Friday, 2 May 2008

Sublimity

Discuss the treatment of one of the following topics in relation to a selection of the literature you have studied for this course: domesticity, power, the sublime, morality, emotion, restraint.

In order to discuss the treatment of the sublime, it is necessary first to define the sublime. The concept originated in the first century rhetorical treatise On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus.[1] Kant writes that the sublime “raises the soul above the height of vulgar commonplace.”[2] Blackburn describes it as “great, fearful, noble, calculated to arouse sentiments of pride and majesty, as well as awe and sometimes terror.”[3] While the sublime has been widely discussed over the centuries, particularly in terms of aesthetics, I have chosen to focus primarily on the definition outlined in Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), as it was enormously influential on the concept of the sublime as it was understood in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Ann Batten Cristall’s ‘An Ode’ (1795), Mary Robinson’s ‘Sonnet. To Liberty’ (1806) and Felicia Hemans’ ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ (1839) typify the sublime according to Burke’s definition.

Burke’s understanding of the sublime is based largely on the idea of terror, on which he put a new emphasis.[4] He writes that one source of the sublime is “whatever is in any sort terrible”[5] because terror is “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”[6] Terror is very obviously apparent in ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ in a number of different ways. The scene itself is terrible, as a “midnight of shadows all fitfully streaming” (line 5). The darkness here heightens the fear, as Burke writes: “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”[7] The visions, the phantoms, are, naturally, very frightening: they are described as “dread beings” (line 13) and their being “unearthly” (line 11) adds to their obscurity and thus their fearfulness. The narrator is very clearly afraid, but, more than that, he is overcome: “a strife was within me of madness and death” (line 16). Yet what typifies the sublime here is a strange enjoyment of this fear: “There was light on my soul, but my heart's blood was chill” (line 24). Terror is likewise apparent in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ though implicitly, with its “tyrant tempest” (line 8) and “sanguinary demons” (line 9), although the subject is a positive one, thus proving how terror is seen in the sublime as to be perversely enjoyed.

Nature is also key both to the sublime and to ‘An Ode,’ ‘Sonnet. To Liberty’ and ‘The Rock of Cader Idris.’ The connection between nature and the sublime was described at length by Burke but established originally in On the Sublime, in which, as Baldick writes, the author “refers to the sublime as a loftiness of thought and feeling in literature, and associates it with terrifyingly impressive natural phenomena such as mountains, volcanoes, storms, and the sea.”[8] Cristall personifies nature and sees it as able to communicate directly with the individual: “strongly Nature's truths conviction bring” (line 9). Nature in this poem communicates on an emotional as well as an intellectual level, as the narrator is taken up in raptures: “Stupendous Nature! rugged, beauteous, wild!” (line 25), and describes himself as “impress'd with awe” (line 26). It is this awe as a human response to nature which characterises the sublime. In ‘The Rock of Cader Idris,’ the narrator’s vision of the phantoms is inextricably linked with his natural surroundings. The phantoms themselves are declared to be “the powers of the wind and the ocean” (line 17), which move like “the sweep of the white-rolling wave” (line 19). Nature is again personified, though interestingly not capitalised this time, and is tied into the sense of a glorious resurrection at the end of the poem: “what new glory all nature invested, / When the sense which gives soul to her beauty was won!” (line 31,32) In ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ liberty is seen as inseparable from nature, often wandering “by the billowy deep, / Scatt'ring the sands that bind the level shore” (lines 5,6). Nature is, in fact, the source of liberty, “born in the mountain's solitary crest” (line 2). Both nature and liberty are personified, as nature is described as liberty’s “nurse” (line 3), being that which nurtures it and makes its existence possible. The personification of nature, awe at its grandeur and intellectual engagement with it are, then, significant characteristics of the sublime in these poems.

The sublime, in these poems and in general, also has a strong spiritual element. Weiskel writes that this is because, in the sublime, “spirit and matter are differentiated in principle but not yet in the fact of perception or intuition.”[9] A key example of this is Mary Woolstonecraft. For her, the physical matter of nature, combined with human love, reveals the spiritual, God, as her essay ‘On Poetry’ describes: “Love to man – leads to devotion – grand and sublime images strike the imagination – God is seen in every floating cloud.”[10] As with Woolstonecraft, it is in nature’s “wondrous book” (line 26), that the narrator of ‘An Ode’ is lead to anticipate the spiritual “realm” (line 27) of Heaven. There are strong Christian references also in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ with its “sanguinary demons” (line 9) and apocalyptic expectation: “'Till chaos reigns - and worlds shall be no more!” (line 14). The sublime, then, is both external, in that it is a response to natural surroundings, and internal, in that it is a spiritual and emotional experience.

One of the leading reasons for criticism of the sublime is that it can be seen as selfish and egotistical, focussing purely on the experience of the individual in response to his surroundings. As Jones writes, “The object of feeling, the focus of the ‘sublime’ experience, is dissociated from communal aspirations to become the exponent of personal, often nostalgic, emotion.”[11] However, Helen Maria Williams refuted the view that the sublime is essentially self-absorbed in 1798; she describes sublime meditation as “a tranquil rapture, remote from all that is selfish, or sensual… we forget ourselves, and have scarce a consciousness of existence.”[12] ‘The Rock of Cader Idris’ does seem to be excessively focussed on the self, though: it describes the sublime experience of an individual; tellingly, the first word of the first line is “I,” and the pronoun is repeated eleven times throughout the poem. Nevertheless, the narrators of both ‘Sonnet.To Liberty’ and ‘An Ode’ are far more concerned with society than themselves. ‘Sonnet.To Liberty’ begins “Ah! liberty!” and is focussed throughout on this subject, which was a contemporary social concern in light of the American and French Revolutions. ‘An Ode’ is concerned with the fate of mankind in general, pleading with God to “look with mercy on man's misery” (line 4) and expressing dismay that men “pierce the fraternal breast” (line 18). It is difficult to dismiss this kind of interest in universal human welfare as in any way selfish or immoral.
Returning to Burke’s definition of the sublime, he emphasises the importance of sound: “Sounds have a great power in these as in most other passions.”[13] The sounds heard by the narrator contribute greatly to his terror in ‘The Rock of Cader Idris,’ with the “voice of the mountain-wind, solemn and loud” (line 4) and “wild waves and breezes, that mingled their moan” (line 6). This is also the case with the frightening noises imagined in ‘Sonnet. To Liberty,’ such as “the desolating roar, / That bids the tyrant tempest lash the steep” (line 7, 8) and the animalistic “low’r” of the demons (line 9). The sounds are not only communicated because they are stated; they are recreated in the poems themselves. As Burke writes, “Descriptive poetry operates chiefly by substitution; by the means of sounds, which by custom have the effect of realities.”[14] The motion of the aforementioned “wild waves” is recreated sonically by the alliteration, and all three poems suggest a living, changing natural world with its own rhythms by employing regular rhyme schemes and metrical patterns. Impressions of the sublime, then, are as aural as they are visual.

In conclusion, the sublime as understood by Burke and others can be clearly traced in the three poems discussed. It is such a fascinating concept because, inspired by external stimulus but contained in the mind, it encapsulates so many contradictory ideas. It is pleasure in pain, both the pain of terror and of confronting an object, whether a mountain, a deity or an abstraction such as liberty, which exceeds the human capacities of perception. As Phillips writes, it includes “the sacred and the serious, the transcendent and the aristocratic, the privilege of an ‘incomprehensible darkness’ that reason cannot… dispel.”[15] It is thus supremely flexible, and lends itself to a wide range of subjects, and both to political commentary and aesthetic delight, a capacity of which these three poems take full advantage.



Bibliography

Baldick, Christopher, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e938)
Blackburn, Simon, ‘sublime,’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t98.e2273)
Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998).
Cristall, Ann Batten, An Ode [from Poetical Sketches, by Ann Batten Cristall (1795)] (http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=Z300650529&divLevel=3&area=Poetry&DurUrl=Yes&forward=textsFT)
Drabble, Margaret and Stringer, Jenny (eds.), ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. Royal Holloway, University of London. 18 February 2008 (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t54.e5890)
Hemans, Felicia Dorothea Browne, The Rock of Cader Idris [from The Works (1839)] (http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=Z300391418&divLevel=3&area=Poetry&DurUrl=Yes&forward=textsFT)
Jones, Chris, Radical Sensibility: Literature and ideas in the 1790s, (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).
Robinson, Mary, Sonnet to Liberty [from The Poetical Works (1806)] (http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk/searchFulltext.do?id=Z200475849&divLevel=2&area=Poetry&DurUrl=Yes&forward=textsFT)
Weiskel, Thomas, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976).



[1] Christopher Baldick, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e938)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Simon Blackburn, ‘sublime,’ in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t98.e2273)
[4] Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer (eds.), ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t54.e5890)
[5] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1998), p. 36.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 54.
[8] Christopher Baldick, ‘sublime, the,’ in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. (http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t56.e938)
[9] Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence, (Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 54.
[10] Chris Jones, Radical Sensibility: Literature and ideas in the 1790s, (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 187.
[11] Ibid., p.12.
[12] Ibid., p. 158.
[13] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, p. 75.
[14] Ibid., p. 150.
[15] Adam Phillips, ‘Introduction’ in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke, p. xxii.

No comments: