*On the Sublime, by “Longinus”
On the Sublime
by “Longinus,” written probably c. 1st century CE
On the Sublime—to accept the usual English translation of υψoσ (hypsos)—must be taken on its own terms, as we know nothing for certain of its author, not even his (assuming a male) name. The earliest manuscript, which dates from 10thcentury Paris, ascribes the work to “Dionysius or Longinus,” but internal evidence suggests that it was written in the 1st century CE, and there is no early evidence about the authorship.
However, it became one of the most respected and discussed pieces of classical literary criticism, and, with its translation into English in the mid-17th century, helped to give at least temporary currency to a critical concept that eventually paved the way for Romanticism.
Its argument is presented in the lively form of a letter to a friend, Terentianus, on its topic, apparently in answer to an account recently published, and now lost, by one Cecilius. Longinus—to use the conventional if unsubstantiated name—sets out to correct this account, and does so in a cogent manner, with plenty of illustrations from his favorite authors, particularly Homer. The tone is relaxed, as that of a well-informed mind
communicating with an equal. Longinus begins by asserting his central assumption, taken to be shared by Terentianus, that “sublimity consists in a certain excellence and distinction in expression, and that it is from this source alone that the greatest poets and historians have acquired their preeminence and won for themselves an eternity of fame.” The emphasis is on the power of this “elevated language” to “entrance” rather than persuade its hearers, for Longinus has in mind an audience rather than a readership, and an audience for both poetry and oratory—his examples are taken from both areas with equal authority. This idea of the “entrancement” (or, in other translations, “transporting”) of the listeners is central to the whole argument, for it is asserted to be the power that raises the sublime beyond the qualities to be found in ordinary oratory or poetry. Longinus confronts the question that this might be expected to give rise to—is there an art of the sublime, and can one develop it in oneself?—and answers affirmatively: though nature provides the basic energies that carry the sublime, its exponent needs to know how to avoid errors which spoil the effect, such as frigidity, bombast, puerility, and emotionalism.
From this starting point, Longinus goes on to discuss his topic under five headings, giving a clear sense of a developing argument. The first two qualities are said to be largely innate: “the ability to form grand conceptions” is derived from “nobility of soul”; and “the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion” comes only to those who train themselves to receive it, partly by “imitation and emulation of the great historians and poets of the past,” particularly Homer and Plato. The other qualities discussed are more technical. The third is “the proper formation of…figures of thought and figures of speech,” which are considered through a range of technical terms—adjuration, asyndeton, inversion, polyptoton, periphrasis—in a way that makes them all clear to the reader. The fourth source is “the creation of a noble diction,” considered in terms of language and imagery, although the section includes an interesting digression on the idea that genius is never flawless, while mediocrity may be. The final section concerns “the arrangement of the words in the due order,” and is particularly emphatic on the power of rhythm to “entrance” its hearers.
On the Sublime ends with a lively coda, in which Longinus speculates—rather in the spirit of our own postmodernist day—on why, with so many competent men in public life, there are so few “sublime and transcendent natures,” so that contemporary literature exhibits “a great and world-wide dearth.” One argument is that this is because of the destruction of Roman democracy in the replacement of the Republic by the Empire.
Longinus’ view is rather that it is because of the domination of society by the love of money (“a disease that makes us petty-minded”) and the love of pleasure (“an utterly ignoble attribute”). This contributes to the overall liveliness of the piece, which reads less like academic literary criticism and more like the reflections of a highly intelligent and well-informed general reader (or listener).
The work breaks off with a promise to examine in more detail the importance of the emotions in literature, and especially the sublime. Although that discussion does not survive, there is enough in what does to have inspired much subsequent discussion, particularly in late 18th-century England, with Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into…the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) as the best-known response. Critics seeking to find an explanation and justification of the power, as well as the sanity, of art found the term “sublime” helpful in their quest. There is a resurgence of interest in the idea today, expressed in books like Peter De Bolla’s The Discourse of the Sublime (1989), as criticism strives to answer the same questions about power in writing, now in a context in which the idea of the unconscious plays a significant part.
On the Sublime is usually described as a piece of literary criticism, or even (in the Oxford Companion to English Literature) as a treatise. The latter term is misleading, and literary criticism can be conducted in a variety of modes, including the poem, as Horace (e.g. Poetic Art) and Pope (e.g. Essay on Criticism, Essay on Man) show. While it may be appropriate to consider Aristotle’s Poetics a treatise, the informal tone and the personal address of On the Sublime reveal it to be a precursor of the essay, however much its central sections aspire to the rigors of categorization. The last section, with its sudden shift into consideration of contemporary cultural debates, as they would now be termed, is evidence that we are in the presence of a writer untrammeled by external considerations, with the essayist’s taste for the immediate and the personal.
See also Classical Influences
On the Sublime, edited by A.O.Prickard, 1906, revised edition, 1946, and D.A.Russell, 1964; translated by J.Hall, 1652; many subsequent translations, including by A.O.Prickard, 1906, W. H.Fyfe (Loeb Edition), in Demetrius on Style, 19×7, G.M.A.
Gruber, 1957, D.A.Russell, 1965, and T.S.Dorsch, 1965
Brody, Jules, Boileau and Longinus, Geneva: Droz, 1958
Coleman, Dorothy, “Montaigne and Longinus,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 47, no. 2 (1985): 405–13
Costa, Gustavo, “Longinus’s Treatise on the Sublime in the Age of Arcadia,” Nouvelles de la République des Lettres 1 (1981): 65–86
De Bolla, Peter, The Discourse of the Sublime: Readings in History, Aesthetics and the Subject, Oxford: Blackwell, 1989
Guerlac, Suzanne, “Longinus and the Subject of the Sublime,” New Literary History 16, no. 2 (Winter 1985): 275–97
Hamashita, Masahiro, “Genealogy of the Aesthetics of the Sublime: To Addison and Shaftesbury,” Kobe College Studies 38, no. 3 (March 1992): 102–27
Henn, Thomas R., Longinus and English Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934
Logan, J.-L., “Montaigne et Longin: Une Nouvelle Hypothèse,” Revue d’Histoire Littéraire de la France 83, no. 3 (1983): 355–70
Macksey, Richard, “Longinus Reconsidered,” MLN 108, no. 5 (December 1993): 913–34
Monk, Samuel Holt, The Sublitne: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1960 (original edition, 1935)
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