LONDON, ONTARIO – Some forty-five years ago I impulsively picked up a book on a remainder table at the East London branch of Robert’s Holmes Book Shop for the princely sum of 99 cents. I’d never heard of its author before (or since) and its utterly bewildering title, Inglorious Wordsworths, was the product of some cross-referential convolution that soared clear over top of my then 20 year-old head.
Disentangling it a little will be germane to our discussion here. In Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, the poet muses upon the undeveloped potentialities of the obscure bumpkins buried all around him; poor and isolated country folk whose circumscribed lives never encouraged, allowed or even raised the opportunity to develop and display worldly greatness or genius.
"Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air,” Gray pitilessly writes. “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest / Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood."
It was art critic and social reformer John Ruskin, writing a full century after the publication of Thomas Gray’s poem, who speculated that there were probably many more unrealized Wordsworths than Miltons snoozing away in the in the world's countless cemeteries. In poems like The Prelude, Tintern Abbey and Intimations of Immortality, Wordsworth evocatively outlines those transcendent moments of uncanny illumination that many children, adolescents and artists of any age can experience and take great inspiration from. Contrasting the broad emotional resonance of Wordsworth's poems with the more rarefied appeal of John Milton’s religious verse, Ruskin wrote, “I much doubt there being many inglorious Miltons in our country church-yards; but I am very sure of there being many Wordsworths there.”
The author of Inglorious Wordsworths, Michael Paffard, was a newly installed senior English lecturer at England’s University of Keele when this, his first book was published in 1973. He had previously taught high school level English in Gloucestershire and had canvassed those younger students for the data he examined in his book, which was subtitled: A Study of Some Transcendental Experiences in Childhood and Adolescence. Paffard combined the accounts of more than 200 of his former students with more polished testimony of such experiences from a handful of professional writers, including himself, Wordsworth (of course), and such other worthies as A.L. Rowse, Cyril Connolly and most particularly, the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis.
In what he called his “suffocatingly subjective” autobiography of his earliest years, Surprised by Joy (the title borrowed, once again, from Wordsworth) Lewis had recalled a half dozen uninvited episodes of rapturous longing that suddenly overtook him in his childhood and adolescence and profoundly altered his conceptions of life's deepest meaning. Even as a child he sensed the “incalculable importance” of these episodes which seemed to transport him to “another dimension”. After the first such visitation, he wrote, “It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”
Lewis’ “experiences of ‘Joy’ are so precisely the kind of transcendental experience with which I am concerned,” Paffard wrote, “that his book might be regarded as a kind of locus classicus. Indeed this book of mine might have been designed (though it was not in fact) to supply Dr. Lewis with some evidence for believing that his experiences of ‘Joy’ are shared by and therefore intelligible to many other people.”
Lewis’ episodes were set off either by sudden apprehensions of nature's glory (such as losing all sense of himself while gazing at the unnecessary beauty of a flowering currant bush) or, more typically, as a result of his childhood reading. The intensely bookish Lewis saw almost everything through a literary prism; a tendency that occasionally exasperated the ‘Joy’ that surprised him most in later life – his wife, Joy Davidman. First seeing action on the Western Front as a commissioned officer in the Somerset Light Infantry in November of 1917, Lewis’ very first thoughts weren’t about danger or military strategy or horror at what was going on all around him. The first thing that popped into his mind was: “This is what Homer wrote about.”
Lewis specifically cites the longing that exploded in his five year-old heart when reading Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. “It troubled me,” he wrote, “with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn. It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamoured of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible - how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it.”
He was similarly transported when reading a collection of Nordic myths superbly illustrated by Arthur Rackham: "I idly turned the pages of the book and found the unrhymed translation of Tegner's Drapa and read, 'I heard a voice that cried / Balder the Beautiful / Is dead, is dead'. I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it."
I am reminded here of two mystically gifted and conspicuously solitary musicians whose innermost compasses were similarly and unchangeably anchored in that same magnetic direction: Glenn Gould with his long fixation on what he termed 'The Idea of the North' and Nick Drake whose essence was most purely distilled in his sublime three-minute-and 42-seconds' meditation on love and death, Northern Sky.
Lewis continues his diagnosis of these ecstatic transports: "I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is. "
Reflecting on the key role those rapturous visitations played in leading him to Christian belief, Lewis wrote: “I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction . . . All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring . . . Inexorably Joy proclaimed, ‘Your want – I myself am your want of – something other, outside, not you or any state of you. I did not yet ask, ‘Who is the desired?’ only ‘What is it?’ But this brought me already into the region of awe, for I thus understood that in deepest solitude there is a road right out of the self, a commerce with something which, by refusing to identify itself with any object of the senses, or anything whereof we have biological or social need, or anything imagined, or any state of our own minds, proclaims itself sheerly objective.”
I snapped up Paffard’s 99 cent tome all those years ago because I too had experienced several such episodes in my adolescence and early adulthood and had been haunted by Lewis’ accounts of his own when I first read Surprised by Joy (and was less perfectly engrossed by some of the accounts of spontaneous illumination outlined in Cosmic Consciousness by London’s mystic asylum keeper, Richard Maurice Bucke). My episodes always occurred when I was particularly mindful of my aloneness in the universe and at times of apparent crisis; though I emerged from them with a larger understanding that these crises were indeed only apparent. The first came upon me after I’d won the opprobrium of all by quitting school at the age of sixteen. Another major one lifted me out of near-claustrophobic panic and hopelessness in the wake of being dumped.
Later on in my development when I was moving toward a specifically Christian understanding of life, I came to see these bracingly blissful visitations as somehow linked to the phenomenon of conscience. It is a common mistake to only see conscience as something that nags us when we know we’ve done wrong. I think conscience can also illuminate some larger and wholly unexpected good that is activated by what the ego at first construes as a self-annihilating disaster.
George Orwell prosaically hints at something like this when he writes in Down and Out in Paris in London of “the great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
Postulating the same compensatory dynamic on a more exalted and specifically Christian plane, J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term ‘Euchatastrophe’ to signify those instances when what seems at first like the very worst thing that could possibly happen, is in fact the one needful event that makes our redemption possible.
About a decade ago I worked up the courage to talk about these episodes of illumination with a Christian reading group to which I’ve belonged for twenty-five years and was surprised when fully half the men in the room had similar accounts of their own to share. Such moments of illumination do not invariably lead to religious belief. A majority of Paffard’s student-aged subjects took no such direction from their experiences, though, as the cases of Lewis and myself indicate, time, reflection and further experience could well change that.
These transcendental experiences, these episodes of joy, do not constitute any sort of religious formation but they are a sharp and dramatic intrusion from beyond that awakens and orients us to other realities beyond the material and the mundane. And if they are as common as Paffard’s and my own more informal researches seem to indicate, then in an age as radically unchurched as our own, they will increasingly serve as signposts pointing the way to belief.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
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