Arthur Edward Waite
Joseph Fort Newton
ONE of the greatest masters of the field of esoteric lore and method of culture, by far the greatest now living, is Arthur Edward Waite, to whom it is an honor to pay tribute. In response to a number of requests, and as prelude to a lecture on the deeper aspects of Masonry, soon to appear in these pages, we offer a brief sketch of Brother Waite, with a statement of his conception of Masonry and its service to man in his quest of God. If these lines induce any of our readers to study his works, they will thank us for having put them in the way of so wise and skillful a guide, who is at once a poet and a mystic, the sum of whose insight, set forth on his latest page, is that
"All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame, Are but the ministers of love, And feed his sacred flame."
By rare good fortune, as we think, our friend and teacher was born in America — in Brooklyn, New York — and on his father's side traces his descent back to the earliest settlers in Connecticut. His mother was English, belonging to the old family of Lovell. The family name, originally spelled "Wayte," was attached to the document authorizing the execution of Charles I., and it was probably the fact that the family found England a rather uncomfortable place in which to live after the Restoration that sent his ancestors across the sea. While the poet was still in his infancy his father died, and he was taken to England at the age of two. He has never returned to America — a fact to be held against him, but for which we hope he will atone in a time not far away.
Educated privately, he began writing while still in his early teens, poetry being his first love. His first book, a volume of verse, was published in 1886. For ten years or more he pursued an active business life, as secretary and director of public companies, at the same time engaging in elaborate researches in the fields of magic, occultism, and the esoteric side of religion and philosophy. How he found time to do both is not easy to know. He took the whole realm of mysticism for his province, for the study of which he was almost ideally fitted by temperament, training, and genius — and, we may add, by certain deep experiences in his own life, of which he rarely speaks, the glow of which one detects in all his work, and nowhere more vividly than in his latest book on "The Way of Divine Union." In later years, as the result of long study, he has come to deal only with the higher mysticism, as totally separated from the magical, the psychical, and the occult.
Exploring a hidden world, he has brought to his task a religious nature, the accuracy and skill of a scholar, a sureness and delicacy of insight at once sympathetic and critical, the eye of a symbolist and the soul of a poet — qualities rarely found in union. Brother Waite does not write after our American fashion — "hot off the bat," as Casey put it — but in a leisurely manner, seeking not only to state the results of his research, but to convey somewhat of the atmosphere of the themes with which he deals. Prolific but seldom prolix, he writes with such lucidity as his subject admits of, albeit in a style often touched with strange lights and remote and haunting echoes. Much learning and many kinds of wisdom are in his pages; and if he is of those who turn down another street when wonders are wrought in the neighborhood, it is because, having found the inner truth, he does not ask for a sign.
Always our Brother writes in the conviction that all great subjects bring us back to the one subject that is alone great — the attainment of that Living Truth which is about us everywhere. He conceives of our human life as one eternal Quest of that Living Truth, taking many forms, yet ever at heart the same aspiration, to trace which he has made it his labor and reward. Through all his pages he is following the tradition of this Quest, in its myriad aspects, finding in it the secret meaning of the life of man from his birth to his union — or reunion — with God who is his Goal. And the result is a series of volumes noble in form! united in aim, unique in wealth of revealing beauty, of exquisite insight, and of unequalled worth.
As far back as 1886, Brother Waite issued his study of the "Mysteries of Magic," a digest of the writings of Eliphas Levi, to whom Albert Pike was more indebted than he let us know. Then followed the "Real History of the Rosicrucians," which traces, as far as such a thing can be done, the thread of fact in that fascinating romance. Of the Quest in its distinctively Christian aspect, he has written in "The Hidden Church of the Holy Graal"; a work of rare beauty, of bewildering richness, its style partaking of the story told, and not at all after the fashion of these days. But the Graal Legend is only one aspect of the old-world sacred Quest of the truth most worth finding, uniting the symbols of chivalry with the forms of Christian faith.
Masonry is another aspect of that same age-long Quest; and just as Brother Pound has shown us the place of Masonry among the institutions of humanity, and its meaning as such, so Brother Waite shows us the place of Masonry in the mystical tradition and aspiration of mankind. No one may ever hope to write of "The Secret Tradition in Masonry" with more insight and charm, or a touch more sure and revealing, than this gracious scholar to whom Masonry perpetuates the Instituted Mysteries of antiquity, with much else derived from innumerable store-houses of treasure. What then are the marks of this eternal Quest, whether its legend be woven about a Lost Word, a design left unfinished by a Master Builder, or, in its Christian form, about the Cup of Christ?
