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Sublime

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English Literature

Have you ever gone on a hike and arrived at a clearing where a massive waterfall crashes into a pool that is so beautiful it catches your breath? Have you ever been so awestricken by a vast valley that disappears into the horizon or saw images of the marina trench that left you breathless? These awe-inspiring images are what we would call the sublime.

Sublime definition

The sublime is associated with the extraordinary and grand. The use of language or literary devices that evoke the feeling of grandeur, and that which inspires awe or fear in the reader, may be defined as the sublime.

Literary history and explanation of the sublime

Let’s take a look at how philosophers developed the concept of the sublime. For this, we need to travel back to ancient times.

Longinus (1st-cent. AD)

On the Sublime (1st century AD) is a piece of literary criticism that has been attributed to 1st-century philosopher Longinus. For Longinus, the sublime is about the poet’s ability to translate his passions into passionate poetry that sweeps away the reader.

What is key to note here is that Longinus uses ‘sublime’ as an adjective, to describe:

  1. the genius of a poet
  2. the greatness of a poem.

Longinus says that rules of composition aren’t necessary to make great poetry. Intense passion should be the driving force behind poetry, so that the reader can feel a great passion in reading the poem, too. This is the sublime for Longinus.

Longinus on nature and the sublime

First, Longinus compared great poetry to nature. For Longinus, great poetry is as moving as the powerful forces of nature:

It strikes us like a lightening bolt, sweeps us away like a flood, awes us like a storm and we are attracted to greatness in writing the same way we admire stormy oceans rather than small streams, or the fiery powers of a volcano rather than the domesticated fire of a hearth.

- Longinus, On the Sublime

Second, Longinus believed that nature was a great subject for poetry precisely because nature shares many qualities with great poetry: the intensity of nature overwhelms us and astounds us as great poetry does.

Bear this idea in mind because it was very influential to the Romantics.

Whatever is useful or needful lies easily within man’s reach; but he keeps his homage for what is astounding.

- Longinus, On the Sublime

This early conception of the sublime was all about poetry. Only later did the idea of the sublime become directly associated with nature, and then circle back around to being associated with the nature-centred poetry of the Romantics.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Nicolas Boileau’s translation of On the Sublime into French in 1674 made Longinus’s philosophy accessible to Europeans and the idea took off. In the late 17th to the 18th century, ‘the sublime’ was used less as an adjective and more as a noun.

In 1757, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Feelings of the Sublime and Beautiful where he made a clear distinction between ‘the beautiful’ and ‘the sublime’. Building on Longinus, Burke distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime:

Key sources and characteristics of the beautiful:

  • Smallness
  • Symmetry
  • Smoothness
  • Delicacy
  • Brightness of colour

To Burke, beauty is a simple pleasure.

Key sources and characteristics of the sublime:

  • Vastness
  • Ruggedness
  • Darkness
  • Power

Burke argues that these features produce in us a sense of terror, which is key to an experience of the sublime. Burke’s treatise focuses on how the sublime affects the body. The sheerness of a sublime scene (a waterfall, steep cliffs) triggers our sense of self-preservation, as we feel like we are in danger. Burke says that this terror produces a sense of delight in us, like a pleasure-in-pain sensation.

Burke on poetry

Burke turns back to Longinus’s ideas of great poetry. Burke says that writers should let the vast wildness of nature and the feelings it inspires guide poetry.

But art can never give the rules that make an art. This is, I believe, the reason why artists in general, and poets, principally, have been confined in so narrow a circle: they have been rather imitators of one another than of nature.

- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Feelings of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

For Burke, great poetry depicts encounters with the sublimity of nature and communicates the profoundness of this experience to the reader.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant also contributed to the sublime. Kant takes Longinus’s idea that the sublime is about individual genius further, and says that the sublime was not out there in the world but in the mind.

Transcendence

For Kant, the sublime is transcendental. The sublime is about the transcendental nature of the human mind and its ability to piece together and add qualities – such as the quality of the sublime – to sensory experiences. Kant’s idea of the sublime is known as the transcendental sublime.

The sublime in poetry

Before we move on to the Romantic poets, let’s first consolidate what we’ve learned about the sublime so far and see why the sublime is often used in poetry:

  • Intensity of experience, as can be experienced in the sublime, is what gives rise to (great) poetry. The poet translates the immense power they perceive in the world into powerful poetry.
  • The sublime is about experiences. The poet experiences the sublime and then writes about it in a way that is in itself sublime. The reader can thus experience the sublime from a point of distance and safety.
  • Our imagination is brought out by poetry as it is by nature; our imagination feels as boundless as nature and the universe do.
  • Poetry allows us to make free associations, with imagination filling in the blanks.
  • The ineffability of the sublime is well communicated in poetry because poetry makes strong use of non-linguistic devices such as metre, rhythm and rhyme.

