The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web, the following passage from her Literary Epiphany in the Novel, 1850-1950: Constellations of the Soul, which Palgrave Macmillan published in 2012. — George P. Landow.
n their studies of epiphany, literary critics often arrive at a distinction between two different types: epiphany as an experience and epiphany as a textual record of that experience. As Herbert Tucker has quipped, epiphany is the “account of an experience” and “the account of an experience” (1208; original italics); it is “something lived through, yet also something written down” (1208). Critics keep returning to this insight because the terms of analysis must shift if the object of study is a lived event or if it is a text. Are we talking about Stephen Daedalus’s epiphany while walking down Eccles Street, or are we talking about the poem Stephen wrote to capture it? Or are we talking about James Joyce’s novel about Stephen Daedalus walking down Eccles Street, having an epiphany, and writing a poem about it? Yet when it comes to epiphany and who has one or who writes about it, there remains a third axis in addition to the author or the character: namely, the reader, who may suddenly “see” something in or through a text while reading. Such experiences are moments of critical or interpretive fire. What role does epiphany play in the process of critical reading?
Thomas De Quincey (the English opium eater) provides an example of such a moment as he discusses Book V of Wordsworth’s The Prelude. In this passage, the boy of Winander takes pleasure in imitating the call of owls so convincingly that they reply to him in rich echo as they fly. But not always:
And when it chanced
That pauses of deep silence mocked his skill,
Then sometimes, in that silence, while he hung
Listening, a gentle shock of mild surprize
Has carried far into his heart the voice
Of mountain torrents; or the visible scene
Would enter unawares into his mind
With all its solemn imagery, its rocks,
Its woods, and that uncertain Heaven, received
Into the bosom of the steady lake. [V.404-13]
In his Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1862), De Quincey remembers a night in the hills near Grasmere when Wordsworth, gazing at a star, explained the psychological process he wished to portray while writing this passage. But De Quincey then speaks of his own private epiphany: “This very expression, ‘far’, by which space and its infinities are attributed to the human heart, and to its capacities of re-echoing the sublimities of nature, has always struck me as with a flash of sublime revelation” (161). De Quincey’s experience is of a different order than Wordsworth’s personal explanation of the lines. Nor is it entirely congruent with the Boy of Winander’s gentle shock, since it does not quite match the literal text of the poem. Yet this “flash of sublime revelation” forms the substance of De Quincey’s reading of Wordsworth. It illuminates other parts of The Prelude that Wordsworth had not explained in the hills, and it leads De Quincey to diverge sharply from the prevailing critical view of that work.
Last modified 11 December 2006