Epiphany Enclosed

Thanks to James Joyce, the word epiphany has been co-opted from the church by the world of literature. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch says this about the word:

“From a Greek word meaning ‘to appear.’ An epiphany is a sudden spiritual manifestation, a luminous or visionary moment. Epiphany means the manifestation of a god or spirit in the body, and thus the Christian epiphany is literally the manifestation of Christ to the Magi. James Joyce (1882-1941) secularized the term so that it came to mean a sudden manifestation of spiritual meaning, an unexpected revelation of truth in the commonplace, a psychological and literary mode of perception. It disrupts the ordinary, a moment out of time.”

Poets are well-versed (heh) in epiphanies. They consider it an essential part of their toolbox. The a-ha moment, after all, is often the spark to a poem and catnip for the Muse.

But what if the epiphany doesn’t come from within? What if it comes compliments of another person, someone who knows better, someone hellbent on overcoming our stubbornness or ignorance?

Ah, yes. That, too, is the stuff of poetry. For Exhibit A, I give you the always dependable Seamus Heaney:


The Skylight
by Seamus Heaney

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.