James Harpur – The Ascetic of Light


 By Francesca Diano

Poetry on the Lake Festival. October 2015

Isola San Giulio on the Lake of Orta

Isola San Giulio on the Lake of Orta



This talk was delivered during the Poetry On the Lake International Festival 2015. It was a privilege for me to be there, among great poets and to talk about James Harpur, a poet who means a lot to me.

My special thanks to Gabriel Griffin, wonderful hostess and patron of Poetry, the mind and soul behind this unique festival, for her generous invitation and affection. The spiritual energy of the place and the universal language of poetry make this one of the most perfect poetry festivals in the world, as Carol Ann Duffy said.


At first you are dazzled, then stunned, then you fall into darkness, then you feel comforted. Finally, that darkness where he let you penetrate, is suddenly brightened, sometimes by a dim, sometimes by a flashing, but always unexpected light. This is at least how I felt when, exactly ten years ago, I came across James Harpur’s Voices of the Book of Kells and his coruscating language.

Harpur certainly needs no introduction to an English speaking public, as you will all be familiar with his name and works. I must confess I was utterly ignorant of this poet. So, to me, he was an epiphany. A sudden revelation.

At that time I was doing some research on the Book of Kells for a novel I was then writing. And, while surfing the net, I discovered Harpur’s long poem. I had seen the illuminated Gospel of Kells in Dublin and that experience had left a very deep mark on me.

So I read this poem and, the more I read, the more I couldn’t believe my feelings. There, under my eyes, a great poet that I didn’t know before had voiced with an almost overwhelming intensity and art all those feelings and emotions I had experienced in Trinity.  And much, much more. That was the work not only of a great and substantial poet. It was the work of a mystic.

In the verses I was reading, the words were conveying every possible secret meaning, the Word itself   was emerging as Lògos and, at the same time, as  the regulating power of the universe. A power that separates, differentiates, names and orders.

What I immediately did then, was exactly what I always do when I find something that captures my mind and heart: I translated the text. Translation, to me, is the most perfect and precise way to understanding and learning. Not even the most attentive  and accurate reading can show you  the very deep and inner structure of a text. Because you need to understand before you translate. And, to understand, you need to analyze. And, in doing so, you see and learn. Not only words and ideas, but the structure itself. To me, translation is the golden path to comprehension.

I have chosen to speak today about Voices of the Book of Kells, because I think that  this masterly poem is – I believe – the sum of Harpur’s poetics and philosophical views about poetry, life, himself and the world. The alchemical quintessence of everything that can be found further developed in his other works.

Today there are not many to whom poetry is a direct connection to the divine, as it was at its origin. Harpur is certainly one of them. In fact Harpur is a poet deeply connected to the original root of poetry. An Urdichter, one may say, for his poetry draws from that indistinct original magma that was at the beginning of the universe and of creation.

The role that poetry has to Harpur emerges in the four parts of  Voices of the Book of Kells, where he explores not only the genesis of this prodigious illuminated manuscript, the feelings of its anonymous illuminators and admirers, but he plunges also into the deep mechanism of creation and art.

The four parts of the poem are linked to four places and characters:  two of them creators of the manuscript, namely an illuminator and a scribe; while the other two are witnesses of the work: Iona is linked with the illuminator, known to scholars as Goldworker –  Kells with a scribe known as Scribe B – Kildare with the Anglo-Norman churchman, Gerald of Wales or Giraldus Cambrensis, and Dublin with a modern witness, whom one might suspect is Harpur himself (Scribbler). The four parts are also linked to four different historical times and to four different illuminated pages of the Book. In this perfect interconnection between places and times, men and things, nature and spirit, heart and mind, lies a perfect  symbolical architecture of what should be seen as One, as a whole:  the created universe.

That is the aim of the Book of Kells. That is the aim of James Harpur’s poetry.

The number 4, as you know, has a strong symbolic meaning  not only in the Judaic Christian tradition, but in almost all religions and esoteric traditions. On the fourth day of his “creation week” God completed the material universe. In numerology the number 4 resonates with the vibrations and energies of practicality, organization and exactitude, service, patience, devotion, application, pragmatism, dignity, trust, worthiness, endurance, loyalty, mastery, building solid foundations, determination, production and hard work. And are not all these virtues and qualities required of a scribe and illuminator? And, of course, of an artist?Four is also the number of the Gospels and of the Living Creatures in the vision of Ezekiel.The number 4 is not something to play around easily with!

So, what Harpur actually explores in all his works, but most of all in Voices, is that mysterious sphere of creation – a constant struggle between matter and spirit – a struggle that can only find its resolution by annihilating the opposition (and the Self) through the visionary power of the creative Word.

Thus, it is not by chance that the invisible, whispering voice that is heard by the protagonist in Goldworker belongs to Johannes Scotus Eriugena, or John of Ireland, the great Irish Neoplatonic philosopher and theologian, a key figure in early Middle Ages thought, in which I think we can recognize Harpur’s own voice, as well as, perhaps, the contemplations of the illuminator, Goldworker, himself.

Recently Harpur sent me a new version of the first two parts of Voices. In his previous version, the Goldworker is described as recalling his abbot’s advice in order to attain perfection in his creative process. All Goldworker’s doubts and  his fear of not succeeding, find their answer in the sage abbott’s out-of-frame voice. But in this later version, Harpur decided to introduce the voice of Johannes Scotus, who was born in AD 810, that is to say just after the Book of Kells was probably written, the Irish philosopher, a man yet to be born.

Scotus’s great work, On Nature, or De Divisione Naturae, has a four-part structure and this, again, is another mirror of the number four in the poem In this four-parted structure, in fact, Harpur recalls, in many ways, the same quadruple structure of Scotus Eriugena’s magnum opus, Περί φύσεων was its original title, later  translated in the 17th century with the title De divisione naturae (The division of Nature), a dialogue between Master and Pupil. As peculiar as the presence/non presence of Scotus may appear, yet it is crucial to understanding what Harpur’s view of art and creation is. A neoplatonic view, one should say. To him, the process of art and creativity is the same as the process of the soul seeking its way to illumination and understanding. Meditation and vision are the tools. But this process is not an easy one. The same exhausting  path, the same convoluted journey, the same search strewn with doubts and uncertainties. The same quest.  As in the following lines, addressed by Scotus to Goldworker, during a sort of trance – what Ted Hughes called, the ‘sacred trance’, a sort of guided daydream, akin to Jung’s ‘active imagination’ –  in which the illuminator appears to have fallen:

True images arrive from meditation:

As the interfering self falls away

Things surface like stars in a lake

Then fix what you see unflinchingly

And pour it molten into temporal moulds. 

 So, it is through meditation, that is through ascesis, discarding the encùmbrances of the self, that it is possible to see with crystalline clearness the truth of hidden reality, to contemplate it and then, and only then, to represent it in a visible, actual, material form. So the process can not happen through intellectual comprehension, but by attaining the void, emptying the mind, annihilating the self. An emptiness to be filled with the contemplation of the truth. A vision then, a truth that has to be fixed unflinchingly.

Be a void – the voice will in fact whisper this injunction further on. And also Let the spirit surge into the emptiness. The spirit, not the mind. But, for many, be they artists or not,  total emptiness is scary. Fear is thus the only real enemy of art and creation. But of ascesis as well. The menace of the unknown, of that void, of that non-being to be transformed into being,  which is there in front of the artist and of the ascetic, is the same. The challenge is the same.

To Johannes Scotus, true philosophy is true religion and vice versa. In reading  Harpur’s Goldworker, we could paraphrase this assertion with true religion  is true art  and vice versa.

 As the scholar Dermot Moran writes in an article on Scotus Eriugena: “Overall, Eriugena develops a Neoplatonic cosmology according to which the infinite, transcendent and ‘unknown’ God, who is beyond being and non-being, through a process of self-articulation, procession, or ‘self-creation’, proceeds from his divine ‘darkness’ or ‘non-being’ into the light of being, speaking the Word who is understood as Christ, and at the same timeless moment bringing forth the Primary Causes of all creation”

So, light is being and darkness is non-being. And, while reading Voices of the Book of Kells, we will see much of Eriugena’s  Neoplatonic cosmology, as Moran defines it, transformed into poetry and superlative beauty.

It is very interesting to observe at this point, that the  word illumination, meaning in English both a painted image on a parchment and the experience of spiritual enlightenment, has its origin in the Latin lumen, light; and the Latin noun illuminatio, comes from the verb illuminare“to throw into light, make bright, light up”. Visible, that is. In Italian instead an illuminated image is called miniatura, from minium, the red pigment used in manuscripts for the first capital letter of a chapter. What I would like to stress, is that illumination, vision, light and ascesis  are constant elements in Harpur’s poetry. There are, for example, the golden comets in the night sky in the poem, A Vision of Comets; the vision of angels moving through a wheat field in the title poem of his latest book, Angels and Harvesters.

But let’s analyze more closely the object of this talk.

The four characters of Voices of the Book of Kells, namely – Goldworker, Scribe B, Gerald of Wales, and Scribbler –  could be related to the four stages, or phases, both of the creative process and of spiritual evolution. To the eventful struggle of the artist and of the mystic. As Harpur points out, in the lecture he gave at the Loyola Institute  in Dublin, called “The way up and the way down – Two paths to poetry, art and divinity”, (and available on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8PiZY7m-1g) there are two ways through which man can approach the divine, himself and the world: the negative way and the positive way Via negativa and via positiva. And no doubt that Harpur’s way is the positive way. In Voices, Goldworker and the Scribbler follow the via positiva, while Scribe B and Giraldus the via negativa.

If we consider the four parts, we can detect in each of them the fundamental stages that the soul needs to face along its journey to salvation.



