Texts for a Fire Sermon


A bobbin, vortex, whirling gyre,

The tongues ascend, a silent choir,

A phoenix trope for pure desire.

The painter sees as flames aspire

The anagram of Frye is Fyre.

As for the theft of fire, many of the stories put the source of fire in the under world, where the sun is at night, so that when the thief of fire returns he is also the rising sun.  [Notebook 7.22]

There’s the Paravritti, the Beulah-Eden vortex through the ray of fire which opens out into the mystic rose. [Notebook 7.33]

Engineering metaphors or thought models start of course with fire and the wheel.  One gives metaphors of spark, scintilla, energy & the like: most of our organism metaphors take off from it.  [Notebook 18.10]

In the Great Doodle (apocalyptic) the spiritual world is (a) the fire-world of heavenly bodies (b) the lower heaven or sky.  Hence it is normally (a) red with the seraphim (b) blue with the cherubim.  Blue & white mean virginity, red & white love; red white & green is the point of epiphany. [Notebook 18.98]

Whenever Eros got into the Xn trdn. [Christian tradition] (Inge has it in his book on mysticism) Eros (not Cupid) is certainly a Gentile type of Christ, and Prometheus of the Spirit.  Fire seems right; it’s what the gyre kindles.  Try to think about Abraham’s furnace; fire descending to the altar (less Elijah than Chronicles), the three “children” (magi?) in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace [Daniel 3].  Blake certainly thought Los’s furnaces had something.  Smart on Abraham’s.  Speaking of magi, they should have been women, as they’re antitypes of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon. [Notebook 27.147]

Man is asleep and fantasizing in the ladder, garden and seed worlds.  His central activity there is quest, the projection of Word into Deed that enables him to go on sleeping.  In the fire world he’s compelled to wake up, hence the first thing he does is withdraw the quest.  [Notebook 27.188]

What the released flame of Prometheus illuminates is, among other things, the true ladder as the four phases of meaning.  The flame, by the way, has to include the occult link between the living fire & the warm-blooded organism I mentioned in GC [The Great Code, 161-2]. [Notebook 27.190]

The fire-chapter should include, first of all, Little Gidding and the two Byzantium poems.  SB [Sailing to Byzantium] is a panoramic apocalypse: every state of the chain of being appears on fire as nature is destroyed & the artifice of eternity replaces it.  Byzantium burns from the inside.  Note how intensely Heraclitean both Eliot & Yeats get when they enter the fire. [Notebook 27.250]

What’s the Biblical setup?  I think it’s polarized between the first coming of Christ in water and his second coming in fire. [Notebook 27.259]

To go from the ladder-garden world to the ark-flame one, think of going from Ash-Wednesday to the Quartets, from The Tower to A Vision (if only Yeats had got the vision!).  Note that I was first attracted to archetypal criticism by Colin Still’s book on The Tempest, with its central conception of the ladder of elements, a conception going back to the pre-Socratics.  Heraclitus says there’s an exchange of “fire” and of “all things,” as there is of “gold” for “wares.”  That’s something to chew on.  [Notebook 27.263]

Everyone who suffers for his beliefs belongs to the noble army of martyrs.  Whether the beliefs are true, false, profound or absurd is of no importance.  All martyrdom manifests the brutal & stupid human psychosis, and all martyrs are equally in the service of God.  The remarks in Religio Medici about mistaken martyrs who pass from one fire to another makes me puke.  As Paulina should have said in WT [The Winter’s Tale], it is always the heretic who lights the fire [2.3.115]. [Notebook 27.293]

The City of Cain was destroyed in the Flood, and survived as the seed of the ark.  A second ark survived the drowning of Egypt, and became the fire-seed of the golden temple. [Notebook 27.318]

Oh, God, if I could only get the Hiranyagarbha point clear: the seed of fire in the midst of the waters.  I’m pretty sure there’s something buried in that that would clear up the whole second half of the book. [Notebook 27.327]

The seed of fire is (symbolically, of course) male, & the waters around it female.  How does the growth or escape of the fire bring the water to life?  See Ezekiel 47, of course. [Notebook 27.338]

The last dimension of experience is the sense of the rhythm of mutability, the growth & decay that goes on simultaneously in time and space.  The emotional emphasis is usually on growth, from tiny seed to mighty tree or whatever.  The Vedic myth of Hiranyagarbha, the golden seed of fire in the midst of waters, comes through the Bible as the deluge myth with the ark, the container of all life, floating on the surface.  [Notebook 27.366]

