Upon a Peak in Darien (Part 1)
In relocating this story I came across a PDF article written by Bruce Greyson, one of our finest NDE and consciousness study researchers, whom I have enormous admiration for. This article is entitled: 'Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: "Peak in Darien" Experiences'. Although I had come across many instances of such experiences in NDE's and deathbed visions, I had never come across the poetic use of the term "Peak in Darien" until then. And strangely I came across this term twice more on the same day through completely unrelated circumstances, which is the 'synchronistic' reason I began to write this article now.
The words "Peak in Darien" come from the last line of a sonnet written by John Keats, which conveys the metaphor of the gold-seeking Spanish conquistador Vasco de Balboa (not Cortez, as Keats mentions) and his men, who, believing they had discovered an inlet on the eastern shores of Asia, climbed to the summit of a peak in the Panamanian province of Darien and beheld, for the first time, the vast expanse of the great Pacific Ocean instead.
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer, 1817
The metaphor of Keats's "Peak in Darien" was later appropriated as the title of a book published in 1882 by Frances Power Cobbe, illustrating the surprise experienced by the Spaniards who expected to see a vast continent spread out before them, rather than an endless ocean. Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904), an anti-vivisection, suffragette and social activist, applied this metaphor to describe the poignant visions of the dying, which are often hidden from others at their deathbeds. One of her cases concerned a dying woman who was joyfully surprised by the vision of three of her brothers who had long since died, when suddenly she recognized a fourth brother, who was believed to be still living in India by all who were present at her deathbed. However, a few weeks later a letter arrived from India announcing the death of her fourth brother, which had occurred just prior to his dying sister perceiving him in England.
The earliest NDE case in Bruce Greyson's article, dating to A.D. 77., appears in Book Seven of Pliny the Elder's Natural History, and concerns two Roman brothers, Corfidius the elder and Corfidius the younger. When the elder brother was pronounced dead, his will was opened, naming his younger brother as his heir. But when the funeral arrangements were being made the elder brother shocked the undertaker by suddenly clapping his hands as if to summon his servants. He then announced that he had just come from the house of his younger brother, reporting that his younger brother had said that the funeral arrangements he had made for his recently revived older brother should now be used for him instead. Corfidius the younger also entrusted the care of his daughter to his older brother, and showed him where he had secretly buried some gold underground. As the older Corfidius was relating this account of his NDE, his younger brother's servants burst in with the news that their master had just unexpectedly died; and the buried gold, of which no one else knew, was later found in the place indicated by the revived older brother.
Sir William Barrett (1844-1925) was an eminent physics professor and the founder of both the British and American Societies for Psychical Research. His wife, Lady Florence Barrett, worked as an obstetric surgeon at the Mothers' Hospital in Clapton, London, and once safely delivered a baby for a woman she referred to as Mrs. Doris B., who was suffering from serious heart failure. Lady Barrett had been urgently summoned by the Resident Medical Officer, Dr. Phillips, who, along with the Matron (Miriam Castle) and Doris's mother (Mary Clark), confirmed Lady Barrett's account below, which states:
"When I again entered the ward Doris held out her hands to me and said, 'Thank you, thank you for what you have done for me - for bringing the baby. Is it a boy or girl?' Then holding my hand tightly, she said, 'Don't leave me, don't go away, will you?' And after a few minutes, while the House Surgeon carried out some restorative measures, she lay looking up towards the open part of the room, which was brightly lighted, and said, 'Oh, don't let it get dark - its getting so dark - darker and darker.' Her husband and mother were sent for.
"Suddenly Doris looked eagerly towards one part of the room, a radiant smile illuminating her whole countenance. 'Oh, lovely, lovely,' she said. I asked, 'What is lovely?' 'What I see,' she replied in low, intense tones. 'What do you see?' I asked. 'Lovely brightness, wonderful beings.' It is difficult to describe the sense of reality conveyed by her intense absorption in the vision.
"Then, seeming to focus her attention more intensely on one place for a moment, she exclaimed, almost with a kind of joyous cry, 'Why, it's Father! Oh, he's so glad I'm coming; he is so glad. It would be perfect if only W. (her husband) could come too.'
"Her baby was brought for her to see. She looked at it with interest, and then said, 'Do you think I ought to stay for baby's sake?' Then turning towards the vision again she said, 'I can't stay, I can't stay. If you could see what I do, you would know I can't stay.'
"But she turned to her husband, who had just come into the room, and said, 'You won't let baby go to anyone who won't love him, will you?' Then she gently pushed him to one side, saying, 'Let me see the lovely brightness.'
I left shortly after and the Matron took my place at the bedside. Doris lived for another hour, and appeared to have retained to the last the double consciousness of the bright forms she saw, and also of those tending her at her bedside, e.g. she arranged with the Matron that her premature baby should remain in hospital until it was strong enough to be cared for in an ordinary household. The most important evidence was however given by the Matron, who wrote the following account:
"I was present shortly before the death of Mrs. Doris B., together with her husband and her mother. Her husband was leaning over her and speaking to her, when pushing him aside, she said, 'Oh, don't hide it, it's so beautiful.' Then turning away from him towards me, she said, 'Oh, why there's Vida,' referring to a sister of whose death three weeks previously she had not been told. Afterwards the mother, who was present at the time, told me, as I have said, that Vida was the name of a dead sister of Doris, of whose illness and death she was quite ignorant, as they had carefully kept this news from Mrs. B. owing to her serious illness."
(Signed) Miriam Castle (Matron)
"I (Lady Barrett) asked Dr. Phillips to try and obtain the independent report of Mrs. Doris B.'s mother, who, as the Matron stated, was also present at the time. This was kindly done, and I have received the following interesting and informative letter from Mrs. Mary Clark (Doris's mother).
"I have heard you are interested in the beautiful passing of my dear daughter's spirit from this earth on the 12th day of January, 1924.
"The wonderful part of it is the history of the death of my dear daughter, Vida, who had been an invalid some years. Her death took place on the 25th day of Dec 1923, just two weeks and four days before her younger sister, Doris, died. My daughter Doris was very ill at that time, and the Matron at the Mothers' Hospital deemed it unwise for Doris to know of her sister's death. Therefore when visiting her we put off our mourning and visited her as usual. All her letters were also kept by request until her husband had seen whom they might be from before letting her see them. This precaution was taken lest outside friends might possibly allude to the recent bereavement in writing to her, unaware of the very dangerous state of her health.
"When my dear child was sinking rapidly, at first she said, 'It is all so dark; I cannot see.' A few seconds after a beautiful radiance lit up her countenance; I know now it was the light of Heaven, and it was most beautiful to behold. My dear child said, 'Oh, it is lovely and bright; you cannot see as I can.' She fixed her eyes on one particular spot in the ward, saying, 'Oh, God, forgive me for anything I have done wrong.' After that she said, 'I can see Father; he wants me, he is so lonely.' She spoke to her father, saying, 'I am coming,' turning at the same time to look at me, saying, 'Oh, he is so near.' On looking at the same place again, she said with rather a puzzled expression, 'He has Vida with him,' turning again to me saying 'Vida is with him.' Then she said, 'You do want me, Dad; I am coming.' Then a very few parting words or sighs were expressed, nothing very definite or clear. With great difficulty and a very hard strain she asked to see 'the man who married us', this was to her husband, who was standing on the opposite side of the bed. His name she could not say; it was the Rev. Maurice Davis, of All Saints in Haggerston, East London, and he was sent for. He had known my dear child for some years, and was so impressed by the vision that he quoted it in his 'Parish Magazine' for February last."
Yours respectfully, (Signed) Mary C. Clark. Highbury, London N5.
It was this inexplicable occurrence that led Sir William Barrett to begin compiling his research into deathbed phenomena for his seminal book, Deathbed Visions: the Psychical Experiences of the Dying, which was first published in 1926, a year after his own death. But Sir William was not silent after his own death, for Lady Barrett began to receive postmortem messages from him through the famous medium Mrs. Gladys Osborne Leonard over the next eleven years, and a book, Personality Survives Death, was published in 1937 as a result of these sittings. "Life on my side seems so extraordinarily easy compared to life on Earth," Sir William stated in a 1929 sitting, "Because we simply live according to the rules of love."
In the 19th century the psychologist Edmund Gurney and the classical scholar F.W.H. Myers reported several 'Peak in Darien' cases. One concerned two young brothers, David Edward, aged three, and Harry, aged four, who died of scarlet fever on consecutive days. Harry died on November 2nd 1870, and David on November 3rd at another location fourteen miles away. Although his parents withheld the news of his younger brother's death from David, an hour before he died David sat up in bed and pointing to the bottom of his bed said, "There is little Harry calling to me."
The sister of a deceased man, Harriet Ogle, communicated another case to the Rev. J. A. Macdonald, who states: "My brother, John Alkin Ogle, died at Leeds on July 17th 1879. About an hour before John expired he saw his brother Joe, who had died sixteen years earlier, and looking up fixedly exclaimed, 'Joe! Joe!' Then suddenly John shouted in surprise, "George Hanley!" before expiring. My mother, who had just come from George Hanley's village about forty miles away, then confirmed that George Hanley, a casual acquaintance of John Ogle, had died ten days earlier, a fact no one else in that room but her had known.
In the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, Eleanor Sidgwick wrote of an English lady who engaged a trainee singer named Julia to spend a week with her and some visiting children. When she left Julia told her father that she had never had such a happy week, and soon after she married and moved away from the area. Some years later the English lady lay dying when she suddenly exclaimed, "Do you hear those voices singing?" But as no one else present could hear them, she concluded: "The voices are those of angels welcoming me to heaven. But it is strange, for there is one voice amongst them I am sure that I know, yet cannot remember whose voice it is." Then suddenly she stopped and pointing up said: "Why there she is in the corner of the room, it is Julia." No one else saw the vision, and the next day, February 13th, 1874, the lady died. A day later on February 14th, Julia's death was announced in the Times newspaper. Her father later reported that: "On the day she died she began singing in the morning, and she sang and sang until she died."
Another well-authenticated case that concerns two young American girls was first recorded by a Dr. Minot Savage, which was later documented by the psychical researcher Dr. James Hyslop, who was then Professor of Ethics and Logic at Columbia University, New York.
"In a neighboring city were two little girls, Jennie and Edith, one about eight years of age and the other but a little older. They were schoolmates and intimate friends. In June 1889, both were taken ill with diphtheria. At noon on Wednesday, June 5th, Jennie died. Then the parents of Edith, and her physician as well, took particular pains to keep from her the fact that her little playmate was gone. They feared the effect of the knowledge on Edith's own condition. To prove that they succeeded and that she did not know, it may be mentioned that on Saturday, June 8th, at noon, just before she became unconscious of all that was passing about her, she selected two of her photographs to be sent to Jennie, and also told her attendants to bid her good-bye.
"She died at half-past six o'clock on the evening of Saturday, June 8th. She had roused and bidden her friends good-bye, and was talking of dying, and seemed to have no fear. She appeared to see one and another of the friends she knew were dead. So far it was like other similar cases. But now suddenly, and with every appearance of surprise, she turned to her father and exclaimed, 'Why, papa, I am going to take Jennie with me!' Then she added, 'Why, papa, you did not tell me that Jennie was here!' And immediately she reached out her arms as if in welcome, and said, 'Oh, Jennie, I'm so glad you are here!' She then lapsed back into unconsciousness and died."
A French story, published and translated from the Review Psychica in 1921, was submitted by M. Warcollier of the Institut Metaphysique in Paris, who says: "My uncle, M. Paul Durocq, left Paris in 1893 with my aunt and other family members on a trip to America. While they were in Venezuela my uncle was seized with yellow fever, and he died in Caracas on 24th June 1894. Just before his death, and while surrounded by all his family, he had a prolonged delirium, during which he called out the names of certain friends in France, whom he seemed to see. 'Well, well, you too! And you. You as well!'
Although struck by this incident, nobody attached any extraordinary importance to these words at the time they were uttered, but later they acquired an exceptional importance when the family found, on their return to Paris, the funeral invitation cards of the persons named by my uncle before his death, and who had died before him. It is only recently that I have been able to collect the testimony of the only two survivors of this event, my cousins Germaine and Maurice Durocq."
(To be continued)