Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1399
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.
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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 makes him or her react as the writer desires. Sublimity may arise from a few words that cast light on a whole subject, or it may be the result of the expansion and development of an idea; the treatise suggests that the former method is generally the more powerful.
The great danger for the writer who seeks to create a sublime passage is the possibility of lapsing into bombast, that what is intended to be majestic will be simply an empty show. Other potential traps are affectation in expression and empty emotionalism, the display of passion that is not sufficiently motivated. The search for novelty, which on occasion can create a striking effect, may also result in inappropriate imagery and diction. The elements of the truly sublime in literature are often hard to distinguish; they are known chiefly by their effect—the reader’s sense of exaltation. Too, a great passage will grow in meaning and significance with each rereading.
Five sources of the sublime are outlined. Two of these are results of the natural capacities of the author: grandeur of thought and the vivid portrayal of the passions. The other three are basically rhetorical skills: the appropriate use of figures of speech, suitable diction and metaphors, and the majestic composition or structure of the whole work. An important source is the first, which rests upon the sweep of the author’s mind. Although a great intellect is likely innate, it may be enlarged by association with great ideas. Reading the finest works of the past and pondering them is always valuable, although even the greatest minds can sometimes fall below their customary level. The author suggests that Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.) is on a lower plane of intensity throughout than his Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). It is the work of an aging man who dreams, but “he dreams as Zeus might dream.”
One of the tormented love lyrics of Sappho, the Greek poet, is analyzed to illustrate the power of emotion to create an impression of sublimity. The tumultuous succession of feelings, burning, shivering, and fainting are described so vividly and follow one another so closely that the reader participates in the emotional crises of the poet. This technique can, however, in the hands of a lesser skilled writer than Sappho, seem contrived, even ridiculous.
The author digresses from this discussion to elaborate on his earlier consideration of the relative merits of succinctness and diffuseness in the creation of sublime literature. He suggests that quickly moving, powerful language can overcome readers or listeners, convincing them in spite of their reason, whereas the more diffuse style tends to hammer an argument in through repetition, if not through logical argument. There are appropriate occasions for the use of each technique; some writers, like Demosthenes, excel in the vehement passionate outburst, while others, including Plato and Cicero, uplift their readers with a majestic flow of language.
The mention of these great masters suggests the next major point: The aspiring writer can learn much by imitating the outstanding writers of the past, by attempting to decide how Plato, Homer, or Thucydides would have expressed the idea with which the writer now is struggling. The helpfulness of such study can be far more than stylistic, because great writing always has the power to inspire, to expand the understanding of the would-be writer.
Moving on to his third source of sublimity, the use of imagery in poetry and oratory, the author notes that the purpose of all figures of speech is to enlighten, convince, enrapture, and overcome all doubt by their emotional power. Many kinds of images can create these effects. Close examination of passages from Demosthenes and others shows how the skillful choice of verbs, the use of an oath at the proper moment, the omission of conjunctions, or rhetorical questions can make the hearer assent, almost unconsciously, to the orator’s premises. Again, natural genius must play an important part, for if the figures of speech are not fused into an impressive whole, they will only be an annoyance, convincing the listener that the speaker is trying to dupe her or him.
The writer has many ways of influencing the emotional reactions of readers, and the student of composition would do well to read in full the discussion of the ways in which sentence structure can be varied, or singular and plural interchanged to produce different effects. So simple a device as shifting from the past to the present tense or from the third person to the first can bring a narrative to life.
Appropriate diction is immeasurably important in the creation of great literature. The author notes that the suitable words are not always the most beautiful or elevated ones, and he illustrates the power of commonplace expressions. A writer must depend on taste to avoid vulgarity or bombast.
In another important digression, the author considers the relative value of the writer whose work is almost always flawless, polished, and in perfect taste, but never rises to great heights, versus the one whose work has both moments of sublimity and occasional lapses in taste. It is almost impossible for these two virtues to be combined, because the mind that is dwelling on the heights may sometimes overlook details, while the one that is attentive to correctness is never free enough of trivial concerns to achieve greatness. On the Sublime’s author gives unqualified approval to the flawed genius, on the grounds that humans are blessed with a wide-ranging intellect that can project them beyond the bounds of individual existence. It is both a duty and a privilege to keep one’s eyes focused on heavenly lights, rather than on the tiny flames lit by humans.
Turning to the fifth source of sublimity, the author comments on the power of harmony in writing, as in music, to move people. It is the fusion of thought, diction, and imagery into one harmonious whole that builds up the reader’s impression of power. The rhythm of cadence of the language, too, may enhance the almost hypnotic effect of sublime writing.
The final section of On the Sublime deals with the lack of great writing and oratory in the age in which the treatise was written. The author argues that the benevolent despotism of the age has curtailed humans’ creative spirit, but he contends that it is rather people’s greed and their search for pleasure that enervate them. When humans are bound to Earth by the quest for wealth, they no longer reach out to achieve that magnitude of mind and spirit that is essential for the great writer. Human apathy and indifference to all but its own immediate interests prevent people from achieving the greatness of their predecessors. On this discouraged and discouragingly modern note, the treatise ends, as its author states his intention to begin another work, enlarging on what he has said here about the place of the passions in great writing.