Examples of the sublime: the Romantics

Romanticism

A literary and artistic movement that developed in the late 18th century in opposition to the cold rationality of the Age of Enlightenment (late 17th cent. to the early 19th cent.). The Romantics emphasised imagination and individual artistic expression and emphasised the role of nature in bringing out the artist's creative spirit.

Taking up the sublime in their poetry was an apt way of rebelling against cold reason by embracing excesses of emotion and passion. The Romantics subscribed to Longinus and Burke’s ideas that passion should guide poetry, not restrictive rules.

Let’s take a look at how Romantic poets built on the concept of the sublime in their works.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Sublime, drawing of William Wordsworth, StudySmarterWilliam Wordsworth (1770-1850), a drawing from 'A Gallery of Famous English and American PoetsH. Coppee, 1870. Source: openclipart.org.

Wordsworth was one of the first Romantic poets to write about the sublimity of nature in his poetry. Let’s take a look at an excerpt from ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’ (1798) by Wordsworth.

As you read, keep in mind Kant’s idea of the sublime, particularly the transcendental sublime.

…And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,

And the round ocean and the living air,

And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

- Wordsworth, ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’, Lines 95-113

We can immediately spot the sublime in Wordsworth’s poetry. Pay attention to the way he says that nature ‘disturbs’ him with ‘joy’. Normally joy does not disturb. This is a description of the complex pleasure of the sublime.

Wordsworth's conception of the sublime falls nicely in line with Kant’s idea of the transcendental sublime, where feelings of the sublime are seen as a great triumph of the mind for its ability to have such complex feelings and see the quality of sublimity in the world.

Wordsworth attempts to rationalise the sublimity of nature. He sees nature as a mirror of himself and attempts to bring nature into harmony in the poem.

John Keats (1795-1821)

Sublime, drawing of John Keats, StudySmarterJohn Keats (1795-1821), a drawing in 'A Gallery of Famous English and American Poets', H. Coppee, 1870. Source: openclipart.org.

Another Romantic poet, John Keats, took issue with Kant’s and Wordsworth’s ideas of the sublime, as he believed the mind actually got in the way of experiencing the sublime.

Keats called this tendency to project the self onto nature and the attempt to rationalise its wildness as 'the egotistical sublime'. To Keats, Wordsworth was just being egotistical by making the complexity of nature all about him.

Keats believed that the poet should not try to impose rationality and morality on nature. Instead, Keats's sublime is inspired by Longinus's idea that passionate experiences of the sublime in nature produce passionate, sublime poetry that, in turn, leads the reader to experience sublimity. Let’s take a look at how Keats puts this into practice in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ (1819).

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:

Already with thee! tender is the night,

And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,

Cluster'd around by all her starry Fays;

But here there is no light,

Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown

Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.

- John Keats, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, Lines 31-40.

Keats describes nature with imagery of the sublime. For example, the setting is dark ‘there is no light’ and ‘verdurous glooms’ and he describes the moon as powerful as ‘Queen-Moon’.

Crucially, rationality is depicted as ‘dull’, it ‘perplexes’ and holds the speaker back. Keats is not reducing nature to a mere mirror of himself. Instead, he lets himself be swept away in the emotional sublime experience of observing the giant moon in the dark. He uses the ode form, a form used to express emotions, to communicate this emotional experience.

For Keats, and for Burke, the sublime is about the intensity of emotion. Like a true Romantic, Keats rebels against the cold rationality that Kant tried to impose on the emotional experience of the sublime.

Percey Shelley (1792-1822) and Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Many other poets and novelists have depicted sublime experiences in their writing. The trip to the French Alps the poet Percey Shelley and his novelist wife took, for example, inspired two great works of literature on the sublime. Their sublime experience of the Alps led Percy Shelley to write ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817), and Mary Shelley to write one of the most iconic Gothic novels, Frankenstein (1818). Both works depict scenes of terrifying sublimity the Alps.

Now, if there’s one thing to learn about the sublime from the Romantics, it is that you should get out there and go experience the sublime! (From a safe distance, of course.)

Sublime - Key takeaways

  • The sublime is a complex emotional experience of awe, which is both terrifying and pleasurable. The sublime also refers to how poets communicate this experience in poetry.

  • The sublime was developed as a concept across the millennia, by philosophers and poets alike. Key philosophers of the sublime are Longinus (in Ancient times), and Burke and Kant in the 18th century. Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Keats also developed the idea of the sublime in their own writing, with Keats coming up with the concept of 'the egotistical sublime' to criticise Wordsworth's own conception of the sublime.

  • The sublime played a key role in the development of the Romantic movement.

  • Key sources and characteristics of the sublime are vastness, ruggedness, darkness, power and a feeling of terror, which leads to a pleasure-in-pain experience.

  • Poetry is a great form to express the sublime because poetry is all about experiencing intense emotions.

Sublime

In poetry, the sublime is the depiction of an experience of awe and of terror and pleasure. In poetry, sublime experiences usually involve nature, as nature’s vastness has a strong capacity to induce feelings of awe.

