Introduction (by Walter L Wilmshurst, 1918)

INTRODUCTION.

“Alchemy is philosophy; it is the philosophy, the seeking out of The Sophia in the mind.”1)

This is the re-issue of a book with a strange history; a book moreover not only entirely unknown, for reasons that will presently appear, to all but the meagrest minority, but one treating of a subject hitherto excluded from consideration by exponents of conventional learning. Whether even now men devoted professionally or otherwise to philosophy, divinity or science will give it the least attention is problematical. Be that as it may, it is believed that among those to whom the book and its subject-matter will be new there will be not a few who will accord it at least an interested and respectful notice, whilst many others who are already aware of the book's existence and the general tenor of its theme will welcome its re-issue and the fact that after nearly seventy years of suppression it now becomes generally accessible. In the interests of the book itself, and for the information of those whom it will now reach, it is desirable that something should be said of its authorship and previous history, the reasons for its suppression and its reappearance, and lastly of the subject of which it treats.

The Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery was originally published anonymously in 1850 by the London house of Trelawney Saunders. It was the work of a comparatively young woman named Mary Anne South, who later, by marriage, became Mrs. Mary Anne Atwood. She was a daughter, born in 1817, of Thomas South, of Bury House, Gosport, Hampshire, a gentleman of leisure and certain means, a scholar and somewhat of a recluse, and the possessor of an exceptionally fine specialised {1} library of classical, philosophical and metaphysical works, many of them old, rare and foreign editions, collected in days when such books were more easily procurable than now. His studies were concentrated upon a single subject—the theme and root-reason, albeit obscured by the current popular religious notions of every age, of all religion, theosophy and philosophy,—namely the ultimate nature of the human soul, the spiritual potentialities latently present in man, and the science of the rectification of man from the imperfect state in which he now finds himself to perfection and integrity in the spiritual order. This, the subject of the Mysteries of antiquity as also, if it may so be conceded for the moment, of Christianity in its original and essential purpose as distinct from modern popular notions of its implications, he investigated in the literature in which it has found its chief expression, the writings of the Platonists, the mediaeval and subsequent Alchemical Philosophers, and the myths and mythological poetry of Greece and Rome. The last mentioned, though little recognised by ordinary students of the classics as enshrining esoteric religion and metaphysical teaching of great moment, disclosed to him a singularly rich field of evidence illustrating and corroborating the more directly didactic pronouncements of the philosophers, and came with a specially strong appeal to a temperament naturally poetic and predisposed to metrical expression. His book-plate, here reproduced, was obviously an economy of his favourite subject: a glyph of the aim and goal of Hermetic science. Over an eight-pointed star—symbol of the ogdoadic creative Logos whose name is Alpha and Omega—the radiations of which result in that continuous flow and unbroken circle of manifestation which is ever returning to its source, is displayed a dragon's head united to a crown, the diagram being surmounted by the Virgilian words Hic labor, hoc opus est. Experimentally to transmute the gross nature and Teaser elements in man into incorruptible life; to unify our polar opposites, the corrupt anima bruda and the indwelling divine spirit in us; to sublimate that life-force which in its crude elementary state works pervertedlv in our bestial nature and energises the latter's desires, passions and self-will, into one-ness of being, will and {2} substance with the immaculate Divine Principle, so that our carnality becomes divinised and crowned with—that is the Herculean labour, the “Great Work” testified to, under varying veils of expression, alike by Greek myth and Roman poet, by Christian apostle2) and Hermetic philosopher.

Thomas South book-plate from A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery in Mary Anne Atwood at Hermetic Library