The first judgment by water & the last by fire: Jesus’ baptism by John in water & his conveying the (fiery) Holy Spirit to the disciples.  Moses as an infant found in the water: Elijah ascending in a chariot of fire.  [Notebook 27.478]

[Berkeley] transforms air & fire into principles rather like those of yin & yang in Chinese mythology, then distinguishes the hidden fire that pervades all things & is the spirit of life from its epiphany or manifestation as light. [Notebook 44.124]

Here (too) are gods, says Heraclitus lighting a fire. [Notebook 50.65]

Interesting in the Mental Traveller that it’s only the Female Babe that springs out of the fire and is the fire [ll. 44–5]. [Notebook 50.104]

Why is there so emphatic a prohibition against lighting fires on the Sabbath?  Cf. the Xn [Christian] emphasis on the Mithraic birthday of the sun.  There’s a lot about God as fire in the Bible I still have to work out.  Cf. the Parsee fire-worshipping element in Moby Dick, with its Promethean “right worship is defiance.”  Exodus 35:3. [“Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.”] [Notebook 50.120]

The furnace includes suffering humanity: the genuine “holocaust.”  Christ’s tomb is a cave of the natural body and the crucible (a descent to hell) of the spiritual one.  The fire-seed that pushes through the fennel-stalk, the fuse of the flower, the phoenix red bird of fire, Hiranyagarbha, the glowing flame-city Atlantis-Byzantium.  Jerusalem rising from the sea–-there’s enough to work on. [Notebook 50.140]

Why the hell is the Virgin the burning bush (Chaucer)?  I suppose she’s the carrier of the Word in the enclosed garden, which is a burning tree. [Notebook 50.153]

I think the kerygmatic breakthrough always contains some sense of “time has stopped.”  The sequential movement has become a focus, or fireplace.  In intensified consciousness the minute particular shines by its own light (or burns in its own life-fire). [Notebook 50.175]

Hopkins’ Heraclitean fire: the Resurrection is the fire of life that turns the burnt-match carbon of the natural body into the diamond-carbon of the spiritual one.  Here the Hr. [Heraclitean] fire is the fire which consumes, not the fire of life. [Notebook 50.181]

Fire is perhaps the archetypal expanding symbol, growing from spark to a world consummation.  Smart on Abraham’s furnace. [“For the furnace itself shall come up at the last according to Abraham’s vision” (Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno, ed. W.H. Bond [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954], 89).]  First judgment by water and last by fire, Cancer & Capricorn respectively holding all the planets.  Cyclical fire scheme in the Stoics, ekpyrosis. [Notebook 50.186]

When Berdyaev says in an essay on Boehme that Boehme’s whole thought comes out of an intuition about fire, and that this links him with Heraclitus. [Notebook 50.238]

Start with Boehme and his fire: God is nothing and wanting to be something is a fire.  When he gets to be something the fire acquires light.  I don’t know whether he actually says that God without light is Satan, but Satan is the darkness that doesn’t comprehend the light. [Notebook 50.257]

I think of both apocalypses as essentially based on the archetype of fire, the hidden flame in the fennel-stalk, followed by the burning (consummation) of the world and the emergence of the true or spiritual world.  [Notes 52.246]

Apocalypse is the hidden flame lit up, first setting the world on fire, then shining in its own light of awakened consciousness (omnia sunt lumina). [Notes 52.463]

I looked up the furnace of Abraham in Smart and found two lines above it “For Fire hath this property that it reduces a thing till finally it is not.” [Notes 52.650]

Why are nearly all myths of the origin of fire myths of stealing it?  Why is Prometheus, always the benefactor & in some versions the creator of mankind, never worshipped? [Notebook 12.160]

In the old diagram the Logos vision is a universal full of particulars; the corresponding point of alienation in the new one is a total similitude, Blake’s “generalizing gods” [Jerusalem, pl. 89, l. 30].  The old Thanatos, or life frozen in hell, similarly becomes the reversal of rebirth, as the total similitude of death turns into the particular point of light that turns similitude into the universal identity.  That is what resurrection means now.  This is the point Spengler misses, naturally: Toynbee realized it was there but couldn’t state it.  The Edmonton vision kept revolving around this like a halcyon bird on the sea of chaos.  I suspect it was in the FS vision the thing I couldn’t grasp because it was itself the driving force of the book.  I may have glimpsed it in the “walking fire” & the prayer to the poor naked wretches of Lear.  Paravritti [turning around]; Wiederkehr [return]: the descent through & return through the vortex; the movement of Byzantium. [Notebook 21.473–4]

