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Autumn longing: H.P. Lovecraft

If you haven’t yet read my first post in this series of posts about a special mood of ethereal longing that occasionally overcomes me, then please read that one before this one, since it lays the groundwork to explain what I’m getting at here.

H.P. Lovecraft was an early 20th century American horror author who has long been associated in mainstream memory with Weird Tales and the other 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines that were devoted to fantasy, science fiction, and horror. What has been less well known outside of his relatively small but passionately devoted circle of admirers is that he was also a fantastically prolific epistolarian, an accomplished literary critic, a student of architecture, a devoted antiquarian, an amateur chemist and astronomer, and a philosopher and political theorist of enormous insight and acumen. It is only now, these seven decades after his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 46, that he is beginning to receive mainstream recognition as a classic American author on the level of Poe. (Not incidentally, the many parallels between Poe and Lovecraft are fascinating. Both were preoccupied by moods and themes of beauty, horror, dread, and the gothic sublime. Both were neurotic and emotionally hypersensitive. Both were denied canonical literary status until long after their deaths. Both were first championed by the French literati before achieving widespread critical recognition back in their home country.)

Lovecraft’s most famous literary creation has hitherto been the inaptly named “Cthulhu mythos,” which, as stated in the Wikipedia article by that title, “is the term coined by the writer August Derleth [one of Lovecraft’s literary executors] to describe the shared elements, characters, settings, and themes in the works of H. P. Lovecraft and associated writers.” The mythos is built around the idea of monstrous extracosmic entities who are waging a war against each other, with earth as one of their central battlegrounds. Although Lovecraft did occasionally write about such things, or at least about something resembling them, Derleth and later writers codified and modified his so-called “mythos” in ways that were explicitly un-Lovecraftian, giving it, for example, a pseudo-Christian slant by recasting it in the form of a Manichaean war between “good” entities and “bad” ones. The resulting literary mishmash contributed enormously to the public’s misremembering of Lovecraft as nothing more than a pulp hack who produced a body of b-grade horror stories about tentacular monsters.

Fortunately, a vigorous scholarly movement arose in the 1970s, spearheaded by the precocious young scholar S.T. Joshi, that reclaimed Lovecraft’s memory from the morass of inaccuracies that had come to obscure it. Today, thanks primarily to Joshi and the other scholars involved in the movement, Lovecraft is increasingly being remembered and recognized as the significant literary figure that he truly was and is.

Among the aspects of his character that were obscured by the false image of him that reigned during most of the 20th century, none was more central to his overall personality than his burning sense of sehnsucht (regarding which, see my first post in this series for an explanation). His deep longing for, and exquisite responsiveness to, scenes of natural and architectural beauty which would evoke a piercing sense of “adventurous expectancy,” as he often called it, mingled with a tantalizing sense of deja vu or lost memory, led him to produce many poems and a veritable ocean of letters in which he described and tracked this delicate mood. As with C.S. Lewis’s writings about his own piercing experience of sehnsucht, I find that Lovecraft’s descriptions of the emotion awaken a startling sense of identification within me. I know exactly, precisely, poignantly, what he is talking about when he describes the ethereal sense of longing that arises in connection with certain scenes and seasons to intoxicate him with a sense of imminent revelation and transcendence.

I wrote about this aspect of his personality in my paper “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets: H.P. Lovecraft and His Influence on Thomas Ligotti,” so for this post about HPL’s experience of sehnsucht, I’ve decided to go ahead and quote a passage from that paper, since it includes several significant excerpts from his writings.

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Lovecraft, as both a human being and an artist, was powerfully shaped by a lifelong experience of sehnsucht. . . . [His] poignant yearning after an experience of absolute beauty can be seen in many of his stories, such as “The Silver Key,” where young Randolph Carter, Lovecraft’s fictional alter ego, yearns for a return to the reimagined supernal peace and beauty of his childhood world; and also in his letters and essays, where he speaks repeatedly of finding himself overcome by aesthetic rapture and a sense of longing and “adventurous expectancy” at the sight of sunsets, cloudscapes, winding streets, rooftops angled in certain suggestive arrangements, and the like. The following passage from a 1927 letter to Donald Wandrei is typical:

Sometimes I stumble accidentally on rare combinations of slope, curved street-line, roofs & gables & chimneys, & accessory details of verdure & background, which in the magic of late afternoon assume a mystic majesty and exotic significance beyond the power of words to describe. Absolutely nothing else in life now has the power to move me so much; for in these momentary vistas there seem to open before me bewildering avenues to all the wonders & lovelinesses I have ever sought, & to all those gardens of eld whose memory trembles just beyond the rim of conscious recollection, yet close enough to lend to life all the significance it possesses (Selected Letters II.125-6).

Or again, from a 1930 letter to Clark Ashton Smith:

My most vivid experiences are efforts to recapture fleeting & tantalising mnemonic fragments expressed in unknown or half-known architectural or landscape vistas, especially in connexion with a sunset. Some instantaneous fragment of a picture will well up suddenly through some chain of subconscious association—the immediate excitant being usually half-irrelevant on the surface—& fill me with a sense of wistful memory & bafflement; with the impression that the scene in question represents something I have seen & visited before under circumstances of superhuman liberation & adventurous expectancy, yet which I have almost completely forgotten, & which is so bewilderingly uncorrelated & unoriented as to be forever inaccessible in the future (Selected Letters III.197).

Additional examples could be multiplied at length, and all would show, like the above passages, that Lovecraft was gripped by an ingrained and, we might say, “classical” sense of sehnsucht, the “infinite longing that is the essence of romanticism,” as E.T.A. Hoffmann famously formulated it. It was precisely this faculty that led him to respond with such intense delight to the mystically charged writings of Lord Dunsany, which exerted an enormous influence on his own subsequent work. Lovecraft’s Dunsanian stories can and should be read not only as outflowings of his love for Dunsany’s aesthetic vision, but as expressions of his own personal sense of infinite longing.

Lovecraft even went so far as to assert that this feeling of longing, this heightened responsiveness to beauty that seems to hint at a transcendent world of absolute aesthetic fulfillment, is

the impulse which justifies authorship . . . . The time to begin writing is when the events of the world seem to suggest things larger than the world—strangenesses and patterns and rhythms and uniquities of combination which no one ever saw or heard before, but which are so vast and marvellous and beautiful that they absolutely demand proclamation with a fanfare of silver trumpets. Space and time become vitalised with literary significance when they begin to make us subtly homesick for something ‘out of space, out of time.’ . . . To find those other lives, other worlds, and other dreamlands, is the true author’s task. That is what literature is; and if any piece of writing is motivated by anything apart from this mystic and never-finished quest, it is base and unjustified imitation (Selected Letters II.142-3). . . .

In [“Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction“], he explain[ed] why he wrote the particular kind of story that his readers have come to associate him with. . . . :

I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best—one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis. These stories frequently emphasize the element of horror because fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of Nature-defying illusions. Horror and the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage or “outsideness” without laying stress on the emotion of fear (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 113; emphasis added).

The import of this statement for Lovecraft’s status as a horror writer is obvious: he was saying, circa 1933, that he only wrote horror because it was efficacious for achieving another effect that is not intrinsically horrific. In other words, for him, horror was a means and not an end. It was his poignant, wistful longing after transcendent beauty and cosmic freedom that animated his authorial life—and not only that, but his life in general: in the same letter where he described his “vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory,” he claimed that this intense emotional experience was chief amongst the reasons why he did not commit suicide—“the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality” (Selected Letters III.243).

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I’ll note tangentially that if the above excerpt interests you, you should be aware that the entire essay will be published in the next issue of Studies in Weird Fiction, the long-running journal edited by Joshi. The essay was also available for a time at Thomas Ligotti Online, but right now I’m getting an error message when I try to access it there.

At the risk of redundancy, I’ve decided to go ahead and post a handful of those “additional passages” mentioned above: those excerpts from Lovecraft’s letters, poems, and essays that further embody his extraordinarily intense experience of infinite longing. I hope the repetitiveness may serve not to bore, but to underscore and even clarify the emotion in question via Lovecraft’s many variations of expression, all centered around a common nexus of tropes and themes. Note especially his frequent return to certain key elements — the mystical emotional effect of sunsets and skyscapes, the evocative nature of certain architectural scenes, the sense of lost memory, the craving for a vision of absolute beauty, the maddening and tantalizing nature of the elusive longing — that help to flesh out exactly what he is talking about, if indeed such a mystical-seeming emotion can be adequately and definitively pinpointed.

