The numinous experience is one of an encounter with a being wholly other than oneself and altogether different from anything else; filled with a sense of the presence of divinity. I don’t claim that the numinous is an aesthetic quality, but that the numinous experience is a legitimate topic for poetry, not as an abstract idea, but as the sense of a presence, an “atmospheric quality.” I explore how poetry conveys numinous experience not by way of telling, but showing. When we say “The music is sad” or “This poem is numinous,” we report that we detect some structural resemblance between an aesthetic object and some emotional experience. Rudolf Otto’s work provides a description of the structure of the numinous experience; this article explores the structure of poems that can be said to be “numinous” in one sense or other. I distinguish between two kinds of poems that effectively bring the reader face to face with divine presence, in very different ways. One involves objects and actors with stable visual shapes, and usually dramatizes the encounter; the other involves some vague but intense atmospheric quality, and requires openness to dwell on intense but elusive invisible and intangible percepts. In some poems stable characteristic visual shapes dissolve into gestalt-free and thing-free qualities. I analyze poems by Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth containing a subset of the elements Otto discerns in the numinous.
- Aesthetic qualities
- Rudolf Otto