A host of Christians sing from their hymnals, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways!” But very few know that John Greenleaf Whittier’s “hymn” is actually the conclusion of a much longer recital of mankind’s effort to bring on a mystical experience by drugs or other means.
To read all seventeen stanzas of Whittier’s “The Brewing of Soma” is to gain a new perspective on the five that we sing. Set against a cacophony of sounds from ages past—the howl of the dervish, the crack of the whip, the drone of endless, repetitious prayers—the final words have a crystal clear, cool quality that ushers us almost startingly into the presence of our Saviour on a quiet Sabbath beside the Sea of Galilee.
In the first seven stanzas, Whittier vividly portrays a pagan priesthood in ancient India that brewed—and came to worship—Soma. The drug was not like an alcoholic intoxicant; it brought on more than “sacred madness” and “a storm of drunken joy.” Soma produced, temporarily, “a winged and glorious birth,” causing partakers to feel that they were soaring upward and, “with strange joy elate,” seeming to reach the very gates of paradise.
After that account of the “child-world’s early year,” the poet reviews in three stanzas the history of man’s efforts through the ages to induce artificially a “religious” experience.
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear, and trance,
To bring the skies more near
Or lift up men to heaven.
Some fever of the blood and brain,
Some self-exalting spell,
The scourger’s keen delight of pain,
The Dervish dance, the Orphic strain …
The desert’s hair-grown hermit sunk
The saner brute below; …
The cloister madness of the monk,
The fakir’s torture-show.
A century after Whittier wrote those words, ...1
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