Eros, Swedenborg and Literature
by Richard Lines
Swedenborg's teachings on Marriage Love
Eros is the Greek word for sexual love. Our word erotic is derived from it. Sexual, or erotic, love between man and woman is obviously the root of human life. Without it there can be no life. Both physically and psychically love is the life-giver. Yet many religious thinkers have feared or despised sex. Some Christians have regarded sex as part of mans fallen nature, stemming from the first disobedience in the Garden of Eden involving the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Some Eastern religious thinkers have taught that sex is part of the illusory nature of the world, which the truly spiritual person must shake off. True spirituality, it is said, lies in a life of asceticism and celibacy.
Swedenborg does not stand in that tradition at all. He recognized the power of sex and regarded it, not as a blind biological force (as, for instance, the philosopher Schopenhauer did), but as stemming from divine love and wisdom. Erotic love is like a spring, from which flow streams of chaste and unchaste love: Conjugial Love, no. 445. As a twentieth century writer, Dallas Kenmare, was to write, erotic love, Faultless in its divinity, fallible in its humanity, can lead to either heaven or hell. For nearly all of us the erotic is a subject which, almost above all others, engages the affections. Very few of us have a purely functional or mechanical approach to sex. So it was with Swedenborg. We are accustomed to think of Swedenborg as an intellectual and spiritual giant, as a man who in his science and in his spiritual explorations travelled where others had not ventured. In his interpretation of the Scriptures he claimed to be divinely inspired. But when he writes about the relations between the sexes, those of us who are or have been married, or in long-term relationships, can judge what he teaches and confirm the teaching (or not as the case may be) from our own experience. Swedenborg never married, but he had strong heterosexual inclinations and a great fondness and respect for women and a great understanding of all that is entailed in dealings between men and women, although he was never a lecher or womaniser and no scandal attaches to his life.
For Swedenborg, body and soul are not to be separated, as they are for many religious thinkers. The human body, including the sexual organs, is an expression of a higher spiritual reality in accordance with the doctrine of correspondences. Before his illumination, in which he believed he had been called by God to interpret the inner meaning of the Bible, Swedenborg made a profound study of the human body in an attempt to discover the seat of the soul. In one of those works, On Generation, written in the early 1740s, but not published during his lifetime, Swedenborg gives a detailed account of the functions of the male and female sexual organs, but this is not a dry work of anatomy and physiology, but is enthused throughout with a poetic spirit:
While it is true that most of Swedenborgs teaching about marriage and the relations between the sexes is to be found in Conjugial Love (1768), he writes about the subject in other religious works as well. In a passage beginning at No. 5050 in Volume VII (in the English translation) of his immense work, Arcana Caelestia, Swedenborg deals with the organs of generation in the Grand Man, or Universal Human (as the Rev. Dr George Dole translates the Latin expression Maximus Homo). The inhabitants of those communities in the Grand Man corresponding to the generative organs are the most heavenly ones and in their lives they enjoy greater peace and delight than any others do. After a beautiful passage in which Swedenborg says that the angels of this part of heaven are the wisest of all and look after pregnant women and are the means by which the Lord takes care of the nourishment and development of infants in the womb (No. 5052), he explains why the communities corresponding to the sexual organs are the most heavenly and celestial. It is because:
Sex for Swedenborg is never something dirty. Christian thinkers of the past used to talk about the lusts of the flesh, as though the flesh, as opposed to the spirit, were something ungodly. It is our minds that make sex dirty, whether it is just smutty jokes or the extremes of hard-core pornography. For Swedenborg sex is of the spirit as well as of the body and it is something sacred. It is sacred because, in true marriage love between woman and man, there is a conjunction of love and wisdom which is a perfect mirroring of the divine:
It is a simplification to say that the female represents love and the male wisdom, and one that needs some explanation in our modern age of equality between the sexes. While many women did paid work in Swedenborgs day, it was usually menial work as domestic servants, or in shops or mills. Swedenborg did not envisage women becoming doctors, lawyers or business executives, let alone Prime Ministers. It is easier to see women as love-centred than to see men as wisdom-centred, particularly bearing in mind that a large proportion of the male population does not seem to be at all intelligent! The psychological differences between men and women, which Swedenborg understood so well, have been beautifully expressed in contemporary language by the American Roman Catholic philosopher Alice von Hildebrand. In her essay Physical and Spiritual Ecology in Feminism v. Mankind (ed. Christine Kelly, 1990) she wrote:
Men, on the other hand:
True marriage love does not exist simply because the couple are married in the eyes of the law or of their religion. That is obvious to most of us today, as witnessed by the high divorce rate. But true marriage is not just for this earthly life, but extends to the next. While the Christian church has had some difficulty with this teaching, it is one that has long had popular appeal for lovers and has found much beautiful expression in poetry. While legal marriage may or may not be true, or conjugial, Swedenborg recognises the potential of all erotic love between men and women to develop into conjugial love. Although he does not consider them ideal, Swedenborg does not condemn all sexual relations outside marriage. He deals with the subject in great detail in the second part of Conjugial Love and the reader interested in pursuing the subject is recommended to read that. A word of warning is required. Swedenborg was here writing about the social conditions that prevailed in the Europe of the mid-eighteenth century and he wrote as an educated male for a largely educated, male readership. Some of the examples he gives, eg those relating to the keeping of mistresses and concubines, are simply out of date. The reader must extract the spirit of the teaching from the practical examples given.
