Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

ephemeral, evanescent,

mercurial, transient

(subsitutable terms for a literary aesthetic
describing a truth or identity that is only glimpsed before disappearing.)

thanks to

Definitions (from Oxford English Dictionary): 

ephemera (n.): 1. An insect that (in its imago or winged form) lives only for a day. In mod. entomology the name of a genus of pseudo-neuropterous insects belonging to the group Ephemeridæ (Day-flies, May-flies). 2. transf. and fig. One who or something which has a transitory existence.

ephemeral (adj.): 1.b. Of insects, flowers, etc.: Existing for one day only, or for a very few days. 2.a. In more extended application: That is in existence, power, favour, popularity, etc. for a short time only; short-lived; transitory.

evanescent (adj.) [

1. That is on the point of vanishing or becoming imperceptible. In Mathematics, said of a diminishing quantity: That is at the instant of becoming zero; infinitesimal. Hence transf. of things: Imperceptibly minute, too small to perceive.

2. That quickly vanishes or passes away; having no permanence. Said of appearances, conditions, impressions, etc.

verb to evanesce: To fade out of sight, ‘melt into thin air’, disappear; chiefly fig. Also in scientific use . . . of the edge of a polyhedron when two adjacent faces are made to rotate into one plane.


7. Of a person: having a lively, volatile, or restless nature; liable to sudden and unpredictable changes of mind or mood; quick-witted, imaginative. Later also gen. (applied to animals, phenomena, etc.,): changeable, unpredictable, fickle.
Originally such qualities were associated with the god or the planet [as through astrological influence by the god/planet Mercury; the sense is now usually understood to allude to the properties of mercury the metal.


1.a. Passing by or away with time; not durable or permanent; temporary, transitory; esp. passing away quickly or soon, brief, momentary, fleeting

4. Passing through a place without staying in it, or staying only for a short time; in quot. 1731 of birds, migratory; spec. (U.S. colloq.) applied to a guest at a hotel, etc. (often ellipt. as n.: see B. 2). Also transf., for transient guests, short-stay.

These terms describe a fleeting or barely-glimpsed reality. Some examples:

Emily Dickinson, [I reason, earth is short--]

Emily Dickinson, [A light exists in spring]

 . . . A color stands abroad
   On solitary hills
That science cannot overtake,
   But human nature feels.

It waits upon the lawn;
   It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest slope we know;
   It almost speaks to me.

Then, as horizons step,
   Or noons report away,
Without the formula of sound,
   It passes, and we stay . . .

Hawthorne, The Minister's Black Veil: Father Hooper's breath heaved . . . . He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him, while the black veil hung down, awful, at that last moment, in the gathered terrors of a life-time. And yet the faint, sad smile, so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity, and linger on Father Hooper's lips. 

Wallace Stevens, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle:

VIII  . . . Like a dull scholar, I behold, in love,   
An ancient aspect touching a new mind.
It comes, it blooms, it bears its fruit and dies.   
This trivial trope reveals a way of truth.
Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof. . . .
XII A blue pigeon it is, that circles the blue sky,
On sidelong wing, around and round and round.   
A white pigeon it is, that flutters to the ground,   
Grown tired of flight. Like a dark rabbi, I   
Observed, when young, the nature of mankind,   
In lordly study. Every day, I found
Man proved a gobbet in my mincing world. [gobbet=portion of meat; mince=cut in small pieces; speak or think in an over-refined way]
Like a rose rabbi, later, I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course   
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.