John Baillie (?-1743)
An essay on the sublime, 1747 (published posthumously)
An essay on the sublime
We are now, Palemon, to treat of that kind of writing which of all others is the truly excellent and great manner, and which is peculiar to a genius noble, lofty, comprehensive. You will easily know I mean the Sublime, and perhaps tell me the task is difficult; I acknowledge it, especially when I consider that we have already a great author upon the subject, who has received the approbation of ages, and who, in the opinion of most, has exhausted it. -Yet I have something to plead as my apology for my presumption, for such I believe it may be reckoned, although not by you, yet by one, 'qui redit ad fastus, et virtutem astimat annis.'
Notwithstanding Longinus entitles his treatise, a Treatise upon the Sublime, yet whoever considers the full extent of the work, will perceive the author does not confine himself to the bare explanation of any one certain and particular manner in writing. Some part of his treatise regards the figurative style, some the pathetic, and indeed some part regards what I think is properly called the sublime. -However, the bulk of the performance relates more to the perfection of writing in general, than to any particular kind or species.
As every different manner of writing has its peculiar character, it must likewise have its different principles, and to treat of them separately must undoubtedly be the clearer method. Besides, Longinus has entirely passed over the inquiry of what the sublime is, as a thing perfectly well known, and is principally intent upon giving rules to arrive at the elevated turn and manner. That the sublime no sooner presents itself than we are affected by it, I readily acknowledge; but that we generally form accurate and distinct ideas upon this subject, is by no means true; and although in itself perfectly distinct from either the pathetic, or figurative manner, yet it is often confounded with both. The genuine work therefore of criticism is to define the limits of each kind of writing, and to prescribe their proper distinctions. Without this there can be no legitimate performance, which is the just conformity to the laws or rules of that manner of writing in which the piece is designed. But the manner must be defined before the rules can be established; and we must know, for example, what history is before we can know how it differs from novel and romance, and before we can judge how it ought to be conducted.
Hence it seems, that rules for the sublime should most naturally result from an inquiry what the sublime is; and if this is an inquiry which Longinus has intirely passed over, there is still room for further speculation. But as the sublime in writing is no more than a description of the sublime in nature, and as it were painting to the imagination what nature herself offers to the senses, I shall begin with an inquiry into the sublime of natural objects, which I shall afterwards apply to writing.
Few are so insensible, as not to be struck even at first view with what is truly sublime; and every person upon seeing a grand object is affected with something which as it were extends his very being, and expands it to a kind of immensity. Thus in viewing the heavens, how is the soul elevated; and stretching itself to larger scenes and more extended prospects, in a noble enthusiasm of grandeur quits the narrow earth, darts from planet to planet, and takes in worlds at one view! Hence comes the name of sublime to every thing which thus raises the mind to fits of greatness, and disposes it to soar above her mother earth; hence arises that exultation and pride which the mind ever feels from the consciousness of its own vastness -that object can only be justly called the sublime, which in some degree disposes the mind to this enlargement of itself, and gives her a lofty conception of her own powers.
This exalted sensation, then, will always determine us to a right judgment; for wherever we feel the elevated disposition, there we are sure the sublime must be. But notwithstanding we acknowledge its presence, we are frequently ignorant what it is in objects which constitutes the grand, and gives them this power of expanding the mind. We often confess the sublime as we do the deity; it fills and dilates our soul without being able to penetrate into its nature, and define its essence. Yet however true this may be in many instances, a diligent inquiry may overcome the difficulty; and from an examination of particulars, as shall .enable us universally to define the sublime of every natural object.
We know by experience, that nothing produces this elevation equal to large prospects, vast extended views, mountains, the heavens, and an immense ocean -but what in these objects affects us? for we can view, without being the least exalted, a little brook, although as smooth a surface, nay, clearer stream than the Nile or Danube; but can we behold these vast rivers, or rather, the vaster ocean, without feeling an elevated pleasure? A flowery vale, or the verdure of a hill, may charm; but to fill the soul, and raise it to the sublime sensations, the earth must rise into an Alp, or Pyrrhenean, and mountains piled upon mountains, reach to the very heavens -may not also the clearness of the sky, and its agreeable azure, be viewed through a crevice without the least admiration? But when a flood of light bursts in, and the vast heavens are on every side widely extended to the eve, it is then the soul enlarges, and would stretch herself out to the immense expanse. Is it not, therefore, the vastness of these objects which elevates us, and shall we not by looking a little narrowly into the mind be convinced that large objects only are fitted to raise this exaltedness?