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From The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1927)

Three times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvellous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades, and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harbouring little lanes of grassy cobbles. It was a fever of the gods; a fanfare of supernal trumpets and a clash of immortal cymbals. Mystery hung about it as clouds about a fabulous unvisited mountain; and as Carter stood breathless and expectant on that balustraded parapet there swept up to him the poignancy and suspense of almost-vanished memory, the pain of lost things, and the maddening need to place again what once had an awesome and momentous place.

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From a letter to James F. Morton, March 12, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.123-4; emphases in original)

It is never any definite experience which gives me pleasure, but always the quality of mystic adventurous expectancy itself—the indefiniteness which permits me to foster the momentary illusion that almost any vista of wonder and beauty might open up, or almost any law of time or space or matter or energy be marvellously defeated or reversed or modified or transcended….that sense of expansion, freedom, adventure, power, expectancy, symmetry, drama, beauty-absorption, surprise, and cosmic wonder (i.e. the illusory promise of a majestic revelation which shall gratify man’s ever-flaming, ever-tormenting curiosity about the outer voids and ultimate gulfs of entity)….the illusion of being poised on the edge of the infinite amidst a vast cosmic unfolding which might reveal almost anything reveal . . . . a sense of soaring outward from all temporal, spatial, and material limitations along broad vistas of slanting yellow radiance from unimagined gulfs beyond the chrysoberyl gates of sunset……soaring outward toward the discovery of stupendous, cosmic, inconceivable things, and toward the envisagement and comprehension of awesome rhythms and patterns and symmetries too Titanic, too unparticled, too trans-galactic, and too overpowering for the relatively flat, tame, and local name of “beauty”. When a city or landscape or experience can give me this sense of untrammelled and starward soaring, I account it worth my while to go after it.

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From a letter to August Derleth, December 25, 1930 (cf. Selected Letters III.197)

I am perfectly confident that I could never adequately convey to any other human being the precise reasons why I continue to refrain from suicide—the reasons, that is, why I still find existence enough of a compensation to atone for its dominantly burthernsome quality. These reasons are strongly linked with architecture, scenery, and lighting and atmospheric effects, and take the form of vague impressions of adventurous expectancy coupled with elusive memory—impressions that certain vistas, particularly those associated with sunsets, are avenues of approach to spheres or conditions of wholly undefined delights and freedoms which I have known in the past and have a slender possibility of knowing again in the future. Just what those delights and freedoms are, or even what they may approximately resemble, I could not concretely imagine to save my life; save that they seem to concern some ethereal quality of indefinite expansion and mobility, and of a heightened perception which shall make all forms and combinations of beauty simultaneously visible to me, and realisable by me.

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From a letter to August Derleth, September 2, 1931 (Selected Letters III.405)

Certain collocations of scenic or architectural details have the most powerful imaginable effect on my emotions—evoking curious combinations of poignant images derived from reading, pictures, and experience. Old farmhouses and orchards move me about as profoundly as any one kind of thing I know—though general rural landscapes are also supremely potent. They give me a vague, elusive sense of half-remembering something of great and favourable significance—just as city spires and domes against a sunset, or the twinkling lights of a violet city twilight seen from neighboring heights, always inspires a vaguely stimulating sense of adventurous expectancy.

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From a letter to Robert E. Howard, May 7, 1932 (Selected Letters IV.39)

What you say of your dreams of cold, grey skies—and of the actual skies and sunsets in your part of the world—interests me vastly. I am myself extremely susceptible to sky effects, particularly gorgeous and apocalyptic sunsets. Sunsets arouse in me vague feelings of pseudo-memory, mystical revelation, and adventurous expectancy, which nothing else can even begin to conjure up. They always seem to me to be about to unveil supernal vistas of other (yet half-familiar) worlds and other dimensions. I am also ineffably fascinated by the golden light of late afternoon which somewhat precedes the sunset. Any sort of scene bathed in this unearthly splendour—with tinges of crimson and long, fantastic shadows—seems to my fancy part of a strange, ethereal realm of wonder and beauty but faintly allied to anything in the domain of prosaic reality.

