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Wordsworth uses the term “sublime” at times in his poetry when describing a certain kind of mental experience. Even when he doesn’t use the specific term, some experiences he has can be characterized as “sublime,” or at least related to the idea of sublimity in some way. Of course, the philosophers Burke and Kant also write about what is involved in the experience of the “sublime.” What relation, if any, does the sublime in Wordsworth have to Burke’s and/or Kant’s formulations of the sublime?

The sublime in Wordsworth is a development of the Burkean and Kantian ideas of it. The primary difference is that where Burke and Kante believed the sublime was a state of terror caused by something too difficult for the mind to grasp, although it could recognize it as sublime, Wordsworth felt that the sublime could lead to enlightenment.

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The idea of the sublime was an important one in eighteenth and early-nineteenth century thought. Wordsworth is the Romantic poet most closely associated with the sublime, and certainly his idea of what it means is derived from the Burkean and Kantian views, which predate his by some years. However, there are some key distinctions.

Burke believed that the sublime was anything which excited "terror" deriving from the fact that the thing was so great, powerful or unknown. He also suggested that there could be pleasure in this kind of terror. He did not associate the sublime with nature and the natural world as closely as Kant and Wordsworth later did.

Kant, meanwhile, argues that the sublime can come from something which is terrifying, but which does not actually evoke terror in the observer because it has gone beyond terror. He draws a connection between the sublime and rationality: something sublime is something that is beyond beautiful and is understood by the observer to be sublime. He also aligns the sublime more closely with the natural world than Burke did.

Wordsworth, then, builds further upon Kant to identify the sublime as "something towards which [the mind] can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining." In his poem "Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey," he further describes the sublime as a mood "in which the heavy and weary weight / Of this unintelligible world / Is lightened." The sublime is something which is so powerful that it is able to elevate us outside of the human realm.

Wordsworth strongly connects the idea of the sublime to the beauty of nature, and the capacity of man to store up, as it were, the feelings aroused in one by nature to enjoy later on. These feelings can be transmuted into poetry. As he says in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

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