The soul naturally supposes herself present to all the objects she perceives, and has lower or higher conceptions of her own excellency, as this extensiveness of her being is more or less limited. An universal presence is one of the sublime attributes of the deity; then how much greater an existence must the soul imagine herself, when contemplating the heavens she takes in the mighty orbs of the planets, and is present to a universe, than when shrunk into the narrow space of a room, and how much nearer advancing to the perfections of the universal presence? -This extending her being, raises in her a noble pride, and upon such occasions no wonder she conceives (as Longinus observes) something greater of herself. But as a consciousness of her own vastness is what pleases, so nothing can raise this consciousness but a vastness in the objects about which she is employed -for whatever the essence of the soul may be, it is the reflections arising from sensations only which makes her acquainted with herself, and know her faculties. Fast objects occasion vast sensations, and vast sensations give the mind a higher idea of her own powers -small scenes (except from association, which I shall hereafter consider) have never this effect; the beauty of them may please, and the variety be agreeable, but the soul is never filled by them.
Thus far, Palemon, we have proceeded in a kind of investigation; we have first inquired what disposition of mind was created by grand objects, the sublime of nature; this we found to be an effort of the soul to extend its being, and hence an exultation, from a consciousness of its own vastness: we then in particular and confessed instances examined what it was in objects raised this disposition, which we afterwards found to be their magnitude, and this likewise in a more universal manner tram the very nature of our reminds.
Yet notwithstanding we have demonstrated than the vastness of the object constitutes the sublime, to render the sublime perfect, two things are requisite; a certain degree of uniformity, and that by long custom the objects do not become familiar to the imagination.
From reason, as well as from experience, we may be convinced holy requisite uniformity is; for when the object is uniform. by seeing par:, the least glimpse gives a full and complete idea of the whole. and thus at once may be distinctly conveyed the vastest sensation. On the contrary, where this uniformity is wanting, the mind must run from object to object, and never get a full and complete prospect. Thus instead of having one large and grind idea, a thousand little ones are shuffled in. Here the magnitude of the scene is entirely broke, and consequently the noble pride and sublime sensation destroyed for what a different concretion must the soul have of herself, when with the greatest facility she can view the greatest objects. and when with pain she must hurry from part to part, and with difficulty acquire even an incomplete view? But as uniformity contributes much to the mind's receiving a grand idea of the object itself, so likewise does it greatly flatter that conscious pride I have already mentioned. Where an object is vast, and at the same time uniform, there is to the imagination no limits of its vastness, and the mind runs out into infinity, continually creating as it were from the pattern. Thus when the eye loses the vast ocean, the imagination having nothing to arrest it, catches up the scene and extends the prospect to immensity, which it could by no means do, were the uniform surface broke by innumerable little islands scattered up and down, and the mind thus led into the consideration of the various parts; for this adverting to dissimilar parts ever destroys the creative power of the imagination. However beautiful the hemisphere may be when curled over with little silver-tinged clouds, and the blue sky every where breaking through, yet the prospect is not near so grand as when in a vast and uniform heaven there is nothing to stop the eye, or limit the imagination. You will here, Palemon, object the evening heavens diversified by numberless stars, than which I grant nothing can be more sublime; but I believe your acuteness will no sooner start than resolve the difficulty. We who have considered the fixed stars as so many suns, the centres of systems, and know the planets, like our earth, move in vast orbits, how must our imagination, stretching to myriads of worlds, measure an immense space between each revolving planet? It will not be here improper to observe, that a solemn sedateness generally attends a sublime turn; for although the pathetic may be often joined with it, yet of itself the sublime rather composes, than agitates the mind; which being filled with one large, simple, and uniform idea, becomes (if I may use the expression) one simple, grand sensation.
