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Friday, March 27, 2009

Of the Sublime

For the edification of my readers (if indeed there are any), below is the latest epistle from Squire Darlington.

* * *

March 27, 1755

I was much taken with yours of March 26th, wherein you kindly communicated to your Readers the Thoughts of Mr. FRAZER and Herr WITTGENSTEIN on the primitive Rites of the Savages. It soon struck me that when Wittgenstein speaks of “the Croud of Thoughts which get stuck in the Door,” what he really speaks of is what LONGINUS call’d the Sublime. (By his name, I presume that Frazer is a Scotchman, so it surpizes me little that he shou’d demonstrate his ignorance of this Subject, the heavy Souls of that People being ill-equipp’d for such an elevated Subject.)

LONGINUS describ’d the Sublime as a certain elevation or loftiness of Thought or Language. We can extend this, for the Sublime can also make itself felt in the plastick Arts of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, as also Musick, and most importantly, in that Work of GOD the Supream Artist, which is Nature.

Mr. ADDISON in his Spectator No. 279 [January 19, 1712 — Ed.], speaking of Epick Poetry, tells us that it is not sufficient for “an Epick Poem to be fill’d with such Thoughts as are natural, unless it abound also with such as are sublime.” Though the Natural may charm us, the Sublime astonishes us, with conceptions almost too great to be contain’d within the narrow Compass of the Mind of Man.

Mr. Addison further informs us that of all our English Poets, it is MILTON who hath best mined this Vein of Invention, and I must agree, for there is much in the Paradise Lost which astonishes, as for example when the flight of Satan is described in the following Lines:

… At last his Sail-broad Vannes
He spreads for flight, and in the surging smoak
Uplifted spurns the ground, thence many a League
As in a cloudy Chair ascending rides
Audacious, but that seat soon failing, meets
A vast vacuitie: all unawares
Fluttring his pennons vain plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fadom deep, and to this hour
Down had been falling, had not by ill chance
The strong rebuff of som tumultuous cloud
Instinct with Fire and Nitre hurried him
As many miles aloft.
[Paradise Lost, II. 927-938 — Ed.]

There are many such Passages in Milton. What astonishes us in this, besides the Strength of the Forces buffeting Satan, is the very Vastness of the Spaces depicted, indeed so vast are they that in the attempt to traverse them, the Mind spends itself in vain.

Besides Vastness, we may also be astonish’d by Disorder, especially the disorder of Nature, where it signifieth an Order, but one of a higher kind, which only the Mind of the DEITY can fully comprehend. In the Face of it, mere mortal Man becomes lost in the attempt to understand. Consider my Lord SHAFTESBURY’s Description of the Arctick zones: “How deep the Horrors of the Night, and how uncomfortable even the Light of Day! The freezing Winds employ their fiercest Breath, yet are not spent with blowing. The Sea, which elsewhere is scarce confin’d within its Limits, lies here immur’d in Walls of Chrystal” (Characteristicks, Vol. II, p. 383). We see here the horrid disorder of a Nature manifestly unfit for the abodes of Man, and served to us in Numbers which themselves exemplify the very Sublime they describe.

The Picture my Lord draws for us is reminiscent of that drawn by the ingenious Mr. PHILIPS in his Epistle to Lord DORSET from Copenhagen, where he writes of how the Lands in those Parts

By snow disguis’d, in bright confusion ly,
And with one dazzling waste fatigue the eye
* * *
The starving wolves along the main sea prowl,
And to the moon in icy valleys howl.
* * *
There solid billows of enormous size,
Alps of green ice, in wild disorder rise.
[Ambrose Philips, Pastorals, Epistles, Odes, and Other Original Poems (1748), pp. 64-65 — Ed.]

Here we find that the two Ideas of Nature’s disorder and vastness combine to cause astonishment in the Reader. It is a short Step from Astonishment to Fear. As my particular friend in Ireland, Mr. BURKE, hath told me, the Sublime takes most firm root in that which terrifies us. Thus, says he, nothing so much stirs us to intimations of the Sublime as Scenes of Darkness and Mystery.

Yet, methinks there is at bottom a strange Paradox here, for Mr. DENNIS, in his Grounds of Criticism in Poetry [London, 1704 — Ed.], gives us to know that the Sublime is “an invincible force which commits a pleasing Rape upon the very Soul of the Reader” (p. 79). Although I must apologize to Readers of the Fair Sex for such an indelicate Metaphor, nevertheless, the Paradox it presents is this: If the Sublime astonishes and terrifies us, wherefore are we also delighted by it?

This Paradox Mr. Burke promises me to resolve in a Book he intends to publish shortly on the Topick of the Beautiful and the Sublime, which I eagerly anticipate.

I remain, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.

Jos. Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close,
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxfordshire.

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