When the Streetlights Go Dark: A Literary View of Lumière

Lumiere Durham 2015, by John Lord, reproduced under CC-BY-2.0 licence.
Lumiere Durham 2015, by John Lord, reproduced under CC-BY-2.0 licence

Durham’s recent Lumière festival saw artists cast the city in a colourful new light – but to enhance these displays, many of the city’s streetlights were dimmed. Inspired by her research into T.S. Eliot’s poetry of light and darkness, Nicoletta Asciuto wonders how the absence of light might illuminate our relationship with urban spaces.

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year.
T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’

Last weekend, Durham was lit up with the ineffable colours of Lumière, our city’s own festival of light, remarkably falling this year just a few days after Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Bringing light to the ‘dark time of the year’, as T. S. Eliot calls it in ‘Little Gidding’, is in fact a rather traditional choice – Christmas Day significantly coincides with the pagan festivity of Sol Invictus, “Unconquered Sun”. But what Lumière really does to the city of Durham is turn these otherwise sombre November days into a proper celebration of light. In our rather comfortable lives we tend to forget that light, too, can be an event itself: over a century ago, the inhabitants of New York, London and Paris (together with a few more cities in the West) would look in amazement at the visual representation of the new modernity, electricity, which had been promised to them throughout the nineteenth century. Cities would gradually become more and more electrified under their eyes, and salute the coming twentieth century, with its new technologies, and indeed its “modernity”.

And yet, after their early amazement and surprise, people would have been quite nostalgic for the good old gas light: gas light gave out a yellowish light full of warmth, not only be softer to the eye than electric light, but also to the senses, as it was effectively also used as a source of heating. People would roam about the streets, and find these looked different, in their new, electrified scenario: gas and argand lamps would have to be gradually switched off and removed, for the better (improved!) electric lighting.

During Durham’s Lumière festival, the celebration of lights clearly demanded the switching off of all street lamps around the sites of the main light attractions: a rather fascinating sight, to notice the absence of street light, usual companion of after-dark roamings, in contrast to such impressive light creations. Having finished a Ph.D. thesis on T. S. Eliot’s use of light and dark in his poetry, and having now recently started a post-doctoral project focussing on street lamps, I am left wondering on the significances of this. Would anyone else have spotted this, even? And what would Eliot’s poetic eye have thought about this?

street lightOf course, these can come down to simple conjectures, but somehow while I was watching Lumière I could not help thinking about my thesis, and whether that was indeed what my study of light might reflect. Eliot’s early poetry witnesses a young, restless man wandering about city streets at night, only accompanied by occasionally talking street lamps, and little lamps and candles “winking” at him from within lit houses: these occasional lights lead him through a night of the soul, with very few enlightened moments, and advise him on his tormented path in search for a religious, spiritual, poetic identity. His later poetry shows a rather changed scenario, and yet almost a conceivably natural development from his early nocturnes: if we consider Four Quartets, for instance, mainly written during World War Two, street lighting disappears, both literally and metaphorically; London, for instance, was completely “blackened” at sunset, during the Blitz. This, of course, made going out in the evening a rather dangerous activity at the time, and Eliot registers this atmosphere in a number of lines in Four Quartets, notably in the quite powerful lines of East Coker, ‘O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark’, which are an interesting pun (or parody?) on Henry Vaughan’s 17th-century poem ‘They all go into the world of light’. Yet, Four Quartets witnesses a significant increase in Eliot’s use of light imagery in a more abstract, and arguably mystical way: street lights may have been turned off for safety reasons, and the world might have fallen in a state of “darkness” brought about by the War, but ultimately this is perceived by Eliot as necessary to be able to witness a greater light – indeed, the Light of God for him.

For us, most definitely, the turning off of streetlights inspires greater joy at seeing our beloved Cathedral come to life, in a poetic mixture of light shows, strong winds, and French colours.

Enjoyed this post? Check out our Lumière-inspired list of the top five examples of light in literature.

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