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'And sunlight thronged the glass" is a line from Philip Larkin. He's known more for gloom than joie de vivre and yet here's this image that throbs with all the busy vitality that "sunlight" (plus a verb it's never been this close to before) can give it.

I want to write about this today: about light, and about what three people, two of them in our own time and one far off, have had to say of it. Starting with the one who, of these gifted three, has showed me the most unforgettably light-thronged image I know. This image-maker was and is Ingmar Bergman, and he writes of this near-miraculous scene in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern (Viking, 1988). "A moment of grace," he says it was.

You can also see it in my all-time favourite movie, which I saw in Stockholm in its first screening. Its Swedish title is Smultronstället, literally The Place of Strawberries, but for some reason we call it Wild Strawberries. Who knows why? There's nothing wild about it except the limitlessness of the light in the scene I'm about to describe.

The movie shows the journey an aging professor is making from Stockholm down to the university town of Lund, where he'll be given an honorary degree. Skipping the details, there's a lot of sadness here; the professor's being driven by his daughter-in-law who's heading into a divorce from his son, and he realizes as they drive and talk that his own coldness toward his wife probably has crippled all four lives. En route, they stop at a place in the country where, as a teenager, the professor had spent a summer with family and friends, a summer during which he fell in love with a girl whom he should, he has long known, have asked to marry him, and did not.

The light-thronged scene is one which he's now, in memory, seeing, and we see it with him. It shows his youthful self together with eight or nine other young people, all of them dressed in white and all standing or sitting or lying on the bank of a river among small sounds of water and of young, uncomplicated, not quite audible voices. The scene has more light in it, or the light more softness, possibly more forgiveness, than anything I know of. It always strikes me as astonishingly comforting, it brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it, and my belief is that Bergman found, in that place and on that day of filming, a kind of gathered longing, a perfect temps perdu image that many readers of his autobiography will sense, and that many a filmgoer has felt.

The second contribution is from Annie Dillard. There's an essay in Teaching A Stone to Talk (Harper & Rowe, 1982) which records a day in which the essayist and her husband climbed a hill in the state of Washington in order to watch a total eclipse of the sun. It's not really about light, but it belongs here because it's so bluntly and brilliantly about the absence of light, the violent vanishing of light, and therefore is, after all, about light.

Standing on the hillside in the morning with her husband, Dillard watches the darkness slide "like a lid" over the sun. It frightens them: "The heart screeched." She equates her experience here with a journey toward "the monsters deeper down," and adds, "I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky." She continues: "The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder . . . Language can give no sense of this kind of speed. It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it . . . We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit."

That's it, that's why these fragments of her essay are here. Light's absence, in a way our forbears knew every nightfall of their lives, and we hardly ever do. It shows in an extreme manner how we, I would guess most of us, deep down, beneath the frail carapace of reason and control that Freud rightly mocked, feel about the light and the dark. When the sun returns, Dillard writes, "We joined our places on the planet's thin crust. It held. For the time being . . . ."

I've also promised a "far off' entry, and here, pat on his cue (the cue being those "monsters deeper down"), he comes, Beowulf, who else, disembarking among the glittering shields and helms of his Geat warriors onto a land over which a half-human monster, emerging from the depths of a black pond in a black forest as regular as, well, clockwork, probably about 3 p.m. in a Scandinavian winter context, has established death and dismemberment as the signs of the true dark. A darkness which he, Grendel, in fact is, as Beowulf is the sun.

The parallel is exact throughout this ancient and splendid poem, stunningly translated by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000), with the Anglo-Saxon on a facing page and the syllables often greatly closer in look and sound than anyone else has shown them to be. Unlike the Dillard piece, this is a sun-and-light-triumph from beginning to end, from the hero's slaughter of both Grendel and his night-hag dam to his own death in the last reel, when we see his knights riding in all their gold-caparisoned pomp around Beowulf's funeral pyre, which sends its flames to the heavens. The poem glitters like those riders; it practically shines through its front-and-back covers and, in the dark monkish culture from which it spectacularly came, it must have seemed a torch.

P.S. So light triumphs, yes. But to the old and the ill, things are not as we have said.

Darkness and night are more familiar to them than they are to us, their hearts do not screech as the humiliations of the day are discarded and they enter that sought-after, unwatched, unjudged privacy. Not much that matters to them is going on right now anyway, no races, or few that interest them, are being run. They enter into the dark bearing their strong thoughts.

A selection from Don Coles's first six books of poetry, How We All Swiftly, has just been published.

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