The Idea of Sublime: Critical Analysis

“You will remember, my dear Postumius Terentianus, that when we examined together the treatise of Caecilius on the Sublime, we found that it fell below the dignity of the whole subject, while it failed signally to grasp the essential points, and conveyed to its readers but little of that practical help which it should be a writer’s principal aim to give. In every systematic treatise two things are required.” Longinus: quoted in Roberts: retrieved in The above lines have been abstracted from the idea of sublime described by Longinus. First elaborated by Longinus, the concept of sublime maintains imperative place in philosophy and literature.

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Edmund Burke’s famous volume under the title “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (1756) consists of discussion on the topic aestheticism. The volume also discusses the idea of sublime as an independent notion quite separate from the idea of beautiful. The concept of sublime has been derived from ancient Greek mythology, where it meant intense and vast feelings and emotions, which are likely to create or instigate awe and fear. Great philosophers and scholars have discussed the notion sublime in their works and essays. Aristotle has also defined it in his wonderful Poetics while elaborating the kinds of poetry. There are, Aristotle submits, many kinds of literature including drama, poetry, novel, fiction, short story and others. Poetry is one of the most beautiful and sublime forms of literature; it is therefore the genre is often called the dance of words. It is really hard to make distinction between it and prose, yet the main difference between the two is this that poetry contains verses in it. According to him, there are two main varieties of poetry: 1. The Fine, and 2. The Mean. He has placed epic and tragic literature in the fine variety, and the satire and comedy in the mean variety. Thus the great philosopher considers Tragedy and Epic as the sublime and refined form of expressing one’s views and ideas. It also shows that Tragedy has been declared a sophisticated and sublime piece of art.

Aristotelian school of thought differentiates the term sublime into four causes. They view sublime as synonymous with greatness. This greatness can be physical as well as moral, and intellectual as well metaphysical. The passion of love, Burke opines, is the formal cause of beauty. On the other hand, material cause signifies substances like softness, fragility and neatness. Similarly, the efficiency cause denotes soothing of nerves, whereas the final cause, according to Burke, is the providence of God, to combat satanic forces. (Quoted in Wikipedia Encyclopaedia com). Burke has also categorised sublime into three parts i.e. terrifying, noble and splendid.

In other words, the main difference between beautiful and sublime is that the later is far more than the former in intensity, grandeur, enormity and severity. Hence, an element that produces refined delight in bulk is sublime. Critics to define literary works often use the term sublime. A refined piece of literature that establishes trends in writing by inspiring thousands of minds and generation after generation, leaving long lasting effects, has ability to destroy the past traditions and determine new ones for the future years to come is sublime. For instance, Homer’s Iliad, Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, Spencer’s Fairie Queen, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Pope’s Rape of the Lock are greatest of works and contain magnitude and greatness; thus these lie in the category of sublime. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey also contain exceptional qualities and can be declared as sublime.

Famous German philosopher and thinker Immanuel Kant also used the term in his works especially in his Third Critique i.e. the Concept of Judgement 1791). Kant compares two opposite concepts i.e. coarseness and beauty. The things satisfying appetite are coarse, while the articles giving enjoyment are beautiful. In the same way, there exist some articles that grant enjoyment but along with terror—that is sublime! The aesthetic judgement refers not merely, as a judgement of taste, to the beautiful, but also, as springing from a higher intellectual feeling, to the sublime. (Kant, 1791) In the Critique of Judgement Kant contrasts the sublime and the beautiful. What it is that is beautiful for us in the beautiful Kant calls Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck, ‘purposiveness without purpose’. (Retrieved in

Burke, impressed by Kant, focuses on the notion related to artistic exquisiteness and fascination. In his definition, he has illustrated distinction between the two in his book. He states “beautiful” as something well formed and aesthetically pleasing. “Sublime”, according to him, is an article that contains power to destroy. The ‘power to destroy’ indicates vastness and severity “The origins of our ideas of the beautiful and sublime”, Burke view, “can be understood by means of their causal structures.” Causal structures mean that a cause leads towards the happening of an incident or event and thus concept of both beautiful and sublime emerge constructing a structure of a literary work.

Austen’s work not only lasts significant impression on the readers, but also fulfils the criteria determined and described by the scholars and philosophers. Her imagination is so dynamic and elevated that she wrote many wonderful works of art narrating both rural and urban life. Her magnificent description of city life of London astonishes the readers how a country girl imagined and estimated the urban life so skilfully and with extreme dexterity. Her novels including Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey—all depict her concentration at a life-style that divulge sophisticated manners, love for literature, taste for riding and dance, respect of elders, strong family bonds, care for others and much more.

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The following lines are the sublime one and describe how the sorrowful situation of the heroine Catherine Morland turned into pleasant and delight mood after her girl friend Isabella and her own brother James had gone away after leaving her on the disposal of old Mr. And Mrs. Allen to the dancing hall. She was in the state of utter disappointment and dejection when all of a sudden she found Mr. Tilney, the hero sitting at a distance. She was rejoiced at the scene and all her dejection and despair disappeared at once.

“From this state of humiliation, she was roused, at the end of ten minutes, to a pleasanter feeling, by seeing, not Mr. Thorpe, but Mr. Tilney, within three yards of the place where they sat; he seemed to be moving that way, but be did not see her, and therefore the smile and the blush, which his sudden reappearance raised in Catherine, passed away without sullying her heroic importance. He looked as handsome and as lively as ever, and was talking with interest to a fashionable and pleasing-looking young woman, who leant on his arm, and whom Catherine immediately guessed to be his sister; thus unthinkingly throwing away a fair opportunity of considering him lost to her forever, by being married already. But guided only by what was simple and probable, it had never entered her head that Mr. Tinley could be married; he had not behaved, he had not talked, like the married men to whom she had been used; he had never mentioned a wife, and he had acknowledged a sister.” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1803: Quoted in Chapter 8:1).


David Daiches. Critical Approaches to Literature. Ninth Edition. Longman Group UK Limited Harlow England. 1991

Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful 1757

Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgement

Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey Electronic Text Centre, University of Virginia Library.

Richard Gilmore. Philosophical Beauty: The Sublime in the Beautiful in Kant’s Third Critique and Aristotle’s Poetics. Web.

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Longinus. The Idea of Sublime. Web.

Shawn Rider. Wordsworth and Coleridge: Emotion, Imagination and Complexity. Web.

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