The walking fire is the burning bush, where God says I am & I will bugger the power of Egypt & the Sphinx’s inscrutable smile.  The Jehovah dwelling in flaming fire.  He is, of course, the genuine Osiris (the opposite of Lawrence’s foolish story), the god of death in & by whose power we rise.  [Notebook 21.480]

The conception of an immortal spiritual body which isn’t flesh (sarx) or liquid (blood, hence soul) or gaseous (spirit or air) but an immortal organism or fire, tending to keep its form but not its volume, is a tremendous mental leap.  (The tradition of a warm-blooded organism as imprisoned fire is still going strong in Berkeley’s Siris).  The fire is demonic or apocalyptic, the latter prefigured by the furnace of Daniel.  Apocalyptic flame can symbolize interpenetration, as air & water symbolize absorption. [Notebook 21.590]

If erotic desire breaking out of its legal bounds is fire, it will burn up cities, as Helen’s passion did, and so start going the great wheel of history that has produced the Trojan cycle three times and destroyed it twice.  [Notebook 43.139]

And as the risen body perceives the new world the old one perishes in flames. Why flames? Because fire is the greatest possible combination in this world of heat and light, and the risen body lives in the greatest possible combination of the spiritual forms of heat and light: energy or desire, and reason or vision.  Fire destroys the solid form of nature, and those who have believed nature to be solid will find themselves in a lake of fire at the Dies Irae.  But the imagination cannot be consumed by fire, for it is fire; the burning bush of God which never exhausts its material.  It is this fire that “delights in its form.”

The word “consummation,’ often applied to the apocalypse, refers both to the burning world and the sacred marriage.  Paradise itself is a place of flaming fire, the fires being the “lustful” passions which there are fully gratified.  They are also “thought‑creating fires” because gratified desire produces reason.  Eden is a fiery city, as is indicated in Ezekiel’s speech to the Covering Cherub: “Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God . . . thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.”  Similarly the three whom Nebuchadnezzar put into a fiery furnace were seen to be walking unhurt in the fire with the Son of God.

Since the Fall, there has been a flaming sword over Paradise, and fire is now something to be approached with more circumspection.  Orthodox theology tells us that in the eternal world

the fires of hell have heat without light, and that heaven is a blaze of golden light, the question of heat being slurred over.  Remembering that passion and desire are spiritual heat, such doctrines tell us symbolically that desires are hellish and that we shall be tortured forever for having them, whereas those who have emasculated their passions will be admitted to a heaven in which the kind of divine love they enjoy, while its exact nature is unknown, is certain to be something very, very pure. Like forest animals, the orthodox have a fascinated horror of fire and its torments, and when we come down to the skeptical obscurantism of the “new philosophy” “the element of fire is quite put out.”  What is coming is the union of heat and light, a marriage of heaven and hell.  By “hell” Blake means an upsurge of desire and passion within the rising body so great that it will destroy

the present starry heaven, and he calls it “hell” because that is what the orthodox call it. [Fearful Symmetry, 196–7]

On the archetypal level proper, where poetry is an artifact of human civilization, nature is the container of man. On the anagogic level, man is the container of nature, and his cities and gardens are no longer little hollowings on the surface of the earth, but the forms of a human universe. Hence in apocalyptic symbolism we cannot confine man only to his two natural elements of earth and air, and, in going from one level to the other, symbolism must, like Tamino in The Magic Flute, pass the ordeals of water and fire. Poetic sym­bolism usually puts fire just above man’s life in this world, and water just below it. Dante had to pass through a ring of fire and the river of Eden to go from the mountain of purgatory, which is still on the surface of our own world, to Paradise or the apocalyptic world proper. The imagery of light and fire surrounding the angels in the Bible, the tongues of flame descending at Pentecost, and the coal of fire applied to the mouth of Isaiah by the seraph, associates fire with a spiritual or angelic world midway between the human and the divine. In Classical mythology the story of Prometheus indi­cates a similar provenance for fire, as does the association of Zeus with the thunderbolt or fire of lightning. In short, heaven in the sense of the sky, containing the fiery bodies of sun, moon, and stars, is usually identified with, or thought of as the passage to, the heaven of the apocalyptic world.