3 – Gerald of Wales: THE OVERWHELMING SELF (a self-obsessed and ambitious ego that prevents  comprehension)


 If we extrapolate Scotus’ words scattered throughout Goldworker  and read them all  in a flow, we will understand what all this means:

Douse your senses, then images will stir (the awakening )

The Spirit must be clothed with line and colour

Haul up from the dark a vision of the whole (all is One. In the One is multiplicity)

Then details will cluster, like bees around clover (cfr Anaximene)

Your painting must shimmer with angels’ skin (sensual reality appears in a multiplicity

Or fish scales, but below the surface                of forms, but its real nature is unity)

Its waters must flow deeper than a well

Let it whirl with Ezekiel’s wheels

Yet be rooted as a reed in a river –        (the deep root is only one)

Let the image reveal its life

As a peacock’s tail staggers apart

And it should be an ark for all creatures

For eagle and lion, salmon and otter

And for the angels, who move unseen among us (See Angels and harvesters)

Nature flows from God, flows back to him – (these are Scotus’ own words)

The pattern will emerge of its own accord

As long as you surrender, let yourself go

You cannot see me because I’m unborn,

My name will be John of Ireland; know this

That creation flows from God, flows back;

Each stone and tree, seed and insect –

If we can see beyond their surface –

Are lanterns to help us find our way home

To where the many melts into one.


But ignore the different instances of nature

Shift beyond their various shapes

To the eternal patterns of the universe

And gaze on the original of every object

Then paint it live, in the splendour of its light.


Your drawings should be diagrams

That lead us upwards to annihilation

As they wipe out the separation of seer and seen

As iron on the anvil absorbs fire

Or sunlight permeates particles of air

True images arrive from meditation:

As the interfering self falls away

Things surface like stars in a lake

Then fix what you see unflinchingly

And pour it molten into temporal moulds

Be a void! Induct eternal life

Through spirals, twists, loops, entanglements

In which the alpha and omega are everywhere

For there’s no start or end, just seamlessness (the discretion of nature and matter is only

This is your chance to incarnate: Christi

autem generatio sic erat –

Loosen the brush and let it rove

Over the page, place trust in it

Don’t shirk from the suspended space

Just float yourself in and all will flow

First the Chi, followed by the Rho


That Voices is the description of a spiritual journey, is very clear when considering its first and last lines:

in Goldworker the poem starts with the voice of the illuminator:


I follow the path inland that fades

In rabbit light and leads to the smoke

Of home, past bracken, furze and boulders

A lurching sheep, its face lamp-black

The froth of its wool flamed by the sun.


And the concluding lines in Scribbler, at the end of the poem, read:

Then higher up I saw a cliff

Long grass spread-eagled by the wind

A beaten path that wound inland

A path that led me on and on.


At the beginning the path inland, in Iona, fades, in a light that is elusive, like the form of a fast running rabbit, leading to a place made hardly visible  by smoke. That is the beginning of a journey whose destination is uncertain.

At the end, that same path inland is clearly visible, beaten, although winding. A path that has to be followed. Thus, beginning and end coincide, the closing of a circle where the non being comes into being in an eternal rotation.

This path is flooded with light – even when light is absent, as its absence stresses its existence, like in Dante’s Divina Commedia. From darkness to light. Each of Harpur’s four characters is bound to follow this path. Each of them needs to overcome his resistance to change and evolution, but only Gerald of Wales fails. Because his fear to let go of the self is stronger than his wish to see. He desperately tries to fill the immense vastness of his inner emptiness – which it is not the void of the ascetic or of the mystic – with  worldly goods, pleasures and ambition. He’s a vain man, lacking courage and determination. Thus he cannot love. And, without love, there is neither art nor spiritual evolution. He refuses to let himself be captured and merged by the light that the Book, which he has been told, has been painted by the angels, irradiates.  He glimpses it, but is scared. To Gerald, sensation is more valuable than feeling.

What happens instead in the last section, Scribbler, is that the platonic archetype – the Word, or the Verbum of the Gospel of John – comes to life from a spontaneous bit of doodling that Scribbler is indulging in, and enters the  material world, in the form of a beautiful woman, who then begins to speak to him.

Here we are indeed in the realm of the platonic ὑπερουράνιον τόπον, the place of Forms, of Ideas. There every change, every motion is absent, as it was absent in the woman figure scribbled by the poet. But the Word starts moving when she descends into the world of matter. Contemplating and listening to her is what the artist does. But what is of fundamental importance is actually that this Form emerges from within him. It is something that wells up spontaneously in him; it does not come as an act of will, but from his subconscious, after he has seen the Book of Kells. And it is this grace-given vision that triggers the inspiration the poet had lost.

I think it’s important to observe that the apparent remoteness of the medieval world and culture that Harpur writes about, is not so remote and  has a lot to do with us. For, in writing about mystics and prophets, about saints and sinners, about oracles, diviners and philosophers from the past, Harpur is actually writing about us, about our troubled times, when great changes are taking place. And times of change are never painless. It’s like a delivery. They give birth to something new.

Harpur’s Voices, no less than the whole of his poetry, reveals in front of our spiritual eyes fearful abysses and inaccessible heights. Will we ever be able to follow him there?

But why then, don’t we take John of Ireland’s advise to the Goldworker?  Just make the start, the rest will flow….

(C)2015 by Francesca Diano RIPRODUZIONE RISERVATA

The Sacro Monte of Orta, where part of the Festival took place

The Sacro Monte of Orta, where part of the Festival took place