Swedenborg died in London in 1772 during the boyhood of the remarkable poet and artist, William Blake, one of the first Englishmen to be influenced by his teachings, although he was always, as Jorge Luis Borges was to note in our own age, a rebellious disciple. Like Swedenborg, Blake was a man of the eighteenth century, when it was still possible to speak frankly on matters relating to sex. Blake was also caught up in the ferment of ideas which gave rise, first to the American, and then to the French, Revolutions. The tradition of marriage based on property and social class was being challenged and the notion of free love, not promiscuous sex (which has always existed) but the coming together of man and woman drawn by mutual love and affection, was coming into play. In his little-known poem The Marriage Ring he is outspoken in his recognition of the importance of erotic love in marriage:
Blake defied social convention. His early biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, tells of how a visitor was startled when he called on Blake and his wife one day and found them sitting in their summer house stark naked, like Adam and Eve.
By the middle of the nineteenth century so-called Victorian respectability had set in and, although I doubt if the sexual behaviour of individuals had changed much, social conventions had. It became more difficult to write frankly about sexual matters. The novelist Thackeray, whose heart really belonged to the eighteenth century, said that he was unable to describe a man as a man. About the middle of the century, however, there was a burgeoning of poetry celebrating marriage which was influenced by the teaching set out in Conjugial Love. The poets Tennyson, the Brownings, Coventry Patmore and Dante Gabriel Rossetti knew and influenced each other and were all, to a greater or lesser degree, readers of Swedenborg.
Alfred Tennyson sets out Swedenborgian teaching about the relations between men and women in his very long poem, The Princess (1847). A great favourite with the Victorians (it was satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan as Princess Ida), it is perhaps only remembered today for its beautiful lyrics like The splendour falls from castle walls and Now sleeps the crimson petal and the white, which have been set to music by both Gustav Holst and Benjamin Britten. The theme of the poem is women's rights and women's education. A group of young people gather at a summer fete at a country mansion and compose a medieval tale said to be based on an old chronicle. It tells of a university for women established by Princess Ida and her companions. This female community is infiltrated by the Prince and his friends, disguised as women. Their identity is discovered, but concealed. After many adventures the Prince and the Princess are united, and the poem ends with both of them setting out their vision of the future based on gradual social reform. The old king, the Princes father, expresses the traditional view of the roles of men and women:
But the Prince declaims a more idealistic vision:
For woman is not undevelopt man,
But diverse: could we make her as the man,
Sweet Love were slain: his dearest bond is this,
Not like to like, but like in difference.
Yet in the long years liker must they grow;
The man be more of woman, she of man;
He gain in sweetness and in moral height,
Nor lose the wrestling thews that throw the world;
She mental breadth, nor fail in childward care,
Nor lose the childlike in the larger mind;
Till at the last she set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words;
seeing either sex alone
Is half itself, and in true marriage lies
Nor equal, nor unequal: each fulfils
Defect in each, and always thought in thought,
Purpose in purpose, will in will, they grow,
The single pure and perfect animal,
The two-celled heart beating, with one full stroke, Life.
Tennyson was certainly a reader of Swedenborg. His elder brother Frederick was for a time a member of the New Church, as were two of his sisters, Emily and Mary. He was influenced, too, by his friend Frederick Denison Maurice, Anglican clergyman and Christian Socialist (and a reader of Swedenborg), who founded Queens College, Harley Street as a school for the training of governesses. One young reader of The Princess, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Barbara Bodichon), who had been greatly influenced by her Swedenborgian childhood tutor, James Buchanan, was inspired by the poem to become eventually the co-founder of Girton College, Cambridge.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
While we cannot be certain that Tennyson actually read Conjugial Love, although his close friend and fellow-poet Coventry Patmore read the work in the 1840s and it helped inspire him to write his own poem in praise of married love, The Angel in the House, we do know that Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband Robert Browning read Conjugial Love in Florence in 1848, a copy having been lent to them by their friend Charles Augustus Tulk, a founder and early Chairman of the Swedenborg Society. Elizabeth told her sister Henrietta that she and Robert had been reading it devoutly:
Conjugial Love was, I believe, to have a very considerable influence on the work of both poets. With regard to Elizabeth, Swedenborgs influence is shown most strongly in her monumental novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (1857). It tells the story of a young woman poet who rejects an offer of marriage from her cousin, Romney Leigh, a Christian Socialist and follower of FD Maurice, in order to pursue her literary career. The plot is melodramatic. Romney becomes engaged to a young seamstress, Marian Erle, but she leaves him waiting at the altar and disappears, having been persuaded by a wealthy woman friend of Romneys that the marriage would be impossible. Aurora, on her way to Italy, finds Marian in Paris bringing up her daughter in poverty. Aurora takes her and her child to Florence and they all live together. Finally, Romney, blinded (like Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre) as a result of a fire, his schemes for social reform having come to naught, is reconciled with Aurora and the poem ends with what has been described as a 250-line love duet, culminating in an evocation of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem. The praise of marriage love, as in The Princess and The Angel in the House, is the dominant theme of the poem. Aurora at last expresses the wish to be a woman, such/As God made women, to save men by love. In the closing section Romney tells Aurora that the love of wedded souls stands second only to Gods love:
Elizabeth Barrett Browning died in Florence in 1861. Her desolate husband left that city for good and returned to London, but he took with him a little book he had purchased at a stall, an account of three particularly gruesome murders which took place in 1698. This true story became the basis of Robert Browning's masterpiece, sadly little known today, but greater (according to the novelist AS Byatt) than any novel of the nineteenth century, The Ring and the Book (1868/9). The Book represents the Italian murder story, while the Ring represents both his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett and the artistic process by which crude fact is transmuted into living art forms. For Browning, art, his poetic art, was the one way possible/Of speaking truth. An elderly childless couple, the Comparinis, buy a baby girl from a prostitute and adopt her as their own. At the age of thirteen the child, Pompilia, is married to an impoverished middle-aged nobleman, Count Guido Franceschini, who welcomes the dowry her rich parents bring. The marriage is unhappy and Violante, the adoptive mother, sues the Count for the return of the dowry on the grounds of Pompilias illegitimacy. The girl runs away with a young priest, Caponsacchi, by whom she becomes pregnant. Shortly after the birth of her son, she and her parents are murdered by the Count and his gang of hired thugs. Franceschini is arrested, put on trial and eventually condemned to death by the Pope, Innocent XII, the crime having been committed within the jurisdiction of the Papal States. The story is told from different standpoints: the Roman people, the lawyers, the participants, and the Pope (who actually invokes at one point in his long discourse the authority of the sagacious Swede ). Browning believed that truth was absolute in its divine essence, but relative in its human manifestations. In the poem the single, imperfect perceptions unite to form the ring of truth.