Uncommonness, though it does not constitute the sublime of natural objects, very much heightens its effect upon the mind: for as great part of the elevation raised by vast and grand prospects, is owing to the mind's finding herself in the exercise of more enlarged powers, and hence judging higher of herself, custom makes this familiar, and she no longer admires her own perfection. It is here, as in all other things, variety is wanting; and indeed could there be a continual shifting of scenes, something of the admiration might be kept up, and even of that opinion the soul conceives of herself. But we are in a world too limited for such a change of prospects; a large mountain, the ocean, a rainbow, the heavens, and some few more of the like kind, yield all the variety we can here enjoy. The grandeur of the heavens seldoms affects us, it is our daily object, and two or three days at sea would sink all that elevated pleasure we ,feel upon viewing a vast ocean; yet, upon particular occasions, both the one and the other of these objects will raise the mind, how much soever accustomed to them -and this is when by any circumstance the imagination is set to work, and by its creative power the object is rendered new. Thus in a clear evening heaven, each star awakens the imagination to new creation, and the whole firmament is extended out into systems of worlds; nay, perhaps, it is even true, that wherever the mind adverts to the vastness of the object, there she always feels the sublime sensation; but from long custom the object being made familiar, although before her, she does not advert to it -as kings themselves forget their dignity, till roused by the ensigns of power, they re-assume their grandeur. Admiration, a passion always attending the sublime, arises from uncommonness, and constantly decays as the object becomes more and more familiar.
An attempt to determine the greatness requisite to constitute the sublime of objects, would be vain and fruitless; upon the other hand, there is no affirming, that an object, although truly grand, will equally affect all minds; some are naturally fitted to consider things in the most enlarged views; others as naturally dissect great objects themselves, and by a diminutive genius render what is truly magnificent, little, and mean; for no object is so brand, but is attended with some trifling circumstance, upon which a little mind will surely fix; the universe has its cockle-shells, and its butterflies, the ardent pursuits of childish geniuses. Not that even great minds do not sometimes unbend, and amuse themselves with baubles; nay, they are not at all times equally fitted to receive sublime impressions; for when the soul flags and is depressed, the vastest object is incapable of raising her. But at other times, when the blood moves brisk, the pulse beats high, and the soul has lofty conceptions of herself, she sublimes every thing about her, or to speak more truly, snatches herself away from the minute of things, and throws herself into grand prospects, and the magnificence of nature.
From all this it is evident how different are the degrees of greatness, fitted to raise this passion: first, the Nile within his banks; then when he swelling overflows them, and widely extends himself over the whole country; but above all, when the eye loses itself in the immense ocean, or the imagination in infinite space and the unbounded system of things.
These, then, are the general principles, nor am I aware how many objections will be made against them. Is there not a sublime in painting, in music, in architecture, but above all, in virtue? -Yet are there large object. or is there anything immense in Prodicus's Hercules, whose judgment or resolution is universally allowed noble and sublime? -Here we must own the difficult part of our task begins; yet if the principles we have laid down be applied even to such things as seemingly contradict them, it will be no small confirmation of their soundness and truth. We shall therefore consider the sublime of the passions, the sublime of science, and of the arts, such as architecture. music, and painting, and the sublime of such objects as arise merely from association.
In searching into the sublime of the passions, it is not my intent to reexamine the disposition we feel upon viewing the grand and magnificent; but to inquire into those affections, which when they appear in another, are ever deemed great, and affect the person who contemplates them with an elevated turn of mind. For the sublime of the passions must influence the mind in the same manner as the sublime of natural objects, and must produce the same exaltedness of disposition. -Were not their effect upon the mind, the same exaltedness of disposition; -they would with impropriety, bear the same name, and could by no means be the subject of this inquiry.
