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The Dying Gleams of TWILIGHT

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Photo by Dr. C. Cunningham

This is simply one of the best books I have ever read.


It is by Peter Davidson, who has taught at the universities of Aberdeen, Leiden and Warwick. He is a Fellow of Campion Hall, University of Oxford. His previous books take on overarching themes, with titles such as Distance and Memory (2003), and The Idea of North (2005). Here he adds another, on the nature and meaning of twilight, something everyone has experienced many times. But how often has it sparked your imagination?


For many of an artistic temperament, it has proved to be a rich source of inspiration. Davidson mines prose, poetry and paintings to, in effect, shed light on twilight. As he says in this supremely eloquent passage, it requires a special sight to see what twilight really is.


“Still air, dimming and thickening. The light has gone completely where the boughs of the trees hand down to the grass by the water, where the pine branches brush the surface of the pond. This depth of twilight, when the one unseasonable flower hanging on an elder bush jumps forward a hundred yards to meet the eye, is the solitary domain of those whose eyes have practice in navigating it.” Wow!


Davidson casts his net widely in European sources. In the same chapter he mentions the Turin poet Guido Gozzano (1883-1916) and the ancient Roman poet Virgil. He describes Gozzano's poem Miss Felicity as “a complete, even an extreme, work of the twilight school, of retreat from the present day, of longing for the refuge of a crepuscular life in provincial obscurity as though in a dream world of the mid-nineteenth century.” He regards Virgil as a foundational figure. “Virgil's sombre evocation of twilights and shadows in his otherworld has had an unquantifiable influence on subsequent writing.”


The author recounts a tale “shaped by twilight” told by Sylvia Warner. In her childhood she visited a very old woman, possibly born in the lifetime of Jane Austen, who showed her a Regency doll house by holding a lighted taper inside the tiny rooms. “The nature of the experience,” says Davidson, “is one of having witnessed a haunting, or at least a suspension of time, to have passed through the autumn twilight to a place where a house of the era of Jane Austen has been shown by candlelight, and then to have returned to the present by the paths of sleep and darkness.”


Davidson considers both “natural and unnatural twilights” in this book. One example of the latter can be glimpsed in these few words by T.S. Eliot: “...ghosts return Gently at twilight, gently go at dawn.”


Despite the breadth of reading evidenced by Davidson's research, he chose not to quote from the Chorus of the Spirits in Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. The Chorus here is addressing the atmosphere of human thought:


Be it dim and dank and grey

Like a storm-extinguished day

Travelled o'er by dying gleams


In the realm of painting, Davidson highlights the works of one of my two favourite painters, Caspar David Friedrich. He studies the small painting The Evening, done in 1821, and sees in it something truly wonderful.


“The fence of tree trunks and the rising powder-blue mists from the valley beyond are the barriers of years and their illusions that stand in the way of the couple's last journey together to the bright regions of the evening sky.”


There is only one typo in the book: “it its apparent” on pg. 12 should be “in its apparent.” And it is only noticeable because it is the only imperfection. With this book Davidson can safely be described as one of our greatest wordsmiths.


As an example of what the finest English prose is meant to be I quote here the final paragraph of the last chapter before the Epilogue.


“So we came into the dim wood and into the water loud in the air, looking back at the scatter of lit windows, at the figure of our friends moving among the shadows and glimmerings and lanterns and leaves. Now that the evening has given way, so quietly, and after such long twilight, to the dark. Ferns at our feet and stars in the cobalt above, we live together in this moment of lastness, with all of our night to come.”


This is a book to be read in the twilight of a day, or during the twilight of your days.


The Last of the Light: About Twilight (280 pages) is $35 from Reaktion Books, distributed in the United States by University of Chicago.


Copyright photo of the Moon at twilight, with some highly Romantic clouds, taken by C. Cunningham in May 2016.

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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