil in De Mille’s concept, then, cuts the mortal off from the immortal, the living from those in the afterlife.  The use of the image in so orthodox a form demonstrates once again how far he is from Richter’s thought, even where they seem to have most in common.

     Beyond their common cosmological theory, the divergence between the two becomes even greater.  To a certain extent the differences of emphasis and detail in their interpretation of it already show the pressure of their differing temperaments.  This temperamental difference, which I have already referred to as the difference between the Romantic and the Victorian turn of mind, can now, however, be more specifically defined as a divergence of both personal feeling and private aesthetics.  A series of polarities can be shown to exist between the emotional and the rational personality, between the sensuous and the abstract imagination, and between the naturally religious and the orthodoxly religious believer.  It is these polarities which distinguish De Mille’s vision even further from that of Richter.

     The polarity between the emotional and the rational temperament is evident in the structure of the Dream and of Behind the Veil and in the presentation of the spirit guides which accompany their respective narrators. When MacMechan refers in his lecture on De Mille to “Richter’s beautiful vision of Immortality”, he uses the term vision somewhat loosely; in the Traumdichtungen of which the “Traum über das All” is one, Richter, according to Smeed, deliberately set out “with the aid of images and sequences which possess much of the freedom of the dream, to express transcendental concepts”.19  He therefore employs prose as best suited to produce the loose organization and pseudo-incoherence of free-association:  we drift freely from image to image with little narrative guidance.  It is moreover, clearly announced as a dream, not only by the title, but also from within; to the narrator’s reflections on astronomy succeed “the following dream” (p. 328).  In this deliberate creation of a dreamlike structure, Richter seems, we may assume, to be asserting his freedom from the tyranny of rational argument:  since the piece is presented as non-rational by its nature as a dream, he can not be required to defend its neglect of logic to rationalist critics.

     De Mille, on the other hand, is a rationalist concerned to defeat rationalist critics; his poem is cast deliberately as a vision (that is, a dream in the more formal sense of the biblical dreams of prophecy) rather than an ordinary dream:  of the kind Richter was trying to imitate.  It is produced, more over, as a result of spiritual discipline (prayer, fasting, and mourning), for he has, as it were, to earn his “Revelation” (st. 2), and when he enters the “Invisible . . . unfolded” (st. 4), the spiritual sense he is granted is “Knowledge, Absolute and True” (st. 9).  This vision is rationally structured inflections, each of which deals with a particular item of information which De Mille wishes to convey to the reader about the nature of immortality:  the perpetuation of earthly happenings in §1, the structure of the universe as a habitation for immortal spirits in §2, the nature of immortal spirits in §3, and so on.  Furthermore, De Mille’s narrative has an overall dramatic shape to it — the search for and encounter with the spirit of the woman the Seer has loved — and the reader is not only conscious of this narrative frame work, but also aware that everything is artistically subordinated to it.  Even more than this, however, the formal precision of the verse assists materially in the presentation of a vision since it constantly provokes awareness of rational control.

     The differing personalities of the two spirit guides reflect the same polarity of emotional and rational temperament.  Richter’s spirit guide is hardly a personality at all:  he says little and disappears without warning at the end, leaving the Dreamer alone, and what he does say is more to direct the Dreamer’s attention to what is around him than to explain its significance.  He is as insubstantial as a personality, in fact, as he is physically.  De Mille’s spirit guide for his Seer, however, is a very solid and reassuring personality.  His function is to answer the Seer’s questions and to comfort his considerable distress, and his performance of these duties suggests that he was undoubtedly a minister and a university professor in his mortal days.  Whereas Richter’s spirit guide, directing the Dreamer’s attention to things, some times seems to be no more than a technical device to move from one image to another, De Mille’s spirit guide, by the extent of his personality, is much more.  At different times he comforts the Seer’s grief, prevents him from falling into despair, rebukes his habit of jumping to conclusions, and instructs him on the nature of Divine Love; he also shows himself to be self-sacrificing in that he has left a much higher position in the ranks of the immortals to assist those spirits who are just starting on the infinite progression from earth towards union with God. Consequently, in himself he reifies the kind of divine love about which he instructs the Seer, and which Richter’s Dreamer encounters only in a final vision of the Christchild.

