8-3 literary2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

8.3 (Summer 2008)


English literature


courtesy of artrenewal.org


Literacy’s Mystic Moon: The Flow and Ebb of the Sublime Through the English Classics

John R. Harris

I had not taught the undergraduate Survey of English Literature (From Beginnings to the Romantics) for several years when asked to do so in the spring of 2008—an unexpected request which left me little time for planning.  Insofar as one may still call any syllabus “standard” in these post-canonical times, I drew up the standard plan of attack.  Yet I have never favored the presentation of survey material as a series of stops on a whirlwind historical tour.  A comparatist by temperament (I almost wrote “by training”—but a doctrinal program in Comparative Literature trained me only in insipid, reductive methods of politicizing), I prefer to seek themes and styles that knit together large chunks of time.  The specifics of an author’s devotion to this duke or that pretender should be passed along to the historian’s plate.  (Not the least irony of our pedagogical “revolution” in literary studies—the same one that dissolved the classical canon—is that avant-garde professors now lean upon minute historical cross-indexing of texts and events at least as heavily as their counterparts did in the “dark years” of the New Criticism.  Is this because our generation of radicals wishes to keep close tabs on the rise of Woman, or because the once-oppressed, now capped-and-gowned refugee from Middle Class tedium savors her superiority most when juggling obscure names and dates?)

At any rate, I confess to having been rather “blindsided” by a phenomenon in English literature whose presence I had not recalled as so early and influential, and at which nothing in all the capsulated introductions of our anthology ever hinted: the sublime.  Here I must tread carefully, for this word has been much strained during its irregular periods of popularity in literary discussion, as only befits a designation for an indefinable effect.  The shadowy Greek scribbler Longinus (third century AD) is supposed to have written a treatise titled Peri Hypsous, most of which is dedicated to praising Homer.  No Aristotle by any stretch, Longinus—or whoever the piece’s real author may be—tenders few benchmarks or limits for identifying hypsos (from hyper, “over, above”).  Thereafter, we find little sustained and useful analysis of the term until the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when virtually every philosopher worthy of the name authors a tract on the subject.  Burke, Kant, and Schiller appear with distinction on this list.

Though the declared occasion for this study is English literature, I recommend Kant’s Critique of Judgment as a means of clarifying the sublime’s misty, hazy matter.  (In any case, Coleridge would eventually import many of Kant’s ideas to the land of the Britons.)  We must distinguish at once between the sublime and the beautiful.  Beauty, in this tradition (and it is really nothing less than the Aristotelian tradition), elicits pleasure in the mind by presenting an object easily apprehensible in its extent—its objective wholeness—but complexly constructed, and so requiring minute exploration to appreciate.  The objet d’art is not exactly an abstract arabesque, for its internal complexity must give a sense of destination rather than of idle meandering (“purposiveness without a purpose,” in that elegant Kantian phrase which also absolves the object from practical usefulness).  The sublime, on the other hand, exceeds all attempts to capture it within a frame.  It is immeasurable; or, at any rate, it leaves the mind, struggling after apprehension, in no doubt that any emerging sense of wholeness is an imaginary product rather than a completed empirical assessment.  The mind is not put through its paces (so to speak) in a leisurely dressage, as with the beautiful, but rather made powerfully aware that it can divine a reality inaccessible to the body—that a possible realm of the soul exists.[1]

We need not linger over Kant’s distinction between the “mathematical” and the “dynamic” sublime.  The former involves the merely dizzying effort (frustratingly futile as a material calculation) to measure huge phenomena such as great mountain ranges.  The later energizes such immensity with the presence of vast mobile forces—say, a cataract spilling down from a high peak or a crackling thunderhead scraping through a craggy pass.  The key in both cases is the inadequacy of any mentally conceived limit.  The sublime shatters all confinement, forcing the neck to crane and allowing minutes or hours to tick away unnoticed.  Yet as awe-inspiring as the objective phenomenon clearly is in such instances, Kant stresses the constructive role played by the sweeping gaze and the ignored pocket chronometer: the feeling called forth by the scene does not, after all, belong to rugged terrain or to high seas, but to the human perceiver.

One can see… that the true source of sublimity is to be sought only in the observer’s frame of mind, not in the natural object whose evaluation stimulates this feeling toward it.  Otherwise, who would label as sublime even an immense mass of mountains towering above each other in a wild disorder of ice caps, or a darkly raging sea, and so forth?  For the mind senses itself uplifted into its own contemplation when, in treating such objects without reference to their form, it employs the imagination to pursue a subjective idea with no definite end, whose ever-widening rational base exceeds the power of every image.[2]

                                                                                                                                   (my translation)

What attracts me most to Kant’s treatment of the sublime is how well he explains the sentiment involved without waxing sentimental.  To the sublime phenomenon’s enormity, he links both the perceiver’s initial bouleversement and a subsequent swelling of the breast; and of this second state, he remarks both the exhilarating emotional content and the grandly speculative intellectual turn.  As a metaphysician, he seems particularly interested in the latter state’s climactic trumping of the former; for the momentous shift of perspective scores a triumph of the perceiver’s internal being, caught up in dizzying calculation and inspiring metaphor, over his external being, quailing under a giant’s shadow.

Kant’s disciple Friedrich Schiller, being more dramatist than philosopher, did indeed write of the sublime experience with greater poignancy but without careless effusion.  The playwright emphasizes the moral victory of a properly educated free will over the somewhat constrictive and artificial circumstances of human society. The court, the market, and the boulevard are indeed not scenes of the slightest interest in Schiller’s essay.  His model for the sublimely inspired observer is the hiker who gazes upon “ Scotland ’s wild cataracts and cloud-covered summits” rather than the pampered idler admiring “the soulless order of a French garden”.  In his view, a developing mind deprived of natural vistas would most likely remain a “mere slave to physical necessity”, since “neither in our concepts nor in our sensations would we go beyond” the world of the clearly perceptible.  Abstractions such as the all-good origin and terminus of moral law—such as, let us even concede, the benign spirit infusing those beautiful objects so abundant in civilized urban settings—would scarcely occur to us if we were always city-bound; for sublimity imports taste to beauty, inasmuch as “what the imagination cannot represent would have no reality for us.”  Beauty needs idealism: nature, paradoxically, liberates us from the tyranny of the senses.  “The prospect of unlimited distances and invisible heights, of the wide ocean spread at one’s feet and the broader ocean beyond it,” speaks to the soul by surpassing the perceptible.[3]  Noble hearts, the crown jewels of human culture, are nurtured by enlightened moral teaching but not inspired by studied artifice.

