22 Pages


Placing the Sublime
WithMarkus Poetzsch

For literary critics and historians alike, the central place of the sublime in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, culture and aesthetics can neither be disputed nor overstated. Samuel Monk, for example, in a landmark treatise focused ostensibly on writers of the Enlightenment but almost from the outset disavowing the constraints of historical periodization, declares that “a study of the sublime in England comes very near being a study of English thought and arts” (3). More recent scholarship has tended to underwrite Monk’s unbridled and indeed subsumptive enthusiasm for all things sublime. Jean-Luc Nancy, commenting on the enduring fashionableness of the sublime, offers the following retrospective prognostication about the genesis and impact of sublime analytics: “Beginning with Kant, the sublime will constitute the most proper, decisive moment in the thought of art. The sublime will comprise the heart of the thought of the arts” (50). Quibbling not so much with Nancy’s sentiment as with his chronology (and surely his geography), Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla remind their readers of the many pre-Kantian disquisitions on sublimity. Their elevation of the eighteenth-century tradition of the sublime to “the principal event” (1) in the history of aesthetics acknowledges the seminal contributions of such British writers as John Dennis, Joseph Addison, John Baillie and, above all, Edmund Burke. An obvious consequence of privileging a specific historical period as central to the tradition is the concomitant promotion of a select number of writers and works, thereby intensifying the debate over primacy. For what happens to Boileau, the niggling critic may ask, or more specifically, to Longinus, if Kant’s work or Burke’s is to be designated the benchmark of sublime analytics? Can one speak of a tradition of the sublime in England, or indeed else-where, without attending to Boileau’s foundational translation of Longinus in 1674, through which the word ‘sublime’ first found its way into critical discourse? Well, as Angela Leighton points out, indeed, one can. Her turn 2away from the rhetorical emphasis of Peri Hupsous to the naturally inspired theories of the Cambridge Platonists and to Thomas Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth, which, she suggests, “foreshadows many later descriptions of the workings of the sublime,” specifically those of Wordsworth and Coleridge (Leighton 10), 1 marks yet another detour and reversal in the history of the sublime. My point in tracing the debate to this disputed juncture is simply to emphasize how distracting and ultimately unavailing ascriptions of chronology or disputes about textual primacy can be when the subject of study is as multi-faceted and polysemic as the sublime. In this much, then, we may concur with Samuel Monk, not in his blinkered claim that nearly all of English thought tends to the sublime, but rather in his recognition that sublimity—whether as sign or as signified—cannot be reliably pinched between a historian’s fingers. The fact that the present study is centered on a specific regional literature and historical period—English Romanticism—is therefore not a reflection of a belief in the uniqueness of the sublime to that period, or still less, of an attempt to elevate Romantic sublimity to a position of theoretical preeminence in the history of aesthetics; what the focus on the Romantic period reflects, rather, is an acknowledgment of the variations and redirections that sublime experiences and expressions underwent in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century literature and life, and the consequent insufficiency of a single overarching analytical framework for an aesthetic of sublimity.