THE EXPRESSION OP THE NUMINOUS IN ENGLISH1
Although it could liardly he disputed that the German philosophical vocabulary is superior to the English both in fullness and in precision, in regard to the subjects discussed in this book our language does not seem to be altogether at a disadvantage. Indeed, the English wealth of synonyms has presented the translator with an embarrassment at the very outset. In place of the single German adjective heilig, with its derivative noun and verb, we have the words sacred and holy, sacrcdncss, holiness and sanctity, hallow and sanctify. Gottheit again gives us a triad of synonyms, deity, divinity, Godhead. Each of these alternatives is probably the most appropriate rendering in some special context, and in choosing any one of them we are bound to sacrifice subtle differences in meaning which would be suggested by the others, and which are perhaps implicit in the single German equivalent. The deciding factor in the choice of holy rather than sacred as the regular rendering of heilig was the fact that it is the Biblical word, found especially in those great passages (e. g. Isaiah vi) of which this book makes repeated use, and which seem central to its argument. Holy will be felt, I believe, to be a distinctly more ' numinous ' word than sacred : it retains about it more markedly the numinous atmosphere. And although, as is urged in the text with perhaps still more reason of its German equivalent, it refers mainly to the higher levels of religious experience at which the numinous lias been interpreted in rational and moral terms, and therefore means to us mainly goodness, the word ' holy ' is found also in contexts where this more exalted meaning is excluded, and where it is simply the numinous at an early and savage stage of development. The well known lines from Coleridge's Kubla Khun give an example of such a use :
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted By woman wailing for lier demon-lover!
This is a finely numinous passage, but it is the numinous at the primitive, pre-religious, ' daemonic ' level: it conveys nothing of
' Added by the translator.
sanctity. Fur, while tho daring use of 'holy' in this context may be just permissible, we reserve ' sanctity', it'I mistake not, for the more restricted and elevated meaning.
Apart from these words it would appear that the English language is in general rich in numinous terms. I>r. Otto has himself noted (p. 14) that the English ' awe ' has a numinous suggestion lacking in the German ' scheu ', and (p. 101 n.) that' haunt' has no preciso German equivalent in all its range of significance. And besides ' uncanny' (a more or less exact rendering of unheindieh) I h ve made use of words like weird and eerie, which convey the indefinable numinous atmosphere unmistakably. The old word freit la supernatural intimation or sign) may be another such; and possibly the obsolete verb-form oug, which gives us ugly, may have conveyed originally a suggestion of unnatural, uncanny, daunting or repulsion. It should be noticed that these numinous words are all (except ' awe 'J concerned primarily w ith the ' cruder' and more primitive forms of the experience : they are not in the first instance religious words in the higher sense, though, unlike such words as arue, grisly, and ghastly, they can be used with a loftier and more ennobled, as well as with a lower and more primitive meaning. And it can, finally, be hardly an accident that they all, or nearly all, are northern in origin. A peculiar susceptibility to numinous impressions—what I)r. Otto would call a peculiarly sensitive faculty of 'divination '—would seem, indeed, to be a characteristic of the Noith British. Such phenomena as those of Clairvoyance and Second-sight would seem to make for tho same conclusion.
Apart from the expressiveness of single English words, it would ho easy to amass from English poetry and prose alike passages (like that from Coleridge already quoted) illustrative of the different elements in numinous apprehension which have been discussed in this book. I venture to give three further citations.
On page l'J3 the contrast between the piety in which the 'rational moments' predominate and that in which a more numinous feeling is to bo noted is illustrated from two German hymns of praise.
The same antithesis could hardly be shown more clearly than by tho contrast between two poems familiar to every English reader, Addison's hymn based on Psalm six, and Blake's poem 'The lyger'. Botli poets are hymning tho Creator as revealed in his creation, but the difference of temper is unmistakable. On the one hand there is the mood of tranquil confidence, serene dignity, thankful and understanding praise; on the other, a mood of trepidation, awed surmise, the hush of mystery, in which lings none the less a strange exultation.
The spacious firmament on high With all the blue ethereal sky, And spangled heavens, a shining frame, Their great Original proclaim. The unwearied sun, from day to day, Does his Creator's power display And publishes to every land The work of an Almighty hand. Soon as the evening shades prevail The moon takes up the wondrous tale And nightly to the listening earth Repeats the story of her birth ; While all the stars that round her burn, And all the planets in their turn, Confirm the tidings as they roll And spread the truth from pole to pole. What though in solemn silence all Move round the dark terrestrial ball ; What though no real voice or sound Amid their radiant orbs be found? In reason's ear they all rejoice, And utter forth a glorious voice ; For ever singing as they shine: ' The hand that made us is Divine.'
This is, confessedly, rational piety ; it is ' reason ' that listens to nature's hymn of praise. As such it is characteristic not only of a certain type of mind, but of the particular age in which it was written. And the contrasted numinous note can hardly be missed in Blake's wonderful verses :
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Could frame thy fearful symmetry ? In what distant deeps or skies Burnt the fire of thine eyes? On what wings dare he aspire ? What the hand dare seize the fire ? And what shoulder and what art Could twist the sinews of thy heart ? And, when thy heart began to beat. What dread hand and what dread feet ?
What the hammer ? What the chain '? In what furnace was thy hrain ? What the anvil'? What dread grasp Pare its deadly terrors clasp ?
When the stars threw down their spears, And watered heaven with their tears, Did he smile his work to see? Did lie who made the lamb make thee ?
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright In the forests of the night, What immortal hand or eye Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
The remark of the author 011 page 221 suggests my last quotation. Wordsworth, in the tenth book of The. I'rehide, recounts the profound impression made upon him by the terrific events in which the French Revolution culminated. Then, as now, outward convulsion anil catastrophe had their inward counterpart in spiritual tumult and overthrow, in widespread disillusionment and despair. And Wordsworth tells us in effect how the very tremendousness of the time, its 1 portentousness', became to him a revelation of the sustaining presence of the holy and the divine (see The I'rclud=\. 437-409):
So, did a portion of that spirit fall
On me uplifted from the vantage-ground
Of pity and sorrow to a state of being
That through the time's exceeding fierceness saw
Glimpses ot retribution, terrible,
And in the order of sublime behests :
But, even if that were not, amid the awe
Of unintelligible chastisement,
Not only acquiescences of faith
Survived, but daring sympathies with power,
Motions not treacherous or profane, else why
Within the folds of no ungentle breast
Their dread vibration to this hour prolonged ? . . .
Then was the truth received into my heart.
That, under hiaviest sorrow earth can bring,
If from the allliction somewdiere do not grow
Honour which could not else have been, a faith,
An elevation, and a sanctity,
If new strength be not given nor old restored,
The blamo is ours, not Nature's.'
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