Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


No biographical information is known about the author of “On the Sublime,” an essay published around the year 100 CE. It is not the work of Cassius Longinus, a rhetorician of the third century. Early versions state the author as “Dionysius or Longinus,” offering the possibility that the work was written by Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

The conclusion of the essay has long been lost, leaving readers with this extended fragment. Written as an epistolary piece to “dear Terentianus,” “On the Sublime” examines the work of more than 50 ancient writers under the lens of the sublime, which Longinus defines as man’s ability, through feeling and words, to reach beyond the realm of the human condition into greater mystery.

By its nature the sublime, “produced by greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery,” cannot be contained in words, and Longinus often refers to its heights as reached by journey, or flight: “For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.” Longinus focuses on figurative language as a vehicle for such flight, and argues that it is not just the writer who is transported by sublimity, but the reader as well.

“On the Sublime” directly influenced poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, and the idea of the sublime played a central role in the work of the Romantic movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This text is adapted from Longinus on the Sublime, translated by W. Rhys Roberts (London: Cambridge University Press, 1899).


First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it. Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art. But I maintain that this will be found to be otherwise if it be observed that, while nature as a rule is free and independent in matters of passion and elevation, yet is she wont not to act at random and utterly without system. Further, nature is the original and vital underlying principle in all cases, but system can define limits and fitting seasons, and can also contribute the safest rules for use and practice. Moreover, the expression of the sublime is more exposed to danger when it goes its own way without the guidance of knowledge,—when it is suffered to be unstable and unballasted,—when it is left at the mercy of mere momentum and ignorant audacity. It is true that it often needs the spur, but it is also true that it often needs the curb. Demosthenes expresses the view, with regard to human life in general, that good fortune is the greatest of blessings, while good counsel, which occupies the second place, is hardly inferior in importance, since its absence contributes inevitably to the ruin of the former (“Against Aristocrates”). This we may apply to diction, nature occupying the position of good fortune, art that of good counsel. Most important of all, we must remember that the very fact that there are some elements of expression which are in the hands of nature alone, can be learnt from no other source than art. If, I say, the critic of those who desire to learn were to turn these matters over in his mind, he would no longer, it seems to me, regard the discussion of the subject as superfluous or useless. . . .


Quell they the oven’s far-flung splendor-glow!
Ha, let me but one hearth-abider mark—
One flame-wreath torrent-like I’ll whirl on high;
I’ll burn the roof, to cinders shrivel it!—
Nay, now my chant is not of noble strain.
               (Aeschylus, tr. A. S. Way)

Such things are not tragic but pseudo-tragic—“flame-wreaths,” and “belching to the sky,” and Boreas represented as a “flute-player,” and all the rest of it. They are turbid in expression and confused in imagery rather than the product of intensity, and each one of them, if examined in the light of day, sinks little by little from the terrible into the contemptible. But since even in tragedy, which is in its very nature stately and prone to bombast, tasteless tumidity is unpardonable, still less, I presume, will it harmonize with the narration of fact. And this is the ground on which the phrases of Gorgias of Leontini are ridiculed when he describes Xerxes as the “Zeus of the Persians” and vultures as “living tombs.” So is it with some of the expressions of Callisthenes which are not sublime but high-flown, and still more with those of Cleitarchus, for the man is frivolous and blows, as Sophocles has it,

On pigmy hautboys: mouthpiece have they none.
               (Sophocles, tr. A. S. Way)

Other examples will be found in Amphicrates and Hegesias and Matris, for often when these writers seem to themselves to be inspired they are in no true frenzy but are simply trifling. Altogether, tumidity seems particularly hard to avoid. The explanation is that all who aim at elevation are so anxious to escape the reproach of being weak and dry that they are carried, as by some strange law of nature, into the opposite extreme. They put their trust in the maxim that “failure in a great attempt is at least a noble error.” But evil are the swellings, both in the body and in diction, which are inflated and unreal, and threaten us with the reverse of our aim; for nothing, say they, is drier than a man who has the dropsy. While tumidity desires to transcend the limits of the sublime, the defect which is termed puerility is the direct antithesis of elevation, for it is utterly low and mean and in real truth the most ignoble vice of style. What, then, is this puerility? Clearly, a pedant’s thoughts, which begin in learned trifling and end in frigidity. Men slip into this kind of error because, while they aim at the uncommon and elaborate and most of all at the attractive, they drift unawares into the tawdry and affected. A third, and closely allied, kind of defect in matters of passion is that which Theodorus used to call parenthyrsus. By this is meant unseasonable and empty passion, where no passion is required, or immoderate, where moderation is needed. For men are often carried away, as if by intoxication, into displays of emotion which are not caused by the nature of the subject, but are purely personal and wearisome. In consequence they seem to hearers who are in no wise affected to act in an ungainly way. And no wonder; for they are beside themselves, while their hearers are not. But the question of the passions we reserve for separate treatment.


Of the second fault of which we have spoken—frigidity—Timaeus supplies many examples. Timaeus was a writer of considerable general ability, who occasionally showed that he was not incapable of elevation of style. He was learned and ingenious, but very prone to criticize the faults of others while blind to his own. Through his passion for continually starting novel notions, he often fell into the merest childishness. I will set down one or two examples only of his manner, since the greater number have been already appropriated by Caecilius. In the course of a eulogy on Alexander the Great, he describes him as “the man who gained possession of the whole of Asia in fewer years than it took Isocrates to write his Panegyric urging war against the Persians.” Strange indeed is the comparison of the man of Macedon with the rhetorician. How plain it is, Timaeus, that the Lacedaemonians, thus judged, were far inferior to Isocrates in prowess, for they spent thirty years in the conquest of Messene, whereas he composed his Panegyric in ten. Consider again the way in which he speaks of the Athenians who were captured in Sicily. “They were punished because they had acted impiously towards Hermes and mutilated his images, and the infliction of punishment was chiefly due to Hermocrates the son of Hermon, who was descended, in the paternal line, from the outraged god.” I am surprised, beloved Terentianus, that he does not write with regard to the despot Dionysius that “Dion and Heracleides deprived him of his sovereignty because he had acted impiously towards Zeus and Heracles.” But why speak of Timaeus when even those heroes of literature, Xenophon and Plato, though trained in the school of Socrates, nevertheless sometimes forget themselves for the sake of such paltry pleasantries? Xenophon writes in the Policy of the Lacedaemonians: “You would find it harder to hear their voice than that of busts of marble, harder to deflect their gaze than that of statues of bronze; you would deem them more modest than the very maidens in their eyes” (De Rep. Laced. III. 5).

It was worthy of an Amphicrates and not of a Xenophon to call the pupils of our eyes “modest maidens.” Good heavens, how strange it is that the pupils of the whole company should be believed to be modest notwithstanding the common saying that the shamelessness of individuals is indicated by nothing so much as the eyes! “Thou sot? that hast the eyes of a dog,” as Homer has it (Iliad 1.225. Way’s translation). Timaeus, however, has not left even this piece of frigidity to Xenophon, but clutches it as though it were hid treasure. At all events, after saying of Agathocles that he abducted his cousin, who had been given in marriage to another man, from the midst of the nuptial rites, he asks, “Who could have done this had he not had wantons, in place of maidens, in his eyes?” Yes, and Plato (usually so divine) when he means simply tablets says, “They shall write and preserve cypress memorials in the temples” (Laws 5.741c).

And again, “As touching walls, Megillus, I should hold with Sparta that they be suffered to lie asleep in the earth and not summoned to arise” (Laws 778d). The expression of Herodotus to the effect that beautiful women are “eye-smarts” is not much better (Histories 5.18). This, however, may be condoned in some degree since those who use this particular phrase in his narrative are barbarians and in their cups, but not even in the mouths of such characters is it well that an author should suffer, in the judgment of posterity, from an unseemly exhibition of triviality.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

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In the estimation of many literary critics and critical historians who have surveyed the rich offerings of classical literary criticism and theory, the treatise On the Sublime, written probably in the first century A.D., often ranks second in importance only to Aristotle’s Poetics (circa 335 B.C.). Aristotle’s analytic work succinctly maps the terrain of literary genre, character, structure, and rhetoric; but the highly compact . . .

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