Critiques of Poetry and Poetics

Joel Weishaus



"Merlin's Cry." A Poem by Michael Whan.
Foreword to,
In a Wayward Mood: Daniel C. Noel: Selected Writings 1969-2002.
New York: iUniverse, 2004.


The poet is as mysteriously driven as the magician who diverts his audience's attention in order to pull the rabbit from his hat. And because this critique centers on the greatest mage of them all, one who could see without being seen, invisible in a castle of invisible air, it begins not with the poem it promises to reveal, but where it first appeared, for whom it jumped out of the hat.


"Merlin's Cry" was written, even if the poet realized this later, in memory of Daniel Calhoun Noel, who taught and published for over 35 years, before his death at age 66. He was, in his own words, "a denizen of the discipline of religious studies."(1) However, as Dennis Patrick Slattery, Dan's colleague at Pacifica Graduate Institute, wrote in remembrance of his friend, "Be it the area of literature, film, culture, history, myth—you name it, Dan was unafraid and always eager to claim it."(2) Indeed, the eclectic scholar became best known for his views on "neoshamanism," and his critique of "fictive realism," especially that of Carlos Castaneda's popular "Don Juan" series of books.

In 1997, I interviewed Noel on his important book, The Soul of Shamanism: Western Fantasies, Imaginal Realities. The interview begins:

"Dan, your new book begins with the figure of Merlin, your ancestral psychopomp. You speak of "Merlin's disappearance and subsequent forest cries," then his reappearance in the "imaginal," which, in turn," draws us" to what you call "neoshamanism." Why this reconsideration of shamanism, in which until recently only anthropologists were interested, as an actual spiritual practice?"

"Merlin doesn't signal the adoption by Westerners of some form of shamanism as a spiritual practice—at least not obviously. I make the connection myself between a resurgence of interest in Merlin and the potential for a more deliberately, mindfully Western version of shamanism than we have had thus far. I employ Merlin as an archetypal role model (given the shamanic characteristics he displays in some variants of his legend) or patron of the sort of Western neoshamanism I'd like to see and try to describe." (3)

Historically, Merlin first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth's versified, Vita Merlini, circa 1132. However, like with Homer, there re many "Merlins." There's Merlinus Ambrosius, who calls himself Aurelius Ambrosius. There's also Merlinus Sylvester, and the Scottish Lailoken. But the Merlin that interests me here is the Welch Myrddlin, who came from Carmarthen, or Caer Myrddhin, in South Wales, one of the places where Merlin is allegedly buried—

    Under a rocke that lyes a litle space
    From the swift Barry, tombling downe apace,
    Emongst the woodie hilles of Dynevowre:
    But dare thou not, I charge, in any cace,
    To enter into that same balefull Bowre,
For feare the cruell Feends should thee unwares devowre

On a mild January day in 1993 Dan Noel, suffering from angina and forgetting to take his medication, made a life-threatening climb to the tomb of Myrddin Wylit, "Wild Merlin, shamanic Merlin."(5) In his short account of the trek, we learn nothing of him finding Merlin's tomb, perhaps because it exists only in "non-ordinary reality;" for suddenly Noel is descending the hill, his chest still hurting, for the drive back to Cardiff, where he left his medication. It is his heart that concerns him, more than finding Merlin's tomb, the invisible castle to which Merlin was confined. Or is it a House of Glass, from which he can see out but no one can see in? Or perhaps he vanished "into his esplumior or into a rock tomb."(6) In any case, "Merlin's retirement," wrote Noel, in italics, "signals the movement of shamanic healing in our history

from the daily life and religious devotion of pagan peoples—and the Judeo-Christian influx where it incorporated pagan healing wisdom—to another site, a new location: psychology. What was conscious in the West became unconscious, there to await the arrival, with Freud and Jung, of the means to hear its call and comprehend its requirements."(7)

In other words, being heartfelt, Merlin's tomb is wherever we are able to imagine it to be.

Six years before his experience in South Wales, Noel met Michael Whan. Whan, who at the time was a social worker at a child and family psychiatric clinic in Watford, England, had published an essay that examined Carlos Castaneda's books from the standpoint of "ethnomethodology," which "claim(s) to show how social groups come to constitute what they believe to be 'facts in themselves,' self-evident truths. The distinction between fact and fiction becomes, therefore, hard to maintain." It is a kind of "trickster psychology" that "suggests an archetypal perspective with a special sensitivity to the question of interpretation. Meaning is conceived not as literal but as equivocal, implying a plurality of life-worlds and archetypal perspectives."(8) These thoughts are well into the fold of James Hillman's Archetypal Psychology, who at that time edited the journal in which Whan's essay was published.
Noel and Whan shared a interest in "Western fantasies literalized as facts,"
(7) in the commensal phenomenon of "neoshamanism," and in Jungian archetypes, especially the Trickster and Wise Old Man—which leads us back to Merlin. "What I did not fully know until 1987," Noel wrote, e,g, before he met Whan, "was that long before Merlin was King Arthur's advisor and court magician in the late-medieval texts, he was seer, bard, Druid, Wild Man, and, at root, shaman."(9)


When C.G. Jung was constructing his fabled tower at Bollingen, Switzerland, a large granite stone was mistakenly delivered. Jung decided to keep it, with the idea (which he didn't follow through) of inscribing on one side, Le Cri de Merlin, "The Cry of Merlin." That this solitary stone didn't fit into the architect's plan reminded him of "Merlin's life in the forest, after he had vanished from the world. Men still hear his cries, so the legend runs, but they cannot understand or interpret them."(10)

By now the forest had become
his solitary domain, his movements
inseparable from the wind.