It may be said that Schiller supplements Kant’s greatest weakness: a dryness of style.  Yet the former’s celebration of sublime nature (already implicit in Kant’s usually clinical prose) is perhaps both too little and too much.  Schiller certainly shares with other Romantics the conviction that nature may be more civilizing than culture, and his embrace of wild wastes is common to his time; but I find that it also shoulders away many similar experiences available to the reflective urbanite, such as the vastness of time, the incalculable ripple-effects of human action, and the irresistible decline of great cultures into moral ruin.  Such imaginative landscapes, to be sure, do not suggest the word “exhilarating”.  Nevertheless, they possess the power to wrench the contemplative mind from its tiny niche in time and space and to transport it like Scipio’s dream to the highest balconies of the empyrean.

Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful preceded both German treatises, and was very likely the source (through Lessing’s translation) of the Kantian definition’s stress on the proximity of physical danger in the sublime.  “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite ideas of pain,” Burke writes in beginning Section 7 (Part 1) of his essay, “that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.”  Beyond this point, however, Burke’s theory take a turn away from what will become the Kantian view to embrace ideas that, if not vile in themselves, require an estimate of human nature as such.  For the perceiver’s safety from immediate danger is in itself the source of the sublime feeling to Burke, as when one witnesses a public execution without oneself kneeling before the block.  Like La Rochefoucauld, Burke believes that there is something in the pain even of our best friends that doesn’t entirely displease us.  We sense a relaxation of tension, he argues, once we apprehend that the axe is falling upon another’s neck—a response which he characterizes as the natural reflex of self-preservation rather than as envy’s sordid product.

The passions which belong to self-preservation turn on pain and danger; they are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us; they are delightful [delight being Burke’s term for a relaxation of distress] when we have an idea of pain and danger, without actually being in such circumstances; this delight I have not called pleasure, because it turns on pain, and because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure.  Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime.

                                                                   On the Sublime and the Beautiful, Part 1, Section 18

Obviously, few experiences could be farther from that moral victory of the will over carnal timidity which Kant and Schiller saw in the sublime.  One may be tempted to glimpse misanthropy, if not irony, in this extremely low estimate of a thrilling sentiment.  The essay’s second part, indeed, is a catalogue of stimuli—terror, sensory deprivation, encumbered intellect—tending to elicit ignorant, foolish, or brutish responses, “the mind… [being] so entirely filled with its [sublime] object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it” (Part 2, Section 1).  Not surprisingly, Burke often adduces exemplary experiences from rudimentary cultures, childhood, and the illiterate classes.  Yet his comments bear no trace of a sneer: they appear quite in earnest.

Such deprecation of the sentiment, let us admit, logically jibes with the Lockean tradition of referring all categories of human thought and feeling to the senses.  The sublime, in the hands of an empiricist, looks very like the relief of a natural coward when he realizes that a falling rock will strike his neighbor’s head rather than his own, or like the mute awe of a safely concealed savage when a strange light flickers in the night.  The definition is deeply disappointing; but its very poverty as a definition, I will argue, is an additional clue about what was taking place in English intellectual life that caused an explosion of interest in the sublime.


     Let the foregoing, then, suffice as a definition of the mind’s exhilarating failure to define: let us call this experience sublime.  I wish to proceed from here by advancing two significant observations.  One is that phenomena, both literary and natural, capable of stirring sublime sentiments are all around us—and the natural variety, at least, has always been so.  Yet we human observers have not always been capable of registering a state of mind which qualifies as the sublime sentiment: that is my second proposition (in patent disagreement with Mr. Burke’s theory).  The two generate a certain amount of friction, for we are surely not used to aesthetic responses which do not move stride-for-stride with the creative techniques and general tastes necessary to support them.  Sonnets are best appreciated by the musical, psychological novels by the reclusive.  A shepherd who has never heard anything but reed pipes will not understand a symphony.  The abstract art of the twentieth century may have motivated a “reappraisal” of Neolithic cave paintings, Polynesian totems, and other such primitive artifacts as cannot objectively justify the praise of our progressive culture—whose intent was not primarily (or even, perhaps, secondarily) aesthetic, and whose form was determined by limitations in tool and medium rather than the artist’s judgment.  The sublime partakes of a similar ambiguity.  Much oral-traditional narrative seems to us awe-filled, numinous, mystical, and otherwise beyond the measure of the clear and distinct.  Yet to conclude that a live performer working from memory deliberately aimed at the effect—even if he was Homer, whose sophistication far exceeds the strictly oral performer’s—is presumptuous.[4]  Traditional narrative is typically starved for words and forced to generalize the specific: a galley of forty oars working against an offshore tide becomes a dark ship on the whispering sea.  In the same way, Nature did not intend to make the Grand Canyon an incomparable image of all that cannot be circumscribed—a crystallization of the soul’s indefinite horizons and shifting mists.  To a greater or lesser extent, the perceiver creates the aesthetic effect in these pre-print cases of sublimity.

And that perceiver, to vex the issue yet further, necessarily possesses a literate mind, if not de rigueur one molded by the printing press.  Students may hear such an assertion with dismay, divining an odor of “cultural imperialism” within it.  If they can marvel at the dismal swamplands of Beowulf (runs the protest), then why not suppose both that the text’s first raconteurs intended to evoke a sublime mystery and that the original audience was captivated by that mystery?  Further hair-splitting is needed.  To begin with, I will not insist flatly that our anthology’s translator rendered Beowulf’s text with a tantalizing articulateness not in the original: my competence as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon is too shaky for that.  Yet I am fairly confident that such is the case, as it seems to be invariably with English versions of Homer: translators refine descriptions and avoid artless repetitions when they work with traditional tales.  The temptation to do so is all but irresistible.  Now, this doesn’t mean that the tale in pristine form was not a sublime document.  On the contrary, precision spells death to sublimity.  The sublime phenomenon has the plasticity of a great cloud, suggesting at once stone castles and snowy mountains and sandy beaches to the imaginative beholder.  Too high a power of resolution in showing the stone, the snow, or the sand, while no doubt creating something more on the order of a beautiful landscape, would stifle the border-disdaining restlessness of the experience.  The oral style of representation, of course, is nothing if not vague.  Nevertheless, the most literal translation I have ever seen of Beowulf does not abstain from tweaking mysterious elements of description to produce a faintly more enticing mystery.  When the words, “Dâ côm of môre under mist-hleoΦum / Grendel gongan…” become, “Then up from the marsh, under misty cliffs, Grendel came walking,” the tampering seems infinitesimal—almost.  But not quite.  The emphasis of motion de profundis which “up from” bestows upon of is not negligible, and “came walking” implies a more sinister plop-plop-plop of heavy feet more than does gongan.[5]

To argue that, in any case, the oral-style composer (meaning the proto-literate that we find in Homer) could not not narrate in these grandiose terms, even if he wanted to, and that therefore he cannot take credit for a sublime composition, would be overly fine.  Let us concede, rather, that the oral world was saturated in the numinous—that the unlettered tribesman was surrounded by rocks and streams and trees the least of which could emit a spiritual glow in an instant.  This is the obvious truth of such cultures: the familiarity of repeated encounters, rather than rendering things bland and dull, turns them holy.  “Reality,” writes Mircea Eliade of the “primitive” mind, “is acquired solely through repetition or participation; everything which lacks an exemplary model is ‘meaningless’.”[6]  Herein we glimpse the vital importance of the past to oral thinking.  That which is to form a part of culture—of worship, of tribal government, of eating and dressing habits, of behavioral codes—must be repeated and memorized (even reenacted, when possible), for otherwise it will surely be lost.  For this reason, and specifically this reason, the tribesman cannot experience the true sublime.  His encounters with the numinous, far from drawing him away from customs, limits, and preconceptions, point him back into the niche which the gods have made for him.  If a cloud were to catch fire and an angel to descend from it—a Homeric Hermes, say, with winged sandals—our bard would fall to his knees, drop his eyes, grasp some apotropaic talisman, and flee to his chieftain with the “news” once released by the golden beams.  He would retain nothing particularly personal about the incident; for to the extent that he had done so—that he had kept quiet about this or that detail—he would have denied its occurrence.  To refuse it admittance into the collective memory would be to expunge it from his own memory, which is precisely an imprint of his tribe’s.

The element of individualism is missing, in short.  Beowulf’s audience would have been awed and thrilled before the storyteller’s images of the primal swamp, yes—and similarly would the Iliad’s first audiences have marveled at Poseidon’s magnificent transit from a Thracian mountaintop to the ocean bottom as Book 13 begins (a favorite passage of Longinus’s).  The Ionian Greeks, it appears, had already rejected the gloom of their continental cousins’ otherworldly encounters (even the Odyssey insists on identifying the entrance to Hades with all those frightful, barbaric things far north[7]); but any narrative written in the oral style has a certain orderliness at that very interface between tribal stricture and the unspeakable where we literates would expect to see mystical effusion.  Beowulf thinks of his honor—i.e., the reputation he will enjoy before others—and the celebration of his remembered glory as he confronts the chaos beyond culture’s pale.  Poseidon’s katabasis into the sea is referenced to sacred spots throughout Ionia—and Odysseus’s visit to Hades is rigidly enclosed in ritual formalities.  Even as that most daring of adventurers clings to a fig tree above Charybdis, so does any product of tribal culture cling to his customs more tightly than ever when the familiar world’s surface caves in.

The original audience of Beowulf, then (and nothing is harder than this for undergraduates to understand), would not have shuddered delightfully before the murky abyss where Grendel’s mother dwells while recalling a private dream or a unique vacationing spot or tailoring, perhaps, a metaphor for virtuous struggle or a symbol for lubricious depravity.  Members of that audience, rather, would have thanked their gods for their stable customs.  Longinus himself, I suspect, could not define the sublime experience with anything approaching the power we find in eighteenth-century philosophers because he yet lacked those lonely inner depths—that acute literate sense of the gap between self and other, between personal longing and community expectation—which is necessary to inspire a very intimate meditation.  I do not believe, by the way, that such a sense was underdeveloped in all the ancients.  The lines penned by Virgil, for instance, to describe the African harbor where the battered Trojan fleets finds refuge echo both in imagery and in sound from end to end, grandly refusing to pinpoint or delineate:

Est in secessu longo locus.  Insula portum

efficit obiectu laterum, quibus omnis ab alto

frangitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos.

Hinc atque hinc vastae rupes geminique minantur

in caelum scopuli, quorum sub vertice late

aequora tuta silent; tum silvis scaena coruscis

desuper, horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra.

                                              Aeneid  1.159-165


A place there is, deeply recessed, where an island

Creates a port by throwing up her sides.  Against these

Shatters every wave from the deep, retreating in shivers.

Over here, over there, vast crags threaten—twin

Peaks thrust into the sky, beneath whose spikes

The bay lies broadly quiet.  Round about, the scene

Bristles with forests, a great wood of brooding shadow.

                                                                    (my translation)

The most obvious phonetic effect is the studied interplay of dactyls and spondees, the former stitched together in fluid strings to indicate waves in motion (e.g., 161, where spondees intervene only in mid-line with a splash of sibilants), the latter stacked side by side to suggest majestically rising cliffs (e.g., 162, where the almost mandatory fifth-foot dactyl is the only one to be found).  The images are equally restless, pulling the eye into a cavernous recess, wrenching it up to the zenith, casting it from a craggy pinnacle back into the watery depths, then confusing it in dense forest shadows.  One can scarcely believe that the author of these lines did not know the very modern sensation of standing rapt before a sweeping natural panorama for long minutes as the soul’s most cryptic spaces open.  For that matter, the anguishing theme of Virgil’s great poem is precisely the continuous corruption of inner peace suffered by a devoted servant of the community.

So when would English culture have been capable of such a response, either to natural majesty or to a literary representation thereof?  When would the tribal mentality of the oral or oral-with-scrawled-notes storyteller have yielded to a more literate sense of independence from the group, with its accompanying loneliness and uncertainty?

I began this ramble by springing from the convenient board of a sophomore survey, so I shall (with apologies to more rigorous minds) return thereto for my bearings.  We considered in my class the possibility that the scene of utter devastation near the end of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur partakes of the sublime.  Certainly it hints at a vista of immeasurable ruin:

     Then heard they people cry in the field.

     “Now go thou, Sir Lucan,” said the king, “and do me to wit what betokens that noise.”

     So Sir Lucan departed, for he was grievously wounded in many places.  And so as he yede, he saw and hearkened by the moonlight, how that pillers and robbers were comen into the field, to pill and to rob many a full noble knight of brooches, and beads, and of many a good ring, and of many a rich jewel; and who that were not dead all out, there they slew them for their harness and their riches.  When Sir Lucan understood this work, he came to the king as soon as he might, and told him all what he had heard and seen.

                                                                                                                           Book 24, Chapter 5

Our verdict was that this passage cannot strictly fulfill the terms of sublimity—yet it extends the working definition proposed above in two directions: the historical and the moral.  What we perceive through Sir Lucan’s eyes is the palpable end of the heroic age; so it is human history here, and not an ice floe or a windswept steppe, which provides the prospect of a stunning immensity.  So much providential nurturing, so much painful cultivation, so much arduous self-sacrifice went into giving the world the cream of chivalry… and now the last drop has been spilt irrecoverably.  As if the distance separating modernity from Eden were not incalculable enough (for the Heroic Age’s loss is indeed a second Fall), the rupture is emphasized in a most ghastly manner by degenerate bipedal vultures scavenging the battleground.  Time’s precious bequest dropped and shattered, the humans of tomorrow busy themselves gorging on pieces of glistering rubbish, smothering the last embers of nobler beings wherever they yet glow feebly.  The physical panorama of the killing field itself is only implied, and for this reason I say that Malory has not quite succeeded in creating a sublime landscape.  He is unquestionably aware, however, that civilizations can incur loss beyond reckon, both in terms of the number of ascendant generations nullified and the amount of new depravity unleashed.  The prospect is scarcely exhilarating in a Kantian fashion, yet it calls forth the soul no less, I think, to measure an abyss.

Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus may be labeled sublime, and also judged marginally so, for the same reasons.  The good doctor has squandered an inestimable wealth of talent and learning by the end of his misspent life.  Instead of doing his accounts, though, as his final minutes tick away, he loses his soul (quite literally, as it turns out) in the great gulf of history.  Surely the playwright’s single most famous line, “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?” poses a reflection wherein Helen’s glories are very nearly upstaged by Homeric silhouettes and echoes that whirl around the lady like the heroic shades who come to drink of Odysseus’s sacrifice.  So vast is history—and so legion the ripples set into motion by a rare individual’s impact—that the intelligence reels in trying to sustain the meditation.  Like Malory, Marlowe has not quite presented us with a sublime scene, a pretext for the sublime experience.  Where the former’s landscape remains too implicit, the latter’s exquisite ghost remains too much an object of Faustus’s eye rather than the audience’s.  What we seem to have here, instead, are two figures (Sir Lucan and Faustus) whom we observe registering the sublime rather than the ineffable, magnificent presence itself in crudely objective form.  Yet in both cases, the state of being awestruck by an immense truth is plainly presented (more plainly in Doctor Faustus, to be sure) as lifting the individual from a sense of urgency, of temporal participation.  Such elevation, in Faustus’s case, might even have proved salutary if accompanied by a Boethian overview of the flux of human affairs, the vanity of human passions, etc.  That is, the Doctor’s interlude with Helen’s image is really less lustful indulgence than transcendent fascination, his evasion of impending judgment less denial of the soul’s eternity than deprecation of the body’s anxieties.  Goethe would plumb these redemptive ironies to their heart.

In King Lear, sublimity at last finds form in magnificent words.  The second scene of Act III is surely among the earliest examples of the “objective sublime” in English literature, though Edmund Burke chose to ignore it in his treatise.  Burke emphasized that the sublime experience must involve circumstances physically menacing to someone, but from whose reach the perceiver recognizes himself safely removed.  Lear does not appear to satisfy this primary criterion.  The storm which rages over his head might hurl a thunderbolt upon him at any instant.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

You cataracts and hurracanoes, spout

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head!  And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Crack Nature’s molds, all germens spill at once,

That make ungrateful man!


One could argue that the old man, though fully aware of his danger (indeed, he asks to be struck down), does not perceive it as a danger, and thus is free to contemplate the vastness of human history and the depths of the human heart in a meditative (if highly indignant) fashion.  Hence his apparent lunacy: in ecstatically calling down retribution from the heavens, he sets his personal share of the punishment at naught.  Far from disqualifying the scene as sublime, I would contend, Lear’s “madness” elevates it to a unique height; for the perceiver is not, in fact, remotely frightened though the circumstances elicit fear—his thrilled spirit has so disdained his corporal limits that he can contemplate his own bodily annihilation in what must be the calmest words of the speech!  The fury stirred in him by the sweeping panorama of human fraud and hypocrisy so electrifies his moral longing for justice that instinctive self-preservation, essential to Burke’s theory, has been silenced with a contemptuous dismissal.  That the vista of mankind’s sin should suddenly open so broadly before the old man is perhaps as sure a sign of his “imbalance” as the careless strutting beneath the thunderbolts, for the ingratitude of Goneril and Regan seems narrow ground for condemning the whole species.  Again, however, the only fact relevant to the experience’s sublimity is that Lear has truly awakened to the dark side of mankind.  Though his journey to this precipice appears to have been made in lunges and lurches, the view at his feet is now enormous.

In another outburst that follows shortly after, the uncrowned old king’s words indicate that, despite the naiveté responsible for his present plight, he has taken the full measure of human depravity at some point during his long life.  The real mystery, then, may be that so jaundiced an observer could have trusted his conniving daughters so gullibly.

                               Let the great gods,

That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,

Find out their enemies now.  Tremble, thou wretch,

That hast within thee undivulgèd crimes,

Unwhipped of justice.  Hide thee, thou bloody hand;

Thou perjured, and thou similar of virtue

That art incestuous.  Caitiff, to pieces shake,

That under covert and convenient seeming

Hast practiced on man’s life.  Close pent-up guilts

Rive your concealing continents, and cry

These dreadful summoners grace.  I am a man

More sinned against than sinning.


Shakespeare may not endorse this virulent misanthropy: it appears somewhat excessive within the context of the play’s own instances of redemption where one would least have ventured a hope.  Yet neither is Lear’s string of prophetic denunciations mad.  It lacks mercy, it passes over rare exceptions, it perhaps underestimates the speaker’s own folly in allowing evil to prosper… but as a vast insight, it resonates with all the wretchedness of the human condition.  Good people merely fight off hypocrisy—and merely for the moment: they do not slay it.  The best of them are not always good.  It is perhaps the very imminence of violent death which permits Lear to look upon this appalling truth.  Anything short of casting his own life aside scornfully would have left him in the compromising state of one who still has a stake in things, who still plots, who still hopes.

Such serenity on the scaffold is not only the antithesis of Burke’s sublime moment; it implies a kind of ecstasy very nearly the opposite of Burke’s “delight” in realizing oneself just beyond the reach of a grave danger.  Lear denies that he has sinned greatly, but not that he has sinned.  He therefore resigns himself—cheerfully, one might almost say—to the same wrath as he calls down upon his fellows.  Likewise, whatever sublimity we may read into Sir Lucan’s awed study of the dismal battlefield must argue for his own awareness of being caught up in an epochal shift which renders his person infinitesimal.  He is certainly not exulting that he yet lives when so many have died.  (In fact, he will soon perish of his wounds.)  His mind, rather, is preoccupied by an immensity which dwarfs his personal concerns.  So for Faustus: like Lear, he is in mortal danger—or in immortal danger, unlike Lear—but escapes fear through a vision.  The escape is not morally fertile in the way that Lear’s turns out to be; for the old king awakens to a new level of social consciousness soon after his “quarrel” with the lightening forks, when he enters the peasant’s hovel, while Faustus is distracted from a still more sublime vision than that of the human past and the determinism within human events.  All the same, a case may be made—a perverse case, to be sure—for the spirit’s triumph over the body when contemplation of history can temporarily dull the tortures of Hell.

Shakespeare’s Lear confronts the sublime in a natural setting, as Kant (who was no littérateur) seemed to think only reasonable and as Schiller (a brilliant playwright) determined to be mandatory.  As we approach an era of more neoclassical taste, I believe we find a steady rise in the association of the natural with the sublime which will continue for two centuries—this despite the fabled rift between classicists and romantics insistently promoted by hard-headed theorists.  My survey class did not include Romanticism, as I have said.  Yet I recalled that Shelley employs the technique of mixing metaphors in order to evoke a kind of sensory overload which he associates with sublime bedazzlement, as here:

Thine earthly rainbows stretched across the sweep

Of the aetherial waterfall, whose veil

Robes some unsculptured image; the strange sleep

Which when the voices of the desert fail

Wraps all in its own deep eternity;–

Thy caverns echoing to the Arve’s commotion,

A loud, lone sound no other sound can tame;

Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion,

Thou art the path of that unresting sound—

Dizzy ravine!  And when I gaze on thee

I seem as in a trace sublime and strange

To muse on my own separate fantasy…

                                 “Mont Blanc”, 26-26

This is dense going.  The rainbow merges smoothly enough into a veil—which, however, is rather improbably hiding an unsculpted “image” (as in “idol”) like a robe… and then sleep “wraps” with still another veil, this of eternity… after which the cataract’s roar wanders between animism (“no other sound can tame”) and a highly abstract “path”.  Scrambling imagery, it seems to me, must be done with the utmost care.  Whether or not I am being fair to Shelley, however, I will do him the justice of observing that Crashaw gives precedent for the risky strategy.  The nightingale’s song portrayed in the mid-seventeenth-century Delights of the Muses is just such a jumble of alternative images:

                    … her supple breast thrills out

sharp airs, and staggers in a warbling doubt

of dallying sweetness, hovers o’er her skill,

and folds in waved notes with a trembling bill,

the pliant series of her slippery song.

Then starts she suddenly into a throng

Of short thick sobs, whose thundering volleys float,

And roll themselves over her lubric throat

In panting murmurs, stilled out of her breast,

That ever-bubbling spring; the sugared nest

Of her delicious soul, that there does lie

Bathing in streams of liquid melody.

                                                 “Music’s Duel”, 57-68

I shall not even attempt to tease out every hint of a comparison, from staggering to hovering to wavering to slipping to thundering… sobbing, panting, bubbling… no doubt, there is much of such undisciplined, groping admiration in the likenesses which one fancifully offers up to a magnificent blue-gray cloudbank.  Again, that the reader may not be attracted to this “overloading” technique is presently irrelevant.  The point is simply that the experience of sensory confusion had come to hold much interest for poets well before the romantics, and that such triumph of the irrational was tied early on to nature.[8]  Even neoclassicism conceded that the Dionysian might rival the Apollonian (though the poor nightingale in Crashaw’s piece is bested by an artful human lutist).  Creators seemed more and more to be both aware that their artistry could not describe a part of what they were living and convinced that this indescribable part had an urgent importance.

Milton, too, had an eye both for nature and for the sublime.  What is curious about his blending of the two (and this is the real difference between neoclassicism and romanticism on the subject) is that nature herself is beautiful: natural aberration is sublime.  The Eden of Paradise Lost poses limits, though not through human artifice.  Out of God’s hand, nature has observed pattern and speciation; creatures live in and understand hierarchy; vegetation grows in harmonious alternation and collaboration, not in a survival-of-the-fittest rivalry for sunlight.  Adam is part of this well-framed, well-plotted landscape—the central part—as long as he obeys natural authority.  The lonely hiker surveying endless wastes turns out to be Satan, and the sublime panorama at his feet is Hell.

At once as far as angels’ ken he views

The dismal situation waste and wild,

A dungeon horrible, on all sides round

As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible

Served only to discover sight of woe,

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace

And rest can never dwell, hope never comes

That comes to all; but torture without end

Still surges, and a fiery deluge, fed

With ever-burning sulphur unconsumed…

                                                    Paradise Lost 1.59-69

Burke lauds the descriptions of Book 1 for how little they in fact describe—for their grand obscurity, their provocative hints at immense extension.  (He evinces a fine taste in literary effects, whatever the shortcomings of his theory.)  I might add that, in this passage and elsewhere, Milton also displays a Virgilian gift for inflating images with sonorous redundancy (and of the Aeneid, too, Burke demonstrates a keen awareness of grand effect).  The fuming steppes of Hell are unquestionably a scintillant example of literary sublimity.  Satan, furthermore, inhales from his dire surroundings the sort of volitional energy which allows him to triumph over his humiliating corporal defeat, though his body is a giant’s.  He draws the sort of inspiration which Schiller would have anticipated:

What though the field be lost?

All is not lost; the unconquerable will,

And study of revenge, immortal hate,

And courage never to submit or yield:

And what is else not to be overcome?

That glory never shall his wrath or might

Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace

With suppliant knee, and deify his power

Who from the terror of this arm so late

Doubted his empire, that were low indeed…

                                           Paradise Lost 1.105-114

     Brave words… but damned words—words sprung from a will invigorated to rebel, to assert itself above the natural order of things.  To Milton, sublimity is anti-Edenic, a disruptive force stirred by misperception and inadequate reflection (recall Burke’s treatise) which pathologically magnifies the blundering fool’s assessment of his inner resources.  For that matter, Crashaw’s nightingale committed a naïve miscalculation (if we may imagine the creature capable of any calculation at all) in challenging the lutist, who had polished his art with long apprenticeship—i.e., a subordination of personal will.  (I should note that the human performance is not described with such a mixing of metaphors!)  So for Milton’s “Allegro” and “Penseroso”: the former may seem less deep and intriguing to us today, but the latter indexes his ghost-like restlessness to experiences like Catholic monasticism which were certainly anathema to the poem’s author.  Wandering about in the dark alone is unwholesome.  It is sublime and unwholesome.  Neoclassicists were not by any means impervious to its attractions, but they regarded these attractions as dangerous seductions.  Marlowe, by the way, would apparently have agreed.

Throughout most of the eighteenth century, nature is paradoxically the artist’s model rather than a heap of imperfections in need of his refinements.  The view prevailed that poetic craft consisted of astute adjustments producing subtle correspondences and contrasts, just as nature when functioning healthily would integrate incredible finesse into her seemingly ungoverned profusion.  The artifice both of art and of nature was heavily emphasized.  That incomparably level head, Dr. Johnson, has his poet-guide Imlac portray the artist’s calling as one of close observation and instructive generalization.  The poet “is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minuter discriminations” (Rasselas, Chapter 10).  The undertaking sounds very like empirical science; for “nature”, as Imlac invokes it, is essentially “laws and rules”, and her study yields efficient, predictive types strained from masses of chaotic-seeming data.  Whether animal or vegetable, nature is susceptible to and revealed by measurement, classification, and analysis.  Her fiber and sinew are the Creator’s artifice, and raw sense impressions unmediated by reflection simply obscure them.

Hence poets do not—or should not—write about thunderstorms and shadowy abysms.  Naïfs like Imlac’s protégé Rasselas only end up ruining their lives by longing beyond the clear-and-distinct.  In this observation, of course, we draw very close to the romantic point of departure.  Goethe’s Werther would not have denied that his excessively broad moral vistas (constructed of ruined antiquities and social inequities as well as Ossianic landscapes) imposed a paralysis upon his life; neither would his literary first-cousins, Chateaubriand’s René or Foscolo’s Iacopo Ortis.  Yet the creators of these romantic protagonists have clearly initiated a shift of blame from the dreamer to society.  Why does one invite Horatio’s warning to Hamlet, “’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so,” when one peers far into life’s meaning?  Why is individual choice to be discouraged when it strays from conventional paths?  Why must we shut down our minds when they threaten beauty’s pleasures by finding accepted limits to be obtuse or fraudulent?

Expressed this way, the sublime response is the more intellectual one—not Burke’s vulgar, half-seeing, misconstruing superstition, but Kant’s and Schiller’s groping journey into abstraction where external reality achieves its highest truth as a set of metaphors.[9]  The final two works in my survey course partook of the sublime’s emerging spirituality: Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village”.  Of these two, I would call the former the more sublime.  Gray has assessed the ordeal of a human lifespan from the precipice overlooking its innocent beginnings rather than from a vantage like Sir Lucan’s which reveals a moribund epoch and a fearfully plunging degeneracy.  If anything, the immediate presence of so much youthful enthusiasm, honesty, and vulnerability magnifies Gray’s poignant sense of impending loss, for no one traverses life unscathed (Seneca’s nulli licet impune nasci).  What renders the meditation distinctly sublime, however (for the merely poignant would be pathetic, in Schiller’s terms: the beholder would be immersed in pain rather than elevated above it) is the poet’s recognizing at last the futility of his concern.  The great wheel will turn.  All that he has prophesied—the poverty, the disgrace, the jealousy, the ambition—will warp the piping voices before him into grotesque groans or shrieks or oaths as boys age into men.  As preemption, his foreknowledge would be useless—would indeed be folly.  Why risk marring a rare happiness by raising an arcane alarm where joy runs highest?  The sublime observer, one might say, once again torments himself… except that such torment is also inevitable in a mature, thoughtful person, and brings a satisfaction not verbalized here in so many words: that of no longer being history’s dupe.  Where wisdom is futile, ‘tis yet grand not to be surprised by folly.

Goldsmith’s poem, in comparison, lacks elevation.  The poet has swept the panorama of time—of small, fine joys once cultivated like country gardens, now eradicated and pulverized by the forced exodus of Enclosure—even as he broods over the empty village’s unhinged doors and weed-grown streets.  Yet Goldsmith deprives us of the sense of inevitability.  His indignation rejects fortune’s wheel, prosperity’s far slope.  He is ever less resigned to these, in fact, as he nears the poem’s end (though its very last lines, said to have been composed by Johnson, do indeed court the proverbial—and with what dissonance!).  In a manner which draws us, all unwitting of its motion, both forward to Shelley’s radical politics and back to the unholy rebellions of Faustus and Satan, the poem’s sour irony verges on the revolutionary.  Let us admit that social upheaval lies just beyond one horizon of the sublime experience’s dynamic ecstasy.  To be able to do nothing at all can motivate a manic, end-to-end repudiation of how things get done.  Even Lear is not far from this.

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From the sublime to the grotesque: Francisco Goya completed The Colossus or Panic (as it is variously titled) early in the second decade of the nineteenth century, and Saturn Devouring One of His Sons about ten years later.  The contrast might be called that between a vision and a nightmare.  Both works draw upon myth or fantasy, with the legend behind Colossus being much the more obscure and probably local.  As the giant plods sleepily over hill and vale, he seems not even to notice the petty human settlement beneath him.  A truly sublime sense of recoil from earthly affairs is captured on canvas.  Saturn is another matter.  The myth, of course, is recorded in Hesiod’s Theogony and elsewhere.  Yet though the subject is  twice taboo (cannibalism and filicide), it does not challenge the imagination in a liberating manner.  The disturbing canvas may indeed serve to remind us that antiquity had an irrational side only redeemable to modern tastes at the cost of distortion (a cost Goya does not seem willing to pay here).


     My intent has not been to inventory various English classics possessing some tincture of the sublime, but to pose two questions: why does English literature seem to offer comparatively many examples of sublimity, and what cultural shift might account for the phenomenon’s rise and fall?  I may now advance to attempting a conclusion on both counts.

That the sublime indeed creates more of a stir in English literature than in other traditions appears very plausible.  Longinus notwithstanding, the much-advertised Greek fear of the void seems to have shrunk from unlimited (or at least immeasurable) prospects.  Herodotus records the Pythian Apollo as declaring, “I know the number of the sands and the measure of the sea, / And I hear the voice of a mute and listen to one who speaks not” (1.47.3).  Yet besides prophecies and a smattering of pre-Socratic philosophers like Heraclitus, this dazzling irrationalism has few Hellenic exponents.  Homer himself, as we have seen, probably comes across as grander in style than he (or they) had intended thanks to the relative inflexibility of oral narrative technique.

The Romans, for their part, produced the lofty Virgil—but also Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura might fairly be called a forerunner of Burke’s essay in its equation of reverent awe with vulgar superstition.  (Many admire Lucretius’s copious style: I find it tedious precisely because it drums away at his own materialist theorems rather than paying homage to the ineffable.)  The circumstances surrounding Virgil may well have been unique—and here I do not even refer to his artistic genius.  It may be that the educated Romans of his day were so highly literate and  so divorced, at last, from a tribal mentality (civil war not being conducive to cultural solidarity) that they were thrust more rudely into the discovery of individual will than any Greek ever was.  The Greek Stoic, at least, could withdraw from public life: the educated Roman was forced to occupy himself with public affairs while admitting, more and more, their duplicitous squalor.  Plato’s Socrates need only consent to his execution: Cicero’s Scipio must consent to the active service of a fickle state awash in conspiracies.[10]  Virgil’s Aeneas may well be a Scipio who cannot afford to admit that his ancestral gods are morally schizophrenic, but who suspects as much deep down.

Yet once born, however arduously, in antiquity, why would the power of the individual will not have prospered steadily in the cultural centers of continental Europe, or at least have continued its growth after an oral-traditional relapse in the Middle Ages?  Why is the knight-errant, that compelling figure of personal resolve, truly more a model of self-abnegation than of lonely courage, more apt to sacrifice himself in his lord’s bad cause than in his own conscientious crusade?  Ariosto’s raging Orlando and Cervantes’s pipedreaming Quixote disdain bodily risk with the giddiest abandon to assert their will—and their mad exploits fall somewhere between the ludicrous and the pitiable.  Mainland Europe, it seems to me, was never fully sold on sublimity.  Even in the Romantic Period, excitement about the individual soul’s dynamism failed to migrate very far toward the Mediterranean.  Young Werther, like those eloquent advocates of the sublime’s spiritualizing qualities, Kant and Schiller, hailed from north of the Alps; and when Chateaubriand sought to copy Goethe by creating René, the result (despite the rugged landscape of Brittany) was anemic.  As for Ugo Foscolo’s Ortis, another successful Werther “spin-off” mentioned earlier, he is more a hunted political exile than a perplexed mystic.  Continentals simply do not sigh at clouds or gaze into craters with the longing of Englishmen.

Catholicism must surely play some part in this.  If we apply our review to a map, we will note a correspondence between the literary sublime’s ascendancy and the inroads made by the Protestant Reformation.[11]  One may come at the relationship from almost opposite directions.  First, it may be said that Protestantism condones and even encourages individualism—especially the personal encounter with the divine—in a way that Catholicism does not.  The Catholic follows a conventional conduit to God’s will: the Protestant dare not merely “go through the motions” if he wishes his salvation to be genuine.  Secondly, the Catholic liturgy and setting for worship might be styled more compatible with a sublime experience than their Protestant counterparts; for in seeking his personal encounter with God, the Protestant is apt to mistrust elements of that encounter “commandeered” by ecclesiastical formality.  Shadowy vaults, stained glass, mementos of past saints, and sonorous chants are “manipulative”, in his view, because they elicit the sublime sentiment “on cue”.  The Catholic, contrarily, may find sufficient elevation in his communal order of worship that he may not feel driven to seek it in wide, lonely spaces.  As a result, perhaps his faith is more tightly bonded to communal habit and less alienating—less a torment driving the believer into individualism.  The Protestant may assess this stable situation pejoratively, of course, by charging it with reviving the tribal impulse.  It is a historical fact that Catholic societies tend to be more hierarchical, their social classes more rigidly fixed, and their rate of literacy consequently lower than what we would find in Europe’s more Protestant nations (though to advance Catholicism as a prime cause of this condition truly begs a great many assumptions).  Where literacy flourishes less, a residual oral-traditional adherence to group norms binds tighter.

I discern one great snag in arguing that the sublime is a distinctly Protestant burst of enthusiasm for free will: most of its representations in the works surveyed above are highly critical of such fireworks.  Marlowe’s Faustus distracts himself from attending to his salvation by contemplating the infinite; Milton’s Satan is most vigorously evil at those very moments when he gives his will free rein; Johnson’s Rasselas achieves only misery by yearning to see the next horizon.  While Shakespeare’s Lear is morally energized by one kind of ecstasy and Gray’s poetic contemplative spiritually pacified by another, the English tradition certainly offers no unanimous celebration of the individual will.  If anything, one could more correctly characterize Protestant theology of Milton’s era as deeply suspicious of individualism—at least as much as mainstream Catholicism.  The Reformation was (among other things) supposed to purge worship of intrusive frivolities that dulled the heaven-seeking mind’s edge, not free the worshiper to seek heaven in his own way.  Denominations proliferated precisely because each group insisted that devotional energies were best channeled just so: there was no intent to multiply options in a kind of liturgical bazaar.

And here, I believe, lies the basis for understanding the dissonantly vile motivation ascribed by Edmund Burke to the sublime experience.  Empiricism came to typify English thought after Bacon and Hobbes to such an extent that one can find virtually nothing else in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, among either philosophers or churchmen.[12]  As the fruits of science’s harvest grew ever more numerous and succulent, the validity of assessing reality by tinkering with its component parts appeared ever less open to suspicion.  At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, England was making out quite well.  No doubt, her less stratified, more mobile, more entrepreneurial, and more literate society (along with whatever correspondence to Protestantism all this implies) evinced a special talent for “progress”.  As for theorists of the strictly human realm, like Burke, it would scarcely have occurred to them to supply any mechanism except a physiological one to an uplifting contemplation of the stars (or to whatever emotion might come under scrutiny).

Let me pose the question, then, in these somewhat reductive terms: how could the same nation’s denizens be uniquely inclined both to admire the Milky Way and to comprehend reality only as particles and nerves?  Literacy, I believe, is the answer.  Both of these contradictory movements of the mind greatly accelerate under the influence of the printed word.  The literate intelligence at once magnifies the human being’s inner life (through separating serious reflection from communal chatter) and promotes an objective analysis of perceptions (through separating subject from object).  Literates are more aware of themselves as individuals, more apt to ascribe their acts to personal decisions, less apt to attribute a misdeed to tribal or other environmental mediation.  To that extent, they are more spiritual: they have a more evolved concept of the human creature’s unique soul.  At the same time, however, they are more prone to see themselves as object; for while the immortal soul catalyzed by sublime meditation extends forever, the puny body left behind is also a datum in calculating external reality.  The same analysis that frees literate man from being an environmental appendage turns out to reintegrate him—on the backstroke, as it were—into family, tribe, nation, species.

A shrewd examiner like Burke can indeed discover more ways of subordinating men and women to their circumstances than the Homeric clansman could ever have imagined.  Hence the paradox: the elevated perceiver of the sublime revels in his internal vastness, his spiritual infinity… yet this wondrous subject is in the next moment of reflection objectified in so many ways that his every twitch is involuntary, determined, predestined.  From a Kantian resonating chamber for the divine, he becomes a Calvinist prisoner, manacled from birth to a fate forever behind his back.

Here, then, is a probable answer to why the English so denigrated the sublime experience despite showing a sensitivity to it beyond any other European nation’s.  One may indeed extend the hypothesis (though this lies beyond my undertaking) to say that later English romantics were acutely aware of the sublime because empiricism and technology, with their contemptuous dismissal of the soul’s resources, had scored such “triumphs” all over the English landscape; and that impatience with melancholy and “bloody-mindedness”, conversely (going back to Burton’s psycho-physical diagnosis), ran high in England because admiration of the sublime so often flew in the teeth of “productive endeavor”.

