More on the Sublime

November 14, 2022


          Well, last week ‘s discussion was sublime, so we might as well have more of that.  Also, I forgot to add poems from the Comments section, so I’m putting them in this week’s post.

As I read more and more of the history of the concept, a couple of issues seem central: the distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, for one.  For another, the location of the sublime–in the world, in the human imagination, or in the encounter between the world and the imagination.  Here are just a few historical landmarks.

Longinus wrote his treatise Peri hypsous, translated as On the Sublime, in the 3rd century, but it was Nicolas Boileau’s translation into French in the 17th century that brought it to the attention of writers and philosophers: Burke, Kant, Hegel, and others, and then to the 19th century Romantic poets who followed them.  Boileau also coined the phrase “Je ne sais quoi,” to describe something that didn’t fall into an existing category.

Best known statement from Longinus’s On the Sublime: He initially referred to passages in Homer, Sappho and others that stood out from the others on their own power, not because of their language but the greatness of the soul imagining them: “As if instinctively our soul is lifted up by the true sublime; it [the soul] takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.”

In a coda Longinus wrote that literature can be the origin of the Sublime, not only its recorder.

The Romantics, on the other hand, ascribed the Sublime to the world itself.

Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, described beauty as a matter of proportion, gradation, and serenity that produces pleasure.  The Sublime, on the other hand, is associated with pain, danger, and anxiety.  Our emotion confronting it is one of fear, followed by intense, profound relief; it could kill us, but won’t.  It’s a mattter of danger courted and overcome.  It’s also associated with obscurity, uncertainty, and speed.  And, he said: “Literature can fill one with the exaltation of the unrepresentable.  Painting can’t.”  And right now it seems to me that of course painting can, and that it’s perhaps harder to do in literature.

Immanuel Kant says that humans feel themselves as nothing compared to the natural world, and so their minds shift from transcendental aspirations, and move their commitment from the empirical world to the world of the imagination. Despite all its power, the world [even the universe?] is finite, but the imagination is infinite.  Sounds like Dickinson’s poem to me.

I definitely think that there’s more than one kind of sublime, as you’ll see in some of the examples.  Or maybe you’ll have a different word in mind.

I hope you’ll add your own examples in the Comments section.


from Martha Zweig:


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


from Elizabeth Brown;

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.



Louise Glück:

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.


from Dave Hurst:

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.




Rainer Maria Rilke     (1911, trans. Edward Snow)


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders?  And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I’d be consumed
in his stronger existence.  For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us.  Every angel is terrifying.
And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs.  Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need?  Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world….



Weldon Kees     (about 1950)

I have seen it in the green tree
For a long time now,
In the shapes on pavements, oiled

And streaked with rain, and where
Hands have touched at doors,
Over the roofs and streets,

On face after passing face
I have watched it spread,
At the edge of the sky at noon

Until it stains the dead
Weeds in some empty place
And saturates the sun

–As though one had pulled a string
In an unfamiliar house,
Of a dim light, darkening.



James Wright     (about 1960)

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.



Heather McHugh     (about 1990)

For Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. The Italian literati seemed
bewildered by the language of America: they asked us
what does “flat drink” mean? and the mysterious
“cheap date” (no explanation lessened
this one’s mystery). Among Italian writers we

could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one
administrator (The Conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone
narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic–
and least poetic– so
it seemed. Our last
few days in Rome
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn’t
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

“What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?” Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think– “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. “If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry–

(we’d all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)– poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.











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1 Comment

  • Reply Robert McDowell November 17, 2022 at 7:55 pm

    The opening of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence breathes the Sublime:

    To see a World in a Grain of Sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your Hand
    And Eternity in an hour

    or Emily Dickinson:

    In this short Life that only lasts an hour
    How much–how little–is within our power

    Or this Elisha A. Hoffman hymn:

    What a fellowship, what a joy divine.
    Leaning on the everlasting arms;
    What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms.

    Leaning, leaning,
    Safe and secure from all alarms;
    Leaning, leaning,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms.

    Oh, how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms,
    Oh, how bright the path grows from day to day,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms.


    What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms?
    I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
    Leaning on the everlasting arms.


    or Emily again,

    “Hope” is the thing with feathers –
    That perches in the soul –
    And sings the tune without the words –
    And never stops – at all –

    And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
    And sore must be the storm –
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm –

    I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
    And on the strangest Sea –
    Yet – never – in Extremity,
    It asked a crumb – of me.

    and again:

    There’s a certain Slant of light,
    Winter Afternoons –
    That oppresses, like the Heft
    Of Cathedral Tunes –

    Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
    We can find no scar,
    But internal difference –
    Where the Meanings, are –

    None may teach it – Any –
    ‘Tis the seal Despair –
    An imperial affliction
    Sent us of the Air –

    When it comes, the Landscape listens –
    Shadows – hold their breath –
    When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
    On the look of Death –

    or, of course, so many poems by Wordsworth, by Shelley; Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas.

    The sublime in poetry makes us feel most keenly Emily’s “Heavenly hurt”. Does it not?

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