In these studies Mr. South was ably seconded by his daughter. She grew up in his library and from being his pupil became his secretary and intellectual comrade, possessing his entire confidence both in respect of range of information and intellectual grip of the recondite subject to which they were devoted. Between them there existed an extraordinary affinity of mind and interest; they became intellectual equals and, although a lady of very great charm of manner and appearance, in no way averse from ordinary pleasures and interests, the daughter shared her father's tendency to shut himself off. from them and was content to absorb herself more and more in the subject of their hearts. The period was that of the beginnings of the modern interest in and application of physical, psychologic and psychical science. Magnetism, electricity, mesmerism, hypnotism, spiritism, were being much talked about and put to utilitarian or experimental purposes. The Souths in conjunction with a fewT friends had themselves experimented in mesmerism, spiritistic and psycho-physical phenomena and not only had come to know the degree of value they possessed but, with the advantage of their researches into the metaphysics of the classical past, had been led to regard these subjects from a different stand-point from that of the ordinary uninformed investigator. They recognised that both the physicist and the psychical empiricist were rediscovering and exploiting obscure natural forces the existence of which had been perfectly familiar to philosophers, metaphysicians and enlightened occultists of the past, but the manipulation of which has been kept carefully concealed or expressed only in cryptic terms, since the perverse or even the unintelligent use of them might be attended with ill results of both a mental and moral character. As some possible corrective {3} to the mesmeric furore of the time and with the idea of lifting the subject of psychical experimentation to a loftier level than was popularly accorded it, Miss South in an emotional moment and at her father's instance wrote and published (in 1846) a thin octavo volume (issued by H. Baillière, London) entitled “Early Magnetism, in its higher relations to Humanity as veiled in the Poets and the Prophets”; by ΘΥΟΣ ΜΑΘΟΣ. As recently as 1903 she said of it in a letter to a friend: “It was written when we were greatly excited with mesmerism and were mixed up with Dr. Elliotson, Engledue, Ashburner and the rest who were then active in their advocacy through The Zoist and elsewhere; . . . . a mere enthusiastic production at a crisis.” This self-criticism is quite true. The essay certainly shews evidence of enthusiasm and is written in the rhetorical style often characterising inexperienced authors acting under the urge of a new discovery and a strong impulse to impart it. None the less it displays much learning and understanding, and read to-day in conjunction with her later and greater volume, it forms a useful prelude to the latter and gives us glimpses of the writer's mind at that period and of the “crisis” as the result of which, she later asserted, the essay was produced. Before writing it she had undoubtedly experienced an interior “opening,” a spiritual coup d'oeil enabling her to see in a flash the relation of current mesmeric phenomena to central truth, and the way in which classical myths, poets, and especially the Scriptures, illustrated her perceptions and confirmed her conclusions. For, referring to passages from the classics and the Bible, she says of herself in a confession modestly buried in the body of her essay (pp. 117-118) “the inner eye had caught some sparklings of their lustre, and outward sense devotionally raised, delighted and refined, and wrapt by verbal sound,3) {4} and drawing from the responsive glow within, have some time kindled into light and tasted joy, surpassing visual rays far as etherial hallowing intellectual flame outshines the elemental fire;” and she goes on to indicate that in her ecstasy she had been on holy ground, “terram incognitam to the many, but firmissimam to the happier few,” and in a Sabbath of the senses and deep inner retirement and central self-communion had felt, seen and known the Divinity within. I shall refer later to some salient teachings in this essay. For the moment it may be of interest to cite a contemporary opinion of it and of its concealed authorship. A reviewer of it (probably Jerrold himself) in Douglas Jerrold's Magazine for December 184(5 wrote as follows:—

The author of this book, whoever he may be, is one of the purifying spirits of the age, asserting the grandeur and immortality of the intellectual, and by the strength and energy of his own spirit lifting the thoughts to contemplations which always place the passions and the appetites in that subordinate position necessary for the purification of the moral and the preparation of the immortal being. We are not prepared to analyse the work as a philosophic production, to grant its theory, to test its logic; but it has an elevation of argument, a readiness of illustration, and is so informed with a lofty scholarlike sentiment, that we will pronounce it worthy of the study it requires . . . . .

The spiritual nature of man will ever be to those not totally buried in the flesh, a dark, deeply interesting speculation. And in these pages the study is conducted in accordance with the received notions of religion and with a deep natural piety which we venture to hope is inseparable from true philosophy. There is a sense of poetry in its sublimest flight, and verses which are touched with its etherial sounds that make me at times think the author of that noble and wonderful poem “Festus”4) may have contributed to it. Whoever is its author he has the copiousness, comprehension and vigorous utterance that so eminently distinguish the writers of the olden time who wrote from the fulness of their souls and the irresistible energy of their spirits . . . . .

