Longinus and The Sublime: Definition & Explanation

Also Read

      To delight and to instruct these had been represented as the twin ends of poetry since Homer, as persuasion was that of oratory. It is in these terms that the effect of all great writings and speeches was explained. But to Longinus, the third-century critic, this explanation did not seem adequate. The formula—to instruct, to delight and to persuade—somehow did not exhaust, for him, the totality of literary experience. There was, to be sure, something more to it, something that remained yet undefined. And this something, he explained, was the quality of elevation, the thing that lifted us out of ourselves. It was there in prose, poetry, drama and oratory. It was in the epics of Homer, the Dialogues of Plato and the Greek drama. As a rhetorician, he also noted the effect of elevated language upon an audience, which was not persuasion but transport. He found this transporting quality in the speeches of Demosthenes.

      So ‘transport’, ecstasy, or the power of lifting us out of ourselves, of elevating us, of infecting us with a sense of vaulting joy, is what belonged to all great literature and great oratory. Longinus called it the Sublime.

      ‘He now analyzed the sources of the Sublime (or ‘grandeur’ or yet ‘the grand style” as he alternatively called it) and set them forth as: (1) ability to conceive great things, or nobility of soul; (2) the stimulus of a powerful emotion; (3) Figures (of speech and thought) (4) Noble diction, and (5) a certain dignity and elevation of composition, which is at once a source and a result of all the foregoing elements.

      Of these the first two he ascribed to the ‘nature’ of the poet, his soul. They are, he said, largely innate, and as such contributed by nature, rot by art while the other three are a product of the latter. So while recognizing the primary sources of sublimity to be a natural gift and so beyond art, he also saw clearly where his own treatise would come in handy. As a rhetorician and as an admirer of the transcendent in literature, Longinus gave both nature and art their due.

      He, however, began by observing (in ‘First Thoughts on Sublimity’ which forms the First chapter of his treatise) that the sublime consists in a certain excellence and distinction of expression. He is here probably thinking of the “command of language” of which he speaks later, under Sources of Sublimity (Chap. 8), as a common foundation of all the five elements and which must be taken for granted before sublimity can be attained. Or, perhaps, he is thinking of (3), (4) & (5) all together which, when you come to regard properly, are but the obverse of (1) & (2). “Sublimity” is the echo of a “noble mind”, and stateliness of expression, noble eloquence or great speech comes only to those who are most high-minded. Later, in chapter 10, Longinus seems to introduce a new element, viz., ‘the selection and organization of material’ (That is, the unerring choice of the salient features of a subject, feeling or situation and the ability to relate them to one another so as to make them a single whole). Here a contrast is possibly suggested between the inherent sublimity of lofty matter, and the sublimity (or irresistible appeal) with which a poet invests the subject by selecting ideas or emotions and fusing them — however extreme or opposed to one another — into a single organism.

      Thus, Longinus emphasizing the technical elements of composition as well as the innate grandeur of the poet’s ideas and passions, with equal ardor. But he is too much of a transcendentalist not to give primacy to the poet’s soul. He had read in Plato that the poet was not himself when he composed his poem, but was possessed by ‘a divine frenzy’. This frenzy is what communicated the rapture or ecstasy to his utterance and also transported his audience. Longinus, while recognizing this power in literature as well as in great oratory, sought a different explanation. He accounted for this irresistible appeal or transporting power of literature by the presence of the Sublime, which had its source in the great-mindedness of God.

      By Sublime, Longinus did not mean simply grand diction or a perfect style. Grandeur of speech he knew to be but a reflection of the grandeur of soul. This may well be revealed in a single thought, figure or phrase He knew only too well that genius is never perfect. On the other hand, studying perfection or flawless design is only a sign of mediocrity. Where skill in invention and arrangement of matter may fail to enlighten us, the rare occurrence or momentary flash of the sublime may illumine the subject, as nothing else will, and is a true measure of the author’s power. The work of a genius always aims at ecstasy, and not persuasion. Where the persuasive effort may fail, genius imposes its own will on us and irresistibly holds us in its power. This it accomplishes by elevating us, by illumination. And illumination is more than any definite moral instruction. It is also more than delight. This power which the works of genius have over us—their irresistible hold on our memory — constitutes the one decisive criterion of all really great literature. That piece is truly great which pleases all men at all times because its power does not diminish, but grows with repeated readings, and its appeal is universal. Though Longinus uses “sublimity”, “grandeur” and “the grand style” as inter-changeable terms, his meaning is plain. Consummateness of language is for him inseparably associated with nobility of soul. It is only the formal counterpart of noble thought and powerful feeling. It is these latter that are the prime sources of sublimity.


      The Sublime (which evokes in us feelings of astonishment, rapture, awe, even of self-abasement) formed the topic of one of Prof. AC. Bradley’s lectures at Oxford (see his Oxford Lectures on Poetry). A summary of the lecture is given hereunder, in the hope of broadening the student’s understanding of the nature of sublimity.

      The Sublime is a form of beauty that invariably produces an impression of greatness, and that of exceeding or overwhelming greatness. Bradley goes on to add that this greatness is not a mere accompaniment of sublimity, but that it is of the very essence of sublimity, ‘grand’, ‘beautiful’, ‘graceful’, ‘pretty’, in that order (which is a descending order in respect of overwhelming power), ‘pretty’ comes at the other extreme, and ‘beautiful’ is in the neutral position (if it leans at all, it does so towards ‘graceful’, not towards ‘grand’).

      Grandeur, too, seems always to possess greatness, though not in the superlative degree in which sublimity does. (In Bradley’s view, ‘majestic’ comes even nearer to ‘sublime’ than does ‘grand’). While ‘beauty’ may not invariably possess greatness, it does not tend to exclude it either, as ‘grace’ and ‘prettiness’ do.

      Bradley proceeds then to define what kind of greatness is involved in the impact that the sublime makes on us. He says it is one of extent — of size, or number or duration. As examples of the sublime in Nature, he instances the illimitable expanse of sky, the distant stars in their countless numbers, the boundless mass of water that we call the sea or ocean, Time without beginning or end—all images of immeasurable magnitude.

      When we turn from them to living beings, of course our standard of greatness changes. But sublime things or beings still have greatness of magnitude appropriate to their own sphere: like, say, a sublime tree, rising tall and spreading its branches far and wide, its leaves a countless multitude Among the birds, it is the eagle. Among the animals, one thinks, of the lion, the tiger, the python, and the elephant. “But you would find it hard to name a sublime insect; and it is not easy, perhaps not possible, to feel sublimity in any animal smaller than oneself. (Man is the measure of all things, then In that case there should be nothing sublime among birds. Why then, did Bradley mention the eagle Because, perhaps, it rises to a great height and is known as the king among birds?) We most commonly think of flowers as beautiful, graceful, pretty, but rarely as grand or sublime. A mighty river may well be spoken of as sublime, but a stream hardly ever; so is a towering peak or far-stretching mountain, but not a hill or hillock. A great cathedral may well be sublime, but not a village church. Even the usages of language reflect this greatness of size or its absence: We say ‘a pretty little thing’, ‘a beautiful little thing’, but never ‘a sublime little thing” Of course, bigness by itself is not sublimity, for bigness may not be aesthetically satisfying, while sublimity is necessarily so—only this particular mode of beauty is connected with, and, dependent on, greatness of extent and that often in exceeding measure.

      Of course, there are exceptions, and these come from the realms of Art and Literature, where the small is not necessarily small, but may have some often-overlooked dimension of greatness. To Wordsworth a six-years, darling of diminutive size does appear sublime because of his soul’s immensity. He is ‘a mighty prophet!’ The Babe on the ann of the Madonna di san Sisto is not less sublime than the starry sky. That it is possible for a sparrow to at times attain a dimension of sublimity is illustrated in a prose­-poem of Tourgenief wherein a mother sparrow, to save the life of her young one (fallen to the ground from the nest) from the jaws of a dog, in a flurry of feathers flings herself at the open jaws, once, twice, so as to screen the fledgling with her own body, and then dies.

      As the mother sparrow flung itself into the jaws of the dog, its own tiny frame quivered with terror. But a power stronger than its own will had tom the bird away from the safe bough where it was perched. As the jaws of the dog closed upon its body, its little cries grew wild and hoarse and then altogether died out. The bird had sacrificed itself for its young one. Tourgenief says he felt reverence before that little heroic bird and the passionate outburst of its love. “Love, I thought,” he observes, “is verily stronger than death and the terror of death. By love, only by love, is life sustained and moved.”

      Love and courage, though admired and approved, are not at all times sublime. But they do assume sublimity in the instance of the sparrow, because of their extraordinary greatness. Bradley adds, “It is not in the quality alone, but in the quantity of the quality, that the sublimity lies.” Similarly, with the dog (which is found by its master’s body among the crags of Helvellyn, where he had perished three months before) immortalized by Wordsworth in a song. Its strength of feeling was’ great above all human estimate’, and therefore its love was sublime. Here, as in the case of the child whom Wordsworth called ‘mighty Prophet’, and the sparrow in Tourgenief’s prose-poem, the greatness is not greatness of extent, but one of spiritual or moral power. So it is immensity of power of some kind—physical, vital or spiritual—that makes a thing sublime. The sublimity of Behemoth and Leviathan in The Book of Job lies in the contrast of their enormous might with the puny power of man. Other figures from literature and history are Achilles, at whose shouts the hearts of the Trojans tremble; Odysseus, who leaps on to the threshold with his bow and rains down his arrows at Achilles’ feet, Milton’s Satan, who refuses to accept defeat from an omnipotent foe (but the same Satan ceases to be sublime when he stoops to tempt Eve). Wherever there is a show of gigantic power, put forth or held in reserve, we feel the presence of the sublime. Fate or Death, as inevitable, irresistible power, is sublime. The eternal laws, to which Antigone appeals, may be regarded as sublime. Prometheus, pitted against a boundless power, yet showing a boundless power of enduring pain himself, is sublime. Socrates, exhibiting serenity, even joyousness, in face of death, is sublime. His words, “have overcome the world”, are the most sublime words ever spoken, inasmuch as they demonstrate the absolute power of the spirit.

      “It seems clear, then”, says Bradley, by way of gathering up the threads of the argument, “that sublimity very often arises from an overwhelming greatness of power”. Whenever a thing bursts its ordinary bounds, like a glorious sunrise viewed from the top of a snow-clad mountain, we have an instance of sublimity. The biblical lines, telling us how light flooded the earth for the first time when God said, “Let there be light”, have been quoted by Longinus as an instance of sublimity.

      Bradley then proceeds to define the kind of impact that beauty or loveliness makes upon us, and to contrast it with that of sublimity. When we exclaim, How graceful!’ or ‘How lovely!’ or ‘How beautiful!’, at sight of a thing, there occurs in us, says Bradley, an outflow of pleasure, an unchecked expansion, a delightful sense of harmony between the thing and ourselves. The thing draws us towards itself and something in us goes out to meet it in sympathy or love. The feeling is affirmative, one of acceptance, not resistance.

      In the case of sublimity, on the other hand, this acceptance is neither immediate nor simple. There seem to be two aspects or stages in it; first, there is a momentary sense of being checked, or baffled, or menaced, or even repelled. We shrink away from the object. The very next moment, there is a rush of self-expansion, a sense of being borne out of ourselves. This latter phase of our reaction to the sublime, even when the object is forbidding, menacing or terrible, is a positive one. This doubleness of our apprehension is peculiar to the sublime. The sublime, which in the first phase checks us, makes us feel our littleness; in the second phase it forces its way into our imagination, makes us burst our own limits and go out to it.

      Burke asserted that the sublime is always founded on fear; indeed, he considered this to be its distinguishing characteristic. Is it the same thing as the check administered by the sublime asks Bradley. Well, if fear it is, it is part of an aesthetic experience, not a practical experience, he concludes. The difference between the two is brought out thus: if we are afraid for ourselves as bodily beings, it is a practical experience of fear; as part of an aesthetic experience, it does not affect us as bodily beings. ‘Fear’ is not the word to be used for the “check’ that we experience in the presence of the sublime, says Bradley. But Burke’s mistake nevertheless implies a recognition of the negative aspect of the effect of the sublime.

      A distinction, which Bradley finds fallacious, is sought to be made between beauty and sublimity: that is, while beauty and grace are friendly to sense, sublimity is hostile or harsh to it. It is true that beauty soothes and delights us, that our senses come to rest in the object. The sublime does not do this to us, it takes us out of ourselves. But it would be wrong to describe the sublime as being hostile to sense.

      The beautiful, too, is an image of infinity, but it shows no tendency to break out of the mold within which it is embedded. A beautiful thing is complete in itself. The sublime is an image of infinity, no doubt, but the infinity is not wholly contained within the thing. The greatness of the sublime is unmeasured, immeasurable.

Previous Post Next Post