Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
On the Sublime is one of a number of classical literary treatises that pose the often-considered problem of nature versus art, of the relative contributions of natural genius or inspiration and of acquired skill to great writing. The author of On the Sublime, who almost certainly was not Longinus, but instead was an anonymous Greek rhetorician of the first century, argues throughout the work that it is a writer’s genius that lifts the reader out of himself (or herself), above the limitations of reason. The author also points out that it takes great skill, training, and self-discipline to know when to give free rein to one’s genius and when to hold it in check.
This treatise is an interesting combination of philosophical speculation about the elevating, moving powers of poetry and oratory and of practical suggestions about the grammatical constructions and figures of speech that contribute to the effectiveness of great or sublime writing. The author, an enthusiastic critic of his literary predecessors, often quotes Homer, Demosthenes, the great Greek dramatists, and even the book of Genesis to illustrate the powers of literature, and he points out faults with examples from the works of less skilled writers and from inferior passages in the works of the masters.
The author begins On the Sublime with a definition of the sublime in literature as a “loftiness and excellence in language” that uplifts the reader and...
(The entire section is 1399 words.)
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