Monday, 7 September 2015

Hovering between peak experience and epiphany: from part IV of W.B. Yeats's "Vacillation"

I was leafing through The Penguin Book of Religious Verse (1963) the other day, as one does, when I came across a section from Yeats's "Vacillation" (see below). Yeats was in my mind in any case, as I'd been devising questions for a literary quiz (more of which in another post) and one of them involved having to identify four of his most famous poems from acronyms of their first lines (e.g. IWAAGNAGTI - hint: it's one of the best-known poems in the English language). Anyway, I was particularly taken by this description of an epiphanous experience, made all the more convincing by the humdrum setting:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
I wrote about peak experiences (or epiphanies, or the experience of the sublime- take your pick) some five years' ago, during the early days of this blog. As there can be very few of you who were following my witterings back then, I'm going to cheat and cut and paste that post here:

In his 1757 work, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke wrote: "The passion caused by the great and sublime in Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other."

He was talking about mountains and hurricanes and suchlike – nature at its most extreme was beginning to interest people around the middle of the 18th century -  and he was, of course, absolutely wrong. Now, I love a howling gale and the forbidding mountains of my native Norway as much as the next chap, but most of my experiences of the sublime have been occasioned by Nature at its least terrifying.

Here are a few of my favourites.

My first transcendent experience happened while I was walking home from school at around the age of seven. I suddenly became aware of the blossom trees in our road. They were in full bloom, just beginning to shed.  I stopped and stared up into a great blancmange clump. The sunshine was filtering through the blossom, making the colours positively throb. And then I remember – for no reason at all – feeling energy coursing through me, and starting to run down the pink-speckled pavement at full pelt, laughing, feeling more gloriously, vitally alive than I had ever felt and being, for the first time, aware of myself as separate from but also a part of the living world around me. Once past the trees, the sensation stopped: but I have remembered it clearly for half a century.

I had a similar experience a mere 28 years later in Cornwall, on an unexceptional sort of day, walking near Land’s End with my wife across a field sloping up towards the headland. As we approached the top of the field, from where we would be staring down at the Atlantic, I was instantly full of energy and life, and, again, began to run (well, lumber) until I reached the top. There was a glorious burst of feeling as I gazed at the sea, as if for the very first time. And then the sensation was gone, and I was just looking at the sea.

Two more experiences of Cornish sublimity followed hard on the heels of the one at Land’s End. The first was provided by a riotously beautiful early evening sunset over Constantine Bay, where the flame-filled clouds changed shape and pattern every few minutes, as did the colours of the sand, the sea, the granite rocks, and the gentle fields visible to the north of neighbouring Booby’s Bay, turning this beloved, familar place into a whole series of exciting, unique and previously unknown landscapes. My wife and I watched this astonishing display for nearly half an hour, and then, not knowing how else to respond, gave Nature a lengthy round of applause.

The following year, on a sparkling spring day at Port Quin, we were walking up the sloping field that leads to tiny Doyden Castle from the south, when the sheer pulsing, vibrant green of the grass in the clear, strong morning sun turned the grass into something quite alien. The colour of the field was suddenly a sort of Platonic ideal of greenness – a green so strong, elemental and overwhelming, it had become a colour I had never seen before: in fact, it had turned into something other than a colour – more a living, moving presence. I flung myself face forward onto the ground with a sensation of utter freshness and newness and happiness. (And, no, I have never touched hallucinogens.)

Around that time, friends who live in Italy invited us for a summer holiday in a farmhouse apartment in the Dolomites. They were kind enough to let us have the bedroom with the best view, looking straight down a spectacular, wide valley. When we returned from a meal in the local inn on the first evening, and opened our windows wide, we were treated to an extraordinary thunderstorm – distant, rumbling thunder and the clouds illuminated by lightning flashes above and within them, and no accompanying rain. It was so strange – so unlike any storm I had ever witnessed – it was like gazing upon another, richer reality.

All of these experiences had at their heart a sense of otherness, of strangeness, or of a reality so intense, it was different from everyday reality. And yet, while some of the experiences were distinctly majestic and elemental – the sunset, the thunderstorm - none had about them even the vaguest hint of threat, let alone terror.


  1. Your Port Quin experience is almost Wordsworthian.I'm also moved by the distinctly less passionate forms of nature 'sweet day so cool so calm so bright,'as well,albeit in an entirely different way by the the fantastic things in the universe VY Canis Majoris,Neutron stars and so on.

    1. Wordsworth, indeed:

      "And I have felt
      A presence that disturbs me with the joy
      Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
      Of something far more deeply interfused,
      Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
      And the round ocean and the living air,
      And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
      A motion and a spirit, that impels
      All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
      And rolls through all things."

      I find the Hubble photo gallery good for prompting cosmological musings: