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The Sublime: From A Poet's Glossary

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Edward Hirsch


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November 18, 2014

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Poetic Terms/Forms
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the sublime: The Oxford English Dictionary defines the sublime as “Set or raised aloft, high up.” The word derives from the Latin sublimus, a combination of sub (up to) and limen (lintel, the top piece of a door) and suggests nobility and majesty, the ultimate height, a soaring grandeur, as in a skyscraper or a mountain, or as in a dizzying feeling, a heroic deed, a spiritual attainment, a poetic expression—something that takes us beyond ourselves, something boundless, the transporting blow. “The essential claim of the sublime,” Thomas Weiskel asserts in The Romantic Sublime (1986), “is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human.” The sublime instills a feeling of awe in us, which can be terrifying. The Oxford English Dictionary also describes the effects of the sublime as crushing or engulfing, something that cannot be resisted. The sublime is one of our large metaphors. As Weiskel puts it, “We cannot conceive of a literal sublime.”

In the third century, Longinus inaugurated the literary idea and tradition of the sublime in his treatise Peri Hypsous (On the Sublime). For him, the sublime describes the heights in language and thought. It is accessed through rhetoric, the devices of speech and poetry. It is a style of “loftiness,” something we experience through words. “Sublimity is always an eminence and excellence in language,” he claims. “It is our nature to be elevated and exalted by true sublimity. Filled with joy and pride, we come to believe we have created what we have only heard.” The sublime is our “joining” with the great. Longinus raised the rhetorical and psychological issues that haunt the idea of the sublime, ancient and modern. As Mary Arensberg summarizes them in The American Sublime (1986):

  1. The experience of the sublime is an affective or emotional response (joy and ecstasy) to power, authenticity or authority.
  1. This power is perceived in a moment (like a “lightning-flash”) through the effects of speech and language.
  1. The sublime moment is preceded by a disruption in normal consciousness (“parts all matter this way and that”) whose equilibrium must be restored.
  1. Equilibrium is seemingly restored through an identification with that power or authority (“exalts our soul as though we had created what we merely heard”) and a repression of that power.
  1. The repression takes the form of a defense (in this case mimesis) in which the reader makes the sublime her own.

Longinus’s treatise was translated into French by Boileau (1674) and passed quickly into English. Alexander Pope claimed that Longinus “is himself the great Sublime he draws” (“An Essay on Criticism,” 1711). Edmund Burke took up the effects of the sublime in language in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), where he argues that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. He adds terror as a crucial component. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, 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; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” There are subsequent philosophical investigations of the sublime in Immanuel Kant, who says, “We call that sublime which is absolutely great” (Critique of Judgment, 1790), Arthur Schopenhauer (the first volume of The World as Will and Representation, 1819), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, 1835). “In the European Enlightenment,” Harold Bloom explains, the literary idea of the sublime “was strangely transformed into a vision of the terror that could be perceived both in nature and in art, a terror uneasily allied with pleasurable sensations of augmented power, and even of narcissistic freedom, freedom in the shape of that wildness that Freud dubbed ‘the omnipotence of thought,’ the greatest of all narcissistic illusions.”

The Romantic poets were obsessed with sublimity; that is, with the idea of transcendence, with possible crossings between the self and nature, with the boundlessness of the universe. Each had a different idea of transcendence, as when John Keats distinguished the true poetical character, which is selfless, from “the Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime,” a sublime suffused with the self. William Wordsworth himself called the elevation of the sublime a “visionary gleam.” The Romantics transformed the sublime into a naturalistic key, internalizing it, which opened a space later entered by Freud, who was preoccupied with powerfully disruptive and uncanny moments.

In America, the sublime has its own genealogy and history, its own recurring questions and immensities. “How does one stand / To behold the sublime?” Wallace Stevens asks in his poem “The American Sublime” (1936). In “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson takes up Longinus’s idea of the reader’s sublime when he declares that “in every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Ever since Walt Whitman (1819–1892), our poets have been magnetized by the power of the American sublime, the engulfing space that Emerson delineates as “I and the Abyss,” the intractable sea that Stevens confronts in “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1936), which contains a direct echo of Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1860). The strip of land at the boundary of the fathomless sea is comparable to the liminal space that Robert Frost repeatedly encounters at the edge of a dark wood, the majestic space where, as Emily Dickinson says memorably, “The Soul should stand in Awe.” The feeling of awe bears traces of a holiness galvanized and deepened by the mysterious presence of death. Irving Howe spoke of “a democratized sublime,” a space for schooling the spirit.


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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