Some three or four years after the issue of this small work Mr. South decided that the time had arrived when the matured conclusions from his and his daughter's long researches into Hermetism should be crystallised into writing and published. He proposed himself to cast his own knowledge into metrical form and that his daughter should express hers independently in a prose treatise. “My dear father was poetical in his turn of mind and did not trouble about prose writing,” says his daughter in {5} the private letter previously quoted from. With the concurrence of other members of the household it was agreed that the two should segregate themselves from the normal family life and duties, and devote themselves exclusively to their tasks. The father occupied one room and proceeded with his poem, one intended to be a lengthy epic of the Hermetic subject; the daughter occupied another and compiled the present prose volume from the expository standpoint, evidencing her theory by frequent references to authorities and text-books. The daughter was the first to complete her labours, considerable as they must needs have been. Such was his confidence in his daughter's capacity, the father did not trouble to look at her manuscript or even the proof-prints of it when they came to hand. The volume was printed at Mr. South's cost and was issued, as before stated, in 1850. A few copies—something under one hundred in all—had been either sent to public libraries or sold to purchasers, when the further issue of the book was abruptly stopped by Mr.South. The entire residue of the edition was called in, under considerable protest from the publisher and at a cost of £250 to Mr. South, and was brought from London to Gosport. There, upon the lawn of Bury House, the volumes along with the uncompleted manuscript of Mr. South's poem were stacked and a bonfire was made of them. Of the poem nothing now remains save some twelve lines the daughter had quoted in her own prose work and to be found on p. 57 of the present edition. The return of the outstanding copies of the book was gradually secured as far as possible, the authoress continuing for years afterwards to buy in any copy that came upon the market and often paying as much as ten guineas for it. Of those so bought in some were destroyed; a few she retained for her private use or that of her most intimate and understanding friends.

This apparently quixotic conduct by Mr. South and his daughter may be regretted and deemed unwarranted, but the reasons for it must be respected. No sooner was the volume completed and made publicly available than an inhibition of conscience greater in intensity than the emotional urge which had prompted the compilation {6} of the book overtook Mr. South and, though perhaps in a less degree, his daughter. They were seized by a moral panic. Two motives animated them in suppressing the work, and in speaking of them it must be remembered that we are dealing with two religiously-minded people of intellectual attainments, insight and moral sensitiveness, far above the ordinary. They had been handling, and had upon their consciences the responsibility of publicly displaying, a subject of extraordinary and—to them at least—sacred moment. For them the Hermetic subject was not, as it might be to some enquiring scholar, merely an interesting or speculative one. They were not dealing with it simply as a matter of historical research, critical appreciation, or tentative enquiry into a recondite and obsolete subject. They had passed far beyond the stage of curiosity and explorative inquiry, and they knew the subject to be one involving a practical and vital Art experimentation in which was desirable only by morally qualified persons and even then involved such persons in responsibility of the gravest and was fraught with far- reaching consequences either for good or evil. If we speak of it as an Art it is because it is usually so called in the literature of the subject, but it is really rather an exact science—and a divine science at that, “holy Alkimy” as its professors have called it—one involving deep knowledge of the mental, psychical and spiritual elements in man and of the way in which they may be practically controlled and manipulated by another. And of this Art, as the outcome of their researches and experiments and the mental illumination that had come to them, the Souths had come to hold the keys. They had passed, at least in so far as enlightened intellectual grasp of the Hermetic process went, into the Catena aurea, the succession and long chain of illuminated metaphysicians, philosophers and theosophers, who by pureness of life, ardour of quest, humility of nature, and capacity of understanding have come to know more than other men of those occulta et secreta legis Tuæ which are hidden from this world's wise and prudent and are found revealed unto babes. I shall not labour any claims for them in this respect, for nothing I can say upon this head will persuade if conviction be {7} not forthcoming after perusal of this volume and of such other information as this introduction provides. The book had been prompted by the high motive of suggesting to a public little-informed and unintelligently exercising itself over the re-discovery of certain obscure natural forces that those forces were thoroughly well known and understood by sages and metaphysical thinkers of the past, albeit shielded from popular gaze, and they desired to shew that there existed a veritable science of them, a science perpetuated for ages in a uniform tradition and testified to by a considerable literature. They had published the book with, as they had at first thought, all reasonable reserves of statement, but with such a sufficiency of evidence and exposition as would induce cultured and seriously minded readers and earnest aspirants after Divine Wisdom to recognise the validity of the claims of Hermetism. And now the doubt dawned upon them with great insistency, had they after all said too much? and they came to the conclusion that they had. They felt themselves to be, as the authoress herself privately explained years afterwards, not simple exponents of a recondite philosophy but betrayers of a sacred secret, and that whilst pointing out the way to a science hitherto carefully concealed they had really opened the door to a treasure with a golden key. They felt the only way to avoid the penalty of such betrayal was to destroy their handiwork entirely and face all further results or consequences.5)

Coupled with this reason there was another. The normal devout-mindedness of Mr. South experienced a change just at this time. It will be recalled that the period was one of great religious unrest and ferment. Whether or not Mr. South became caught by the current of con- temporary Evangelical Revival, his religious life became suddenly and strangely quickened. The fire of “conversion” came upon him, and his outlook upon certain things was opened in a way that caused him to see them {8} in a different relationship. Especially he was prompted to re-consider the Hermetic subject in its relation to Christian soteriology (a subject about which more will be said in the third part of this introduction) and he broached the matter to his daughter. In their studies and labours hitherto they had been actuated by the head rather than by the heart, and, now that the intellectual energies involved had achieved their task, an aspect of the subject occurred to them which up to then had been overlooked. A new view of philosophy, a larger meaning of religion, broke upon their mental horizons with a tremendously illuminating dawn. It did not in the least negative or discredit what they knew of the Hermetic Art, but they realised suddenly its sanctity, its tremendous difficulty and importance. Mentally they had apprehended this already, but they had not seen it in its true relation to humanity as a whole or felt its larger than personal importance. With a profound sense of unworthiness at having rudely broken in upon holy ground which they felt was being providentially tended by higher, wiser hands than theirs, they resolved at once to withdraw the book, making of it, as also of their long years of patient labour, a willing sacrifice to a clear conviction which it were impertinent for third parties to criticise.

Mr. South was about seventy years of age at this time. Shortly afterwards he died, leaving his fine library to his daughter, and there is no evidence that he ever regretted the destruction of the book whose production he had inspired. His demise broke a rare example of intellectual comradeship, but, further, it both terminated the prospect of fulfilling any intentions the pair may have had of putting the Hermetic experiment into effect, and it deprived the daughter, innately of an inert and extremely modest, retiring temperament, of that stimulus to action which the driving power of her father's vigorous personality had previously supplied. “I have never felt the same since,” she confessed years afterwards; “I required the friction of my father's active and creative nature to fire my more static turn of mind.” That stimulus withdrawn, her work as an authoress came to an end, though she lived to her ninety-second year. But for the small preliminary essay on transcendental Magnetism {9} previously mentioned she would have to be regarded as a woman unius libri, whose work began and ended with the Suggestive Inquiry. Although her will and reason had entirely concurred in the suppression of the book, she admitted in after years that she had felt acutely the destruction of her intellectual offspring, that at the time it had been a crushing sorrow to her and had left her in a sense a broken woman. A fact somewhat mitigating this grief and reconciling her to the loss was the presence in the text of the book of a number of minor errors, misprints and imperfect translations from classical sources, which offended greatly her extremely accurate mind, and which would have been corrected had her father but undertaken to look at her manuscript and revise her proofs. The residue of some sixty years of secluded, reflective life granted to her, whilst productive of no public results, undoubtedly promoted the consolidation of her thought and the enrichment of her own interior life. They were of no small value, too, to the few intimate friends who benefited from her store of knowledge and sagacity, and but for these, and one of them in particular, neither she nor her magnum opus, which has been conserved and is now re-issued, would probably have been heard of more.

In 1859 Mary Anne South married the Reverend Alban Thomas Atwood, vicar of Leake, near Thirsk, Yorkshire, and rural dean, a cultured learned man though less intellectually powerful and equipped than his wife. He shared to the full his wife's interest in the progress of contemporary science and psychical investigations, though, to use her words, “he never went so far as alchemy.” Personal experiment in spiritistic or psycho-physical phenomena was precluded by circumstances, whilst, in view of the discountenance of those subjects by his profession, Mr. Atwood had no wish to prejudice his office by being known to be interested in or associated with them. But from their remote parish the two closely watched the movements of the times in this respect, whilst every book and journal bearing upon them reached them as soon as published. Needless to say they were fully persuaded of the objective reality of these phenomena though from their acquaintance with the principles {10} governing them, as indoctrinated by the old time occultists and mystics, they attached a different value to them from that accorded by the average enquirer. Moreover they—or the deep perspicacity of at least one of them—saw in these movements and the general spiritual unrest of the times the significant portents of a coming world-crisis.

The marriage was entirely happy and congenial. Mr. Atwood, a man much loved and revered in the district, was able to conduct his professional duties with a mini- mum of assistance from his wife, who concerned herself little with parish affairs beyond regularly attending church and acting as Lady Bountiful in subscribing to parochial needs. As may be surmised, her interests lay elsewhere and were beyond the intellectual horizon of those in her environment, among whom moreover the fact of her previous authorship was totally unknown. A lady who had written the Suggestive Inquiry and who nourished herself continually upon Thomas Taylor's Platonist works, Dionysius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Jacob Boehme, Dr. Henry More, and Louis Claude de St. Martin, cannot readily be imagined as accommodating herself to mothers' meetings and the multifarious table-serving which a parish priest is expected to get attended to by an unsalaried curate in the person of a wife.

