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The Unattended Moment

On a recent visit to Italy I was captivated by Piero della Francesca's Madonna di Senigallia in the Ducal Palace in Urbino. The painting is suffused with soft yet brilliant light, and exudes the stillness and serenity to be found in much of Piero's work. It is a mystical moment in time and called to mind a book I read a few years ago, The Unattended Moment by Michael Paffard, the title of which is taken from Dry Salvages in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. 

Paffard's book is largely an anthology of writings by people who have had what he describes as “...brief flashes of experience...so out of the ordinary as to seem to belong to a dimension other than the quotidian, to be epiphanies of another order of reality: unattended moments in the sense that they do not seem to fit into our ordinary pattern of experience...”. 

“For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts.”

Paffard says, "The unattended moment may come when we are travelling in a train, ill in bed, reading a book or washing the dishes; in the most humdrum surroundings we may be ‘surprised by joy’... if we have an unattended moment at a concert or in a picture gallery or while reading a poem we are likely to think of it as an intense aesthetic experience.  Similarly, if the moment comes in a Cathedral or at some religious ceremony we shall probably think of it as religious experience.” Although frequently brief and always transitory it is the intensity of the unattended moments experienced by those quoted in Paffard’s book which has impelled them to try and capture it in prose or verse.  Of sudden illumination Eliot said, “We had the experience but missed the meaning”, recalling lines from his poem Burnt Norton -

“Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose garden”.

Paffard says, “Most of us do not attend to these elusive and momentary intersections of the timeless with time because we do not recognise or cannot hold on to their significance ...”. Those who have tried, quoted in Paffard’s book, include Lord Clark, Arthur Koestler, C. S. Lewis and William Wordsworth.  Some write of heightened awareness of “the ordinary sights and sounds of existence” when faced with danger or death. Paffard writes of the temporal dimension of words and music, as compared to the stillness of, for example, “a Chinese jar or a Grecian urn”.  In his opinion, “...the perfect work of art perfectly comprehended achieves something of the stillness of eternity”. This for me undoubtedly applies to Piero's Madonna di Senigallia.

The Unattended Moment is the theme for next year's summer exhibition at The Garden Gallery. The artists have been briefed and are enjoying contemplating the challenge of interpreting the sentiments expressed in Eliot's mysterious poem.

As further food for thought, I was very taken with this quotation by Johannes Brahms, exquisitely carved on slate by Chris Elsey for the exhibition Orchestra of Letters at the Lettering Arts Trust in Snape.

"Without craftsmanship inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind".