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British Romantic poets and painters saw flashes of universal insight; they became visionaries who departed from the temporal world in their works and set upon a sublime, almost "out-of-body" experience, to redefine the conceptions of beauty in art and nature. Artists believed they could create meaning in what they saw, that their minds were active agents upon the universe, that their visions were each unique and yet still connected to nature and their fellow man's.
Two proponents of this universality in nature and art were Edmund Burke, an outspoken politician and theorist, and William Gilpin, a well-traveled artist and essayist. Each redefined the classical Platonic conceptions of the beautiful, sublime, and picturesque to fit their Romantic sensibilities. Whereas Burke's theories of the sublime and beautiful were rooted more in gender politics than strict assessment of art or nature, Gilpin's essays were grounded in aesthetic judgment, unhindered by as much psychological subtext
In his seminal work, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke equates the sublime with terror; "that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling". Although it may sound akin to sadistic commentary, "...I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure," Burke's equation of the sublime to a deep-rooted pain is linguistically accurate since pain, by definition, is the body's recognition of sensory nerve overload. In this way, the sublime is a psycho-biological reaction to an ideal that transcends merely the beautiful.
Like Burke, Gilpin comments upon the visceral, purely emotional reaction to the sublime that supercedes reason and logic. By example, Gilpin says, "Nothing can be more sublime, than the ocean" (ibid). The ocean is so sublime that it "has little of the picturesque," or that which can be painted. This can be interpreted in three ways: (1) the ocean is so sublime in its natural grandeur that it pauses the intellect and melts the soul; (2) the ocean is so sublime, so vast in size and scope, that it is "perhaps of an incorrect composition" and, therefore, unable to be contained on the space of a canvas; (3) the ocean is so sublime and in such a state of flux with its circulating waves and undulating currents that it cannot be captured with any discernable "neatness" on the canvas.
Whereas Burke spoke of the sublime's powerful and painful incomprehensibility on a psycho-biological level, Gilpin speaks more of the sublime's impenetrability from an artistic level, that is, from an artist's inability to translate its power to the canvas. Obviously, Gilpin prefers to paint the picturesque, the rough and rugged, the asymmetrical, the flawed. Granted, Gilpin's artistic object, architecture, is not the small or feminine objects of which Burke spoke of the beautiful, but the parallel between Gilpin's picturesque and Burke's beautiful seems nonetheless noteworthy. In brief, what is pleasing to the eye is something which the eye is used to seeing, the familiar, but cast in a slightly different way (Burke) or in a irregular form (Gilpin). But what is pleasing to the soul, or the visceral, according to both Burke and Gilpin, is the unfamiliar, the unnatural, the incomprehensible--the sublime.
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