The marriage, a childless one, subsisted until Mr. Atwood's death in 1883. Thereafter Mrs. Atwood continued to occupy her husband's house, Knayton Lodge, Thirsk, where she resided until her own decease in 1910. During these years of widowhood she tended to become i.iore and more a recluse, though still keeping an interested and watchful eye upon public events. Her political views were pronouncedly Tory and involved great admiration for the intellectual powers and philosophic mind of the late Marquess of Salisbury, whilst she watched with keen sympathy the growth of the social-democratic and feminist movements. Her last journey to London was in 1886, and save for a little driving near home or for shopping purposes, and an occasional visit to the Yorkshire coast—Bridlington seems to have attracted her, in part because of its Priory Church which had once been served by a noted sixteenth century Hermetist, {11} Canon Sir George Ripley,—she never left home, and varied her ceaseless reading only by tending to her garden. The formation of the modern Theosophical Society in the early eighties at first greatly interested her and brought her the prospect of some attention being at last given to the deeper aspects of philosophy and religion in the atmosphere of which she habitually lived. By way of practical help to this movement, and with the idea of making, in the event of her death, a serviceable disposition of the large and valuable library she had inherited from her father, she presented, without reserve or condition, the bulk of the collection to its then president Mr. A. P. Sinnett. She seems to have hoped the Society would develop into a school upon Pythagorean lines in which students would pass through an ordered course of metaphysical and spiritual instruction for which her books would serve as teaching at special stages. This sanguine expectation was not fulfilled; earnest students were, as always, rare, and the books were not valued by members or as much utilised as she had hoped. The Society developed along lines for which she, as a disciple of the Hermetic doctrine and the Western theosophers and mystics, had no zeal, and propagated ideas and conclusions she considered ill-digested. “The Vedanta and the Hermetic doctrine (she affirmed) when examined by a competent eye and from a certain high altitude and with the sympathetic mind are similar, not divergent, in doctrine,” but the teachings and literature issued by the Society's leaders did not to her mind faithfully represent either the one or the other. Mrs. Atwood's interest in it accordingly became greatly estranged, and finally evaporated altogether. In the course of the Society's subsequent troubles and change of leadership the library passed into other hands and is now in Scotland, in the possession of Mr. Scott-Elliot.

The long seclusion at Knayton would have been wholly untempered by intercourse with minds at all competent to appreciate or commune with Mrs. Atwood but for a few intimate friends who engaged her in correspondence and periodically visited her. These included Mrs. Anne Judith Penny, a deep student and expositor of Boehme and the widow of Edward Buxton Penny, the translator {12} of de St. Martin's works; Mr. Walter Moseley of Buildwas Park, Salop, an able scholar and philosophical student Mr. Charles Carleton Massey, of London, a well-known writer upon mystical religion and esotericism6); the Rev. George William Allen, another authority upon Boehme and mystical philosophy, and founder of The Seeker, a quarterly magazine of Christian Mysticism, since his death edited by myself—all of whom predeceased Mrs. Atwood; and lastly the lady who still survives her and to whose devotion and enterprise the present re-issue of the Suggestive Inquiry as well as much of the information contained in this Introduction are due, Madame Isabelle de Steiger, of Rockferry, Cheshire. The commencement of the latter's friendship coincided with Mrs. Atwood's final visit to London to make over the gift of her father's library and continued till her death, Madame de Steiger visiting her once or twice annually and eventually becoming the legatee of her remaining books and private papers. The following letter, full of pathos, from the lonely soul at Knayton to this latest found friend reveals the affectional and less austere side of Mrs. Atwood's nature as well as her views—a deep-seeing commentary upon contemporary mystical and pseudo-mystical tendencies;—it is dated 20th October, 1901 (omitted portions of it relate to irrelevancies):—

Dearest Friend,

Believe me that when I thus address you as such I have no one else with whom to enter into theoretic communion. You are all to me that dear Mrs. Penny was and more. I have been vouchsafed but one such friend at a time, one man and one woman. I am no propagandist, which may or may not be selfish, and am not sure that the one pursuit of my life would be good for anyone. I did not seek it, but was called to it intermediately by my dear father's enthusiasm; and my husband was drawn and brought to me through the same subsequently, I mean by a like proclivity. Though theoretically practical I am not so essentially; my aim has been to find the Truth irrespective of self-accomplishment.

I am no saint, as you very well know, but have been vouchsafed (as I believe through a certain singleness of purpose) a {13} common insight7) to the most advanced and advancing transcendental experience possible on this earth by means of that said insight which I flatter myself is true faith, as St. Paul defines it, the very substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of those yet unseen by carnal sight. The eye of the mind, if pure and strengthened by habit, makes for itself a line across, and steps upward into, the next plane of human evolutionary progress; and it is for this return to become co-ordinated to the Divine Original Image and Archetype that we are sent here, as Boehme and the rest teach. Souls are not and cannot be co-ordinated to the Divine Image or Archetype here perfectly, but if well begun here the line of progress will, I infer and believe, lead on towards the achievement of its destination hereafter.

Hence the importance ascribed to Faith as not mere belief or assent. It is a discernment and forecast, but I have talked (enough) . . . . .

Why does not the 'New Thought' wait a while and study the ground of the old Doctrine before it vaunts itself? 'New thought' indeed which proceeds from no new revelation, no crisis of communication from heaven to earth! Man has long since been seen and proven to be a creature fallen off from the divine allegiance, and he has to be brought back. That is the drift of all religious doctrine. Why he fell or was allowed to fall is not, either, inexplicable under the eternal free-will concept—of a yet higher good to be gained than was otherwise attainable. By the free-will return in grateful submission the highest realisation of Deity is accomplished, and it will be accomplished when the times are ripe . . . . .

The foregoing letter is typical of a large mass of instructive others still extant and from which some day if occasion arises, it may become possible to publish a selection. Frequently in her passion for accuracy of thought and statement in regard to the deeper things and, perhaps, in the belief that what she said about them was valuable, she made many drafts of a letter before finally despatching it, though this may not apply to letters written, as was the above, when weight of years was telling upon her energies.

She is described by Madame de Steiger as a gracious and beautiful old lady, of great courtesy and dignity and a handsomeness of presence which continued even into advanced old age. Her chief fascination, however, came from her superb intellect and unfathomable knowledge, the like of which her friend asserts she has never found {14} equalled or approached during a long life spent in touch with a wide and varied circle of intellectuals. Mrs. Atwood's high culture she attributes not only to her innate mental powers and capability of brain but also to the remarkable classical and philosophical training her father gave her. She was shrinkingly modest and retiring; not given to unbosoming her thought even to her intimates, but always doing so more freely to one of her own sex than to her men friends. Years of virtual isolation and silence had chained a tongue that, when opportunity for verbal converse arose, could only speak diffidently and stumblingly, whilst probably the very weight and wealth of her stored ideas clogged their free and facile expression. She would never originate discussion or volunteer information upon her favourite theme, but would wait until ideas were elicited from her by intelligent interrogation, and afterwards proceeded only if they were understood and appreciated. Then, at times, her great intellect would flash at its brightest, the depth and fulness of her knowledge would flow forth, and her marvellous memory yield from its endless store of references and poetical quotations. I can imagine her, says Madame de Steiger, holding converse with Plato fluently, but with any materialistic philosopher of modern times, no! “It usually happened,” she adds, “that on the occasion of my visits we were either involved in the very meshes of mysticism or we had not much to say.”

Though so withdrawn from the world she was no cynic, but had at heart a love for it and a wish for greater activity in and closer contact with it; but her nature, innately uncourageous and retiring, had been cramped at the outset by the narrow outlook, the limited life and conventional restrictions of the early years of the Victorian period, whilst in the later ones her temperamental inertia and procrastinative disposition precluded any re-assertion of it. Her abstract metaphysical mind, withdrawn from interest in the petty details of life, caused her to appear perhaps a little unsympathetic towards the life of the district she lived in, and the villagers, to whom she was an enigma, regarded her with something like awe. She remained extremely active till past eighty, shewing few signs of age even after that time, and she {15} never knew illness. Personally I never met or corresponded with her, but on being shewn some letters of hers to the Rev. G. W. Allen in 1906–7 discussing some magazine writings of mine (she never missed anything connected with psychical or mystical matters appearing in the public prints), I asked leave through him to call upon her, but she replied that being “in a moribund condition” she could invite no one; she was good enough, however, to send me messages from time to time and to reply to them through the same indirect channel. And so the world gradually receded from her. She lived on until the end in a remote and uninteresting district and in a sombre stuffy house where things were eventually suffered to fall to pieces. The ancient pony-chaise wore out, the even more aged pony and the veteran coachman- gardener died, and were not replaced; but their still older mistress survived them all; a picturesque personality to the last, whom the span of nearly ninety-two years touched very lightly, only fading a little the still brown hair, and whose intellect remained strong and clear throughout. Her end came through no form of sickness; her life went out as simply as does the light of a lamp expiring for lack of oil. “Now I endeavour,” said the dying Plotinus, “that my divine part may return to that divine nature which flourishes throughout the universe.” The same thought, the same intention and aspiration, we may be sure was present to the mind of this his modern counterpart, for her genius and manner are strongly reminiscent of his. Her last words, one wishes they had been cheerier and more triumphant, were equally philosophic and entirely characteristic: “I cannot find my centre of gravity.” We may be assured that they were occasioned bv a momentary clouding of her strong spirit as it sought disentanglement from the failing flesh, from which once liberated it would pass into that central cloudless Splendour she had contemplated so long and deeply. Her demise occurred on the 13th April, 1910, and her interment took place at Leake Church by the side of her husband, its one time vicar.

In the intellectual heavens of the nineteenth century shone many brilliant feminine stars whose names and literary work now form part of a national patrimony, {16} their enrichment of which is acknowledged with gratitude and pride. But if the day should come when the existence of Mary Anne Atwood becomes of interest and her work appreciated by at least a competent minority of cultured judges, the submission now made with deliberation may yet be acknowledged universally—that of all those fights there was none of greater magnitude, none of such intellectual power and brilliance as that which, albeit self-isolated and occulted by certain conditions of temperament and environment, flamed within the unknown personality of the authoress of A Suggestive Inquiry into the Hermetic Mystery. The marvel of her book, apart from the difficulty and profundity of her subject, is that it has been written by a woman, and that a comparatively young one, and at such a period of spiritual benightedness and low water as the eighteen forties. We know what unrest and doctrinal disputes then prevailed in the religious world of this country, how individual consciences were being racked—Newman's Apologia pro vita sua alone will testify—problems of theology and rival claims of the churches to authoritative teaching and the exclusive care of souls. Yet all the while, amid these wranglings and heart-searchings about the mere accidents and circumferential fripperies of religion, here was living and writing this unheard of woman with the clearest vision into the penetralia of Wisdom and central Truth and carrying about in her mind and heart the vital secrets of that regeneration of the human soul to teach which all instituted religion and all theology are designed. The mere fact of the existence at such a period and in such an unfavourable environment of an intellect so fully developed and so richly endowed opens up the interesting question, how is such an abnormal soul to be explained and accounted for? Education, in the ordinary sense, even of the most select kind, does not account for intellectual or spiritual prodigies; it merely supplies suitable opportunity for their development. Interior illumination of the mind in spiritual truth and metaphysical processes (as was the case with Boehme, for instance) might be a partial solution in some cases, and as we have seen, there is evidence that our authoress had in a measure been so illumined prior to the date of {17} writing the Suggestive Inquiry. An explanation, though I do not press or dogmatise upon it, which does seem to cover all the ground, is that souls come into this world imbued with qualities, tendencies and knowledge already acquired pre-existently, and so carrying with them, in relation to others, a favourable or unfavourable handicap in these respects. From evidence I have of her own views, this I think would be the explanation Mrs. Atwood would herself have given. Reincarnation, the doctrine of successive embodiments of the soul upon the physical plane, so familiar to the East but only in recent years and in a crude form introduced to the consideration of us Westerns, she entirely accepted as a fact, but not as a hope; as an occurrence in the mercy of the Divine Order but not as an incident of which man can be proud; as a providential concession to the soul's frailty and its difficulty in reintegrating itself into what the hermetist Basil Valentine calls its “pristine sanity” and the wholeness which is one with holiness, but not as one on which it can rely in the hope of evading its present obligations or relaxing its efforts towards rectitude. And indeed, upon this hypothesis, she herself, so markedly a spiritual and intellectual kinswoman of Diotima and Hypatia, might be regarded as once having been some Greek or Graeco- Roman soul that formerly, in some home of the Mysteries perhaps, had learned not a little of the arcana of the soul's life and now after centuries had stolen back into a British body, there to take up the dropped threads of the ontologic wisdom she had previously acquired and to weave them into concreteness of personal life as another stage towards the fulfilment of that vital experiment in which each one of us is really engaged with less or more awareness or benightedness but so often, God help us! with such little intelligence and understanding.

Her book will not be found easy reading or be readily comprehended by those unversed in its subject-matter, partly because of its authoress's unusual style and language and partly because of the cryptic terminology employed by writers in the line of the Hermetic tradition. These difficulties are largely incident to those of the subject itself, which like every other science has gathered round it a garment of specialised terminology and nucleated its {18} elementary ideas and working-principles into formulae meaningless to those unfamiliar with it. Especially absurd appear to the modern mind the traditional formulae of a science so little popular as ontology, and notoriously the alchemic “jargon” is the subject of ridicule by the conventionally wise of this world whose learning prefers to range to every subject beneath the sun to considering that vital one the world-old first maxim of which is Nosce teipsum, the knowledge of which would supersede the need for all other knowledge since it would include it. These difficulties, however, are worthy of being patiently contended with by the earnest-minded enquirer, whilst their conquest will bring its own reward by strengthening and illuminating the understanding; in any case it is unwise to reject a priori or as unintelligent and unintelligible nonsense the language uniformly employed by a formidable cloud of witnesses to a science which has engaged the profoundest attention of the world's greatest sages and philosophers.

