The Sublime in Poetry

November 7, 2022

I think this is the concept we’ve been circling in recent discussions of silence in poems, fragments, and immensities in time and space.  Here are some of the associated words and phrases that come to mind: awesome, terrifying, engulfing, infinite, transcendent, beyond our understanding, beyond words, ecstasy, the invisible, the uncanny.

The origin of the concept in western tradition is usually traced to a first century work On the Sublime, by Longinus,  who defined it as “the echo of greatness of spirit” in the creator of the art, rather than in a balance of technical elements in the writing. He offers examples from Homer, and, for the intensity of the emotions described, Sappho’s ode (fragment #31) about her longing for a woman she loves who’s with a man.

“Echo” is a crucial word here–the sublime refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.  Sublime doesn’t describe the landscape Turner painted, but his response to it–and in turn the viewer’s.

In western literature, the sublime is most associated with the Romantic poets, including Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, among others.  Wordsworth described it as “The mind trying to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of reaching.”

Many of my own experiences of the sublime have happened when I was listening to music, from Glenn Gould playing Bach to the Budapest Quartet playing Beethoven to k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Or when I was on the edge of the land, facing the ocean,  or surrounded by stars in the desert.  Looking at Jackson Pollock’s paintings, or Mark Rothko’s.  In his book Mark Rothko: from the Inside Out, his son Christopher Rothko says, “The classic works…articulate the language of the sublime….They are essentially the painted expression of what it is to be human and alive….”

And of course I find it in poetry.  I’ve included a few examples here that I’d consider examples of the sublime.  I’ll be very interested to hear about your own experiences of it in different situations, and especially to see poems that make you feel it.

I found this Helen Vendler talk, Emily Dickinson and the Sublime, illuminating.

The images above, left to right: paintings by Mark Rothko and JMW Turner, first photo of a black hole, ocean wave and sailboat.



John Keats


When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain,
When I behold upon the night’s starr’d face
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance,
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I may never live to see thee more,
Never have relish in the faerie power
Of unreflecting Love–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone and think,
`Til Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.




Emily Dickinson


The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—




Robert Frost


Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less–
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.




Wallace Stevens


She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.

The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.

For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.

Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.



W. S. Merwin


Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what



Alice Oswald


Amphibious vagueness
neither pool nor land
under whose velvet
three rivers spring to their tasks

in whose indecent hills
tired of my voice
I followed the advice of water
knelt and put my mouth

to a socket in the grass
as if to an outlet of my own
unveiled stoneliness
and sleepless flight

they say the herons used to hang
like lamps here giving off gloom
now walkers float
on the wings of their macs

to this weephole
where you can taste
not water exactly


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  • Reply Martha Zweig November 8, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    To Juan at the Winter Solstice, by Robert Graves

    There is one story and one story only
    That will prove worth your telling,
    Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
    To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
    That startle with their shining
    Such common stories as they stray into.

    Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
    Or strange beasts that beset you,
    Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
    Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
    Below the Boreal Crown,
    Prison to all true kings that ever reigned?

    Water to water, ark again to ark,
    From woman back to woman:
    So each new victim treads unfalteringly
    The never altered circuit of his fate,
    Bringing twelve peers as witness
    Both to his starry rise and starry fall.

    Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
    All fish below the thighs?
    She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
    When, with her right hand she crooks a finger, smiling,
    How many the King hold back?
    Royally then he barters life for love.

    Or of the undying snake from chaos hatched,
    Whose coils contain the ocean,
    Into whose chops with naked sword he springs,
    Then in black water, tangled by the reeds,
    Battles three days and nights,
    To be spewed up beside her scalloped shore?

    Much snow is falling, winds roar hollowly,
    The owl hoots from the elder,
    Fear in your heart cries to the loving-cup:
    Sorrow to sorrow as the sparks fly upward.
    The log groans and confesses:
    There is one story and one story only.

    Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
    Do not forget what flowers
    The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
    Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
    Her sea-blue eyes were wild
    But nothing promised that is not performed.

  • Reply Anne Myles November 10, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    I’m very interested in this, although it’s hard to put one’s finger on the sublime (obviously) in thinking about poems. It’s not a term I’ve used/thought about much, but I think a hunger for what might be called the sublime animates quite a number of my own poems (I have one called “My Abstract Sublime” after all). I’m interested in the mention of Sappho in this context, since my own understanding of that kind of intensity is intertwined with what I recognize as sapphic forms of longing. A sense of loss or deprivation as a doorway into the sublime is a potent area for me — a longing for a kind of oceanic merging.

    I think for me its a big, grandiose, somewhat archaic concept — I’m interested in the feeling/experience of it, but might prefer to distinguish versions of it by other names, as in your italicized list above of associated terms. There’s the big bombastic sublime, and the quiet embodied sublime, as in Oswald or the poem below, and the spooky uncanny as in Frost or Merwin — I don’t know that I want the same term for all of them.

    I find myself thinking of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” as a possible example, and fittingly Romantic. Too long to quote, but here’s a link:

    And here’s a poem (that I’ve rewritten in one of my own poems) that I think might qualify. And it resonates a bit with the Alice Oswald poem, new to me.

    Linda Gregg, “The Unknowing”

    I lie in the palm of its hand. I wake in the quiet
    separate from the air that’s moving the trees outside.
    I walk on its path, fall asleep in its darkness.
    Loud sounds produce this silence. One of the markers
    of the unknown, a thing in itself. To say
    When I was in love gives birth to something else.
    I walk on its path. The food I put in my mouth.
    The girl I was riding her horse is not a memory
    of desire. It is the place where the unknown
    was hovering. The shadow in the cleavage
    where two mountains met. The dark trees
    and the shade and moving shadows there
    where the top of the mountain stops and meets
    the light much bigger than it is.
    Its weight against all the light. A birthplace
    of the unknown, the quick, the invisible.
    I would get off my horse and lie down there,
    let the wind from the ocean blow the high grass over
    my body, be hidden with it, be one of its secrets.

    • Reply Sharon November 10, 2022 at 3:27 pm

      If you get a chance, listen to the Helen Vendler talk, where she lists a range of subcategories of the sublime, not all of them epic. I think the Romantic sublime, Wordsworth and Keats, etc., includes a lot of what we’ve been taking about, what Rothko’s painting, etc. I think it’s about the emotional intensity rather than what triggers it. But I do think it’s mortals brushing up against all we can never know, but sense.

  • Reply Elizabeth M Brown November 10, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    Great point about “echo” –how the sublime “refers to the human response to an event or encounter, not the event itself.” So much is about perception.

    Lately I’ve been thinking of the tenor of silences. There is the silence of despair (as in Celan’s “January”), the sense of “void.” And also, as you point out, the silence of the sublime. How silence can encompass these extremes –how it veers toward the unsayable the way ultraviolet and infared (and beyond) veer into the unseeable.

    I love these lines, attributed to Crowfoot, a Blackfoot warrior, in 1890 (His last words):
    What is life?
    It is the flash of a firefly in the night.
    It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
    It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
    and loses itself in the sunset.

    Also “Telescope,” by Louise Gluck:
    There is a moment after you move your eye away
    when you forget where you are
    because you’ve been living, it seems,
    somewhere else, in the silence of the night sky.

    You’ve stopped being here in the world.
    You’re in a different place,
    a place where human life has no meaning.

    You’re not a creature in body.
    You exist as the stars exist,
    participating in their stillness, their immensity.

    Then you’re in the world again.
    At night, on the cold hill,
    taking the telescope apart.

    You realize afterward
    not that the image is false
    but the relation is false.

    You see again how far away
    every thing is from every other thing.

    • Reply Sharon November 10, 2022 at 7:57 pm

      This is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. And I love what you say about ultraviolet and infrared–yes, and once again, Rothko paintings, the edges of the sort-of-rectangles.

  • Reply David Hurst November 11, 2022 at 4:24 pm

    This is a fascinating topic; I wish my time was freer to join your discussions. My thoughts on the sublime start with one of its alternative definitions as a verb, to sublime, the act of a solid becoming vapor without first becoming liquid. Dry ice does this, but it is also a lovely metaphor for the way poetry (or the experience of something) transforms in us to awe or something similar. A solid (of sorts) becoming vapor (of sorts). I think this is the feeling you are writing about here.

    I personally find that feeling in what I can only describe as “quiet” poetry, though I don’t doubt there is an argument for feeling sublime in Whitman or Ginsberg or O’Hara, though I think of their poems as often “loud” (okay, don’t ask me to define it, I guess). But I experience it as in this excerpt from a poem by Li Po (during one of his exiles):

    Gibbons call early along the cold river,
    the moon among pine shadows already risen

    and boundless, how boundless– moonlight,
    and the sorrow in a gibbon’s pure cry,

    unbearable as I toss my walking-stick aside
    and leave the mountains for this lone boat.

    Even if the gibbons in the poem are loud, it feels like the poem rests on a stillness that raises the hairs on my neck when I get to that last bit. The “boundless, how boundless– moonlight/and the sorrow” just raises an ache in me, I guess. Maybe that is what I experience as sublime, that ache that expands into yearning of some sort. I guess I find this kind of “quiet” in poems by James Wright, for example, like in “A Blessing.” I find it in some of Larry Levis too, and often in Gary Snyder. Love this post, Sharon!

    • Reply Sharon November 13, 2022 at 4:50 pm

      Thanks so much for this, Dave. I too associate the sublime with quiet, with silence, with being alone rather than in group–just the individual in the enormous universe. Yes, “A Blessing,” maybe one of my earliest experiences of feeling it in contemporary poetry. Yes, the Li Po. I think it happens most for me when the speaker seems to be gesturing toward it rather than proclaiming it.

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