Romantic, Victorian, and modern, and recent postcolonial literature all feature moments of revelation that, in retrospect, turn out to act as centers to human existence. Wordsworth's Spots of Time, which function (often mysteriously) as sources of imaginative power and redemption, provide a major source of this idea that serves as a technique. (If one believes in this kind of center to time, then one structures one's work around examples of it). Although other Romantic authors each have their version of a perfect moment of revelation or encounter, Victorian poets carry the notion farther, as does Dickens in Great Expectations.
Tennyson, for example, characteristically arranges his poems from "The Kraken" and "The Lady of Shalott" through In Memoriam and Idylls of the King in terms of climactic moments of revelation. Somewhat differently, Rossetti searches for perfect memories or moments that provide secular analogies to religious types (types show that human history converges repeatedly on the presence of Christ). Browning's Duke, Porphyria's lover, and most of his other characters also reveal themselves at climactic moments. In essence, Hopkins combines Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, and Rossetti as he makes biblical types and Christ the center of his epiphanies.
In the twentieth century, Eliot's Four Quartets best exemplify religious epiphanies, while Joyce, who created the term by borrowing it from religious usage, made it the center of his fiction. According to Stephen Hero, "By an epiphany" Joyce's protagonist meant "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in memorable phrase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record those epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments" (p.21). What does this definition suggest about Joyce's relation to Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"? To Yeats?
Beja, Morris. Epiphany in the Modern Novel. London, 1971.
Hendry, Irene. "Joyce's Epiphanies." Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 449-67.
Langbaum, Robert. "The Epiphanic Mode in Wordsworth and Modern Literature." New Literary History. 14 (1983): 335-58.
Nichols, Austin. The Poetics of Epiphany. Tuscaloosa and London, 1987.
Tigges, Wim. "The Significance of Trivial Things: Towards a Typology of Literary Epiphanies." 1-16.
[I append this bibliography based on Tigge's article received in May 1997 to this old introductory piece, which dates from 1987. If you have additional suggestions, please send them to me at george at landow.com; replace "at" by "@."]
Last modified May 1997