An audio version of this talk can be found at my podcast, Talks and Thoughts, via podcast feeds. The text is below.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth, the character of King Charles is being pondered and pressed. Many feel they know his views on ecology and architecture, medicine and agriculture. Some are worried that his passion for these matters might cause a constitutional crisis. A few are hoping his passion will cause crisis.
So here’s an alternative take on the significance of the royal man. His views do not matter. They are a distraction because there is something greater, more long-lasting at work in his soul. And if he can project this humanity and spirit, his reign will come to be valued and loved.
A little known, astonishingly personal article is the source of my thought. The piece he penned provides a remarkable window onto his soul. In it, he speaks of an extraordinary power and hope that might not only steady a moment of constitutional transition, but even calm a period of widespread and deepening social anxiety.
The article was a tribute he wrote to the poet and William Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, subsequently published in Resurgence magazine. Charles arranged a memorial service in The Queen’s Chapel to celebrate her life and work after she died in 2003.
Raine had become a mentor to the then prince, a kind of spiritual director. “She understood what I was about,” Charles says in his eulogy. “I shall never forget this because it moved me so deeply”, he continues. This visionary, commanding woman was there for him and he was glad of it. “All my life I have believed in learning from the wisdom and experience of older people,” he affirms. Raine offered clearly articulated, deeply felt insight. She helped shape his adult spirit, and she drew from her profound sympathy with William Blake.
In my view, Raine is one of a handful of individuals who have understood Blake. To that number can be added the new king. So what did she and he glean from the man who sang for England’s green and pleasant land?
Blake felt that Albion and our times were falling into a “deadly sleep”. Modern people have concluded that they possess the world. Modern science has reframed reality so that instead of experiencing the stars and skies, rivers and trees as a divine theophany, the cosmos is examined via equations and abstractions, rendering it ripe for domination.
Blake sought to awaken the world by tackling these issues at the root. He wanted to reverse the philosophical premises of this materialism, not by prompting a few imaginative thoughts with a sprinkling of spiritual sentiment, which the dominant worldview can easily smother or ignore. Rather, he wanted us to pick up the golden string, follow its subtle but robust tug, and know once again that we exist not in a machine as machines, but in a pulsing, sacred ecology in which “Everything that lives is holy”. Unless we perceive that vitality once more “this poor, beautiful earth will die, not only Nature, but the soul of the world,” Raine continued.
This “Great Battle”, as she called it, stirred Charles to the depths of his being and fired his sense of calling. She would say he is like Prince Arjuna, at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, facing a breakdown that is actually a breakthrough. “Don’t forget that love has become a word emptied of meaning, and perhaps ‘compassion’ is nearer to what our humanity needs and depends on. Or so the Lord Buddha saw it and he was also a prince of this world,” she wrote in one of dozens of letters to him.
The struggle could be won because Charles shared the prime virtue for which his mother is now being remembered: humility. “We are agents of powers so much greater than ourselves that it is no matter how unequal to our tasks we may – we must – feel. ‘If thou shall chose to elect a worm, it will move mountains,’ Blake says, and he is usually right!” Raine averred.
Enemies must be faced, not least soul-destroying institutions and nihilistic public voices, because they bring a climate that spreads like a chill. But they can be faced with confidence because reality is sacred, imagination never dies, suffering can be embraced, and even the “winged seeds” of a seemingly lost culture can be preserved “as they lie low and cold.” Raine with Blake was sure that “all dreams and visions are the unacknowledged legislators which inform history and culture.”
You will begin to see this dream, and perhaps detect Blake’s presence, in the small actions of the King – the “minute particulars”, as Blake called them. Look out for them in a turn of phrase, a hand gesture, a sparkle in the eye. They matter more than grand gestures because they call to our humanity, confuse ideologies, and communicate soulfulness. “You can hold fast to the divine while outwardly carrying out the daily duties, as they come,” Raine advised. ”We are all part of something greater than we know or can possibly know.”
The character of the long, now passing Elizabethan Age is becoming clearer to us. The late Queen brought stability to a world of change, unpretentiousness in a culture of showiness, faith during decades of doubt. So what will be the spirit of a new Caroline Age?
Well, if King Charles has anything to do with it, the things known by William Blake and Kathleen Raine will be stoked. They will light its heart. At the end of his eulogy, Charles reports Raine’s last words to him: “This is not a rehearsal, but the thing itself, for which we have all been summoned in this mysterious and sacred world.”
I pray God does not only save the King but blesses this vision and hope.