Page images
PDF
EPUB

LECTURE IV.

THE SUBLIME IN WRITING.

HA

L ECT. TTAVING treated of Grandeur or Subli. IV.

mity in external objects, the way seems now to be cleared, for treating, with more advantage, of the description of such objects; or, of what is called the Sublime in Writing. Though I may appear to enter early on the consideration of this subject; yet, as the Sublime is a species of Writing which depends less than any other on the artificial embellishments of rhetoric, it may be examined with as much propriety here, as in any subsequent part of the Lectures.

Many critical terms have unfortunately been employed, in a sense too loose and vague, none more so, that that of the Sublime. Every one is acquainted with the character of Cæsar's Commentaries, and of the style in which they are written; a style remarkably pure, simple, and elegant; but the most remote from the

Sublime,

Sublime, of any of the classical authors. Yet ! E C T. this author has a German critic, Johannes Gulielmus Bergerus, who wrote no longer ago than the year 1720, pitched upon as the perfect model of the Sublime, and has composed a quarto volume, entitled, De naturali pul. chritudine Orationis ; the express intention of which is to thew, that Cæsar's Commentaries contain the most complete exemplification of all Longinus's rules relating to Sublime Writing. This I mention as a strong proof of the confused ideas which have prevailed, concerning this subject. The true sense of Sublime Writing, undoubtedly, is such a description of objects, .dr.exhibition of fentiments, which are in themselves of a Sublime nature, as shall give us strong impressions of them. But there is another very indefinite, and therefore very improper, sense, which has been too often put upon it'; when it is applied to signify any remarkable and distinguishing excellency of composition ; whether it raise in us the ideas of grandeur, or those of gentleness, elegance, or any other fort of beauty. In this sense Cæsar's Commentaries may, indeed, be termed Sublime, and so may many Sonnets, Pastorals, and Love Elegies as well as Homer's Iliad. But this evidently confounds the use of words; and marks no one species, or character, of composition what

IV.

ever.

I AM

[ocr errors]

LEC T.

IV.

I am sorry to be obliged to observe, that che Sublime is too often used in this last and improper sense, by the celebrated critic Longinus, in his treatise on this subject. He fets out, indeed, with describing it in its just and proper meaning; as something that elevates the mind above itself, and fills it with high conceptions, and a noble pride. But from this view of it he frequently departs; and subftitutes in the place of it, whatever, in any ftrain of composition, pleases highly. Thus, many of the passages which he produces as instances of the Sublime, are merely elegant, without having the most distant relation to proper Sublimity; -witness Sappho's famous Ode, on which he descants at considerable length. He points out five sources of the Sublimne. The first is, Boldness or Grandeur in the Thoughts; the second is, the Pathetic ; the third, the proper application of Figures ; the fourth, the use of Tropes and beautiful Expressions; the fifth, Musical Structure and Arrangement of Words. This is the plan of one who was writing a treatife of rhetoric, or of the beauties of Writing in general ; not of the Sublime in particular. For of these five heads, only the two first have any peculiar relation to the Sublime; Boldness and Grandeur in the Thoughts, and, in some instances, the Pathetic, or strong exertions of Passion : The other three, Tropes, Figures, and Musi

cal

IV.

cal Arrangement, have no more relation to L E C T. the Sublime, than to other kinds of good u Writing; perhaps lefs to the Sublime than to any other species whatever ; because it requires less the allistance of ornament. From this it appears, that clear and precise ideas on this head are not to be expected from that writer. I would not, however, be understood, as if I meant, by this censure, to represent his treatife as of finall value. I know no critic, antient or modern, that discovers a more lively relish of the beauties of fine writing, than Longinus; and he has also the merit of being himself an excellent, and, in several passages, å truly Sublime, writer, But, as his work has been generally considered as a standard on this subject, it was incumbent on me to give my opinion concerning the benefit to be derived from it. It deserves to be consulted, not so much for distinct instruction concerning the Sublime, as for excellent general ideas concerning beauty in writing.

I RETURN now to the proper and natural idea of the Sublime in composition. The foundation of it must always be laid in the nature of the object described. Unless it be such an object as, if presented to our eyes, if exhibited to us in reality, would raise ideas of that elevating, that awful, and magnificent kind, which we call Sublime; the description,

however

IV.

L E C T. however finely drawn, is not entitled to come

under this class. This excludes all objects that are merely beautiful, gay, or elegant. In the next place, the object must not only, in itself, be Sublime, but it must be set before us in such a light as is most proper to give us a clear and full impression of it; it must be described with strength, with conciseness, and fimplicity. This depends, principally, upon the lively impression which the poet, or orator, has of the object which he exhibits ; and upon his being deeply affected, and warmed, by the Sublime idea which he would convey. If his own feeling be languid, he can never infpire us with any strong emotion. Instances, which are extremely neceffary on this subject, will clearly show the importance of all the requisites which I have just now mentioned.

Ir is, generally speaking, among the most ancient authors, that we are to look for the most striking instances of the Sublime. I am inclined to think, that the early ages of the world, and the rude unimproved state of society, are peculiarly favourable to the strong emotions of Sublimity. The genius of men is then much turned to admiration and astonishment. Meeting with many objects, to them new and strange, their imagination is kept glowing, and their paisions are often raised to

the

« PreviousContinue »