Although names are at first arbitrarily imposed, yet things of like nature ought ever to be classed under like appellations; and nothing brings greater confusion into knowledge than giving like names to things of unlike nature. Language abounds with too many inaccuracies of this kind, and hence arises the vast difficulty in adjusting and defining the proper limits to many things. Beauty attributed to ten thousand dissimilar objects has never yet, nor ever can be universally defined; for definition is the selecting of such common properties in objects as ever exist with the objects, and constitute their very nature, and thus regards a class, or arrangement of things similar, under the same head or appellation. Mathematicians, when they define a circle, disregarding the greatness or smallness, pitch upon a common property peculiar to the figure, by which they define and reduce all figures with this property under the same head. But if many things of different nature go by the same name, no one definition can be applicable to them. Beauty, indeed, when applied to figure and proportion, may be and has been defined, because here it regards a class. Thus when we call regular figures beautiful, and irregular ones deformed, we find the common property of uniformity amidst variety constitutes the beauty of the first, and the want of this uniformness, the ugliness or deformity of the latter.
But not to digress too far. It is equally incumbent upon the philosopher and critic to prevent names from being confounded, and to refer each thing to its proper class, if such there be; therefore when I treat of the sublime, I treat of a certain order of things, which from a similitude either in themselves, or their effects, are arranged under one head, and constitute a class, or species. And let the name of sublime be ever so frequently applied to a thing, yet if it bears no relation to this class, either in itself, or its effect, it is falsely so called, and is not the business of this present inquiry. I have been the more particular, Palemon, upon this point, because I know how often the word sublime is improperly used.
Such affections, then, or passions, as produce in the person who contemplates them an exalted and sublime disposition, can alone with propriety be called sublime: but affections which are only felt by him in whose breast they are, can never he the immediate object of another's knowledge; and when we contemplate passions out of ourselves, we know them only .at a kind of second hand. But as no affection can subsist without its proper object, the cause or motive of the affections; we must argue from the cause to the effect, and judge and determine of the passion merely from a consideration of its object -what one person, in whose breast they are, knows immediately and by sensation, another can only know mediately and by induction; and therefore in considering the sublime of the passions, their objects only can be the proper subject for examination, the objects alone being really what affects the person who would contemplate the passions -and thus we judge of the courage of a person, by his steadiness in braving dangers; of his piety, by the just adoration he pays to the supreme being; and of his humanity, by his deportment to his fellow-creatures. He himself can only know the affection as it exists in his own breast.
Now, if the objects of such passions as are universally allowed sublime, be themselves vast and extended, the principles I have already laid down will be as equally applicable to the sublime of the passions, as to the sublime of inanimate objects; and we shall find that loftiness of mind, and elevated turn, which we feel upon contemplating any of these affections, to arise from the imagination being immediately thrown into large prospects, and extended scenes of action.
The affections unexceptionably sublime, as heroism, or desire of conquest, such as in an Alexander or a Caesar; love of one's country; of mankind in general, or universal benevolence; a desire of fame and immortality: nor has the contempt of death, power, or of honour, a less title to be numbered amongst the sublime affections.
Heroism, or pursuit of conquest, generally arises either from a desire of power, or passion for fame; or from both. Power and fame, therefore, are objects of this affection, which let us separately consider.
It is not every power which is the ambition of a hero, nor every power which carries the idea of sublime. A Caligula commanding armies to fill their helmets with cockle-shells, is a power mean and contemptible, although ever so absolute; but suppose an Alexander laying level towns, depopulating countries, and ravaging the whole world, how does the sublime rise, nay although mankind be the sacrifice to his ambition! The same may be said of power when it regards strength; for the greatest strength, even that of the giants or term filii, if only employed in grinding the hardest adamant to powder, or in reducing the solidest gold to dust, has nothing sublime or grand -but consider them in their fabulous history rooting up mountains and piling Ossa upon Olympus, then is their strength attended with the sublime. Thus our idea of power is more or less sublime, as the power itself is more or less extended. The absolute authority of a master over his slaves, is a power nothing grand; yet the same authority in a prince is sublime. -But why? from his sway extending to multitudes, and from nations bowing to his commands. But it is in the almighty that this sublime is completed, who with a nod can shatter to pieces the foundation of a universe, as with a word he called it into being.
I cannot here pass over (although more properly belonging to the sublime of writing) the passage in Moses. -"God said, let there be light, and there was light." The sublime of this passage consists in the idea it gives us of the power of the almighty; but his power with regard to what? a vastly diffused being, unlimited as his own essence -and hence the idea becomes so exalted. Let there be Earth, and there was Earth, surely would come infinitely short of the other, as the object or power presents itself to us infinitely more limited. From all this, I think I may fairly conclude, that the sublime of power is from its object being vast and immense.
I need say little upon the head of fame. To be praised not only by the present generation, but through the revolving circle of ages down to latest posterity, is stretching our expectations and our ideas to an immensity; and from this the sublime of the passion itself arises; for although the approbation of a worthy man ought to bear more weight than the undistinguishing applause of thousands, yet the desire of such a single approbation, however virtuous, has nothing great or sublime in it. Thus, if it be true of any one passion, that the vastness of its object constitutes the sublime, it is most strictly so of this; and whatever is the motive of heroism, whether the desire of power, or of fame, or of both, the sublime of the affection is the greatness of its object.
As to the love of our country, or rather universal benevolence, which like the sun every where diffuses itself, who can have any idea of it, without taking into his view large societies, numberless nations, all mankind reaching from pole to pole, from the rising to the setting sun? and this is the sublime of benevolence, extending itself to the remotest of humankind. But how would the sublime sink, if in this large scene the imagination should fix upon a narrow object, a child, a parent, or a mistress! Indeed, love to any of the individuals, nay to all of them, when considered as individuals, and one by one, has nothing of exalted; it is when we love them collectively, when we love them in vast bodies stretching over large countries, that we feel the sublime rise.
The affection of a parent to a child, although more intense, perhaps, than any other, yet has nothing great in it; nay, I will venture to affirm, not even friendship itself, without it be accidental; as all the passions, by apt connection may exist with the sublime.
Thus when friendship prompts a man to sacrifice honours, wealth, and power, to despise the greatness of the world and brave death, it then becomes truly great; nor need I, Palemon, cloy you with the repeated reasons.
Hence the object of the passion only, not the intenseness of it, renders it great and noble; and hence a contempt of riches, of honours, power, and empire, may be justly reckoned amongst the grand affections. But perhaps it may be asked, how the contempt of that can be great, the desire of which I have already allowed so; or if it be true, that the contempt is great, how can I reconcile my former assertion to what Longinus affirms; to wit, -nothing is great -as riches, dignities, honours, and empire.
Here, Palemon, I must observe that the sublime, and virtue, are quite different things; the decorum of actions, distinct from the exalted. Honours, dignities, and empire, in their own nature partake nothing of virtue; but that they do of the grand, I think I have plainly shown. Now in a moral sense it is certainly true, if in any circumstance the contempt of these things is great (by which Longinus can surely mean no more than becoming or virtuous,) in the same circumstance the desire of them can never be great; but if he understands the word great in its true and genuine sense, I cannot see why the desire, as well as the contempt of them may not be truly grand: for as the object is the same in both cases, and as it is the object which renders the affection sublime, in both cases there must be a sublime. And the passion of Caesar to conquest and empire, is no less sublime, than the stoic apathy of the philosopher (if such there ever was, or ever shall be), who should reject them; although we might allow in the latter a more virtuous and laudable affection.
When virtue is at any time sublime, it is not that she is the same as the sublime, but that she associates with it, and from this association each acquires new charms: virtue becomes more commanding, the sublime more engaging. When Hercules rejecting the proffered luxury of palaces, and pomp of courts, prefers virtue, traverses the earth in pursuit of honour, and thinks the whole world scene little enough of action, how does the virtuous greatness of his soul charm and strike us with a sublime admiration! Had he only preferred an honest retirement to rosy garlands, banquet, song, and dance, the enticements of the alluring goddess, where would have been the sublime.' Indeed his resolution would have been even then still virtuous.
A just order of affections, where no one desire, by a dissonance and jarring with the rest, breaks the harmony of the passions, is what constitutes the beauty and becomingness of character; and if virtue be the pursuit of our greatest happiness in the good of society, this becomingness is virtue herself: for proportioned affections render us most happy in ourselves, and most beneficial to mankind; and a virtuous passion or appetite is such as the satisfying of it neither necessarily produces disturbance in the affections. nor disorder in society. -I say, necessarily; -for often by accident the most virtuous affection is attended with bad consequences; but this is not equally true of the sublime passions -desire of fame, honours, or empire, often creates the greatest tumult in the affections, and the greatest mischief to mankind.
Thus most of the sublime passions, when virtuous, are so by association and accident; and although the indications of elevated souls, yet are not always virtuous. The hero who insults mankind, and ravages the earth merely for power and fame, is but an immense monster, and as such only ought to be gazed at; he may indeed, by a mild use of conquest, gild over the cruelty of his actions, but can never render them solidly good -yet such is the force of the sublime, that even these men, who in one light can be esteemed no other than the butchers of human race, vet when considered as braving dangers, conquering kingdoms, and spreading the terror of their name to the most distant nations, tower over the rest of mankind, and become almost the objects of worship. But there is a sublime which is always virtuous, and where the virtue as well as sublime increases with the object; I mean that of love; fist to the particular community whereof we are members; then to our native country; to mankind in general; and last to the universal genius. When once the soul can be raised to this noble enthusiasm, and can make an infinitely great being the object of her love, and as it were take him into her affections, it is then she feels the greatest sublime possible, and conceives something infinitely grand of herself; honours, dignity, and empire are objects truly little and mean to a mind thus united with divinity.
Contempt of death is neither always virtuous, nor always sublime; the wretch who, intoxicated with liquor, braves death at a gallows, shows neither a virtuous nor a great soul; but a Cato, who will not barter the real dignity of character for all the false honours a cajoling Caesar can heap upon him, and who in cool deliberation, rather than drag a life in the slavery of vile submission, and mean adulation, chooses to die with liberty and his country, evinces, in the action, the grandeur and virtue of a Roman soul. In these circumstances, the contempt of death is both laudable and sublime; the fear of it, mean and despicable. Cato, in giving up life, had in view immortality and everlasting liberty, the sublime enjoyment of the almighty; whilst the orator, who barely courted life in mean flatteries to a tyrant, had in prospect nothing but the contracted space of a few years spent in abject slavery: and yet this, perhaps, was more pardonable in the orator than it would have been in the patriot. For besides the beauty of virtue in general, there is likewise a decorum or becomingness belonging to character. -The easy manners of an Atticus can allow many things which would be deformed in the inflexible virtue of a Cato. The good-natured Atticus had the humaneness, not the dignity of character to support; roughness and cruelty would have defaced and deformed his character, not compliance and submission. But for the rigid Roman to have lived quietly under tyranny, would have been such a breach of character, such a depravity in his manners, that he must have preferred a thousand deaths before it. -For to see the stubborn oak bow to every blast, is unnatural, however agreeable it may be to see the yielding corn wave to the breeze.
I think now, Palemon, I have considered most, if not all the sublime passions, and have shown that the greatness of the object makes the sublime of the affections. This we shall find true, should we yet in another manner render the passions the objects of our scenes. Allegory has already clothed most of them in human form, and should we attempt in the ancient way of fable to draw the sublime affections or their objects in emblematical portraitures, what a giant would heroism appear! Liberty, perhaps, like the deity, is too vast a being to he circumscribed by form; but fame has been already pictured to us, and pictured as a being of immense greatness: -ingrediturq; solo, et caput utter nubila condit. -Nor does power deserve a less size: but how would benevolence, spreading out her downy wings wide as the arched heavens, kindly brood over the world! In short, if we do these passions justice, we ought to paint them in all the grandeur and majesty Homer does his Neptune under whose vast strides, forests and mountains trembled.
Before I conclude this subject, I must observe, that all the passions of the human mind may exist each with the other, and home it frequently happens chat the sublime affections are blended with those of a quite contrary nature. There aver enters in the description of storms (as I have already observed) Some small degree of dread, and this dread may be so heightened (when a person is actually in one) as entirely to destroy the sublime. By this means an object in itself grand may by association lose most if not all its effect. Yet, Palemon, it seems strange that a being so simple, so much one as the mind, should at the same time feel joy and grief, pleasure and pain, in short, be the subject of contradictions; or can it be true that the mind can feel pleasure and pain at the same instant? or rather, do not they succeed each other by such infinitely quick vicissitudes, as to appear instantaneous; as a lighted globe, moving in quick revolutions, seems one continued circle of fire? -But which ever way the mind perceives, it is certain to common observation, the most different passions and sensations possess the mind at the same time. The prick of a pin will give pain, while the most delicious food is flattering the palate, or the highest perfumes the smell. The sublime dilates and elevates the soul, fear sinks and contracts it; yet both are felt upon viewing what is great and awful. And we cannot conceive a deity armed with thunder without being struck with a sublime terror; but if we regard him as the infinite source of happiness, the benign dispenser of benefits, it is not then the dreadful, but the joyous sublime we feel. From these associations there arises different kinds of sublime, where yet the sublime is the predominant; and from these associations, likewise, results a greater beauty to it. -The fine blue of the heavens yields a more delightfully sublime prospect, than had they been of dusky obscure colour. These connections, however, often occasion not only a confusion of terms, but even of ideas; nor indeed is it always so easy to separate our sensations. The grand may be so blended with the pathetic and warm, in the description of battles, as difficultly to be divided, and consequently the complex sensation from thence as difficultly resolved. By this means the pathetic is often mistaken for the sublime; but whoever considers the different nature of the two, will upon all occasions easily distinguish them.
The sublime, when it exists simple and unmixed, by filling the mind with one vast and uniform idea, affects it with a solemn sedateness; by this means the soul itself becomes, as it were, one simple grand sensation. Thus the sublime not hurrying us from object to object, rather composes than agitates, whilst the very essence of the pathetic consists in an agitation of the passions, which is ever effected by crowding into the thoughts a thousand different objects, and hurrying the mind into various scenes.
Before I proceed to examine the sublime in arts and sciences, it will not perhaps he entirely useless to observe, that objects in general delight from two sources; either because naturally fitted to please, from a certain harmony and disposition of their parts, or because long associated with objects really agreeable; and thus, although in themselves there be nothing at first delightful, they at last become so. Perhaps of this kind of association the fondness which a lover conceives even to the imperfections of his mistress, may not be the worst instance; a cast of the eye, a lisp, or any other little blemish, shall by a fond lover quickly be deified into a beauty, and receive more adoration than the real beautiful and charming.
Hence we see the powerful force of connection. Nor does this only happen in the whimsical imagination of a fond lover; the gravest philosophers also owe great part of their pleasure to this stealing of beauty from one object to deck and adorn another: for by daily experience we know, when certain pleasures have been raised in the mind by certain objects, from an association of this kind, the very same pleasure shall be raised, although the objects themselves which first occasioned them are not so much as painted in the imagination; and it is from this source that the beauty and delight of metaphor flows. Who ever thought of the rosy blush of his mistress, without feeling something like that agreeable sensation which the rose itself excites, not only by its colour, but even by its fragrance?
But to return to our present purpose; we may hence perceive, that objects which in themselves are not great and immense, if long connected with such will often produce an exaltedness of mind; and this seems partly to be the case in architecture. The face of a fine building shall give a greater loftiness to the soul, than an object vastly more extended; neither indeed does the size of any building seem to rise to that largeness as constitutes the sublime: whence, therefore, is it, that it raises this passion? -One of the reasons certainly is, we have always found such buildings connected with great riches, power, and grandeur; and though the mind may not reflect o n these connections, yet from what I before mentioned, the passion occasioned by these things may exist in the mind without the idea of the things themselves. Should the buildings be perfectly plain, without any manner of ornaments, though vastly large, as those in Edinburgh, they would not at all elevate the soul, for in these buildings we have found no necessary connection with power and grandeur. But besides this, with columns there is always connected the imagination of strength and durableness; and these working together, may very well give a sublimity to the mind. However, I am apt to think, we sometimes imagine a greater sublime in objects than what there really is. Thus in a fine building, the proportion of the parts, their aptitude, and a thousand other circumstances, which form the beauty of the structure, afford a refined delight, much different from the exalted disposition already mentioned; and may not two or three different pleasures existing in the mind at the same time by a kind of reverberating on each other, increase the intentness of each, as a parcel of diamonds, when artfully set, by a reciprocal reflection of their rays, strike the eve with redoubled lustre? What, indeed, is poetry, but the art of throwing a number of agreeable images together, whence each of them yields a greater delight than they possibly could separately. -There might he something likewise said from the variety of the parts, and yet so uniform as not to distract the imagination. -if a great crowd of ideas can be distinctly conveyed into a small portion of the mind, something of the pride of the sublime will be raised in her; fur if she can take in so great a variety, and yet have room for so much more, she certainly must feel something exalted. That the uniformity does contribute to give this turn of mind, is plain by observing those buildings which abound in little and trifling ornaments, where every thing is broken into miniature? Here, though the bulk of the building be vastly large, no very great ideas are conveyed.