They are as follows: first, the sense of a great loss which has befallen humanity, making us a race of pilgrims ever in search of that which is lost; second, the intimation that what was lost still exists somewhere in time and the world, although deeply buried; third, the faith that it will ultimately be found and the vanished glory restored; fourth, the substitution of something temporary and less than the best, but never in a way to adjourn the quest; and fifth, the felt presence of that which is lost under veils and symbols close at hand. What though it take many forms, it is always the same quest, and from this statement of it surely we ought to see that Masonry has a place in the greatest quest which man has pursued in the midst of time. Our Order is thus linked with the shining tradition of the race, having a place and a service in the culture of the life of the soul, leading men in the search for God, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us.
But this is a long and difficult quest, and we must walk carefully, lest we trip and fall into the pits that beset the path. Brother Waite warns us against the dark alleys that lead nowhere, and the false lights that lure to ruin, and he protests against those who would open the Pandora's Box of the Occult on the altar of Masonry. After a long study of occultism, magic, omens, talismans, and the like, he has come to draw a sharp line between the occult and the mystical. and therein he is wise. From a recent interview with him in regard to these matters in an English paper, we may read:
"There is nothing more completely set apart from mysticism than that set of interests and things called occultism. Occultism is concerned with the idea that there were a number of secret sciences handed down from the past, and which, roughly speaking, represented the steps toward the attainment of abnormal power by man, corresponding to the idea of Magic. Magic, of course, meant many things: it meant the power obtained by man as a result of dealing with spirits, raising the spirits of the dead, everything that we understand by the supposed efficacy of talismans, and all that is comprehended in the word Astrology. My interest in these things has been purely historical and critical.
Occult and psychical research does help, of course, to show that the purely materialistic interpretation of things does not cover the whole field. It shows a residue of experience which points to the existent of powers beyond the ken of man, some of them maleficent, others innocent in themselves, of which the student may take account. Unfortunately, I have known too many who follow these things as the be-all and end-all of their interests. I know others also, and many, to whom the exaggerated pursuit has spelt not less than ruin. I mean, morally and spiritually. I know, for the rest, that they reach no real term; very soon they come up against a dead wall."
Here are grave and wise words, spoken out of full knowledge of history and fact, and he is wise who heeds them. It is no theological bias of any sort, but the profound fallacy of the occult, and its danger to the highest life and character, that has moved us more than once in these pages to utter a like warning to those who would turn aside from the historic highway of the soul to follow a will-of-the-wisp into the bog. If Masonry forsakes its Great Light to follow these wandering tapers, it too will fall into the ditch. But to listen to Brother Waite:
"Symbolism is sacramental. To me all visible things are emblems. When you come to think of it, is it not true that all the workings of the human mind are in the form of symbols? These symbols are truly representive and not mere figments of the mind, and to get at the reality behind the symbol is the aim of the mystic. The theory of mysticism is that the voice of God is within, and that the soul has to enter into the realization that God is within. The question is whether that realization can be fully achieved in this life. All, or nearly all, the great mystics, held that they only approximated it. The absolute vision and union lie very far away — so the quest of the Lost Word goes on, ever on.
Mysticism is not a way of escape either from one's self or the world. It is by the realization of the indwelling of God in all around, and within, in things animate and inanimate, and most of all in the soul of man, that we attain to knowledge of God — in so far as we attain it in this life. Thus, it is not a path of escape from the world, as the old ascetics imagine, but by finding God in the world, the ideal in the real, one with the ideal within ourselves, that we attain to union with God. We are sacraments to ourselves. A man building a house would perhaps be surprised if you told him that he is not merely building bricks and stones, but that he is trying to bring into being something of the idealism in his own nature, but if he could be brought to understand that, would it not give a new glory to his work? "
Thus mysticism, as here presented, is practical common sense — bringing to the humblest task the highest truth to lighten and transfigure our labor. Time does not permit us to speak of the poetry of Brother Waite, though some think his best work has been done in that field. He himself thinks of his poetry as "light tongued rumors and hints alone of the songs I had hoped to sing." We must, however, mention his drama of "The Morality of the Lost Word," which may be found in his poems, recently collected in two noble volumes, and we bespeak for it a long study. At another time we shall speak of the poetry of our friend to whom the world is ever an infinite parable, giving at present only the following lines as a hint of his poetic purpose and power:
In the midst of a world full of omen and sign, impell'd by the seeing gift On auspice and portent reflecting, in part I conjecture their drift; I catch faint words of the language which the world speaks far and wide. And the soul withdrawn in the deeps of man from the birth of each man has cried. I know that a sense is beyond the sense of the manifest Voice and Word, That the tones in the chant which we strain to seize are the tones that are scarcely heard; While life pulsating with secret things has many too deep to speak, And that which evades, with a quailing heart, we feel is the sense we seek: Scant were the skill to discern a few where the countless symbols crowd, To render the easiest reading, catch the cry that is trite and loud.
For the rest, we confess a great debt to our dear friend and Brother across the great waters, divided by distance but very near in thought and sympathy and regard; a man of pure and lofty spirit, tolerant of mind, noble of nature, in all ways a true Master Mason — and one who does not forget "that best portion of a good man's life, the little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love."