An extremely deep, close and accurate thinker, Mrs. Atwood's language was synthetic and selected to match her thought and was never loose or unconsidered. It may appear stilted and pedantic; she herself used to admit that the book was written in “a crabbed Latinised English” that would prove unpalatable. Both her literary manner and her phrasing reflect her own character which was developed rather on the intellectual than on the affectional side, and it is seldom that the cold marble of her austere but stately style is flushed by any warm- blooded emotion; when it is, as for instance in the concluding chapters of this volume, she rises to heights of superb and moving eloquence. She attached great value to words, as being not only means for conveying ideas, but as, when rightly used, having a magical power to stimulate the understanding of the attentive hearer and to evoke responsiveness from as yet unawakened elements in him. Frequently she used words not in their modern, colloquial and derived senses, but according to their original significance, and after this manner she interpreted the terminology of other exact expressers of ideas and, in particular, the wording of Scripture. For example, 'contrition' colloquially implies penitence; {19} with her it meant 'trituration' (contra or cum tero), the metaphysical rubbing against or together of two unreconciled elements; e.g., the mind's consciousness of transgression, and 'sin' self-revealed in the presence of the divine light made manifest within oneself, would set up such a metaphysical 'contrition' of the two as would result in the moral state known as penitence and the physical concomitant of tears.8) Again, “the stone which the builders rejected”; to each of the italicised words she accorded a far deeper meaning than the superficial reader gives them. With her the phrase meant that the metaphysical essential ens or substrate of life, brought from its diffused state into a consolidated one (a philosophical 'stone') by the enlightened sagacity of those skilled in that sacred science (i.e., the 'builders'), was not repudiated, but jactitated, literally cast or handed to and fro, (re jacio), by and between them in the course of their Hermetic work; just as, in a less instructed and high-motived manner, the mesmeric operator does in fact 'reject' and transfer from himself to his patient a subtle fluid for curative or other purposes.

Before concluding these personal details of Mrs. Atwood's life, it should be said that it is to her that we are primarily indebted for our acquaintance with that extremely valuable treatise on practical mysticism, Karl von Eckhartshausen's The Cloud upon the Sanctuary,9) to which reference will be made later. Perhaps she alone in this country, with her extensive acquaintance with ancient and foreign mystical literature, knew of or possessed this book in its French version. She introduced it appreciatively to Madame de Steiger who, seeing its value, forthwith translated it into English and the translation has since passed into its third edition. It is supplemented by instructive notes by the translator for which Mrs. Atwood's private and personal comments largely formed the material. A great amount of Mrs. Atwood's thought and insight has also found its way into two other volumes10) Madame de Steiger has published, largely as the result of her long and close intimacy with the recluse of Knayton. {20}


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1)
From a private note-book of the authoress of this volume.
2)
As in 1 Cor. xv,, 35–58.
3)
The allusion here is to the advanced mystical state called Canor by the early English mystic, Richard Rolle, when “meditation is turned into a song of joy,” and “in a plenteous soul the sweetness of eternal love is taken and the mind into full sweet sound is changed”; the rising into consciousness of the music of the ever-sounding Divine Word.
      “Such harmony is in immortal souls,
      But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
      Doth grossly close us in, we cannot hear it.”
4)
By P. J. Bailey, whose Festus was published in 1839.
5)
It may be recalled that, under a like impulse and upon it being pointed out to him that by publishing it he would be exposing secrets of the Sanctuary, Coventry Patmore destroyed the manuscript of a volume containing the fruit of ten years' mystical thought. (See Patmore's Biography, by Basil Champneys, vol. i., 315-319, and ii., 57-91.)
6)
For Correspondence between Mr. C. C. Massey and Mrs. Atwood see the former's Memoir “Thoughts of a Modern Mystic” (1909, Kegan Paul & Co.) edited by Sir Wm. F. Barrett, F.R.S.
7)
In Mrs. Atwood's intention “common insight” would mean a power of in-seeing existent potentially in, and therefore common to, all, but latent and unusual in most because left uncultivated. The majority exercise not the quality of true faith but merely a superstition of, or elementary persuasion towards, faith as defined in her letter.
8)
As to this see par. 106 of the Memorabilia, Appendix, post.
9)
Published by W. Rider and Son, Ltd., London.
10)
Or, a Gold Basis (W. Rider and Son, Ltd.); and Superhumanity (Elliott Stock).