Hence all our other categories can be identified with fire or thought of as burning. The appearance of the Judaeo‑Christian deity in fire, surrounded by angels of fire (seraphim) and light (cherubim), needs only to be mentioned. The burning animal of the ritual of sacrifice, the incorporating of an animal body in a communion be­tween divine and human worlds, modulates into all the imagery connected with the fire and smoke of the altar, ascending incense, and the like. The burning man is represented in the saint’s halo and t the king’s crown, both of which are analogues of the sun‑god: one may compare also the “burning babe” of Southwell’s Christmas poem. The image of the burning bird appears in the legendary phoe­nix. The tree of life may also be a burning tree, the unconsumed burning bush of Moses, the candlestick of Jewish ritual, or the “rosy cross” of later occultism. In alchemy the vegetable, mineral, and water worlds are identified in its rose, stone, and elixir; flower and jewel archetypes are identified in the “jewel in the lotus” of the Buddhist prayer. The links between fire, intoxicating wine, and the hot red blood of animals are also common.

The identification of the city with fire explains why the city of God in the Apocalypse is presented as a glowing mass of gold and precious stones, each stone presumably burning with a hard gem­like flame. For in apocalyptic symbolism the fiery bodies of heaven, sun, moon, and stars, are all inside the universal divine and human body. The symbolism of alchemy is apocalyptic symbolism of the same type: the center of nature, the gold and jewels hidden in the earth, is eventually to be united to its circumference in the sun, moon, and stars of the heavens; the center of the spiritual world, the soul of man, is united to its circumference in God. Hence there is a close association between the purifying of the human soul and the transmuting of earth to gold, not only literal gold but the fiery quintessential gold of which the heavenly bodies are made. The golden tree with its mechanical bird in Sailing to Byzantium identi­fies vegetable and mineral worlds in a form reminiscent of alchemy. [Anatomy of Criticism, 145–6]

In Blake, as in the Bible, Jesus is the unifying principle which identifies all these images with one another. Jesus is God and Man; he is the bread and wine, the body and blood, the tree, bread and water of life, the vine of which we are branches, the cornerstone of the city, and his body is the temple. In the apocalypse the Globule of Blood is the sun (M, pl. 31, l. 23), for sun, moon, and stars are inside the risen body of Christ, and are hence identical with the gold and gems of which the City of God is composed. Further, as risen man can live in fire, all the above images may be thought of as burning: the tree is a burning tree, like a candlestick or the bush of the Exodus; the stones burn with a gem-like flame, and the Jehovah of the Bible is “no other than he who dwells in flaming fire.” A note scribbled on the back of a sketch for the last plate of Milton speaks of returning “from flames of fire tried & pure & white.” The poet who sees the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower, and who identifies earth and heaven in vision, has the same conception of identity as that of the famous Buddhist prayer to the jewel in the lotus. [“Notes for a Commentary on Milton”]

The apocalyptic contrast with the Tower of Babel and its confusion of tongues is the coming of the gift of tongues to the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2): the law of Sinai was also given from a mountain, according to tradition also at Pentecost. Whatever is struck by fire from the sky, whether benevolently or in wrath, is symbolically at the highest point in the world. [The Great Code]

Man in his present state cannot live in fire, but, as with water, there is a fire of life and a fire of death.  The fire of life burns without burning up: there is light and heat but no pain or destruction. This fire appears in the burning bush of Exodus 3:2, which “burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” On metaphorical principles all the categories of apocalyptic existence can be thought of as burning in the fire of life. The bird is an image of the Holy Spirit, and the burning bird is the phoenix, whose story was regarded later as a type of the Resurrection. There is no phoenix in the canonical Bible, unless the word rendered “sand” by the AV translators in Job 29:18 is the phoenix, but it appears as early as 3 Baruch among the Pseudepigrapha. The Old English poem on the phoenix, a paraphrase of Lactantius, begins with a beautiful description of the earthly paradise or Eden which is the phoenix’s home. We have mentioned the possibility that the tree of life was originally thought of as a date palm, which in Greek is also called phoinix.

