Many years ago I read a biography of the 19th century British aesthete Violet Paget, who wrote under the pen name of Vernon Lee. Violet's life seemed to have been blessed by the gods. When still a young woman, she decided to live out her life in Italy, where she could study great art, commune with other aesthetic souls, and enjoy living dolce far niente. This is pretty much how she spent the remainder of her days: studying aesthetics, writing books, and finding beauty every time she turned around. Violet was able to live this kind of life thanks to an annuity from her industrialist grandfather, which kept her fed and housed as long as she lived. She always had enough time, space and freedom to do exactly what she pleased, and what she was pleased to do was surround herself with beauty every moment of her existence.
Well, this was one of the few times in my life when I turned absolutely pea green with envy. What a way to live! What a flawless state of being! To escape your drab provincial town, relocate to Florence or Venice, and spend your whole existence in contact with some of the sublimest works of art ever created. Even more: you would get to discuss art and poetry with kindred souls every day. No time clock, no deadlines, no stress, no bills, no processing invoices or designing spreadsheets, not when you get to spend your hours contemplating Caravaggio or Bellini. How lucky can anyone get?
And everywhere there would be beauty. In Florence or Venice you wouldn't be assaulted by the light of the golden arches, utility wires, used car lots, shopping malls, Budweiser signs, crushed plastic bottles, and all the other grand and glorious sights of an American town. Scream... fury... murder... Why couldn't I live a life surrounded by beauty? Why couldn't one of my idiot relations have left me enough money so I could settle down in Italy and surrender my soul to the splendor of the Quattrocento? Why was I stuck in a world covered with asphalt? Where could beauty be found in my humdrum Midwestern town?
Why--everywhere, of course. As I grew older, I began to realize that the greatest artists and poets didn't need some kind of special environment to find meaning and beauty: they could be found anywhere on earth, even in a small Illinois town. If you opened your eyes and just started to look at the world around you, you could find something beautiful every blessed moment of your existence, in all the wondrous sights and sounds that surrounded you. After all, Walt Whitman only needed leaves of grass to find meaning and beauty in his life. He even tells us in The Mystic Trumpeter that all you really need out of life is simply to be ... alive:
The ocean fill'd with joy--the atmosphere all joy!
Joy! joy! in freedom, worship, love! joy in the ecstasy of life!
Enough to merely be! enough to breathe!
Joy! joy! all over joy!
This was one of the breakthrough moments of my life. Until this instant I had never realized that the universe was showering incredible beauty, wonder and splendor down upon me every moment in my life--even in an ordinary Midwestern town. All I had to do was start paying attention. What more could I possibly want than what I already had? I had birds and trees and breezes and butterflies, I had roses in the spring and sunflowers in midsummer, I had the wide open sky with its ever-changing pageant of clouds, I had rain and mist and snow, I had the boundless prairie's ever-receding horizon, I had hawks soaring through the skies at dawn and sunlight sparking on the dew. I had the richness of the summer moon in the black velvet sky and the thrilling pageant of the stars every night. When you've got magnificence like this every day of your life, who needs Florence?
The more I started to pay attention to all the natural forms and forces which surrounded me, the more I realized that I could also learn certain basic spiritual or metaphysical truths from what I was seeing and hearing. After all, this was how ancient Chinese philosophers came to an understanding of the Dao: they knew that the natural world which surrounded them was radiant with a spiritual significance which could be conveyed and understood. When they wanted to understand existence itself, they didn't go to books or to a spiritual leader--they went out into the world of nature to learn what they could.
I spent the next few years trying to follow in their footsteps. I started to pay attention the movements of the sun, the moon and the stars, I tried to feel the energies of the winds and the waters, and I carefully watched seasonal changes and weather patterns. Did I learn anything? Probably not much, except the unoriginal notion that everything about our universe is in constant movement and flow, and that when you let yourself get stuck in something you end up completely dead. But I do like to think that I did discover one very important metaphysical truth from the natural forces which surrounded me. Maybe this is only vanity or delusion, but this discovery made sense to me and ended up making a great deal of difference in my life.