The sublime of painting consists mostly in finely representing the sublime of the passions, such as the Tablature of Hercules; and what a greatness of mind he shows in Hercules! -Behold what large scenes of action virtue points out to him in choosing them! The indolence of pleasure affords no such vast prospects -the whole world was a scene little enough for his enlarged soul. Landscape painting may likewise partake of the sublime; such as representing mountains, &c. which shows how little objects by an apt connection may affect us with this passion: for the space of a yard of canvas, by only representing the figure and colour of a mountain, shall fill the mind with nearly as great an idea as the mountain itself.
I know so little of music, that I will not pretend to determine the sublime of it. This I know; -all grave sounds, where the notes are long, exalt my mind much more than any other kind; and that wind instruments are the most fitted to elevate; such as the hautboy, the trumpet, and organ: -for, as Pope has it,
In more lengthen'd Notes and flow,
Deep, majestic, solemn Organs blow.
In all acute sounds, the vibrations are short and quick; on the contrary, in the grave. And may not long sounds he to the ear what extended prospects are to the eve? Here also connection takes great place; the most fantastic jig of a bagpipe shall elevate a highlander more than the most solemn music; for to such they have been ever accustomed even in their martial engagements.
Whatever outward appearance the sublime of the mind assumes, that appearance likewise acquires a name similar to that turn of soul, as lofty, majestic, &c. and indeed whatever conveys to us the imagination of such a disposition in another, affects us also with the like passion. For example; a grave and sedate gesture, especially in princes, we call majestic and noble; and it even gives a small degree of loftiness to the spectator himself: for, as I before hinted, the true sublime of the mind is grave and composed, which in gesture can only he expressed by a grave and composed gate. Should a prince frisk about in short and quick motions, it would take away very much from the imagination of his possessing a great and elevated soul. And this also may be something the case in music; it being inconsistent with a sedate mind to run through all the quick notes and short turns of a jig. Although after all, I believe the pathetic in music is frequently taken for the sublime; and not only here, but even in other cases. Nor, indeed, is it always so easy to separate our sensations: the grand may he so blended with the pathetic and warm, (viz. in the description of a battle) as difficulty to he divided, and consequently the complex sensation arising from thence as difficultly resolved. Hence not only comes a confusion of terms, but even of ideas. With a great storm, when the swelling waves rise in mountains to the skies, and the black clouds thicken from all quarters of the heavens, there is always joined the apprehension of danger, which puts the passions into a hurry: here the complex sensation is generally esteemed the sublime; but from what I have already said it will appear, that the vastness only of the objects produces it, by no means the agitation of the passions, which, if nicely considered, has rather fear than the sublime for its cause. After this manner the sublime may be connected with any one passion, and from such connections different kinds of sublime will arise; I mean in a lax way of speaking; and indeed, from the different ways of blending it in objects, our pleasure may be greatly encreased. Thus, the fine blue of the heavens makes the sublime itself yield a greater delight, and for the reason I before hinted.
Had I time, I would consider something of the sublime in sciences. But I shall only observe, that in mathematics it is the universal theorems, and the vast similarity in the properties of infinite curves. And in studying the sciences, it is the mark of a truly great mind not to dwell on the minutia: of things, but rather to consider their universal relations: studies which seem dry, become exalted and agreeable, by such a management.
I shall end with this one remark, that the eyes and ears are the only inlets to the sublime. Taste, smell, nor touch convey nothing that is great and exalted; and this may be some farther confirmation that large objects only constitute the sublime.
An essay on the sublime, 1747 (published posthumously)
1.Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California Press, 1953.
2.Andrew Ashley & Peter de Bolla eds.
The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory
Cambridge University Press, 1996 (pp.87-100)