In poetry, the sublime is used to induce feelings of intense emotion in the reader. In On the Sublime, the Ancient philosopher Longinus argues that the purpose of poetry is to communicate intense passionate feelings, in order to sweep away the reader.

An example of the sublime is looking up at a steep mountain or at the stormy sea and feeling a sense of awe due to the vastness of the scene. An example of the sublime in poetry is the Romantic poet Percey Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817) which describes a trip to the French Alps as sublime.

The key characteristics of the sublime according to Edmund Burke are vastness, ruggedness, darkness and power. These characteristics are often found in nature, for example in the ruggedness and vastness of a mountain, and the immense power of the sea. These characteristics give rise to an experience of terror and pleasure, which is the sublime.

The sublime is an experience of awe that is both terrifying and pleasurable. The Gothic explores experiences that produce complex emotions, such as experiences of the sublime. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is an example of a Gothic novel that uses the concept of the sublime.

Final Sublime Quiz

Question

Define the sublime

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Answer

The sublime is a complex emotional experience of awe, which is both terrifying and pleasurable. The sublime also refers to how poets communicate this experience in poetry.

Show question

Question

How did Longinus use the term 'sublime'?

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Answer

As an adjective to describe the genius of a poet and the greatness of a poem.

Show question

Question

To Longinus, what is important in poetry?

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Answer

Intense passion.

Show question

Question

Why does Longinus draw a link between poetry and the sublime?

Show answer

Answer

He thinks that great poetry is as moving as the powerful forces of nature.

Show question

Question

Why did Longinus believe that nature was a good subject for poetry?

Show answer

Answer

Nature shares many qualities with great poetry: the intensity of nature overwhelms us and astounds us as great poetry does.

Show question

Question

Who published A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Feelings of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1757?

Show answer

Answer

The philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

Show question

Question

According to Burke, the beautiful has qualities of:

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Answer

  • Smallness
  • Symmetry
  • Smoothness
  • Delicacy
  • Brightness of colour

Show question

Question

Whereas, the sublime has qualities of:

Show answer

Answer

  • Vastness
  • Ruggedness
  • Darkness
  • Power

Show question

Question

What complex emotion does the sublime produce in us, according to Burke?

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Answer

Peace

Show question

Question

What is Burke's view on poetry?

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Answer

  • Burke says that writers should let the vast wildness of nature and the feelings it inspires guide poetry.
  • For Burke, great poetry depicts encounters with the sublimity of nature and communicates the profoundness of this experience to the reader.

Show question

Question

How does Immanuel Kant build on Longinus' idea that the sublime refers to individual creative genius?

Show answer

Answer

Kant says that the sublime is not something that is out there in the world. The sublime exists in the mind.

Show question

Question

Intensity of experience, as can be experienced in the sublime, is what gives rise to (great) poetry. The poet translates the immense power they perceive in the world into...

Show answer

Answer

...powerful poetry.

Show question

Question

The sublime is about experiences. The poet experiences the sublime and then writes about it in a way that is in itself sublime. This leads the reader to...

Show answer

Answer

... also experience the sublime from a safe distance.

Show question

Question

Our imagination is brought out by poetry as it is by nature; our imagination feels as boundless as...

Show answer

Answer

...nature and the universe.

Show question

Question

The ineffability of the sublime is well communicated in poetry because poetry makes use of...

Show answer

Answer

...non-linguistic devices such as metre, rhythm and rhyme.

Show question

Question

What is Romanticism?

Show answer

Answer

A literary and artistic movement that developed in the late 18th century in opposition to the cold rationality of the Age of Enlightenment (late 17th cent. to the early 19th cent.).

Show question

Question

Wordsworth's poem ______ is an early example of a poem dealing with the idea of the sublime.

Show answer

Answer

'Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey' (1798).

Show question

Question

How does Wordsworth use the idea of the sublime in his poetry?

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Answer

  • In 'Lines', the speaker is 'disturbed with joy' by his experiences with nature.
  • He focuses on the transcendental sublime
  • Wordsworth sees nature as a mirror of himself and attempts to bring nature into harmony in the poem.

Show question

Question

What is the egotistical sublime?

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Answer

John Keats called the tendency to project the self onto nature and the attempt to rationalise its wildness as 'the egotistical sublime'. 

Show question

Question

Keats' poetry is more in line with which philosophers' conception of the sublime?

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Answer

  • Keats's sublime is inspired by Longinus's idea that passionate experiences of the sublime in nature produce passionate, sublime poetry that, in turn, leads the reader to experience sublimity.
    • This is Burke's philosophy, too.
  • He is against the cold rationality that Kant tried to impose on the emotional experience of the sublime.

Show question

Question

A trip to the Alps motivated Percey and Mary Shelley to write about their sublime experiences in two famous literary works. What are they?

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Answer

  • Percy Shelley'S ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817)
  • Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818).

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