What I discovered was there were special places of intensity in the natural world where the energies were always very concentrated and vivid. In these places it actually seemed like some kind of spiritual or metaphysical revelation was possible. I am talking about boundaries or thresholds, the kind of frontier which separates one reality from another. The threshold of a house is this kind of boundary, a place which is neither inside nor out. Crossing a threshold was always of great importance in the old fairy tales, since it was an act which could take you out of your normal day-to-day reality and transport you into a different world.
I started to realize that these kind of thresholds were all around me in the natural world. For example, any place where earth met water was this kind of threshold, a place of quite forceful and vital power. Earth and water, of course, are two of the four primal elements which constitute our universe, and when they come together some kind of special energy is generated. Beaches, lake shores, riverbanks... all these are places of special power. I have read that medieval Irish bards would always go to the bank of a river or to the edge of the sea when searching for inspiration, divination, or wisdom--they must have realized the the energies of these special places would fill them with the kind of stimulation that they needed.
But I also discovered that there were special thresholds of time as well, and in many ways these thresholds were even more potent than what you could find in the physical world. I am talking about shift moments like new or full moons, the start of a new season, or solstices and equinoxes. When I started paying attention to these kind of threshold moments, I began to realize that something mysterious always seemed to happen whenever they occur. If you pay close enough attention to the energies of a time threshold, you will discover that during these special moments the physical universe almost seems to drop away, leaving the world of the spirit visible. I quickly learned that there was one particularly intense threshold moment, when these kind of energies were at their strongest. This moment came to us every single day of our lives. It was the threshold of twilight.
Discovering the importance of twilight was another of the breakthrough moments of my life. I realized that the twilight which we experience every twenty-four hours of our lives can be one of the most intense thresholds we can know. Twilight is a dramatic moment between the familiar and the unknown, between the prosaic reality we are accustomed to and the spiritual reality which exists beyond. Twilight is both a time out of time and a place out of place. All of which means that it can give us some of the most important spiritual lessons we can ever learn.
This will probably be a difficult statement for people to accept, at least initially. I am aware that the vast majority of people in this world would actually prefer to watch television in the evening instead of paying attention to the twilight. Poor dear fools--they don't know what they are missing. The twilight which comes over the earth at the end of each day happens to be a precious gift which can shift us into a completely new way of being.
At this point, my reader is probably wondering if there is any common sense behind what I'm saying, or whether it is all just mindless babble. Well, bear with me a little longer.
To begin with, twilights are always moments of perfect tranquility and repose. When the shades of evening start to rise out of the earth, if you simply stop whatever you are doing and allow their calming energies to affect your being, this alone is enough to move you into a different kind of consciousness. This is perhaps the key secret to twilight: it dissolves everything, up to and including your problems, your burdens, and your psychodramas. They all simply float away into the darkening ethereal air.
Next, twilights are always moments of great beauty. For all that I've just said about finding beauty in your ordinary American town, this isn't always the easiest thing to do, not when your eyes are constantly assaulted by by the spectacle of dumpsters, dog poop, smashed beer cans, messy houses, rusty Buicks--I could go on forever, couldn't I? What you need to remember is that nothing is ever ugly in the twilight. When the light starts to fade all that is harsh or vulgar in our lives simply dissolves away into darkness, and everything takes on a new and otherworldly splendor. The old Scottish word glamour always had connotations of twilight, when beauty could always be found while roaming in the gloaming. You want some glamour in your life? Forget about watching your average Hollywood bimbo--start cultivating the twilight.
Twilight also engenders a sense of balance. After all, it is a moment which is in perfect equilibrium between day and night. You sense that two different kinds of time are coming together in perfect harmony. In other words twilight is of itself a kind of centering. And this is one kind of centering which doesn't require that you work at it, nor practice it: all you have to do is just lean back and enjoy...