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As before, I hope you enjoy these contributions to your experience of the autumn season. Reading such words and thoughts, which express with aching clarity an emotion and sensation that I have labored for years to articulate for myself, never fails to intensity my own experience of the season’s bittersweet poignancy.

Autumn longing: C.S. Lewis

The autumn season has always carried a special emotional potency for me. When the weather turns crisp and the colors of nature change first to vibrant reds, oranges, and golds, and then progress onward toward deep russet browns, tending toward the death-sleep of winter, I’m struck with feelings of poignancy and melancholy that burn more brightly, or perhaps more darkly, than at any other time of the year. I’m also more exquisitely sensitive to the aesthetic influence of art, whether literary, musical, visual, or otherwise.

It was many years ago that I first realized and articulated to myself that this autumnal mood is inextricably bound up with a certain, strange longing. When the mood of autumn comes over me, it is always characterized by a kind of nostalgia for something I have never really known, as if I possess some vestigial memory of a lost knowledge or emotion that flits maddeningly and elusively on the edge of my ability to recall directly. It’s truly a numinous experience, that is, an experience that makes me feel as I’ve come into brief contact with some sort of transcendent spiritual truth. It tends to generate the impression of an absolute, unmediated experience of supernal beauty hovering just beyond the edge of my inner grasp. All the flickering hints of this beauty that I sometimes encounter in literature, film, music, and scenic natural vistas and skyscapes seem to reach their apotheosis in this ungraspable ultimacy, as if they are merely finite carriers that filter and refract partial glimpses of an infinite reality, like the Platonic Form of the Beautiful itself.

Naturally, with this experience forming an important part of my psychological makeup, I am exceedingly fascinated by the accounts of others who have also felt it. Some years ago I began collecting quotes and passages from the works of various writers who have described their own encounters with this strange longing. Given that it is presently the height of October as I write these words, with the world outside my window standing fully in the grip of that special autumnal alchemy of bittersweet exuberance commingled with twilit dreariness, I thought there could be no better time for me to share some of these writers and their words.

The emotion in question has no essential connection to autumn, by the way. My own first memory of it actually hails from early summertime, from a lost day in my early adolescence — I think I was around twelve years old — when I walked out of my house and into the front yard, and was overcome suddenly by a kind of mental melding together of the soft greens of the trees and grasses, aided by the caress of a delicate warm breeze, that brought the emotion vividly to life. I spent several minutes standing there silently in the sway of an overpowering impression that I had forgotten something, some crucial event from years past, or perhaps a bit of intellectual or emotional knowledge, that would explain this explosion of pleasurable nostalgia. I never did grasp the elusive (or perhaps illusive) memory, but the memory of that first self-aware experience of the mysterious longing marked me permanently.

So as I said, this longing has no especial, essential connection to autumn. I simply associate it with the autumn season because that’s what seems to awaken it the most readily for me. In this, I am of course not alone, as attested by the veritable reams of autumn-themed poetry, centered around or inspired by a feeling of longing, that populate the pages of many a literary anthology

In my bookish wanderings in search of others who have shared this experience, I have been most interested to find writings that describe the longing, as distinct from literary attempts to evoke it. For the latter, any number of famous poets and poems will do: Sarah Teasdale, William Blake, Algernon Swinburne, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen Dobyns, Emily Dickinson, Percy Shelley, William Wordsworth — the list could be extended indefinitely. But I’ve found that it’s all too rare, and therefore all the more special, to find a writer who attempts to provide an actual account of this special emotion of longing itself. What I want are the equivalent of phenomenological descriptions of what it feels like to be possessed by this strange and sui generis emotion, perhaps accompanied by a few ruminations on the possible meaning of it all.

