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200 THE CONSOLATIONS OF ECSTASY John A. Lester, Jr. (Haverford College) The experience of ecstasy has an ancient history, going back at least to the Greeks who first had a word for it. Of religious ecstasy William James, in his VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE (1902), gives abundant examples and ample evidence that in the nineteenth century man could still experience ecstasy as a glorious moment of confirmation in his spiritual life. What strikes one as curious Is that ecstasy as a purely Imaginative expertence*-not religious and not pathological—does not pervasively enter into English literature unti1 the nineteenth century. With the Romantic poets In particular, to achieve ecstatic revelation becomes suddenly a focal center of man's longing and aspiration. One thinks of Keats in his longing to fly far away with the nightingale, to share the wild ecstasy of the Bacchic throng on the Grecian urn; or Shelley, whose "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" gives in its fifth stanza perhaps the most succinct account of the ecstatic experience in English literature. But the Romantic poet most deeply Imbued with and shaped by the experience of ecstasy Is of course William Wordsworth. Here the heart of the man and the mind of the poet spring directly from moments of ecstasy—from rowing or skating on the Cumberland lakes, rolling into London on the top of the Cambridge coach, climbing Snowdon by summer night, musing on the hillside above Tintern Abbey. These are moments of time when, ". . .with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,/ VJe see Into the life of things." ("Tintern Abbey") In the after-years that brought stress and disillusion, it was the (nward recollection of those moments—memories of ecstasy—which sustained the fabric of Wordsworth's philosophy: "0 joy.' that in our embers/ Is something that doth live,/ That Nature yet remembers/ What was so fugitive!" ("Ode on Intimations of Immortal ity")2 Through ecstasy the Romantics reached their best assurance of the eternal, the true, and the beautiful—the Ideals they sought to live by and, in their poetry, to reveal. The present study takes as Its point of departure my impression that, in the literature of the middle and late Victorian era, the records of ecstatic experience become far more numberous, and ecstasy itself a state more urgently sought for and more highly prized in the literary imagination than It had ever been before. This study seeks to demonstrate the prevalence of ecstasy in English literature at the end and turn of the century, and to suggest causes which may account for it. Let us start with examples taken at random, examples that come readily to mind. Charlotte Bronte in JANE EYRE has her heroine, in her desolate flight from Thornfield, strike off onto the heath at nightfall: I touched the heath: It was dry, and yet warm with the heat of the summer-day. I looked at the sky; it was pure: a kindly star twinkled just above the chasm ridge. The dew fell, but with propitious softness; no breeze whispered. Nature seemed to me benign and good; I thought she loved me, outcast as I was. . . . Night was come, and her planets were risen: a safe, still night: too serene for the companionship of fear. We know that God is 201 everywhere; but certainly we feel His presence most when His works are on the grandest scale spread before us; and it is in the unclouded night sky, where His worlds wheel their silent course, that we read clearest His infinitude, His omnipotence, His omnipresence . . . .1 felt the might and strength of God. Sure was I of His efficiency to save what He had made; convinced I grew that neither earth should perish, nor one of the souls It treasured. (Ch 28) Walter Pater, In THE RENAISSANCE writes: Not the fruit of experience, but experience Itself, Is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see In them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass nczt swiftly from point to point, and be present...


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pp. 200-211
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Will Be Archived 2021
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