The tree of life would similarly be a tree burning in the fire of life: it is represented not only in the burning bush of Moses but in the seven‑branched candlestick or “lampstand” of Exodus 25:31 ff. Human beings burning in the fire of life include the three Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, miraculously transformed from a destructive fire into a living one (Daniel 3:25). They include also the saints of medieval paintings with their glowing haloes, and the “burning babe” of the Elizabethan Jesuit Southwell’s wonderful Christmas poem. The chariot of fire in which Elijah went up to heaven is metaphorically his own transformed body, however the original narrator thought of it, and is a rising movement corresponding to the fire descending from God to his altar on Carmel (1 Kings 18:38). Similarly, a fire rises on the altar in the temple in response to a fire descending from God (2 Chronicles 7:1). As late as Eliot’s Little Gidding we have the same imagery: descending fire from the flames of the Holy Spirit and ascending fire on the funeral pyre of Hercules, set over against a demonic parody of fire bombs falling in London and fires breaking out of the streets in response. Blake also borrows Elijah’s chariot of fire for building Jerusalem, which is seen by John of Patmos as a city glowing with gold and gems—in other words, a city burning in the fire of life. [The Great Code]

In the earlier part of our cultural tradition the fire-world was most significantly the world of heavenly bodies between heaven proper and the earth. The Spirit descends from above in tongues of fire; the seraphim are angels of fire; the gods who preceded the angels are in charge of the planets; for Christianity the world of superior spirits is all that is left of the unfallen world that God originally planned. The fire-world as the unfallen world of pre-creation appears in Bachelard as the “Novalis complex.” The return of man to his original home, the complementary myth of ascending fire, is symbolized by the funeral pyre of Hercules (in the fourth section of Eliot’s Little Gidding, for example, this image is brought into direct contrast with the image of fire descending from the Holy Spirit), and comes into all the imagery of purgatorial fire in Dante and elsewhere. With the Romantics this more specifically human fire, which symbolizes the raising of the human state to a quasi-divine destiny, becomes more purely a “Prometheus complex,” especially to the more revolutionary Romantics, Shelley, Byron, Victor Hugo, who feel, like Ahab in Moby Dick, that the right form of fire-worship is defiance. The Last Judgment, the destruction of the world by fire and the absorption of the human soul into the soul of fire, is the “Empedocles complex.”

Thus the myth of “spontaneous combustion” is used by Dickens in Bleak House to describe the death of Krook. In his preface Dickens stubbornly defends the actuality of the conception, and refers to some of the authorities quoted by Bachelard, including Le Cat. When Dickens finally says, “I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received”—in other words the Last Judgment—we begin to get a clue to the real reason why Dickens felt that such a device was essential to his story. [Preface to Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire]

I have now come within sight of my title, “The Symbol as a Medium of Exchange.” The basis for the title is an aphorism of Heraclitus: “There is exchange of all things for fire and of fire for all things, as there is of wares for gold and of gold for wares.” Heraclitus is concerned with the perennial theme of the one and the many, the world of “all things” and the sense of unity that the mind constantly struggles for, which emerges in some form in practically every effort to make sense of a pluralistic world.  Heraclitus’s teaching appears to include some metaphorical conception of a ladder of elements.  Earth, wet mud, and water are at the bottom of this ladder: people with undisciplined emotions and undeveloped intelligence are soggy and moist.  As they rise in the scale of being they become drier and warmer, and capable of sharing in the common light of experience that Heraclitus calls the logos.  On the top level of fire, where there is dryness and light, we begin to experience the unity of things instead of simply their plurality.  But unity, the oneness of things, cannot be expressed except by such a symbol as the word “fire” provides.  Heraclitus apparently does not think that we go up to an “other” world where, in Yeats’s phrase again, we stand indefinitely in God’s holy fire [Sailing to Byzantium, l.  17].  Sooner or later the descent back to the world of things takes place, and we begin to sink from the dry light of fire to the mud‑vision of the dreaming ego.  Perhaps everything consists of these two movements: of death passing into nothingness, of new life coming to birth from the same nothingness.  We live each other’s deaths and die each other’s lives, he says: we move from “all things” to the unity they symbolize, and find that the symbol of unity, the fire, is also the symbol of all things.  If so, then the illustration of buying wares with gold is to be taken seriously: we may have one or the other, but not both. [“The Symbol as a Medium of Exchange,” in Myth and Metaphor]

May the peace of God, who conquered death and brought life into the common day, who is the way for us who walk in darkness, whose light of creation touches us with its living fire, whose Word is the sword of wisdom, whose spirit is unremitting love, unite us in the community that has no barriers, and make his presence known to us now and always.  Amen. [“Funeral Service for Jean Gunn”]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

1 thought on “Texts for a Fire Sermon

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *