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and shews how difficult it frequently is, to descend with grace, without seeming to fall.
The high importance of the rule which I have been now giving concerning the proper choice of circumstances, when description is meant to be Sublime, seems to me not to have been sufficiently attended to. It has, however, such a foundation in nature as renders the least deflexion from it fatal. When a writer is aiming at the Beautiful only, his descriptions may have improprieties in them, and yet be beautiful still. Some trivial, or misjudged circumstances can be overlooked by the reader; they make only the difference of more or less ; the gay, or pleasing emotion, which he has raised subsists still. But the case is quite different with the Sublime. There, one trifling circumstance, one mean idea, is sufficient to destroy the whole charm. This is owing to the nature of the emotion aimed at by Sublime description, which admits of no mediocrity, and cannot subsist in a middle state; but must either highly transport us, or, if unsuccessful in the execution, leave us greatly disgusted, and displeased. We attempt to rise along with the writer ; the imagination is awakened, and put upon the stretch; but it requires to be supported; and if, in the midst of its efforts, you desert it unexpectedly, down it comes, with a painful shock. When Milton, in his battle of the angels, describes them as tearing up the moun- . tains, and throwing them at one another; there are, in his description, as Mr. Addison has observed, no circumstances, but what are properly Sublime :
From their foundations loos’ning to and fro,
Whereas Claudian, in a fragment upon the wars of the giants, has contrived to render this idea of their throwing the mountains, which is in itself so grand, burlesque and ridiculous; by this single circumstance, of one of his giants with the mountain Ida upon his shoulders, and a river, which flowed from the mountain running down along the giant's back, as he held it up in that posture. There is a description too in Virgil, which, I think, is censurable, though more slightly, in this respect. It is that of the burning mountain Ætna; a subject certainly very proper to be worked up by a poet into a Sublime description :
Horrificis juxta tonat Ætna ruinis.
Æn. III. 571. Here, after several magnificent images, the Poet concludes with personifying the mountain under this figure, “ eructans viscera cum gemitu,” belching up
* The port capacious, and secure from wind,
Is to the foot of thund'ring Ætna join'd;
Fed from the fiery springs that boil below. DRYDEN.
its bowels with a groan; which, by likening the mountain to a sick, or drunk person, degrades the majesty of the description. It is to no purpose to tell us, that the poet here alludes to the fable of the giant Enceladus lying under Mount Ætna ; and that he supposes his motions and tossings to have occasioned the fiery eruptions. He intended the description of a Sublime object ; and the natural ideas raised by a burning mountain are infinitely more lofty than the belchings of any giant, how huge soever. The debasing effect of the idea which is here presented, will
appear in a stronger light, by seeing what figure it makes in a poem of Sir Richard Blackmore's, who, through a monstrous perversity of taste, had chosen this for the capital circumstance in his description, and thereby (as Dr. Arbuthnot humorously observes, in his Treatise on the Art of Sinking) had represented the mountain as in a fit of the cholic.
Ætna, and all the burning mountains, find
And with their melted bowels spread the ground.
If it shall now be enquired what are the proper sources of the Sublime ? My answer is, That they are to be looked for every where in nature. It is not by hunting after tropes and figures, and rhetorical
assistances, that we can expect to produce it. No: It stands clear for the most part of these laboured refinements of art. It must come unsought, if it comes at all; and be the natural offspring of a strong imagination.
Est Deus in nobis ; agitante calescimus illo. Wherever a great and awful object is presented in nature, or a very magnanimous and exalted affection of the human mind is displayed; thence, if you can catch the impression strongly, and exhibit it warm and glowing, you may draw the Sublime. These are its only proper sources. In judging of any striking beauty in composition, whether it is, or is not to be referred to this class, we must attend to the nature of the emotion which it raises; and only, if it be of that elevating, solemn, and awful kind, which distinguishes this feeling, we can pronounce it sublime.
From the account which I have given of the nature of the Sublime, it clearly follows, that it is an emotion which can never be long protracted. The mind, by no force of genius, can be kept, for any considerable time, so far raised above its common tone; but will, of course, relax into its ordinary situation. Neither are the abilities of any human writer sufficient to furnish a long continuation of uninterrupted Sublime ideas. The utmost we can expect is, that this fire of imagination should sometimes flash upon us like lightning from heaven, and then disappear. In Homer and Milton, this effulgence of genius breaks forth more frequently, and with greater lustre than in most authors. Shakespeare also rises often into the true Sublime. But no author whatever is Sublime throughout. Some, indeed, there are, who, by a strength, and dignity in their conceptions, and a current of high ideas that runs through their whole composition, preserve the reader's mind always in a tone nearly allied to the Sublime ; for which reason they may, in a limited sense, merit the name of continued Sublime writers; and in this class we may justly place Demosthenes and Plato.
As for what is called the Sublime style, it is, for the most part, a very bad one; and has no relation whatever to the real Sublime. Persons are apt to imagine, that magnificent words, accumulated epithets, and a certain swelling kind of expression, by rising above what is usual or vulgar, contributes to, or even forms, the Sublime. Nothing can be more false. In all the instances of Sublime Writing, which I have given, nothing of this kind appears. “ God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” This is striking and Sublime. But put it into what is commonly called the Sublime style: “ The Sovereign “ Arbiter of nature, by the potent energy of a single “ word, commanded the light to exist;" and, as Boileau has well observed, the style indeed is raised, but the thought is fallen. In general, in all good writing, the Sublime lies in the thought, not in the words; and when the thought is truly noble, it will, for the most part, clothe itself in a native dignity of language. The Sublime, indeed, rejects mean, low, or trivial expressions; but it is equally an enemy to such as are turgid. The main secret of being Sublime, is to say great things in few and plain 'words. It will be found to hold, without exception, that the most sublime authors are the simplest in their style; and wherever you find a writer, who affects a more than ordinary pomp and parade of words, and is