All truths wait in all things.
Walt Witman, Leaves of Grass
About pathetic falacy and literary epiphany
The ocean and the earth beneath him lay
In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched,
And in their silent faces he did read
The Pedlar, 97- 99
Reading these previously quoted lines, the skeptic will think: the ocean and the earth filled with gladness and deep joy? Unutterable love in the silent faces of the clouds? What nonsense, the ocean and the earth feel nothing and the clouds float numbly over them. This is typically a case of childlike projection in which human emotions are assigned to animals and 'dead' things. Poetic nonsense.
Critics of such projections defer to the nineteenth century art historian John Ruskin, who named such seemingly poetic derailment the pathetic fallacy. This notion suggests a meaning of unfortunate misconception, of morbid and pitiful self-deception. You would think that Ruskin condemns all cases in which a writer attributes human qualities to non-human beings or phenomena. But anyone who reads Ruskins' famous work Modern Painters (1856) will see that he only disapproves of the pathetic fallacy when it falls into the wrong hands: by which he means second-rate poets. They often strike a false note with such a transfer of emotions, they are 'men who feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly'. It is quite different for the category of great poets in which Ruskin includes Homer, Dante and Wordsworth. They do not allow themselves to get carried away by their emotions, but curb them with the ratio. Such poets are 'men who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly'. At their best moments they cross the line beyond which 'feverish and wild fantasy', although untrue, can still be true. That is the point where they experience something beyond their thinking, something that leads them out of balance. The forces that overwhelm them are stronger than themselves. They are then in a state of 'prophetic inspiration' and interpret the unspeakable they experience, with unusual images.
Literary versus religious epiphany
Raised with the Bible, Wordsworth described his childhood experiences in a language akin to the language of the Biblical prophets. These 'messengers of God' were inspired by a higher power. They were reported to have a religious revelation, a sudden conversion or a mystical vision. Often such experiences took place on a mountain or in the desert. Since ancient times, they have been referred to by the term epiphany, a Greek word consisting of the prefix epi (at, on, over) and the verb phanein (to show, to bring to light).
Wordsworth, too, usually experiences his moments of inspiration in the mountains or other places of solitude. Because he uses biblical language, it seems as if he also has a religious epiphany. But that is an illusion. Wordsworth draws from a completely different source. His 'visions' arise from an interaction between what he calls Nature and Mind, an interaction between the sensory perceptible world and the human mind, his mind. It is not so much a religious, as a psychological and philosophical revelation. It is always something in the outside world - a sunrise, a shadow sliding over a mountain wall, a gust of wind through the trees - that resonates with his inner world, his feeling, his mind, his intuition. It is not a god who appears, like fire in a burning bush to communicate a message. It is an insight that breaks through, a revelation of what the poet experiences as an essential aspect of reality. This kind of revelation is known in literary science as literary epiphany. The concept was coined by the Irish writer and poet James Joyce (1882-1941) at the beginning of the last century. It was Wordsworth who applied it avant la lettre a hundred years earlier. What he called spots of time received much imitation after him as a literary expression for a special kind of insight.
Seeing in the heart of things
Epiphanies are brief, but the sensory perception that underlies them, has an enduring effect on the memory. Originally, one experiences only strong emotion. Only later, sometimes years, does that emotion find reflection in a poem. Imagination lends suitable radiance to the perception, filling it with deeper meaning.
In his poem Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth describes how his second visit to that monastic ruin on the banks of the River Wye, makes him relive his first visit.
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky (...)
Tintern Abbey, 1-8
Once more immersed in the scenery, he realises how the memory of this river landscape has been a source of joy and comfort during times of distress in recent years:
Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man's eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration...
Tintern Abbey, 22-30
But beyond joy and comfort, the memory of the river brought Wordsworth another, even more valuable 'gift': an exalted mood that lightens the oppressive burden of the mystery that is life; a feeling of harmony and deep joy that made him see into the heart or 'life of things'.
Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime - that blessed mood
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Is lightened; that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until the breath of this corporeal frame,
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul,
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Tintern Abbey, 35-48
The mechanics of imagination
An epiphany is based on sensory perception and only becomes epiphany when the poet expresses it in words. Wordsworth wrote Tintern Abbey in the days immediately after his second visit to the Wye, but incorporated images, feelings, and thoughts that had matured in his mind for five years, and which he was only able to give meaning with the help of his imagination.
For Wordsworth, Imagination plays a crucial role in the poetic creative process. In Imagination the fruitful interaction takes place between Nature and Mind. Or, rather, that interaction between external and internal reality is Imagination. In that interaction the mind - as the totality of intuitions, feelings and thoughts - plays an even greater role than the external cause - the reflection of stars in glassy ice, the flicker of sunlight through the bare branches of a tree, the screaming of a black crow in the dead silence of a quiet valley. One may compare the mechanics of imagination with an explosive (the dormant mood of years) lit with a match (an external phenomenon, an everyday experience) through which an explosion (the epiphany) follows. In that ignition, the ordinary, everyday takes on a special radiance and meaning.
Ultimately, in the epiphany, unconscious or semi-conscious emotional knowing - to be summarised as intuition - breaks through to full consciousness in a flash. For Wordsworth that knowing is connected with a feeling of 'joy' and of unity of all living and non-living matter. In Tintern Abbey he writes that the sight of the Wye filled him with a deep joy and that he saw 'into the life of things'. In The Pedlar, he describes in similar words how the landscape opened his alter ego's eyes so that 'in all things he saw one life, and felt that it was joy. ►