Sublime, the

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Sublime, the

Sublime, the: The quality of greatness in a literary work that elevates the reader to a higher plane. The term entered critical discourse through an anonymous Greek treatise called Peri hypsous (On the Sublime), now thought to be the work of a first-century A.D. rhetorician sometimes referred to as Longinus or pseudo-Longinus. According to the author, the sublime “gives elevation to a subject” and “consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language” that “takes [the reader] out of himself”; it derives from five principal sources: grandeur of thought; strong passions; figures of speech; dignified expression, including diction; and “majesty and elevation of structure,” namely, the arrangement of words.

Interest in the sublime revived substantially beginning in the late seventeenth century, following neoclassical French poet and critic Nicolas Boileau’s 1672 translation of Peri Hypsous. In Miscellanies (1693), English literary critic John Dennis applied the concept of the sublime to nature, describing his 1688 journey to the Alps as engendering “a delightful Horrour, a terrible Joy, and at the same time, I was infinitely pleas’d, I trembled.” In A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke distinguished between the sublime and the beautiful, arguing that the sublime is infinite, the beautiful finite. He also associated the sublime with terror, contending that “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, … is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

Subsequently, German philosopher Immanuel Kant further developed the concept of the sublime in works including Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgment) (1790). Defining the sublime as “what is absolutely great,” Kant associated the beautiful with “an indeterminate concept of understanding” and the sublime with “an indeterminate concept of reason.” Beauty, Kant argued, is “preadapted to our power of judgement, so that it thus forms of itself an object of our delight”; the sublime, by contrast, appears “to contravene the ends of our power of judgement, to be ill-adapted to our faculty of presentation, and to be, as it were, an outrage on the imagination, and yet it is judged all the more sublime on that account.”

By the latter half of the eighteenth century, a “cult of the sublime” had emerged, exemplified by Scottish poet James Macpherson’s Ossianic poems (1761—65), which he claimed were translations of an epic and other works written in Gaelic by a third-century poet named Ossian, and Italian baroque painter Salvator Rosa’s landscapes, which often feature jagged rocks and stormy skies. The aesthetic of the sublime also significantly influenced Gothic literature, the Graveyard School of Poetry, and romanticism.