On The Sublime: An Essay

The exact date & authorship of the Greek work “Peri Hypsous” or the “On The Sublime”, but is commonly associated to a rhetorician Longinus. Possibly it was written in 1st to 3rd Century A.D., and was discovered in the 16th Century & published by the Itallian critic Franciscus Robertello in 1554. On The Sublime takes an approach to criticism which is completely different from that of Aristotle. If Aristotle is a model for all Neo-Classical & systematic approaches to literature, Longinus may be looked upon as a forerunner of the intuitive & romantic views of the later Neo-Classical age, when several critics (Bolieau, Burke, Kant) wrote works on the subject of the sublime. By the word ‘sublime’ Longinus, means elevation or loftiness – all that raises style above the ordinary, and gives it distinction in its widest and truest sense. So sublimity is a certain distinction and excellence in composition. Longinus says that, both nature and art contribute to sublimity in literature. Art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her. Longinus discovers five main sources of the sublime – grandeur of thought, capacity for strong emotion, appropriate use of figures of speech, nobility of diction and dignified and elaborate composition. Without grandeur of thought the writer cannot rise to great heights. Only noble thoughts can lead to noble deeds. Longinus asks quite different questions about literature from those asked by Plato and Aristotle. His vision is broad. He constantly views poetry in relation to the author and the time of the author. He makes use of both the historical and thought provoking comments. His mind is free from prejudice. A great deal of his work is original and illuminating and is of permanent or universal significance. He attaches importance to emotion, imagination and beauty of words. Longinus is the most modern of the ancient critics. Horace was very much influenced by Longinus. He classified certain important matters like the moderns. He talks sense. After Aristotle, he is the greatest critic among the Greeks. He represented the last romanticism and classicism. He gave an

effective theory of literature. He drew upon a number of literatures. Style for him was the life and blood, the very spirit of the work and the personality of its author. He was the first to assert that “Style” is the man. “On the Sublime” is a classic gift of Longinus. It is a fragmentary treatise. It is not yet known who Longinus really was. It is a bright essay on style. According to Longinus, the purpose of the greatest writers has been to introduce, to delight and to persuade. But their greatness lies in sublimity. Sublimity is the echo of a great soul, of a lofty mind; it is not merely an excellence in language. It is the note that rings from a great mind. A work of a genius must aim at ecstasy. In Indian terms, it is the combination of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram (the true, the god and the beautiful) that makes a work sublime. Sublime thoughts can be attained by strong emotions. A writer who indulges in avoiding inferior types of emotions falls close to the standard of the sublime. Figures of speech are the artistic aids to sublimity. The chief figures are the rhetoric questions, hyperbaton, apostrophe and periphrasis. The figures of speech should be carefully used. Verbal magic has its own effect. Diction relates to style. Style is the wise and systematic selection of the most important elements, events or passions into a single whole. The use of questions and answers makes the speeches more effective and impressive. A work of art should be harmonious and complete. For this, it should have a dignified and elaborate composition. It should have sufficient length. Words must be harmoniously set, for the resulting harmony is a natural instrument, not only of persuasion and pleasure but also of lofty emotion. Such a harmonious combination of words appeals to the soul and enables the reader to share in the emotions of the author. At least, Longinus warns against extreme conciseness of expression because it cramps and cripples the thought. Scott-James calls Longinus “The first romantic critic” because of his insistence on passion, ecstasy, transport, imagination, intensity and

exaltation. These are the romantic traits found in criticism of Longinus. In the words of Prof. Saintsbury, “Longinus has marked out grounds of criticism very far from those of the ancient period. Before Longinus the Greek and Roman critics judged a work of art in accordance with the set rules, or considered it either from the pragmatic or the ethical standpoint. Longinus used all these standards. He judged a work more by its essence than by its form. He gave his theory of sublimity and insisted that the reader or hearer should be carried away, transported and moved to ecstasy by the grandeur and the passion of the work. We should be cautious of observing that he was not thorough romantic critic. He tempers romanticism with what is sanest in classicism. ScottJames says that classicism was touched with romance, but not darkened. He knew that emotion and passion should be guided by some rules. He says that mere grandeur is exposed to danger when left without the control of reason and the ballast of scientific method. In this way it can be said that he is the first romantic critic who maintained his affiliations with classicism. Prof. Scott-James also says, “Though he was the first to raise the base upon which romanticism rests, he turned and tempered them with what is the sanest in classicism. Though he was the first great critic to proclaim the efficacy of inspiration, he did not think that beauty comes like wind from heaven to fill the sails of the poet’s ship and drive it without effort across the sea. A harmonious composition alone sometimes makes up for the deficiency of the other elements. Such an arrangement has not only a natural power of persuasion and of giving pleasure but also the marvelous power of exalting the soul and moving the heart of men. Making a distinction between the false and the true sublime, Longinus says that the false sublime is characterized first, by timidity or bombast of language, which is as great an evil as swellings in the body. Secondly, the false sublime is characterized by triviality, which is a parade and pomp of language. Thirdly, the false sublime results when there is a cheap display of passion, when it is not justified by the occasion, and so is wearisome. True sublime, on the other hand, pleases all and pleases always, for it expresses thoughts of universal validity – thoughts common to man of all ages and centuries – in a language that instinctively uplifts our souls.

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