This is indeed a lofty word, glowing with the poetic diction of earlier centuries, when classical allusions were elevating rather than trite. It is a word that seems to me to be made of rich blue velvet; Wordsworth speaks of “empyrean light,” Milton of the “pure Empyrean,” Walter Raleigh (and many others) of the “Empyrean Heaven” (the original full phrase of which this word is the short form). Empyrean has the warmth of the nasals /m/ and /n/, but with a cooling puff of the breath in its heart as we release the /p/. True blue indeed.
But what, empirically, may we say it is? If you have seen empyrean here and there in prose and verse, you must be burning to know. Is the empyrean the empire of the sun? Is it blue heaven? May it be black? Oh, but how can we talk of the highest heaven as black? Although on a mountaintop in crisp winter air I have looked up and seen the sky so deep blue it was almost black, we must consider the sky of daylight to be enrobed in blue.
Even though at night you may see far more suns than just the closest one. Even though the blue you see by day is simply the filtering effect of the atmosphere that is near. May it be that our heaven is really more a matter of our perspective than we think? But what is beyond it?
Well. If you reach the firmament and peek beyond it, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show opening the door in the fake shell of the sky, what you see beyond is – or was – thought to be the empyrean. That is the pure realm of the highest heaven. There is nothing impure in the empyrean; it has been cleansed by the fire of the divine sun. It is where Dante was taken by Beatrice; it is Milton’s highest sphere in Paradise Lost.
Now, of course, empyrean is used more loosely as a synonym for sky. But any sky, night or day? How could the inky black of night be the empyrean? And yet there are millions of millions of suns out there, and as we look out on them we know some of them have planets wandering around them, and perhaps through the atmospheres of some of those planets other eyes see their own empyrean lit by their own sun, while we are an atom of dark by a spark in their occult welkin.
Yeah, yeah, lay off the overbaked language. Did you know people actually used to like that? Not just heaven but heavenly verse seems to relate to the perceiver.
Funny thing, though, empyrean. The word speaks of the highest, but it has no letters that reach above the common; indeed, it has two that reach downward like roots. And what do they reach towards? What is this word grounded in? Is heaven under our feet as well as above our heads?
I should say that empyrean has no etymological relation to empire or empirical, which in turn are not related to each other – things may resemble and yet dissemble. This word has pyr at its heart, and those who enjoy reading these word tasting notes probably know that root: as seen in pyrite and pyromaniac and such like. Our word of the day comes by way of Latin from Greek ἔμπυρος empuros, “fiery” or “in or on the fire”. Thus it has a pur heart that is the great purifier (like a refiner’s fire).
And indeed, from earth, through air the colour of water, we see the fire of our sun. What burns is not a thing, it is a process, a wave, a constant change. Fair enough for the highest: infinity by definition is always increasing, or it would be in some sense finite. Perfection that is unchanging is imperfect because dead. Fire may burn and destroy, but that is change, and change is life. The real illusion is that the earth, air, and water are not also changing at their own rates. It’s a matter of perspective.
And fire is not intrinsically good or bad; after all, when you think of fire, do you think of heaven or hell? What does inferno mean to us? The word is not related to words for “fire”; it is related to inferior, because hell is below, and inferno is Italian for “hell”. But in English inferno means fire. We can even have a “towering inferno.” We get this connection of inferno and fire from Dante, but where did he get it? From Christian tradition, naturally. But let us gain some more perspective on that.
The vision of “hell” attributed to Jesus is of a place where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die – Jesus calls it Gehenna, which is a reference to the valley outside of Jerusalem that served as the garbage dump, where of course garbage was always being burned. Does that mean he just meant the town dump? That he was just speaking of death and decay? We know he was a dab hand at metaphors, so we can’t assume that, although we should be careful about some of the other assumptions we are in the habit of making too.
But do remember this: If you’re on the garbage heap, it may suck for you, but it’s heaven for the worms. The local fire that they would not want to be burned by is nonetheless the empyrean light beyond their paradise. And when the worms and fire have done their business, you’ll be good fertilizer for the soil, so that new things may put down roots and grow… with the help of that sun up there in the empyrean.