But if you're a poet (or at least someone who aspires to be one), you will also discover that twilight is a time when you need to grow ever more alert. In the gathering dusk, everything which surrounds us loses its familiarity. On the one hand, objects and forms become blurred and unrecognizable, but on the other sound, fragrance, breezes grow ever more miraculously intense. I have learned that this kind of disorientation can frequently be accompanied by creative reverie. The mind is never fixed at shift moments like this--it wanders at will into fertile space where new inspiration can be found. There is no time like the twilight for new words, forms, or ideas to appear in your mind. I always have pen and paper ready so I can start scribbling down the thoughts that inevitably come when the light is fading. Sometimes I keep writing until it is too dark to see. The words and concepts that come to me during the twilights frequently have an extraordinary vividness and are poetic in and of themselves, even if I can't always arrange them into rhythmic form.
Here I must offer up one of my pet theories about artistic creation. I have long been convinced that the greatest poets, artists, and visionaries have always had one thing in common, namely an ability way to surrender their egos and enter into some kind of communion with something outside of themselves. This is what happened when Keats, for example, blended his own consciousness with a nightingale, and Van Gogh became one with sunflowers. You do not need any kind of special genius to do this--you simply need to find a way to let go of your self-conscious ego and become pure awareness. Well, there is no time like the twilight to help us release our conscious personality. As the darkness increases, the physical boundaries which separate you from the world vanish into nothingness. If you want to experience the world with the kind of rapt intensity that a great poet experienced it, all you need is a twilight.
Twilights are also special moments of psychic intensity. You are always able to divine things better in a threshold moment. I have written elsewhere about the things you can to do increase your psychic skills and won't repeat myself here. But if you really want to practice effective divination, do it in the twilight. There are oracles, but then there are also twilight oracles, and there is no oracle like a twilight oracle.
Twilights are also special moments when we can start to sense the inner spiritual reality of everything that surround us. If ever there is a perfect moment which can give us an inkling of spiritual truth or mystical vision, it must surely come at twilight, when form dissolves into shadow and darkness. In the Homeric poems, the gods would frequently appear at dusk, in that special moment when the physical world is dissolving into nothingness. Innumerable mystics both East and West have also found that the most intense spiritual illumination can come in these special moments. In a long, lingering twilight, the unseen can become as real as the seen, time becomes timeless, and it actually seems as though the world of the spirit becomes visible.
All of which means that if start making time and space for twilights in your life, something will shift within your existence. The world of the spirit will grow much more real. You will be able to attain a feeling of mystical connectedness to the physical manifestations of the world. You will start to feel as though you can indeed escape time and space any time you wish. If nothing else, the simple act of experiencing a betwixt and between is guaranteed to engender reverie and dreams.
Then what? Can I guarantee that you will enter into the world of faerie? Or
that you will be able to sing like Taliesin? Of course not. But just try a
twilight sometime. Absorb its grace and beauty into your being. You
might just be surprised.
Not surprisingly, I will start off my twilight collection with the one poet who was absolutely bewitched by the twilight: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Yeats was very much aware that there is more to our world than what we see and hear in our ordinary physical reality, and he was a master at surrendering his self-conscious ego to something outside himself. His talent for finding spiritual revelation in the physical world which surrounds us is possibly a direct result of the lessons he learned in his rural Irish twilights.
Not surprisingly, as a young man he wrote an entire book about twilight: The Celtic Twilight (1893), which is still very much worth reading. I must confess I find the folklore sections of this book to be tedious, but on the whole the book is redeemed by many passages of great beauty. In particular, Yeats gives us what is probably the greatest definition of twilight ever penned:
that great Celtic twilight, in which heaven and earth so mingle that each seems to have taken upon itself some shadow of the other's beauty.
