Critical Idiom - Epiphany

English Teaching in the United Kingdom

Home  Search  A Level Resources

Critical Idiom - Epiphany

An article by Bernard Richards, reprinted here with the kind permission of `The English Review'

Everyone has sudden flashes of perception and insight. Writers have a name for them - epiphanies

Epiphany is Twelfth Night - 6 January - when Christ was visited by the Three Wise Men, and his divinity was revealed to the world. It derives from a Greek word, epiphainein, meaning 'to manifest', and in pre-Christian times it was used 10 record appearances of gods and goddesses. Traditionally the word has kept this specific religious association, but in our century it has been secularised to refer to other, non-divine forms of revelation.

Joyce's secular epiphany

The principal writer to extend the meaning of the word as a secular term was James Joyce, who was interested in sudden, dramatic and startling moments which seemed to have heightened significance and to be surrounded with a kind of magical aura. The well-known reference is in Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus is thinking to himself:

'Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria? Someone was to read them there after a few thousand years....

The notion of the Joycean epiphany was first outlined in Stephen Hero (the early version of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), when a casual incident in Eccles St., Dublin strikes Stephen:

A young lady was standing on the steps of one of those brown brick houses which seem the very incarnation of Irish paralysis. A young gentleman was leaning on the rusty railings of the area. Stephen as he passed on his quest heard the following fragment of colloquy out of which he received an impression keen enough to afflict his sensitiveness very severely.

The Young Lady - (drawling discreetly) ... 0, yes... I ....... at the ...cha...pel...
The Young Gentleman - (inaudibly) ... I ... (again inaudibly) ... I
The Young Lady - (softly) .0... but you're ... ve....ry... wick...ed...

This triviality made him think of collecting many such moments together in a book of epiphanies. By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments. (Chapter XXV)

Joyce, then, at this stage of his career, regarded epiphanies as inadvertent revelations, as he explained to his brother Stanislaus, when he noted 'little errors and gestures - mere straws in the wind - by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.' Epiphany in these instances is revelation, but ironical and possibly merciless. But he also recognised that the moment of revelation could be lyrical and radiant.

From 1900 onwards Joyce produced 71 epiphanies, of which 40 have survived in manuscripts at Cornell University and the University of Buffalo in the United States. These have been reprinted by Richard Ellmann, A. Walton Litz and John Whittier-Ferguson in James Joyce: Poems and Shorter Writings (Faber and Faber, 1991). The different kinds are represented. Some are snap-shots of real life, mini-dramas that encapsulate banality and vulgarity; in others, elevated thoughts or perceptions occur in banal surroundings, and are so powerful and so indicative of some higher reality that they take on the character of mystical vision. Some epiphanies are less spectacularly revelatory and significant, but they are harmoniously beautiful, as is this one:

The children who have stayed latest are getting on their things to go home for the party is over. This is the last tram. The lank brown horses know it and shake their bells to the clear night, in admonition. The conductor talks with the driver; both nod often in the green light of the lamp. There is nobody near. We seem to listen, I on the upper step and she on the lower. She comes up to my step many times and goes down again, between our phrases, and once or twice remains beside me, forgetting to go down, and then goes down .... Let be; let be ... and now she does not urge her vanities her fine dress and sash and long black stockings - for now (wisdom of children) we seem to know that this end will please us better than any end we have laboured for.

This moment reappears in Stephen Hero (Chapter XVII) and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Chapter II). In addition Joyce records some dream epiphanies, which are purely imaginary.

Epiphanic revelation

Stephen explains in Stephen Hero that the apprehension of beauty involves the recognition of integrity, wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Here he comes close to the aesthetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his philosophy of haeccitas ('thisness'). Joyce demonstrates the way in which the contemplated object is revealed:

Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany.
(Stephen Hero, Chapter XXV)

Joyce is here extending definitions of beauty to cover areas that most people would not recognise as such.

When we think of epiphanies we think, principally, of Joyce. However, although Joyce may have coined this specific term he is not alone in having epiphanic experiences, nor was he the first to have them. Indeed, Joyce's word was even anticipated by the American writer Emerson, who employed it in a lecture of 19 December 1838: 'a fact is an Epiphany of God and on every fact of his life man should rear a temple of wonder and joy.'

For centuries writers and mystics have experienced sudden insights that seem detached from the flow of everyday perception. In many ways these experiences are the high points of human experience and the focus of artistic production. Often they have been on a borderline between the secular and the religious: what has been revealed in the mystical moment has been a sense of God, of the whole shape of the universe, of the unity of all created things. Wordsworth describes it as 'A presence that disturbs me with the joy/Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime/Of something far more deeply interfused' (Tintern Abbey lines 93-6).

Sudden light

What was poignant for Wordsworth was that these mystical moments were often more like flashes of light than a constant illumination: `gleams like the flashing of a shield' (The Prelude 1.614). The visionary gleam disappeared as quickly as it came, leaving the poet with the anxious awareness that one day the light might completely fail to come: 'I see by glimpses now; when age comes on,/ May scarcely see at all' (The Prelude XI.338-9)

Later in the century Dante Gabriel Rossetti experienced epiphanies which were sudden and unexpected, and on the borderline of the secular and religious. The classic poem is Sudden Light:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before, -
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow's soar
Your neck turned so,
Some veil did fall, - I knew it all of yore. (lines 1-10)

'Sudden' is the important word here - expressing the surprise of the moment. Yeats's poem Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting heaven is epiphanic and in Vacillation he has an unexpected moment of vision in the snack bar of 'a crowded London shop':

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.

This is a less romantic setting than the blessing scene in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner (lines 282-7), but none the less powerful for all that. Similarly, in Snow (1anuary 1935) Louis Macneice speaks of the room as 'suddenly rich' under the impact of a rare vision:

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

Visionary dreariness

Many of the heightened experiences recorded by poets have been quasi-religious, and offered inroads into some meaningful view of the universe, but more often than not the recorded epiphanies have been more elusive and enigmatic than that indeed, some of Wordsworth's own experiences were. One of the high points of all Romantic poetry is in Book XI of The Prelude, (1805 version) in which Wordsworth claims that when he was 'not six years old' he came upon the name of a murderer, cut in the turf near a mouldered gibbet. A little while after he encountered:

A girl who bore a pitcher on her head,
And seemed with difficult steps to force her way
Against the blowing wind. It was, in truth,
An ordinary sight; but I should need
Colours and words that are unknown to man,
To paint the visionary dreariness... (XI. 306-Il)

What is moving and mysterious about this moment, and the record of it, is that it is revelatory, but we cannot be precisely sure what it reveals. It demands to be attended to, but we cannot quite understand why, and neither could Wordsworth, especially when he was on the moor. This seems to me very typical of what could be called the secular epiphany: it defies definition and interpretation; it invites scrutiny, yet remains elusive. The episode on the moor points principally to the fact:

....that the mind
Is lord and master, and that outward sense
Is but the obedient servant of her will.

In other words, the mind seemed to call this episode into being in the first place, and the memory subsequently calls it into being too. This, rather than any lurking external meaning provided by the world outside, is what is significant; the event discloses one of the 'hiding places' of his power. A similar type of epiphany occurs as Wordsworth enters London in Book VIII of The Prelude, and finds that the threshold of the city gives him a rapid impression of 'weight and power': 'All that took place within me came and went/As in a moment' (lines 708-9). He finds it strange that 'aught external to the living mind/ Should have such mighty sway!.' (lines 701-2). There speaks someone in thrall to 'the egotistic sublime"!

The unattended moment

Often the materials for epiphanies are, on the face of it, very slight, and sometimes coming together, as Wordsworth puts it, 'by chance collisions and quaint accidents' (The Prelude, 1.617). But this is their strength, because if they were more obviously significant they could become more generally available, and the delight in epiphanies is that they constantly surprise us, and catch us when we are not paying attention. We are trapped and arrested by them, they strike us in unattended moments. The material comes to us from outside.

The epiphany challenges the received idea and overthrows what one expects to see. That is why it is so invaluable for the original artist, who lives in dread that he will fall into idle habits of perception.

Further reading

Bowen, Z. (1 981-2) 'Joyce and the epiphany concept: a new approach,' Journal of Modern Literature, 9.

Nichols, A. (1987), The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth-century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement, University of Alabama Press.

Scholes, R. and Kain, R. M. (1965) The Workshop of Daedalus: James Joyce and the Raw Materials for 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man', Northwestern University Press.

Zaehner, R.C. (1 957) Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, Oxford University Press.