     The polarity of personality which sets Richter and De Mille apart in the structure of their work is matched by a polarity between Richter’s sensuous imagination and De Mille’s abstract one.  Richter consistently prefers the concrete to the abstract:  “Two thoughts are the wings with which I move; the thought of Here, and the thought of There.  And behold! I am yonder” (p. 329), whereas De Mille prefers the abstract “the motion of the Spirit with its Will alone agrees” (st. 27).  Richter also prefers the specific to the general: “thy spirit can bear only earthly images of the unearthly”, says the spirit guide to the Dreamer (p. 332). De Mille’s Seer, however, is not limited to “earthly images”, and his freedom is not presented in terms of image or appearance, but as “mortal sense . . . grown immortal” (st. 9), which, although it conveys a more general freedom, is at the same time somewhat vague, since it loses the implication, clearly present in Richter, that the unearthly might be too much for a spirit still earthbound. Richter, moreover, visualizes abstract concepts strongly:  “one heaven after another unfurled its immeasurable banners before us, and then rolled up behind us” (p. 329), whereas De Mille is content to leave them in abstract terms:  “Systems evermore in creasing / Still succeeding . . . / Vast assemblages unceasing” (st. 31). Here the word “assemblages” is too colourless to convey any visual image. Where De Mille does choose to visualize, his management of detail is excellent:

      Through the darkness nose a vision
      Where beneath the night I kneeled,
     Dazzling bright with hues Elysian —
Congregated motes of glory circling on an ebon field,
And a form from out that glory to my spirit stood revealed.
          (st. 5)

In this Description only, of all those m the poem, is there any suggestion of sensuous pleasure in light and its contrast with darkness, such as clearly in forms Richter’s culminating vision of the sea of light.

     Curiously enough the contrast of imagination seems to have little to do with each man’s feeling for the physical world.  Richter’s hell, as described in others of the Traunrulichtungen, “is born”, according to Smeed, “of revulsion against earthly life”,20 and it is because of this revulsion that he calls earth a “dirty clod”21 and dismisses the solid heavenly bodies to a minor role in the spiritual universe:  “the murky planets . . . were but cradles for the infant spirits of the universe”.   Consequently, “the upright shadows in the form of men” become glorious only “when they quitted these perishable worlds, and when they sank into the sea of light” (p. 322).  De Mille, by contrast, seems to have a tremendous affection for the earth: “the spell of earth had bound me”, says his Seer, and in the first section of the poem De Mille spends longer on the description of the beauty of the earth (a description which has no counterpart in Richter, whose Dreamer says quickly and apparently with relief, “Soon there remained nothing visible of our system”) than is strictly necessitated by his purpose of conveying — in the perpetuation of the images that are projected out into space — the idea that nothing of earth is lost.  In Richter we see light travailing towards the earth, but nothing of earth goes outward.  The spiritual progress of De Mille’s immortals, furthermore, is not contingent on their distance from the earthly and solid, for “the rolling stars were where they congregated most” (st. 48), and the spirit guide can descend (as it were) to the Seer’s level to attend to his problems and needs, as to the prims and needs of other spirits just leaving earth, without compromising his spiritual nature or status (st. 117, 120).  Moreover, when Richter’s Dreamer is left alone by his spirit guide, he yearns not for the earth he has left, but for some “sympathizing being” (p. 333); but De Mille’s Seer, in spite of the continued presence of his syncthizing guide, still finds that “a sad and homesick longing / All my momful soul possessed” (st. 94), and to is a distinctly compassionate feeling about his return to his body, I, his guide tells him, “thy heart still feebly flutters in its soulless tenement” (st. 124), and this feeling persists in spite of the abruptness of the poem’s ending.   The Seer, although his vision is described in much less concrete terms than the Dreamer’s, is essentially the more solidly anchored to what we think of as concrete reality.

     The final polarity which sets Richter and De Mille apart is that between the naturally religious and the orthodoxly religious believer.  The distinction I am making here is perhaps best clarified by pointing out that a naturally religious believer is one who can say, as Richter does, “Then my heart comprehended that immortality dwelled in the spaces between the worlds” (p. 332, my emphasis).  An orthodoxly relgious believer, on the other hand, is one for whom religion is “revealed", and thus consciously understood. De Mille represents his Seer in his grief as being supported by such a conscious understanding of the existence of life after death:  “Dead she is not, but Immortal . . . . / Soft amid the storm of sorrow came this still consoling thought” (st. 74, my emphasis).  This difference is partly the consequence of the difference between the emotional temperament of Richter and the rational one of De Mille, and does not necesarily imply that De Mille’s belief is any less sincere than Richter’s.  It does, however, involve in the believer a radically different type of response to the religious implications of his under standing of the afterlife.  Richter’s Dreamer experiences an episode of spiritual comfort and assurance which is without any moral implication or qualification; the sheer size of the universe induces in him, it is true, a spasm of loneliness:  “I am too solitary in the creation itself,” he tells his guide, and after the departure of his guide he feels the need for the presence of some “sympathizing being”.  But even so the anxiety and loneliness he experiences are far less than the sense of inadequacy and fear experienced by De Mille’s Seer.  The latter’s experiences are qualified by moral considerations, as is made very clear in his response to the idea that all earthly things are projected in images across the universe for ever, for he immediately thinks of his sinfulness:  “a thought stood black before me — / Shall Infinity for ever write the records of my sin?” (st. 26), a question which is, however, not actually put to the spirit guide.  The idea of spiritual inadequacy is repeated later in his address to the guide:  “Son of Heaven, full well thou knowest / What a thing of nought am I . . .” (st. 103).  Consequently, the journey behind the veil is for him an experience of spiritual chastening, comparable to that of Caleridge’s narrator in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and it is possible that the marginal glosses, the idea of which De Mille borrowed from Coleridge, are used not merely as literary decoration but as a hint of this parallel in the theme.

     Richter’s Dreamer, moreover, at the end of his vision of the sea of light, realizes that “in sight of this immeasurability of life, no sadness could endure, but only joy that knew no limit” (p. 332).  Vast as it is the universe has no room for sadness, and the final point of the Dreamer’s experience is that the joy of immortality (induced by his vision of the Christchild) should inform his mortal life:

I awoke:  but my happiness survived my dream:  and I exclaimed, O how beautiful is death, seeing that we die in a world of life and of creation without end!   and I blessed God for my life upon earth, but much more for the life in those unseen depths of the universe which are emptied of all but the Supreme Reality, and where no earthly life nor perishable hope can enter. (p. 333)

By contrast, De Mille’s Seer finds that his mortal grief is intensified in the spirit world:

       For my soul from Earth departing
       Keener sensitiveness bore
       And I found a grief upstarting
Deeper than the deepest anguish that I had e’er known before. (st. 88)

At the end of the poem De Mille’s Seer, therefore, takes refuge in his body which will, by its coarser nature, protect him from the “anguish” of his inability to communicate with the Loved and Lost One in the afterlife.  The point, however, seems to be not that immortality is worthless because it will not reunite him with his beloved, but rather that he still has to develop spiritually to a point where he seeks the highest joy (of union with God), rather than its pale imitation (union with another created being).  In this there is a marked contrast between the Dreamer and the Seer — a contrast which is further emphasized by the manner of their entry into the spirit state.   On the one hand, the Dreamer slips naturally into the joyous state of the afterlife just as he slips naturally in his sleep into the dream in which that afterlife is revealed to him.  On the other hand, the Seer, who has had to discipline his body to obtain his vision of the afterlife, experiences that afterlife as a further disciplining of the soul (through the guide’s instruction).  The polarity thus indicated emphasizes De Mille’s orthodox, conscious understanding of religion as opposed to Richter’s natural religiousness.

     This polarity is further emphasized by the difference in emotional colouring between the two pieces. The key to Richter’s Dream is joy, especially at the end when, at the final vision of the Christchild, the Dreamer is seized with “a sudden rapture of joy such as passes all understanding” (p. 333), and throughout the piece there are several startlingly beautiful images of joy and wonder, such as the return of light after the darkness of the intergalactic gulf:

I looked; and in a moment came a twilight, — in the twinkling of an eye a galaxy, — and then with a choral burst rushed in all the company of stars.   (p. 330)

At the climatic moment of Behind the Veil, however, when the Guide announces to him, “Lo, before thee, bright and splendid,/ Moves thy Loved One", the Seer finds that all his being sinks “by sudden fear oppressed” (st. 78), and throughout the poem he is repeatedly overwhelmed by fear and despair, imaged by his comparison of himself to the “fear-bewildered stranger . . . / Reeling o’er the marge of ruin”, for “So I reeled, and seemed descending to a fathomless abyss” (st. 91).  Indeed, even when his initial fear of his beloved in her spirit form is overcome, he is still “bewildered” by her “pure celestial glow” (st. 79).  The final impression of the Seer is of a man whose “belief was rudely clobbered” (to quote Peanuts) and sorely in need of the Divine Love, the assurance of which has been described to him but which he has been unable to take in emotionally.

     Paradoxically, however, the very extremity of their difference on this issue becomes a signal that the essence of the two visions is identical. Both men have glimpsed the “holy” — what Rudolph Otto defines as “the mysterium tremendum et fascinans”, which evokes both fear and desire in the beholder.22  Richter has glimpsed one aspect of it, that which evokes desire (and the “rapture of joy” which he records); De Mille has glimpsed the other the — “tremendum”, which evokes fear, not because it is menacing or even ugly, but simply by virtue of its “otherness”.  So that although Richter and De Mille have only a loose relationship on the purely human and literary level (since widely differing temperments separate their interpretations of a common cosmological theory), this gives way on the spiritual level to a shared mysticism and a common vision of the “mysterium”.   Moreover, the recognition of the centrality of the “mysterium” to De Mille’s poem provides a resolution for the several self-contradictions or paradoxes in the poem which are otherwise hard to reconcile.  For De Mille writes a poem distinguished by its formality of structure and rational discourse, yet prefaces it with a quotation which defines poetic inspiration as non-rational.  He presents the apparently joyous and inspiring theme of immortality and the spirit life in a narrative in which they appear to become a source rather of fear and dismay than of joy and wonder.  And in a poem whose cosmology is clearly designed to represent, as a tribute to the Creator, an astronomically accurate picture of the size and magnificence of the universe, almost all De Mille’s warmth of feeling is apparently reserved for the vision of the earth itself and for the mortal bodies that inhabit it. Moreover, the grief which is portrayed and which is made the more unbearable for the Seer by the fact that life after death will not reunite the lovers, does not appear (from the little that is known about him) to have any foundation in De Mille’s own life.  Left unreconciled, such a series of contradictions could add up merely to what Cogswell has called “a bad poetical exercise” in rhetoric.23  Reconciled, however, in terms of a vision of the “mysterium”, they fall into place as a series of attempts to recognize, comprehend, and accept the fear and the desire evoked in the creature by the vision of the creator.

     The reconciliation is not total, but nevertheless most of the major difficulties can be answered.  The formal precision of the verse, for example, emerges as an attempt to control an overwhelming experience, and is perhaps rather overdone, since what is intended to control ends up by almost totally concealing that experience; the vision must be brought under some degree of control, however, as much to allow the visionary to cope with it, as to enable him to communicate it to others.  Furthermore, the Seer’s apparently naive mistakings of lesser spirits for “the Infinite” also fall into place as repeated attempts to keep things down to manageable proportions; the Seer is already overwhelmed by the spirit guide’s appearance in all its majesty—to assume that this is the “Infinite” protects him, as it were, from having to face the knowledge that something even greater and more overwhelmingly majestic exists.  Moreover, since the Seer’s understanding of the joy and wonder of immortality and Divine Love is evidently clouded by his much more immediate emotional encounter with the “otherness” of the Divine Nature, the Divine Love must be asserted consciously in the poem; yet such a conscious (and, I believe, genuine) affirmation is insufficient to balance out the visionary impact of the other, and hence appears merely as a rather ponderous “sermon” on the subject.   The warmth of feeling reserved for the earth also seems less strange in this context, for the earth is now seen as that part of the created universe which can be praised uninhibitedly because its relatively small size and its familiarity set it within the Seer’s capacity to comprehend and love.  On the other hand, a grief which has left no observable trace in De Mille’s own life-history (if indeed it ever had a biographical source) is, by force of its association with the spirit universe, itself magnified to cosmic proportions. These reconciliations, therefore, which bring apparent paradoxes into a comprehensible pattern, offer the critic and the general reader an opportunity to take a new and less dismissive view of the poem.

     Behind the Veil is, consequently, a surprising, even a startling poem, if it is looked at closely, although it must be admitted that in purely poetic terms it is not a wholly successful one.  Just as surprising is the character of James De Mille which, in so far as the poem (and especially its persona-narrator, the Seer) can be said to represent the writer in some way, emerges from its pages.  It is hard to reconcile either the sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued social critic who wrote the Strange Manuscript, or the sober and respectable Dalhousie professor who wrote The Elements of Rhetoric, with the religious mystic whose vision is recorded in Behind the Veil. The solemn Victorian gentleman who stares from the frontispiece of the published version of the poem is not as straightforward as he looks, and the fiction of the Strange Manuscript may prove less strange than the fact of Behind the Veil.


  1. James De Mille, Behind the Veil:  A Poem (Halifax:  T.C. Allen & Co., 1893).[back]

  2. The Dalhousie Gazette 26:3 (25 November 1893), pp. 78-83.  W.C. Murray called it De Mille’s “best piece of literary work”, and James Liechti characterized it as “a daring flight of the imagination . . . wonderfully drawn” (p. 81).[back]

  3. C.G.D. Roberts, “De Mille’s Behind the Veil”, The Week 11 (23 February 1894), p. 301.[back]

  4. James De Mille, The Elements of Rhetoric (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1878).[back]

  5. [In the MS and the 1893 edition the stanzas are arranged in sections which are separated by double rows of asterisks.  The headings (Introduction, Conclusion) and numbers for the sections, as well as the stanza numbers, in my discussion are introduced for the sake of convenient reference.] Introduction (st. 1-8): The Seer (as MacMechan calls him) has been driven by grief at the death of “the Loved and the Lost One” to live withdrawn from humanity.  By prayer and fasting, he achieves communication with a spirit from the invisible world who grants his request to be allowed to see his beloved again in that world.  At the spirit’s invitation he leaves his body.  §1 The vision of earth (st. 9-27):  He is immediately gifted with a new faculty of “Absolute Knowledge”, but at first sees only scenes of the earth he has just left, in the form of images projected like light rays which travel forever through infinite space.  The Seer is discouraged by the thought that the image of the evil he has done is among these projected images, and discovers that he is not limited to earthly scenes, but may go wherever he chooses simply by the power of his will.  §2 The journey through the universe (st. 28-44):  by the power of his Will the Seer then travels rapidly through star systems perpetually increasing in magnitude, until he comes to a barrier which is the edge of a system so vast that everything he has seen so far is minute in comparison, and that beyond this one are others which are proportionately even greater.  The Seer is terrified, but the spirit encourages him by explaining that only God can comprehend the infinity of His creation, which has no beginning and no end.  §3 The vision of the immortals (st. 45-60):  at this point the Seer turns from contemplation of the infinite universe to observation of its immortal spirit inhabitants.  He sees spirits of various kinds constantly moving before him through space and grouped round the stars.  They are of different ranks, some no different from himself, others so splendid that he can hardly comprehend them — yet even the most magnificent of them is one of the weakest and humblest compared with all those ranked above him in the spirit hierarchy who are quite outside the Seer’s understanding.  This vision of infinite gradations of spiritual being above him terrifies the Seer once more, and once more he has to be encouraged by the spirit guide.  §4 Recollections of the Loved and Lost One (st. 61-77):   thus encouraged he remembers his longing to see his beloved again, and his Will transports him to her presence.  He recalls the sweetness and joy of their life together, the pain of watching her die, and the grief which then overwhelmed him — a grief which only the notion of immortality and the afterlife, in which they would be reunited, relieved. §5 The vision of the beloved (st. 78-91):  the beloved appears to the Seer in the form of a great and radiant spirit.  He approaches her, but is unable to attract her attention which is turned to God above her.  Because he is now in thet world the pain of his loss is increased by his increased sensitivity.   Grief overwelms him and and he falters and is about to fall headlong into despair.   §6 The spirits discourse on Divine Love (st. 92-123):  the spirit intervenes to stop the Seer’s fall and explains to him the essence of life of the invisible world.  It is inhabited by the loving and the loved who move through an infinite progression of joyous unions towards the highest which is union with the Infinite.  The gradations of spirit below the Seer are as infinite as those above him and God’s love extends to all of them.  There is an eternal two-way movement of the upward endeavour of souls towards God, and the reaching downward of God towards the least of these souls.  At the end of this exposition, the spirit accedes to the Seer’s request and appears to him in his full majesty, which seems so great to the Seer that he confuses the spirit with God Himself, and is rebuked:  the spirit is only a created being like the Seer himself, but one who has put aside his greatness to assist those below him.  Moreover, it is not repugnant to him to attend to Earth, for Earth is dark only to its inhabitants; to the spirits it is a world of glory and fame in the universe because it is the world where Christ was incarnate.  Conclusion (st.124-125):  the spirit then releases the Seer who returns to his body, having in earthly terms been away only a few moments, for there is no time in the spirit world. [back]

  6. The translation quoted here is from Plato, “Apology”, in Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phacdrus ed. with an English translation by Harold N. Fowler (London: Heinemann; Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914, r/p 1966), p. 85.[back]

  7. Archibald MacMechan, “James De Mill [sic]: The Writer and the Man” (Dal.MS 2.82.G. in the Killam Library Archives of Dalhousie University); Canadian Magazine 27:5 (September 1906), pp. 404-416. [back]

  8. John W. Smeed, Jean Pauls Dreams (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 86n.[back]

  9. Jean Paul Friedrich Richter, The Campaner Thal and Other Writings (Boston:   Ticknor and Fields, 1864).  In this edition The Campaner Thal is translated by Juliette Bauer and the Analects from Richter (which include the “Dream upon the Universe") are translated by Thomas De Quincey.  Subsequent references to the Campaner Thal (abbreviated to CT in page references included in the text) will be to this edition.  All subsequent references to the “Dream upon the Universe” (abbreviated to Dream in the text) will also be to this edition:   where I have found it necessary to refer to the original German, references are given to the text as interpolated into Der Komet in Jean Pauls Samtliche Werke, Pt. I, Vol. 15 (Weimar: Hermann Bohlaus Nachfolger, 1973), pp. 113-117.[back]

  10. The Archivist of Brown University informs me that a thirty-volume set of Richter’s works (published in Berlin in 1840) has been in the Brown University Library since 1845.   De Mille could read German, so it is possible that he may have become familiar with the Campaner Thal and the “Traum uber das All” in the original German during his years at Brown.  The text of Behind the Veil does not offer any evidence to show whether he read it in the German or the English translation.  The only direct evidence I have of his acquaintance with Richter is that he cites De Quincey’s memories of his translation of Richter (in an essay on Style) in his textbook on rhetoric (Elements of Rhetoric, pp. 280-281, §299).[back]

  11. Antony Flew, “Immortality”, in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards, Vol. 4 (New York: Macmillan and The Free Press; London:   Collier-Macmillan, 1967), p. 139. Flew notes that “the literature on the philosophical problems involved in the question of future life begins with Plato” (p. 139).  And a future state of immortal spirits is vividly depicted as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh about 3,000 B.C.[back]

  12. Flew, p. 140.[back]

  13. Smeed, p. 30n.[back]

  14. William H. McCrea, “Structure and Properties of the Universe”, in Encyclopedia Britannica (15th Edition), Vol. 29, p. 1013.[back]

  15. This is the one point from which it might be assumed that De Mille knew the German rather than the English version.  For where De Quincey’s translation reads “But thy spirit can bear only earthly images of the unearthly; now then I cleanse thy eyes with euphrasy; look forth, and behold the images” (p. 322), the German reads, “Aber dein Geist vertragt nur irdische Bilder der Ueberirdischen; schaue die gilder!” (p. 116).  “Schauen” here seems to be used in its sense of “to see by intuition", and De Mille’s faculty of “Absolute Knowledge” (st. 9) has more in common with this concept than with De Quincey’s Miltonic herb “euphrasy” (cf. Paradise Lost XI, 1. 414).[back]

  16. Richter’s allusion to the veil of Isis seems to be, directly or indirectly, to the veiled statue of  Isis supposed to have existed in the temple at Saïs, which bore the inscription “I am all that has been and is and will be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil”, and which is mentioned by Plutarch in De Iside et de Osiride, Ch. 9, and by Proculus in In Platonis Timaeum Commentaria.  “Hence”, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1970), “to lift the veil of Isis is to pierce the heart of a great mystery”.[back]

  17. Tennyson, In Memoriam LVI, in The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Longman’s, 1969), 11. 25-28.  The last line is the QED’s earliest citation for the phrase (1850).[back]

  18. The manuscript of the poem was found among De Mille’s papers after his death, according to MacMechan’s prefatory note to the published version, and no date for its composition has been established.  I am presuming, tenntatively, that it was written towards the end of his life, and most probably subsequent to his move to Halifax in 1865.[back]

  19. Smeed, p. 3.[back]

  20. Smeed, p. 32.[back]

  21. In Bauer’s phrase, “the dark, dirty clump of the sensuous world” (Ct, p. 37), “clump” translates the German “Klumpen” although “clod” would be as accurate and also convey the image of Richter’s original more clearly.[back]

  22. Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (London: Oxford University Press, 5th edition, 1928), pp 12-41.[back]

  23. F. Cogswell, in Literary History of Canada, ed. C.F. Klinck (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), p. 112.[back]