Well, there you have it all in a nutshell: twilights can give us wonder, spirituality, revelation, and a mystic threshold into the unseen world every day of our lives. Yeats ends The Celtic Twilight with one of his greatest poems: Into the Twilight. Of all the twilight poems ever written, this is the great one, the one to be memorized, the one whose words you need to treasure in your soul for the rest of your life...
Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh, heart, again in the grey twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.
Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight grey;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.
Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;
And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the grey twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.
But Yeats is not the only poet who found magic in the twilight...
I face, high over this enchanted lodge, the Court of the Five Cities of
And I see a countryside blue and still, after the long rain.
The distant peaks and trees of Qin merge into twilight,
And Had Palace washing-stones make their autumnal echoes.
Thin pine-shadows brush the outdoor pulpit,
And grasses blow their fragrance into my little cave.
...Who need be craving a world beyond this one?
Here, among men, are the Purple Hills
Red leaves are fluttering down the twilight
Past this arbour where I take my wine;
Cloud-rifts are blowing toward Great Flower Mountain,
And a shower is crossing the Middle Ridge.
I can see trees colouring a distant wall.
I can hear the river seeking the sea,
As I the Imperial City tomorrow --
But I dream of woodsmen and fishermen.
High beyond the thick wall a tower shines with sunset
Where peach and plum are blooming and the willow cotton flies.
You have heard in your office the court-bell of twilight;
Birds find perches, officials head for home.
Your morning-jade will tinkle as you thread the golden palace;
You will bring the word of Heaven from the closing gates at night.
And I should serve there with you; but being full of years,
I have taken off official robes and am resting from my troubles.
Wang Wei (698-761)
The limpid river, past its bushes
Running slowly as my chariot,
Becomes a fellow voyager
Returning home with the evening birds.
A ruined city-wall overtops an old ferry,
Autumn sunset floods the peaks.
...Far away, beside Mount Song,
I shall close my door and be at peace.
Wang Wei (698-761)
Not knowing the way to the Temple of Heaped Fragrance,
Under miles of mountain-cloud I have wandered
Through ancient woods without a human track;
But now on the height I hear a bell.
A rillet sings over winding rocks,
The sun is tempered by green pines....
And at twilight, close to an emptying pool,
Thought can conquer the Passion-Dragon.
Wang Wei (698-761)
Across the willow-lake a temple shines,
Pale, through the lotus-girdled isle of pines,
And twilight listens to the drip of oars --
The coming of dark boats with scented stores
Of orange seed; the mist leans from the hill,
While palm leaves sway 'twixt wind and water chill,
And waves of smoke like phantoms rise and fade
Into a trembling tangle of green jade.
I dream strange dreams within my tower room,
Dreams from the glimmering realms of even gloom;
Until each princely guest doth, landing, raise
His eyes, upon the full-orbed moon to gaze --
The old moon-palace that in ocean stands
Mid clouds of thistle-down and jewelled strands.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
The moon has arisen, the birds are all in their nests;
I sit quietly among the trees, alone.
Now my heart is at rest.
And good it is to play the lute of white wood.
Cool-, clear-sounding, according to its nature,
Thin and quiet, it follows the human heart
The mind is filled with the spirit of peace,
As it responds to the ancient mode of Seishi.
The sounds linger on, and trembling, cease.
The melody is finished, autumn night profound.
The True Sound echoes the Primal Changes;
Heaven and Earth deepen serene.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
Early cicadas stop their trilling;
Points of light, new fireflies, pass to and fro.
The taper burns clear and smokeless;
Beads of bright dew hang on the bamboo mat.
Not yet will I enter the house to sleep.
But walk awhile beneath the eaves.
The rays of the moon slant into the low verandah;
The cool breeze fills the tall trees.
Letting loose the feelings, life flows on easily;
The scene entered deep into my heart.
What is the secret of this state?
To have nothing small in one's mind.