To my knowledge, nobody has fulfilled this wish more completely than C.S. Lewis, who famously developed a Christian apologetic whose very foundation is rooted in the experience of nostalgic, transcendent longing. One might disagree with the conclusions he draws from his own lifelong experiences of it — “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world,” he wrote in Mere Christianity — but the power and precision of his phenomenological description itself is undeniable. In fact, I find that his words in this vein tend to reawaken my own longing, no matter how many times I reread them.

The following paragraphs come from the preface to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), which was the first book he wrote after his adult conversion to Protestant Christianity. Subtitled “An Allegorical Apology for Christianity Reason and Romanticism,” the book presents an explicit allegory that depicts Lewis’s own journey from the dry, dead, inherited Christianity of his boyhood, through the problematic philosophies of the modern world, to the vibrant Christian faith of his adulthood. He intended it to serve as a Pilgrim’s Progress for the 20th century.

Lewis added the preface in 1943, ten years after the novel’s initial publication, because he wanted to clarify his use of the word “Romanticism” to describe “the experience which is central in this book.” After discussing several different ways in which the word is commonly understood, he explained his own idiosyncratic use of it to refer to “an experience of intense longing,” and in doing so, he came close to giving what is for me the quintessential description of the matter. I don’t necessarily endorse his argument in the latter paragraphs quoted below, where he explains the thought process that led him to accord this longing the status of evidence in a novel type of theological apologia. But still, I can’t deny that his very speculations in this area tend to arouse and intensify the longing within me.

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“What I meant by ‘Romanticism’ when I wrote the Pilgrim’s Regress — and what I would still be taken to mean on the title page of this book—was . . . a particular recurrent experience which dominated my childhood and adolescence and which I hastily called ‘Romantic’ because inanimate nature and marvelous literature were among the things that evoked it. I still believe that the experience is common, commonly misunderstood, and of immense importance: but I know now that in other minds it arises under other stimuli and is entangled with other irrelevancies and that to bring it into the forefront of consciousness is not so easy as I once supposed. I will now try to describe it sufficiently to make the following pages intelligible.

“The experience is one of intense longing. It is distinguished from other longings by two things. In the first place, though the sense of want is acute and even painful, yet the mere wanting is felt to be somehow a delight. Other desires are felt as pleasures only if satisfaction is expected in the near future: hunger is pleasant only while we know (or believe) that we are soon going to eat. But this desire, even when there is no hope of possible satisfaction, continues to be prized, and even to be preferred to anything else in the world, by those who have once felt it. This hunger is better than any other fullness; this poverty better than all other wealth. And thus it comes about, that if the desire is long absent, it may itself be desired, and that new desiring becomes a new instance of the original desire, though the subject may not at once recognize the fact and thus cries out for his lost youth of soul at the very moment in which he is being rejuvenated. This sounds complicated, but it is simple when we live it. ‘Oh to feel as I did then!’ we cry; not noticing that even while we say the words the very feeling whose loss we lament is rising again in all its old bitter-sweetness. For this sweet Desire cuts across our ordinary distinctions between wanting and having. To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.

“In the second place, there is a peculiar mystery about the object of this Desire. Inexperienced people (and inattention leaves some inexperienced all their lives) suppose, when they feel it, that they know what they are desiring. Thus if it comes to a child while he is looking at a far off hillside he at once thinks ‘if only I were there’; if it comes when he is remembering some event in the past, he thinks ‘if only I could go back to those days.’ If it comes (a little later) while he is reading a ‘romantic’ tale or poem of ‘perilous seas and faerie lands forlorn,’ he thinks he is wishing that such places really existed and that he could reach them. If it comes (later still) in a context with erotic suggestions he believes he is desiring the perfect beloved. If he falls upon literature (like Maeterlinck or the early Yeats) which treats of spirits and the like with some show of serious belief, he may think that he is hankering for real magic and occultism. When it darts out upon him from his studies in history or science, he may confuse it with the intellectual craving for knowledge.

“But every one of these impressions is wrong. The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centered than it was. For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each one of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. To have embraced so many false Florimels is no matter for boasting: it is fools, they say, who learn by experience. But since they do at last learn, let a fool bring his experience into the common stock that wiser men may profit by it.