Among his array of spiritual accomplishments, Merlin is a Master of Breath. Scholar of Celtic history and myth, Jean Markale, wrote that "we know that the importance of breath has been recognized throughout history in rituals, myths, legends, and their varied incarnations, even if only in the Carnival procession entirely dedicated to breath and its exaltation."(12) To which Mircea Eliade adds: "It is scarcely necessary to say that respiratory technique and holding the breath had a large place in organizing the complex of ascetic practices and of magical, mystical, and metaphorical techniques that are included under the general term Yoga."(13) Breath is spirit, spiritus, the animating principle of life; it is also a portal to higher consciousness through which one finds no one, not even one's self, but the wind's indecipherable cry.

His cry went unheard,
so far had he wandered
that green wilderness
its sound haunting
as a curlew.

The weird sound of the curlew with its near human voice, a liminal call not belonging to this world or another, presaging accident or death, is Merlin's haunting power of premonition. "Near Sheffield (England), where curlews are still found on the moors, they are, or were, called 'Gabriel's hounds.'"(13) Merlin is the wilderness that is dying; but how many humans hear his call above the barking chainsaw's ravenous teeth?

Uncomprehending he sought
an augury of his dark condition:
withdrawn into the land, the leaves,
the watchful glance of a deer.

Is this the ghost of the deer whom, driving one night in the mountains, William Stafford found dead by the side of the road? The victim of a recent killing, "her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting, / alive, still, never to be born." With the car's engine purring under the hood, he stood "in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red," and thought "hard for us all—my only swerving—, / then pushed her over the edge into the river."(15)

His heart beginning to weigh
less than a feather, he circled
like a bird of prey, learning
to fly his own abyss:
in the earth's fold, the riddle
of his vanished self.

It was a bird's feather that used to be held to a dying person's nose to see if he or she was still alive. In the Paleolithic cave at Lascaux, an ithyphallic shaman is depicted wearing the mask of a bird, his hands and feet are that of a bird. Nearby is a staff crowned with a bird. "The bird perched on a stick," wrote Eliade, "is a frequent symbol in shamanic circles."(13)In the last stanza of Whan's poem, Merlin in the guise of a bird of prey is hunting within the region of his own psyche, perhaps his "collective unconscious," which is neither earth nor flesh, and where may be found the secret of one's death that all religions promise to deliver their believers, but can, in effect, only be vouchsafed in the mystery of one's mundane life.

One morning, in Forest Park, that green oasis growing within Portland Oregon's city limits, I met an owl eye to eye—he stoically perched on a branch, I sitting on a rock nearby—until, after a long while, he silently flew away. That wise old bird was Merlin. Silent that day for me, Michael Whan once heard his cry in "the wind's echo...as if all existence is kept / in its taloned breath." Then, in some of the most telling lines of poetry recently made, Whan wrote:

Stone, leaf, bird,
these are the wild keepers of the earth,
and we alone in the dark
like those answering owls,
the vast night cradling us,
while our restless dreams
invent the dawn.


Dan Noel died from "extreme cardiac distress,"(17) on a late-summer night in Southern California, just up the road from where I now live. Although he and I exchanged several letters, we never met in person. At a conference at Oxford, in 1997, he sat down next to my future wife, literary critic Susan Rowland, and discussed with her the great 20th Century writer and mystic, Thomas Merton, who had also, several times, passed through my life. Hearing Susan's story while writing this critique, I thought: Merlin/Merton, it all comes around!


References and Notes: 

1- Noel, D.C. (2004) "Starting From Chickasaw Street—Autobiographical and Academic Asides on Shamanism.(1998)" In a Wayward Mood: Daniel C. Noel:Selected Writings 1969-2002. New York: iUniverse.
2- Slattery, D.P. (2004) Forward to In a Wayward Mood: Daniel C. Noel:Selected Writings 1969-2002. New York: iUniverse.
3- Weishaus, J. (1997) "Interview with Daniel C. Noel: http://www.cgjungpage.org/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=838
4- Spenser, E. From, "The Faerie Queen." Book 3, Canto 3. "The Visit to Merlin."
5- Noel, D.C. (2004) "Climbing to Merlin's Tomb—Dynevor, South Wales, 1993." Ibid, In a Wayward Mood.
6- Von Franz, M-L. (1975) C.G. Jung: His Myth In Our Time." Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Von Franz explains that "the word esplumior has never been explained, but it probably refers to the cage in which falcons moulted, hence a place for 'moulting' or transformation." op.crit.
7- Noel, D.C. (1997) The Soul of Shamanism. New York: Continuum.
8-Whan, M (1978) "'Don Juan,' Trickster, and Hermeneutic Understanding." Spring Journal.
9- Noel, D.C. (2004) "Comprehending Merlin's Cry (1990)" op.crit., In a Wayward Mood.
10- Jung, C.G. (1963) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé. New York, Pantheon.
11- Whan, M. From, "Merlin's Cry."
12- Markale, J. (1995) Merlin: Priest of Nature. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions. In a note, Markale adds many other references to the importance of breath, including alchemy, "where Spirit or breath appears as the fifth element, the fourth element existing only because breath gives life to the first three, for fire is merely the transformation of other elements."
13- Eliade, M (1989) Shamanism. London: Arkana Penguin.
14- Armstrong, E.A. ( 1970) The Folklore of Birds. New York, Dover.
15. Stafford, W. From, "Traveling Through the Dark."
16- Whan, M. (2006) From, "Owl Cry." Spring Journal. (Fall).
17- Summerland, CA. Sheriff's Office report to Noel's son, Christopher. op.crit., In a Wayward Mood.

Thank you to Joan McAllister, and Oregon Friends of C.G. Jung.