Epiphany is Greek for “manifestation” or “showing-forth,” and, in its original, religious sense, it denotes the manifestation of God’s presence in the world. James Joyce, however, appropriated this term and introduced it into literary criticism to mean a secular revelation in the everyday world—though one which still has some mystical, almost otherworldly, connotation, owing to its atemporal (Nichols), “expansive, mysterious, and intense” nature (Martin Bidney).
An epiphany is, basically, the moment when all the pieces come together, and things suddenly become clear as they have never been before. It is—as explained by Joyce in the unpublished first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man—“a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.”
In a moment of epiphany, as Umberto Eco says, “a thing becomes the living symbol of something else,” or, to go back to Joyce, “its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant.”
This is precisely what happens at the beginning of Welles’ cinematic masterpiece Citizen Kane. Holding a snowball, tycoon Charles Foster Kane utters the word “Rosebud” and dies. At the very end of the movie, the camera reveals that “Rosebud” was the name of Kane’s childhood sled, the one he had been playing with on the day that he was separated from his family.
It seems that the last thing Kane experienced on this planet was a chilling epiphanic moment, grasping the whatness (Proust would say “the essence”) of his “Rosebud” sled, which suddenly became for him the living symbol of his lost youth, of the unfortunate and ultimately fateful break with his family.
Epiphany in a Sentence
Example #1: John Keats, “Letter to Benjamin Bailey” (November 22, 1817)
O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! […] The simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness—to compare great things with small—have you never by being surprised with an old Melody—in a delicious place—by a delicious voice, felt over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul—do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful that it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so—even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high—that the Prototype must be here after—that delicious face you will see—What a time!
For the Romantic poets, as pointed out by Robert Langbaum in an essay on William Wordsworth, epiphany was all but a “substitute for religion;” in retrospect, it seems that most of the Romantics understood the full extent of its artistic and developmental significance more than a century before Joyce. There’s not only much truth in Wim Tigges’ description of Wordsworth’s Prelude as his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but also a case can be made for M. H. Abrams’ claim that Wordsworth was the pre-eminent poet of epiphanic experiences, foreshadowing both Joyce and Proust (Morris Beja). At one place in The Prelude (XI.258-9) he describes them beautifully as “spots of time,/ which with distinct pre-eminence retain/a vivifying virtue” and, at another (VIII.543-54; reference) he shows them at work. In a manner similar to Joyce, Wordsworth’s younger contemporary, Percy Bysshe Shelley, described all poetry as “the record of the best and happiest moments… arising unforeseen and departing unbidden.” As can be seen in the excerpt above, John Keats, the youngest of the six great Romantics, had a profound understanding of the concept of epiphany as well; and his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” undoubtedly records one such epiphanic experience.
Example #2: Walter Pater, “The School of Giorgione” (1873)
Now it is part of the ideality of the highest sort of dramatic poetry that it presents us with a kind of profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a look, a smile, perhaps—some brief and wholly concrete moment—into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects of a long history have condensed themselves, and which seem to absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present.
One of the foremost stylists of the English language, Walter Pater was an English art critic of the 19th century, whose studies of the Renaissance are so poetically written that W. B. Yeats decided to include his prose description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa as an introductory poem in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (reference)! In Pater’s opinion, just like poets, the Venetian painter Giorgione and his followers were capable of selecting “such ideal moments… exquisite pauses in time, in which, arrested thus, we seem to be spectators of all the fullness of existence, and which are like some consummate extract or quintessence of life.”
Example #3: John Stuart Mill, Autobiography (1874)
I was reading, accidentally, Marmontel’s Mémoires, and came to the passage which relates his father’s death, the distressed position of the family, and the sudden inspiration by which he, then a mere boy, felt and made them feel that he would be everything to them—would supply the place of all that they had lost. A vivid conception of the scene and its feelings came over me, and I was moved to tears. From this moment my burden grew lighter. The oppression of the thought that all feeling was dead within me, was gone. I was no longer hopeless: I was not a stock or a stone.
It is a little-known fact that John Stuart Mill might have been one of the earliest authors to describe the emotional nadirs of a terrible mood now known as depression. He slipped into it at the age of twenty, a period during which he was frequently pondering suicide. Fortunately, six months into it, while reading the Memoirs of the French historian Jean-François Marmontel, “a small ray of light broke it upon [his] gloom.” Interestingly, it is an epiphanic scene which induces his own epiphany: a boy experiences “the sudden inspiration” to take the duties of his dead father upon himself. Even though this bore no relation to Mill’s reality, the power of the scene overcame him and gave him a reason to live. It also profoundly altered the worldview of Mill, who was unexpectedly able to read some poets he didn’t like before. One of them, Wordsworth, eventually all but cured him of his depression.
Epiphany in Poetry
Example #1: William Blake, Auguries of Innocence 1-4 (1803)
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
As we hinted above, the Romantics believed in epiphanies much more than they believed in God. As a consequence, we could have chosen any number of Romantic poems to illustrate how epiphany works in a poem, but, ultimately, we opted for the first four lines of William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence. Written in 1803—but not published until six decades later—we believe that these lines serve as both a definition of epiphany and a demonstration of what it does to the constraints of time and space—namely, annihilate them. “Indeed,” writes C. C. Barfoot, “this is an evident example of one of the ways in which a Romantic poet may experience the amplification of time and space as an epiphany in which the most commonplace of material objects and a mere portion of the day give direct access to an experience of the universe in which all physical experience is forever out of the reach of change and decay.” No wonder Morris Beja paraphrases Blake to define one form of epiphany as “eternity within the pulsation of an artery”!
Example #2: Kenneth Rexroth, “Proust’s Madeleine” (1966)
…[I] do a coin trick
To amuse my little girl.
Suddenly everything slips aside.
I see my father
Doing the very same thing,
Whistling ‘Beautiful Dreamer,”
His breath smelling richly
Of whiskey and cigars…
When a poem bears the title “Proust’s Madeleine” you can be more than convinced that it deals with some sort of an epiphanic experience involving involuntary memory. In Kenneth Rexroth’s case, the madeleine is actually an old poker chip inscribed with the letters b.p.o.e. (standing for the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks) and a picture of an elk’s head on it. One day, while doing a coin trick for his daughter, the subject of the poem realizes that this is something he has already witnessed himself, performed for him by his drunk father, quite possibly with the very same chip. In a second, all of his father’s life passes before his eyes—from “him coming home drunk/ From the Elks’ Club” up to “him dying of cirrhosis/ of the liver and stomach/ ulcers and pneumonia.” Unlike Proust’s epiphany, Rexroth’s is not a particularly pleasant one—but it is an epiphany, nevertheless.
Example #3: Elizabeth Bishop, “The Moose” (1972)
Taking her time,
she looks the bus over,
Why, why do we feel
(we all feel) this sweet
sensation of joy?
The “she” in the stanza above—the penultimate of Elizabeth Bishop’s long and famous poem “The Moose”—is the titular creature: a female moose which suddenly appears “out of/ the impenetrable wood” in front of a crowdy bus, in the middle of the moonlit road bent along the coast of Nova Scotia. “Towering, antlerless,/ high as a church,/ homely as a house,” the moose sniffs at the bus’s hood and spends a few moments watching the passengers watching her back. And then something happens, something magical, something which overcomes all passengers with a “sweet/ sensation of joy.” Why? “The answer is never given,” writes Toby Eckert. “For Bishop, it seems to lie in the curious power of nature to transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one.” A similar epiphany, points observantly Kerry McSweeney in The Realist Short Story of the Powerful Glimpse, seems to happen in Raymond Carver’s short story “Feathers,” the opening short story of his collection Cathedral (1983), in which the animal in question is a rainbow-tailed peacock. Now, there’s some homework for you, right there!
Epiphany in Literature
Example #1: Marcel Proust, Combray I (“Overture”) (1913)
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory—this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. (Tr. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)
Even though not many can claim to have read Marcel Proust’s gargantuan masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time, from start to finish, almost everybody who has heard of him knows how it all begins, and has at least a passing familiarity with the phrases “involuntary memory, “the madeleine episode,” or “the Proustian moment.” Proust was no Hemingway, so it is rather difficult to quote the entire episode—you can read it here if you’d like to—but the three sentences excerpted above should give you just enough taste (pun intended) of Proust’s madeleine, and maybe demonstrate to you how even trivial everyday objects such as a cookie and a cup of tea can sometimes send shivers across your spine and, moreover, imbue your life with meaning and significance. In Proust’s case, as it is almost too well-known, “the whole of Combray and its surroundings [spring] into being, town and gardens alike, from [his] cup of tea.”
Example #2: James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird […] Her slate-blue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird’s, soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some dark-plumaged dove […]—Heavenly God! cried Stephen’s soul, in an outburst of profane joy. He turned away from her suddenly and set off across the strand. His cheeks were aflame; his body was aglow; his limbs were trembling. On and on and on and on he strode, far out over the sands, singing wildly to the sea, crying to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him.
