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Jandy Stone

ENG5374: European Romanticism

Dr. Stephen Prickett

19 February 2007

The Importance of the Sublime in the Romantic Aesthetic

The term “Romantic” describes a movement both philosophic and artistic, loosely

unified by a rejection of neo-classical aesthetic principles. Though the Romantics did not

always agree in the specifics of their aesthetic theories, nor did all of them move from

theory into practice, many of them found in the idea of the sublime an attractive

alternative to the strict rules and forms of the neo-classical era. The Romantics did not

create the idea of the sublime, or even share a common conception of it. However, the

fact that so many of the Romantic writers in Germany and England especially, but also in

France, approached the question of the sublime in their writings indicates how pervasive

and important a concept it was.

As Samuel Monk shows in his seminal study The Sublime, theorizing on the

nature, causes and effects of sublimity was a popular pastime throughout the eighteenth

century, starting with the rediscovery of classical rhetorician Longinus. The exact

definition of “the sublime” changes from author to author, but most agree that sublimity

is marked by grandeur, vastness, incomprehensibility, and the power to cause an intense

pleasure in the observer, a pleasure that has transcendent qualities. Though grand ideas in

the abstract could be sublime, the concept quickly became associated with nature: huge

mountains, wild landscapes, or terrific storms. Edmund Burke makes terror itself the
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essential element of the sublime experience (39), a focus mirrored by the growing interest

in the gothic novel in the last few decades of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps the most important element of the sublime as far as Romanticism is

concerned is the emphasis on the effect the sublime object has on the observer. Though

eighteenth-century theorists continued to seek objective qualities to define the sublime,

the theory came to rely more and more on the subjective response to sublimity,

culminating in Immanuel Kant’s explanation of the sublime as purely subjective—that is,

sublimity “is not a quality residing in the object, but a state of mind awakened by an

object” (Monk 8). This move from objective to subjective is part of the general move

toward the emphasis on interior space which allowed Romanticism to come into being.

When Pierre Boileau translated Longinus into French in 1674 and popularized his

theory of the sublime, neo-classicism held the aesthetic sway throughout Europe, and was

especially strong in France. Boileau himself was a firm neo-classicist and did not seem

to have a problem reconciling Longinus’ sublime with his own focus on proper neo-

classical form—probably because Longinus focused much more on the sublime style as a

rhetorical device, rather than on the transcendent effect of the sublime. However, soon

the sublime became everything that was not neo-classical in style, yet had a powerful

emotional effect: “Beauty came to include, generally speaking those qualities and gentle

emotions that neo-classic art sought to embody; sublimity might contain anything else

that seemed susceptible of giving aesthetic pleasure provided that it was grand enough

and might conceivably ‘transport’” (Monk 55). Hence, the beautiful and the sublime

were usually conceived as irreconcilably different. As the century moved toward


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Romanticism, the emphasis shifted more and more away from neo-classical rules and

more toward an appreciation for the sublime, as mediated through individual perception.

Kant was not himself considered a Romantic, but his conception of the sublime as

put forward in The Critique of Judgement (1790) both synthesizes eighteenth-century

thought (Monk 4) and pervades Romantic discourse of the sublime; therefore, it is

appropriate to briefly consider his thoughts. He defined the sublime as that “which is

great beyond all comparison” (132) and that which is so powerful (as in nature) that “all

resistance would be completely futile” (144). For Kant, the sublime moment occurs

when the imagination encounters an object too vast to be comprehended and fails in the

attempt, yet reason overcomes the obstacle by recognizing the absurdity of trying to

comprehend the totality of the vast object and in that recognition, asserts itself as greater

than nature (Modiano 104). Thus, in contrast to Burke, whose sublime was in the

moment of terrible crisis itself, Kant’s sublime is in the resolution of the crisis, which

elevates man in his power struggle with nature.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge begins his theory of the sublime with Kant, but does not

follow him completely, incorporating elements of Johann Gottfried von Herder’s

aesthetic theory which did not diametrically oppose man and nature. Coleridge’s

conception of the sublime denies the need for a moment of supreme crisis, and keeps at

bay the conflict between man and nature that both Kant and Friedrich Schiller saw as

essential to the sublime (Modiano 108, 114). For Coleridge, the sublime is a transcendent

experience, but not necessarily a terrifying one, and rather than seeing in the sublime