“Every one of these supposed objects for the Desire is inadequate to it. An easy experiment will show that by going to the far hillside you will get either nothing, or else a recurrence of the same desire which sent you thither. A rather more difficult, but still possible, study of your own memories, will prove that by returning to the past you could not find, as a possession, that ecstasy which some sudden reminder of the past now moves you to desire. Those remembered moments were either quite commonplace at the time (and owe all their enchantment to memory) or else were themselves moments of desiring. The same is true of the things described in the poets and marvelous romancers. The moment we endeavor to think out seriously what it would be like if they were actual, we discover this. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle claimed to have photographed a fairy, I did not, in fact, believe it: but the mere making of the claim — the approach of the fairy to within even that hailing distance of actuality — revealed to me at once that if the claim had succeeded it would have chilled rather than satisfied the desire which fairy literature had hitherto aroused. Once grant your fairy, your enchanted forest, your satyr, faun, wood-nymph and well of immortality real, and amidst all the scientific, social and practical interest which the discovery would awake, the Sweet Desire would have disappeared, would have shifted its ground, like the cuckoo’s voice or the rainbow’s end, and be now calling us from beyond a further hill. With Magic in the darker sense (as it has been and is actually practised) we should fare even worse. How if one had gone that way — had actually called for something and it had come? What would one feel? Terror, pride, guilt, tingling excitement . . . but what would all that have to do with our Sweet Desire? It is not at Black Mass or séance that the Blue Flower grows. As for the sexual answer, that I suppose to be the most obviously false Florimel of all. On whatever plane you take it, it is not what we were looking for. Lust can be gratified. Another personality can become to us ‘our America, our New-found-land.’ A happy marriage can be achieved. But what has any of the three, or any mixture of the three, to do with that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World’s End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?

“It appeared to me therefore that if a man diligently followed this desire, pursuing the false objects until their falsity appeared and then resolutely abandoning them, he must come out at last into the clear knowledge that the human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal existence. This Desire was, in the soul, as the Siege Perilous in Arthur’s castle — the chair in which only one could sit. And if nature makes nothing in vain, the One who can sit in this chair must exist. I knew only too well how easily the longing accepts false objects and through what dark ways the pursuit of them leads us: but I also saw that the Desire itself contains the corrective of all these errors. The only fatal error was to pretend that you had passed from desire to fruition, when, in reality, you had found either nothing, or desire itself, or the satisfaction of some different desire. The dialectic of Desire, faithfully followed, would retrieve all mistakes, head you off from all false paths, and force you not to propound, but to live through, a sort of ontological proof. This lived dialectic, and the mere argued dialectic of my philosophical progress, seemed to have converged on one goal; accordingly I tried to put them both into my allegory which thus became a defense of Romanticism (in my peculiar sense) as well as of Reason and Christianity.”

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Not incidentally, Lewis later seized upon the German word sehnsucht to refer to this emotion. Sehnsucht refers to a wistful, nostalgic longing, and was employed by, for example, E.T.A. Hoffmann (19th cent.) in reference to Beethoven’s music, which in Hoffmann’s words “awakens just that infinite longing [sehnsucht] which is essence of romanticism.” I find it absolutely fascinating to observe the teeming cross section of outlooks and attitudes spanned by the experience of sehnsucht, which is a term that I have found to be as practically and emotionally useful as Lewis did.

For example, another author whose work I cherish, H.P. Lovecraft, was an ardent atheist and materialist, and yet he was gripped by precisely the same experience that gripped Lewis. Of course he drew different conclusions about the emotion, and accorded it a far different ontological and philosophical status. But as with Lewis, Lovecraft’s experience of sehnsucht was so central to his emotional makeup that it could not help but assume a central place in his art.

Other famous cases of sehnsucht-in-action can be seen in the writings of such disparate authors as Colin Wilson, William Wordsworth, Alan Watts, Arthur Machen, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Eugene O’Neill, Henri Amiel, Li Po, George Gissing, Anne Frank, and more. In future blog posts, I plan to offer quotes from some or all of these — most of them, I assure you, in much briefer form than the Lewis quote above. Perhaps one or more of them will prove as useful for you, in clarifying and articulating some of your own emotional tendencies, as they have been for me.