Edward Quinn’s Facts on File Dictionary of Literary and Thematic Terms calls this “probably the best known of [Joyce’s] epiphanies.” It occurs near the end of the fourth chapter of Joyce’s debut novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, soon after the main protagonist, Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus, is singled out by his Jesuit supervisors as an exceptional student, ripe for priesthood. However, while roaming about and considering this offer, in a moment of profound crisis, he happens upon the unnamed girl described in the excerpt above, wading in the waters along Dollymount Strand. Suddenly, his limbs all a-trembling and his heart a-thumping, Stephen is overcome with a desire “to greet the advent of the life that had cried to him… To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” In the blink of an eye, he sees that religion is just too ascetic and austere for his taste: he had been born to translate the ethereality of beautiful things into memorable words. “This vision of a girl wading in the surf becomes a moment of truth for the novel’s young hero,” notes Quinn, “a realization that he will become an artist, a servant of beauty.”
Example #3: Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its greens and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? she asked herself, taking up her brush again. She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
In the first part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe is a young, inexperienced painter trying to draw a portrait of Mrs. Ramsay and her son James at the Ramsays’ summer home on the Isle of Skye. A decade later (when many of the characters, including Mrs. Ramsay, are dead), she finally has her vision and finishes the portrait—at the precise moment when Mr. Ramsey, James, and Camilla reach the lighthouse, a trip that should have taken place ten years before. Since this is the final paragraph of the book, and since the problem of the painting resembles the structure of the novel (both seem to be organized in the manner of “the letter H”), the paragraph is self-referential as well. So, in a way, this epiphany works on two levels, capturing both Lily’s and Woolf’s realization that there is more to being an artist than leaving a legacy—namely, executing your own, original, and uncompromising vision.
(Further Reading: Top 10 Examples of Epiphany in Literature)
Songs with Epiphany
Example #1: The Drifters, This Magic Moment (1960)
This magic moment, so different and so new
Was like any other until I kissed you
And then it happened, it took me by surprise
I knew that you felt it too, by the look in your eyes.
Popularized by the 1993 movie The Sandlot—which is why This Magic Moment, in the minds of many, will forever be associated with Michael “Squints” Palledorous and Wendy Peffercorn (reference)—This Magic Moment is one of the best-known songs in the repertoire of pianist Mort Shuman and lyricist Doc Pomus. Originally performed by Ben E. King and The Drifters, as noted by Victor Robert Kennedy, This Magic Moment makes use of all of the main qualities of epiphany, describing an intense and mysterious moment which arrives suddenly and has the power to negate time (“This magic moment while your lips are close to mine/ Will last forever, forever ’till the end of time”). The real epiphany, however, is left unuttered, hiding beneath the word “it” in the quatrain above, ethereal, describable only in terms of comparisons (“sweeter than wine/ softer than the summer night”).
Example #2: The Monkees, I’m a Believer (1966)
Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer
Not a trace of doubt in my mind
I’m in love
I’m a believer, I couldn’t leave her if I tried
Written by Neil Diamond and first recorded by the Monkees in 1966, I’m a Believer tells the story of one of the most common—and yet, also, one of the most potent—epiphanic experiences a person can go through: that of discovering the whatness of a person. In the case of I’m a Believer, this finding leads to an even more important revelation: namely, that love exists. “I thought love was only through in fairytales,” sings Micky Dolenz here, “meant for someone else but not for me.” However, merely seeing the face of a certain unnamed girl immediately changes his point of view. Now, there’s “not a trace of doubt” in his mind that love exists and that, moreover, he has found her. He is, as the title states, a believer.
Example #3: KT Tunstall, Suddenly I See (2005)
Suddenly I see (suddenly I see)
This is what I wanna be
Suddenly I see (suddenly I see)
Why the hell it means so much to me
According to KT Tunstall, Suddenly I See is a song “about the photograph of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses.” If you have ever seen that image, then you already know what KT Tunstall means when she says that “she fills up every corner like she’s born in black and white” or that “she holds you captivated in her palm.” If not, please take a few moments and have a look (reference). Back here? Is it not obvious to you now why Tunstall had an epiphanic experience and was inspired to become a musician after first laying her eyes upon Patti Smith’s unisex pose on the cover of Horses? “Oh, she makes me feel like I could be a tower,” Tunstall sings, “a big strong tower.” Camille Paglia is absolutely right: that has to be “one of the greatest pictures ever taken of a woman”!