Sunday, 28 February 2010

Longfellow, "The Ladder of St. Augustine"

This is a poem by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), better known for his "Psalm of Life" and whose birthday was yesterday. I've taken the liberty of changing the last line of the penultimate verse because the original failed to rhyme.

I think every important concept or idea has a powerful image attached to it which encapsulates it. In astronomy for example, the idea that the galaxies of the universe are moving away from each other, yet there is no point within the universe from which they are moving (rather it is the fabric of space-time itself that is expanding and that it even expanded faster than the speed of light in the initial moments after the Big Bang), a mind-boggling concept, but made perfectly clear if we have the image in our mind of galaxies as like points on a balloon, moving apart as the balloon itself is blown up.

In the case of the spiritual journey, and the journey of life, the path is a powerful image that helps us understand how there can be many paths, but the destination is the same, or how we might reach a crossroad and need to make a choice, or how the shortest way may be the most difficult. But another very powerful image for this journey is that of the ladder, of letting go of past attachments, the rungs that we must trample down, climbing up step by step from our subjective view of the world that might involve unskilful desires and lack a deeper wisdom, and looking down from a higher more objective viewpoint. At least, that's my understanding.

I wonder if you have any powerful images that you have found useful which you would like to share?

Saint Augustine! well hast thou said,
That of our vices we can frame
A ladder, if we will but tread
Beneath our feet each deed of shame!

All common things, each day's events,
That with the hour begin and end,
Our pleasures and our discontents,
Are rounds by which we may ascend.

The low desire, the base design,
That makes another's virtues less;
The revel of the ruddy wine,
And all occasions of excess;

The longing for ignoble things;
The strife for triumph more than truth;
The hardening of the heart, that brings
Irreverence for the dreams of youth;

All thoughts of ill; all evil deeds,
That have their root in thoughts of ill;
Whatever hinders or impedes
The action of the nobler will; —

All these must first be trampled down
Beneath our feet, if we would gain
In the bright fields of fair renown
The right of eminent domain.

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

Standing on what too long we bore
With shoulders bent and downcast eyes,
We may discern — unseen before —
A higher path to our surprise,

Nor doom the irrevocable Past
As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
If, rising on its wrecks, at last
To something nobler we attain.


  1. I am reminded of Rulman Mershwin's "Nine Rocks" analogy, when I think about ladders, but I usually prefer dimensions within dimensions, which relates to his use of "the right of eminent domain."

    That we are imprinted through our five senses to believe our parents' little world is the way the whole universe operates, holds us in that experience, until the pain of it pushes us beyond its limits. Some have great difficulty moving on, and it has been my experience that those inhabiting "the All" when they arrive, have an especially challenging time. Like being a multidimensional creature trying to make sense out of flat-landers.

    Observing the little dimension of our parents solid reality, as our experiences expand beyond their world, is the way we transit to the next higher level within. Reality shifts externally as we shift to the internal higher dimension and are willing to give up the rules of the lower one.

    But, at the same time, from that higher perspective (mountaintop) we are able to shift sideways into any number of 3D experiences. We can pick and choose and are only inhibited by our conditioned fears.

  2. Dear Nancy, that was very enlightening.

    Take care.

  3. Nancy, indeed, it reminds me of the flatland video you posted. So, it's the powerful image of the contrast between flatland and higher-dimensional land.

    So, not making the same mistakes, breaking free of the patterns that bind us (which also reminds me of the powerful image of the box, recognizing the limits and the boundaries that we impose on ourselves... definitely something to contemplate further!

    Just posting the link to your blog where you talked more on this.

    And also it occurred to me how this combines the images of the balloon and of the ladder which I'd mentioned in the blog, which is pretty cool!

    Thanks also Catherine for the kind words!

    Another thought that came to me is the image of the calculator, clearing the screen of any attachments we might hold on to in order to be able to process effectively. I learnt that one from taogirl.

    And also, I saw something on Y!A recently from a question by I am Sirius of the image of the dream that we must wake from to see our real reality. I'm not sure if I like that image so much though, because it seems to imply that our actions are of no consequence (everything is illusion), whereas the truth seems very different. This reminds me of something Erica said once about the paradox that nothing matters, but it being essential for us to engage fully as if it matters the world. Struggling to get my head round that... and I hope I haven't misinterpreted her.