As Sean Trainor lately remarked in these pages, the Protestant evangelicals of John Wesley’s time “were more concerned with the Church’s day-to-day life than with the Church invisible.”[13]  This practical focus did indeed offer one outlet to the ecstatically meditative—the so-called social gospel, whose interest was the problems of the poor and oppressed.  The social crusade is a logical alternative destination, after all, for a sublime inspiration interrupted by an empirical fidget.  Castles in clouds thatch not a single hovel… but a mission to save humanity accommodates both idealism and pragmatism.  Now the inspiration is “doing something”—and I would remind the reader not only that Goldsmith’s poem veers in this direction, but that even mad old Lear mumbles in the peasant’s hut, “O, I have ta’en too little care of this.”  Good works, to be sure, are the footprints of a good will—but they can also be a placatory offering to the empiricist’s ethic of usefulness when a sincere idealism has suffered too much derision to show its face.  Is talk of eternity embarrassing—does the mystic’s happy poverty verge on lunacy?  Does Epictetus look too like a vagrant?  Then preach the inspired soul’s social consciousness.  Indeed, this would be the undistinguished future of the sublime experience in northwestern Europe: a crusade to feed everyone, house everyone, and cure everyone.[14]

When Western culture became incapable of discerning in such an agenda a debasement of the sublime, it may be said to have begun its gradual descent into nullity.  For self-sacrifice, though always noble, cannot healthily aim at the sacrifice of the “higher self”—the divine spark in oneself which has communicated the nobility of sacrifice, to begin with.  Moral duty is not served when we “help” the weak to evade it: such “charity” is self-annihilating.  If the only practical consequence of the soul’s discovering its vast range is a rush to provision those bodily needs in whose ample supply any soul must languish, then the servant earns his sainthood by murdering those he serves.  There is no uplifting vision in the modern social utopia, no space for the individual to sicken on surfeit and dream of eternity.  Rasselas’s Sehnsucht is not allowed by our gurus (any more than by Johnson) to lead to heaven, but is diagnosed as a hormonal disorder and treated with appropriate drugs.

All of this, I contend without any intended facétie, was foreseeable in the uneven reception given to the sublime as England began to reign supreme.  Today the trail has petered out.  Literature offers no more grand rages, no more serene brooding.  If escapist, it is allowed to court lurid effects of the sort perfectly suited to Burke’s terms: titillating, vicarious brushes with the ghastly and the ghoulish.  If “serious”, it must espouse a political ideology of service to the oppressed as if these latter were but dumb beasts with carnal requirements.  The adventurous among us will seek a “high” by skydiving or bungee-jumping, mining therefrom (as they often report) the confidence to argue and intimidate more confidently in the workplace.  Now that reading for insight into character or refinement of sentiment is itself dead and cold, we need hardly be surprised that “tornado-chasers” howl like fraternity boys after a sighting and compare the “sensation” to an orgasm.

In a sense whose profundity I cannot overstate, I should say that civilized people must learn what to do with a sunrise or an seascape if they wish to survive.  They must learn to do what the empiricist would call “nothing”: that is, they must allow their soul to take its own measure from time to time.



[1] See especially the opening section (No. 23) to the “Analytic of the Sublime” in the Critique of Judgment.

[2] Kritik der Urtheilskraft, vol. 5 of Kants Werke (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), 256—a concluding remark to section 26, for those who prefer to follow standard translations.

[3] All of the passages cited in this paragraph are drawn from p. 92 of Schiller’s Über das Erhabene in Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1970), 81-100.  The translations are mine.

[4] In The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MS: Harvard UP, 1960), Albert Lord had early on supported the thesis of his short-lived colleague, the legendary Milman Parry, that Homeric verse, being orally composed, cannot be credited with great subtlety of characterization, of foreshadowing, of innuendo, etc.  Yet Lord would eventually revise his theories (e.g., by collaborating in founding the journal Oral Tradition) to accommodate the now-dominant view that literacy had sufficiently intruded into Homer’s process to make various kinds of intended finesse plausible.

[5] From the translation of Howell D. Chickering, Jr., in his helpful dual-language edition, Beowulf (Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977), 88-89.

[6] Cosmos and History, trans. William Trask (New York: Princeton UP, 1959), 34.

[7] Cf. Odyssey 11.14 ff.: here Homer describes the land of the Kimmerioi, where Odysseus beaches on his way to Hades, as so far north that neither the rising nor the setting sun ever illumines it.  Despite the head-shaking of commentators, this juxtaposition of the solar cycle, the Arctic Circle , and the Underworld is quite logical.  (One also finds it in the epic of Gilgamesh where the hero begins his katabasis.)  Placing the “tunnel” of the sun’s nightly passage from west to east at the northern extreme of its transit along the zodiac applies Ockham’s Razor, as one might say, to the problem; for now only the shortest possible tunnel is needed.

[8] Burke credibly argues that Milton mixed metaphors with sublime effect in Paradise Lost, of which I shall shortly speak: “the mind is hurried out of itself, by a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused” (Part 2, Section 4).

[9] Kant, it should be said, was at best an uneasy romantic.  His early admiration for Rousseau waned with time; and he once condemned romances for giving their reader “the appearance of a dreamer and… [making] him inept in company, since he blindly follows the free flight of an imagination unordered by any use of reason” (my translation from p. 208 of Anthropologie in Pragmatischer Hinsicht, vol. 7 of Kants Werke [Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968], 117-333).

[10] In the “Scipio’s Dream” section of Cicero ’s De Re Publica, Scipio is warned by his grandfather’s image to be especially wary of his kinsmen (12).

[11] Of the English authors I have named after Malory, only Marlowe may have been Catholic: his true convictions remain in doubt.  Kant was a Protestant of Pietist provenance, while Goethe and Schiller held deistic beliefs without any clear denominational affiliation.  Foscolo had preserved only minimal ties with the Catholicism of his childhood (and was destined, furthermore, to finish his days in England ).  The highly aestheticized Catholicism of Chateaubriand may well confirm the argument (made subsequently in this paragraph) that the Church itself satisfied a longing for the sublime, diverting it thereby from literary expression.  Milton implies as much in “Il Penseroso”.

[12] A two-part essay by Sean Trainor, “A Kinship Forgotten, A Rebellion Overlooked: Evangelical Influences on English Romanticism,” Praesidium 8.1 and 8.2 (Winter and Spring, 2008), 45-66 and 1-26, explores the oddly (and unwittingly) empirical tenor of English evangelicalism during these years.  Indeed, Mr. Trainor’s work greatly assisted me in developing the ideas I offer here.

[13] From Part I of the essay cited in the previous note, 54.

[14] Such social crusading is much older than Marxism.  At the end of Jules Romains’ fascinating novel, Recherche d’une Église, Jerphanion is very nearly recruited to Masonry by the sage who confides that its ultimate objective is the “total unification of humanity”.  Of course, the Catholic Church is also the traditional adversary in this case.

Dr. John Harris is the founder and president of The Center for Literate Values, and currently serves as Visiting Professor of English at The University of Texas at Tyler.

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