Po Chü-i (772-847)
Where the sun has entered the western hills,
I look for a monk in his little straw hut;
But only the fallen leaves are at home,
And I turn through chilling levels of cloud
I hear a stone gong in the dusk,
I lean full-weight on my slender staff
How within this world, within this grain of dust,
Can there be any room for the passions of men?
Li Shangyin (813- 858)
These poems come from R. H. Blyth's Haiku (4 volumes published
1949-1952) and A History of Haiku (2 volumes published 1963-1964).
Not yet evening,
But with the rain,
It is a window of autumn.
Looking as if
I have nothing on my mind.
An autumn evening.
Den Sute-jo (1633-1698)
Indifferent and languid,
I burned some incense:
An evening of spring.
In a short life,
An hour of leisure,
This autumn evening.
An autumn eve;
There is a joy too,
It is overcast;
The plum trees are covered
With the dust of evening.
A day of spring;
Wherever there is water.
I have nothing at all,—
But this tranquillity!
Among the elemental presences of Nature is there anything more potent than what we name Twilight? What a thing it is, when you come seriously to note it, when you allow its magic to work upon you, this daily sinking down of darkness upon the face of the earth! Many, ere now, have sung hymns to the Sun; but it is only when twilight begins to fall that a certain largeness of the atmosphere, obliterating the transitory and ephemeral, flows around us, and lifts us up, and out and away, upon its full-brimmed tide.
Who can deny that by the feelings released in the twilight, so common, so simple, so universal, all the tenderer, wiser, gentler second-thoughts of our race are nourished and sustained?
From the populous pavements of our cities, from the bleak desolations of all those strange no-man's lands between city and country, from mountain-ridges and umbrageous valleys, from pebbled shores and tossing waters, Twilight, this faint recurrent sigh of our familiar landscape as it sinks into its diurnal sleep takes away something hard and opaque: something that separates us from the ultimate mystery.
Yes! It rolls back for us, each mortal evening, whether the weather be foul or fair, those clanging brazen gates that separate us from the calm, cool, restorative wells of life. Over our forlornest human thresholds, across the sills of our wretchedest human windows, flows this ocean of release. And under its power everything grows larger, more ethereal, more transparent. The harsh outlines recede, the crude colours withdraw, the raucous noises die down: and out of the vaporous grey upon grey an indescribable luminousness--not light, but, as it were, the spirit of light --like the blueness of fathoms of deep water, floods the exhausted world.
And the thoughts of men and women return to the moments when there has been no screen between them and the Unspeakable; no barrier between them and the withdrawingness of Matter. Like flying birds gathering homeward in the dusk, their thoughts follow long, dim, moss-cool vistas of obscure feeling, avenues of emotion far too tremulous, far too vague, to be put into words.
And whence do these feelings Come? From the mystery of the Inanimate; from that vast volume of the dim body of Matter against which the idealists tell us the Spirit must ceaselessly contend!
And Twilight is not only the mother of healing thoughts; it is the grand releaser from the prison of vulgarity, the great liberator from the pressure of the crowd. With whatever hot, feverish constriction the crowd-consciousness shuts us in, Twilight enables us to slip out upon the cool balconies of our own mind.
Not a solitary soul alive growing aware of that strange blueness at the window, of that undulating sea of spaciousness into which all opacities melt and lose themselves but can flee away to the ocean-banks of its own widest horizons, and keep its vigil there, listening to the breaking of the great tides. And while the eternal Twilight thus separates souls that the world has joined, it unites those that the world has separated!
This is the hour when all divided lovers send their spirits forth, each to each, across land and sea.
The man leaning against the door-post, that girl standing at the window, what has broken the laws of space and time for these two, that their souls may rush together and be at rest? Has humanity done it? Has Christ done it? Has Spinoza done it? Not one of these! The Inanimate has done it. Matter, the old antagonist of the Spirit, the old aboriginal, elemental Titan, has come to the rescue of these lovers. What the world has joined, the Inanimate has separated. What the world has separated the Inanimate has joined.