At the end of Book VII, Pompilia concludes her own narrative with a description of heavenly marriage. Dying, she looks forward to reunion in the next world with her lover, the father of her baby son, a priest whose vows of celibacy prevent him marrying in this world. Browning must have been thinking of Elizabeth, to whose memory the whole work is dedicated, and of their shared reading of Conjugial Love twenty years before and gives a beautiful summary of Swedenborg's teaching on heavenly marriage:
Coventry Patmore was another reader of Conjugial Love and other works by Swedenborg. He was acquainted with Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and with the Swedenborgians, James John Garth Wilkinson and Henry Sutton (a minor poet and a life-long friend), as well as with Tennyson and the Brownings. He states Swedenborgs teaching about the different spiritual natures of men and women very clearly in The Angel in the House:
Like Browning, he looked to a love that survived into the next world:
My faith is fast
That all the loveliness I sing
Is made to outsleep the mortal blast,
And blossom in a better spring.
After the death of his first wife Emily, the real angel in the house, Patmore was received into the Roman Catholic Church, but never lost his interest in Swedenborgs teachings, as his friend Henry Sutton was to testify. Although he married three times (for his second wife also died after fifteen years of marriage), he expressed poetically the hope that he would meet Emily in heaven. His lovely poem, A Farewell, from his later volume The Unknown Eros, ends with these words:
Another poem from The Unknown Eros is entitled Deliciae Sapientiae de Amore (The Delights of Wisdom on the subject of Love), taken direct from the full Latin title of Conjugial Love. In this poem he expresses another distinctive Swedenborgian teaching, the chastity of the married state:
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Patmores younger contemporary, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is now better-known as a painter, but he was a poet as well, and both his poetry and his paintings reflect Swedenborgian ideas about conjugial love. His long poem, The Blessed Damozel, written first in 1848, but continually revised throughout his life, tells of the yearning of a young woman in heaven for reunification with her lover. Two short extracts give the flavour of the poem:
Rossetti probably knew about Swedenborg through his work on William Blake (he and his brother William Michael helped Anne Gilchrist complete her husbands biography of Blake after his early death), but he also knew Garth Wilkinson. It may well have been through Robert Browning, however, whose poetry he admired long before it was fashionable to do so, that he became acquainted with the work Conjugial Love. His marriage to Elizabeth Siddal, a milliner and fellow-artist, ended tragically when Lizzie died from an overdose of laudanum in 1862. Rossetti loved other women after Lizzies death, above all Jane Morris, the beautiful wife of his friend William Morris, whom he painted frequently, but it was Lizzie who was his first love and whose One face, as his sister Christina was to write, looks out from all his canvases, / not as she is, but as she fills his dream. Rossettis paintings of beautiful women may be seen in Tate Britain and in other galleries. The Blessed Damozel is in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard.
My final writer, the novelist, essayist and poet DH Lawrence, is from a later period and, although he died nearly seventy- five years ago, he seems contemporary compared to the Victorians. Lawrence is famous for the frankness of his writing about the sexual relations between men and women. Lady Chatterleys Lover, published in 1928 but banned in England until the famous Penguin Books trial of 1960, is his most sexually explicit work, but The Rainbow (1915), which, with its sequel Women in Love (1921), is probably Lawrences finest work, was also banned for a while by a British magistrate. Like Swedenborg, Lawrence recognised the centrality of sexual relations between men and women. He raged against the trivialisation of sex, which he saw as an ugly feature of his own age. For Lawrence, sex was a deeply serious, life-affirming thing.
While the influence of Swedenborg on the five Victorian poets discussed above can be traced quite clearly, the influence is less easy to trace in the case of Lawrence. He certainly mentions Swedenborg in one novel, The Lost Girl (1920), and the Victorian poets were part of his heritage, while he was also deeply influenced by the Americans, particularly by Emerson, Hawthorne and Whitman, who had also imbibed Swedenborg. Nathaniel Hawthornes novel The Scarlet Letter, about which Lawrence wrote a memorable essay, is a searing indictment of sexual hypocrisy, set in 17th century New England, but presumably directed at the society of his own day.
In an essay written in 1928 Lawrence takes the modern expression sex appeal and gives it a deeper meaning. Sex appeal, he writes, is only a dirty name for a bit of life-flame:
In his essay Love, written in 1917, he stresses (like Swedenborg) that love is always a joining together:
In a late essay, The State of Funk, Lawrence stresses his opposition to cheap and promiscuous sex:
Finally, in the same essay, he offers advice which is still relevant in our sex-obsessed, yet strangely sex-ignorant, age:
(This is a shortened version of the lecture given at Swedenborg Hall, London on July 8th.)