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Total Eclipse

by John H. Lienhard

John Milton died eleven years before Bach and Handel were born. Like Bach and Handel, he also went blind. But he did so earlier — twenty years before his death. He agonized over his own blindness in his poem Samson Agonistes. In it, the blinded Biblical Samson speaks the words, O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,/Irrevocably dark, total eclipse

Handel, while he was still able to see, echoed those words in his opera Samson. Listen as Hector Vasquez sings Samson’s version: Total eclipse! no sun, no moon!/All dark amidst the blaze of noon!

[Hector Vasquez sings the opening passage of “Total Eclipse” from Handel’s opera Samson]

Blinded Samson as imagined in an 1881 German Bible

Both Milton and Handel were quick to liken blindness to the awe-filling experience of total eclipse. And I do not choose that word Awe casually. A friend once asked, "What about awe in the creative process? Why don't you speak about awe?" So I thought about awe. It’s the fear we feel in the presence of that which is wholly other. Awe is what we might feel in the presence of God. It's a kind of fear we know when we're in far over our heads.  And that's where creative people live all the time.

I put my friend’s question on hold until I found Bryan Brewer's book on solar eclipses. For it said a great deal about awe. Only ten total eclipses have touched continental America in the past century — 14 if you add Hawaii and Alaska. In a total eclipse the sun is blotted out utterly as the moon passes by. The width of its path is narrow — typically 200 miles or less.

Diagram of a total solar eclipse from a 19th-century German science text

When a total eclipse touched Boston in 1959, a friend hired a plane to get a clear photo of it. He made the cover of Science Magazine. In 1991, one touched Hawaii and Mexico. Another friend went to Mazatlán to see it. He came back so affected by the sight that he lost his composure telling of it.

A third friend told another story about that same eclipse.  She made pinhole cameras so colleagues in her organization could watch it pass.  Several refused to do so.  They even avoided windows — afraid to be in the presence of such an aberration.

Brewer speaks of "sudden darkness [that] seems to bring time and Nature to a quiet halt ... Birds stop singing. ... Blossoms begin to close ... Bees become disoriented." Eclipses move silently over the face of the earth at thousands of miles per hour. And as they pass, life as we know it is briefly altered.

I've never seen a total eclipse myself — only partial ones. Then there are annular eclipses. They occur when the moon is too far away to blot out the whole sun.  An annulus of light licks out around the edge of the moon.

The next total eclipse will march across America in 2017. It'll darken Salem, Oregon; Casper, Wyoming; St. Louis, Missouri; and Charleston, South Carolina. I hope I’ll be around to see it.

As I struggle to understand what it is that only few have seen, the word awe takes on shape. So does a perfect metaphor for the creative moment. This is an instant when our known world turns into something else entirely. Milton caught that thrill of terror in Paradise Lost — also written after he’d lost his sight:

As when the Sun, new risen, ...
in dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations and with fear of change
Perplexes monarchs.

There it is! The creative moment is the fear of change that perplexes monarchs.  But which, I hope, you and I might still be willing to chance.


See the Wikipedia article on John Milton: See also the Wikipedia article on solar eclipses:

Simon Agonistes began as a poem, then mutated into a play.  See details in Wikipedia:

B. Brewer, Eclipse. (2nd ed.) (Seattle: Earth View, 1991).

The musical example, Total Eclipse, is from Handel�s opera Samson, Act 1.

Here is more on the eclipses of 1991 and 2017:,_1991