moment an assertion of human reason over nature, he sees an absorption of the individual

into the infinite. Referring to his sense of awe upon entering a Gothic cathedral, he says:
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“I am lost to the actualities that surround me, and my whole being expands into the

infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible

impression left is, ‘that I am nothing’” (qtd in Modiano 122). Rather than a denial of

existence, though, this statement is an expression of transcendent unity with an entity

greater than himself. Coleridge also found sublimity in nature, especially in vague forms

that suggest totality but do not express a visual whole (Modiano 115). However, nature

for Coleridge, and more so for his close friend William Wordsworth, was not a threat to

humanity, as it was for Kant and Schiller, but rather “appears as the medium through

which the mind discovers and presents itself” (Weiskel 6).

Wordsworth is the epitome of the poetic sublime, and though he was not the eager

student of German transcendental thought that Coleridge was, it is probable that he

gained some knowledge of the Kantian view of sublimity through his association with

Coleridge (Modiano 129). Although Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads does not

specifically refer to sublimity, it often hints at concepts associated with sublimity. The

“spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” (273) would certainly be a common

reaction to a sublime experience, and his intent to “choose incidents and situations from

common life” and relate them in “language really used by men” and “at the same time, to

throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be

presented to the mind in an unusual way” (264) suggest that a central purpose of

Wordsworth’s poetic dogma was to sublimate the ordinary by filtering it through a new

point of view, conveniently enough, his own. In Wordsworth’s hands, the sublime

becomes more intensely subjective than ever before, leading many to use the term

“egotistical sublime” when speaking about his poetry. According to Monk, by the time
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the sublime meets the Romantic, the “individual becomes of primary importance; his

perception of values becomes significant, and he is left free to express them

untrammelled by tradition; truth in aesthetic interpretation of objects becomes a different

thing from a representation, an ‘imitation’; it becomes rather an individualistic

interpretation of what the artist perceives” (155). Certainly this is true of Wordsworth,

whose poems speak of nature only as he personally experienced it.1

Up until the early 1800s, nearly every theory of the sublime had carefully

separated the beautiful from the sublime. Coleridge, following Herder, connected the two

a little more strongly, though he maintained a differentiation based on objective versus

subjective quality in a way very similar to Kant. However, he subtly changes the

relationship between them by arguing that any object may become the occasion of

sublimity through metaphor and symbolism: “The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it

becomes sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure—the Beautiful is the

perfection, the sublime the suspension, of the comparing power” (qtd in Modiano 118). It

is perhaps a sign of the waning influence of neo-classicism that Coleridge was able to

formulate his theory of sublimity such that the sublime becomes a transcendent beauty

rather than a transgression of accepted formal structure.

At the time, France remained the stronghold of neo-classicism; much of the

theorizing on the sublime was done in England and Germany, since, as Monk points out

multiple times, French writers tended to be a bit skeptical of the sublime and its rejection

of neo-classical boundaries. In fact, this reluctance to move away from neo-classicism in

France could explain why Romanticism in France lagged some twenty or thirty years

1
Note especially such passages as lines 93-112 of “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
(Poems 360) and the craggy cliff incident found in The Prelude I:373-429 (Prelude 24-25).
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behind England and Germany. However, the Frenchman Victor Hugo would fully negate

neo-classicism in his work, which seeks to combine the sublime with the grotesque, a

goal which requires a slight redefinition of terms. In the early eighteenth-century, the

terrible sublime that became the gothic novel could be associated with ugliness,

monstrosity, and even the grotesque, in opposition to the perfectly formed and

symmetrical neo-classical ideal of beauty. Yet when Hugo uses the terms “sublime” and

“grotesque” he means them to be opposite, but opposites that must be brought together in

order to create true art. In his Preface to the play Oliver Cromwell, he states that the

poetry of the modern age is the drama, that the “characteristic of the drama is the real”

and that “the real results from the natural combination of two types, the sublime and the

grotesque, which meet in the drama, even as they do in life and in the creation. For true

poetry, complete poetry, consists in the harmony of contraries” (47). Hugo never

differentiates “beautiful” and “sublime” in the Preface, but treats them as synonyms.

The idea of the sublime grotesque is obviously of great import in Notre-Dame de

Paris, as Hugo links the grotesque Quasimodo both to the sublime occupation of ringing

the huge church bells at the vast cathedral of Notre-Dame and to the novel’s symbol of

the sublime, the gypsy Esmerelda. The union of these two contrary figures is emphasized

in the final lines of the novel as Quasimodo’s misshapen skeleton is found holding

Esmerelda’s remains after her execution (505). Though the symbolism is less clear,

Kathryn Grossman suggests that Les Misérables also contains the juxtaposition of the

sublime and the grotesque, as Jean Valjean successfully unites his criminal past and his

honorable present (13), whereas Javert’s failure to comprehend such a union leads to
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confusion and suicide (95). Valjean’s sublime moment comes when the priest Bienvenu

sets him free after Valjean has robbed him:

His conscience considered in turn these two men placed before it, the

bishop and Jean Valjean. Anything less than the first would have failed to

soften the second. By one of those singular effects peculiar to this kind of

ecstasy, as his reverie continued, the bishop grew larger and more

resplendent to his eyes; Jean Valjean shrank and faded away. For one

instant he was no more than a shadow. Suddenly he disappeared. The

bishop alone remained. (Hugo 113)

Valjean transcends his past and unites metaphorically with the bishop, and he is a

changed man after this experience. Javert, on the other hand, is unable to cope with

Valjean’s transformation:

Until now all that he had above him had been to his eyes a smooth, simple,

limpid surface; nothing unknown there, nothing obscure; nothing that was

not definite, coordinated, chained, precise, exact, circumscribed, limited,

shut in, all foreseen; authority was a plane; no fall in it, no dizziness in

confronting it. (Hugo 1327)

In the characters of Valjean and Javert, Hugo has shown the need of the neo-

classical to embrace the Romantic. He was no lover of the rules set down by neo-

classical writers: “Let us speak out boldly. […] Let us take the hammer to their theories

and systems and treatises. Let us tear down the old stucco-work which conceals the

façade of art!” (Preface 68). In the passage quoted above, Javert is clearly rule-bound,
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unable to accept values outside of his frame of reference. Valjean, on the other hand,

transcends the rules and becomes a truly sublime Romantic hero.

Though the sublime is not a uniquely Romantic concept, it paved the way for

Romanticism, especially in its emphasis on individual experience and breaking the

boundaries of neo-classical form. Romantics writers from Schiller and Herder in

Germany to Coleridge and Wordsworth in England took the theories cultivated earlier in

the century by Burke, Kant, and others and formed them into the basis for much of their

own self-expression. And appropriately enough, Hugo modified both German and

English sublimity in order to realize the threat to neo-classical order introduced

unwittingly one hundred and fifty years earlier by Boileau and his translation of

Longinus, and to mount a direct attack on neo-classicism.


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Bibliography

Ashfield, Andrew and Peter De Bolla, eds. The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-

Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime

and Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.,

1958.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. S.T. Coleridge Collected Works v. 7-8: Biographica Literaria.

Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate. Princeton: Princeton University Press,

1983.

Grossman, Kathryn M. Figuring Transcendence in Les Misérables: Hugo’s Romantic

Sublime. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994.

Hugo, Victor. Les Misérables. Trans. Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. New York:

Signet Classics, 1987.

Hugo, Victor. Notre Dame de Paris. Trans. Jessie Haynes. New York: P.F. Collier & Son,

1902.

Hugo, Victor. “Preface to Cromwell.” The Dramas Complete and Unabridged of Victor

Hugo Vol. IX and X: Oliver Cromwell. Trans. I.G. Burnham. Philadelphia: George

Barrie & Son, 1896. 7-117.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of the Power of Judgement. Ed. Paul Guyer. Trans. Paul

Guyer and Eric Matthews. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Modiano, Raimonda. Coleridge and the Concept of Nature. Tallahassee: Florida State

University Press, 1985.


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Monk, Samuel H. The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England.

Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960.

Porter, Laurence M. Victor Hugo. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Weiskel, Thomas. The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of

Transcendence. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Wordsworth, William. The Poems. Ed. John O. Hayden. New Haven, Conn.: Yale

University Press, 1977.

---. From “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed.

Jack Stillinger and Deirdre Shauna Lynch. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,

2006. 263-274.

---. The Thirteen-Book Prelude. Ed. Mark L. Reed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press,

1991.