The Sublime

The sublime is a central category of aesthetics in romanticism. It was a major topic of aesthetic theory in the 18th century, especially in England and Germany, but its inauguration as a topic was due to the translation by Nicolas Boileau (1636– 1711) of Longinus’s third-century treatise Peri Hypsos (Of elevation) into French in 1674. The word sublime is Boileau’s translation of Longinus’s height, or elevation, and it stuck.

The beautiful had been a perennial object of aesthetic and philosophical interest, from Plato onward. But the sublime is something different, and what that difference is was interesting, first of all, to Longinus, then to Boileau, and then to the 18th-century theorists and philosophers (Edmund Burke, Hugh Blair, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel especially) and the 19th-century poets who followed them. Boileau coined the famous phrase “je ne sais quoi” (literally, “I do not know”) to describe what made something sublime—something powerful, perhaps overwhelmingly so, but not conformable to some preexistent category, like that by which we think of beauty as harmonious (for example).

We have to distinguish between two aspects of the sublime in order to see what was novel about the modern account of it. Longinus’s treatise was about style in writing. He collected and considered passages that filled the soul with exaltation (the “elevation” of his title), passages which might interrupt the reader’s unfolding experience of the work in which they appeared to stand alone in their power. For Longinus, such passages characterized Homer especially, as in Ajax’s great prayer for light in the Iliad after the gods have suddenly blinded them with mist and darkness: “O father Zeus—draw our armies clear of the cloud, / give us a bright sky, give us back our sight! / Kill us all in the light of day at least” (17.645, translated by Fagles, treated by Longinus at 9.9). It is not for life but light that Ajax prays; Longinus compares this passage to the opening of the Book of Genesis and the creation of light as the first of things. The sublime is not a question of language, though it may be, but of greatness of soul, and so Longinus writes that “the silence of Ajax in the Underworld is great and more sublime than words” when Ajax turns away from Odysseus in the Odyssey (11.543). One definition Longinus gives, therefore, is that “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul” (9.2), and it finds an echo in its perceiver, as can be seen by how even the father of the gods, Zeus, responds to Ajax’s prayer for light, “So he prayed / and the Father filled with pity, seeing Ajax weep, / He dispelled the mist at once.” (Iliad 17.728–730, Fagles translation) For this reason, the central hallmark of the experience of the literary sublime, and the insight most quoted from Longinus, is that it is “as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard” (7.2).

That elevation of soul is what obsessed the modern theorists and poets. It was an elevation that Longinus ascribed to the power of writing—that is, to the description of the world and the people in it—but that the moderns ascribed to the power of the world itself, as well as to that of writing. Ajax’s silence would be sublime in reality as well as in Homer’s invention of it. Light itself was sublime. Alexander Pope famously said that Longinus was the great sublime he drew, the critic inspired with a poet’s fire by all the muses (Essay on Criticism, 3.675–680), a description which captures both the sense of the sublime as occurring in exalted response to what is perceived and the idea that what can be perceived is an object in the real world—Longinus himself and not just the purely textual literature that exalts its readers.

The turn to the natural sublime characterized its 18th-century theorists, most importantly Edmund Burke (1729–97). His Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) carefully distinguished between the two terms and between the aesthetic responses they elicited. The beautiful, according to Burke, produces pleasure pure and simple. The pleasure is one of the perception of harmonies. The mind perceives beautiful objects in a way that does not cause anxiety but, rather, allows it to use its faculties serenely and naturally. Beauty is a matter of smoothness, proportion, and gradation.

The sublime, on the other hand, does not procure pleasure but delight. Delight is, for Burke, by no means a synonym for pleasure. Although it is more intense than pleasure (in common parlance as well), that intensity comes from the fact that the sublime is associated with pain, danger, and anxiety, but not pleasure. The experience of the sublime is one of intense relief. It is associated with scenes like those of the Alps or the Grand Canyon because our first, instinctive response is one of fear. We perceive altitudes or depths that could kill us; then we recall that our vantage point is one of comparative safety—they could kill us, but they will not. Delight is the exalting relief that we feel: We have been overwhelmed with some vehement negative passion, and we have recovered. The thrill of the sublime is that of danger courted and overcome. It is not a positive pleasure but a more intense and delighting experience of danger survived.

The sublime is therefore associated with obscurity, fear, uncertainty, speed, and similar experiences. But how does it work in literature? For Burke, sublime literature first of all depicts scenes of sublimity and therefore shows the way (in Longinus’s terms) in which the writer’s soul has been exalted by what he or she has seen or imagined. But in a fascinating coda to the book, a section called “How Words Influence the Passions,” Longinus talks about how literature can be the origin of the sublime and not only its recorder. There is a kind of literature that defeats the reader’s imagination and threatens the psyche’s self-confidence, much as sublime natural phenomena do. For Burke, the great English writer of the sublime was John Milton, who could turn a natural description into a sublime one through the sudden and overwhelming force of his language, which defeats the representational abilities of his readers but not their cognitive abilities. Burke’s example of the type of transformation that Milton makes his language undergo is a profound one: “To represent an angel in a picture, you can only draw a beautiful young man winged: but what painting can furnish out anything so grand as the addition of one word, ‘the angel of the Lord’?” Painting cannot do it, but literature can fill one with the exaltation of the unrepresentable.

Burke’s idea of the sublime overshadows the great philosophical treatment that the German philosopher Immanuel Kant gave it in The Critique of Judgment (1790). For Kant, too, the beautiful is harmonious, in particular in harmony with the mind’s perceptive faculties. But the sublime defeats those faculties, and Kant described it as occurring in a double movement. We perceive something that exceeds our powers of sensory intuition or imitative representation. We are blocked and baffled and suddenly feel ourselves to be as nothing compared to the natural world. From this sense of being overwhelmed, the mind shifts to its transcendental aspirations, its fundamental commitment not to the “empirical world” where we are very little, but to the world of our imagination, which transcends the empirical and in which our minds participate. We are awestruck by the unmeasurable power of some object in the outside world, but we have the inner resources to measure absolute magnitude or power. The world may be bewilderingly large, but it is finite; the mind can conceive of the infinite, which is its proper home. Thus, as William Wordsworth said, “Our destiny, our nature, and our home, / Is with infinitude—and only there” (The Prelude, 1805 version, book 6, ll. 538–539) in a passage that describes his response to an experience of blockage, of being caught in a mist in his writing, much like the mist that Ajax prayed to Zeus to dissipate.

The sublime in nature sends the mind back to its own “supersensible destiny,” as Kant called it, and shows how we transcend the world that seems to trap us. The loss of power within the world leads to a gain of power in our relation to the world. This is the central and perennial theme of romanticism, to be found in all of Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s great philosophical poetry; in Percy Bysshe Shelley; and in their greatest Victorian followers, especially Robert Browning and, in America, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson. Loss leads to a perception of intensity, and that perception is what gives rise to poetry, both in the poet writing it and in the reader reading it. The intensity of the romantic sublime and its precursors, especially Milton, is one of the greatest glories of English literature.

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Burke, Edmund. Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.
De Bolla, Peter. The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics, and the Subject. New York: Blackwell, 1989.
De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.
Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth’s Poetry, 1787–1814. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1971.
Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Hegel, G. W. F. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. 2 vols. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974–75.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 1987.
Monk, Samuel Holt. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.
Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Terms and Techniques, Literary Theory, Literature, Philosophy, Poetry

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1 reply

  1. thanks, sir. very helpful..

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