Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


Now the first of the conditions mentioned, namely elevation of mind, holds the foremost rank among them all. We must, therefore, in this case also, although we have to do rather with an endowment than with an acquirement, nurture our souls (as far as that is possible) to thoughts sublime, and make them always pregnant, so to say, with noble inspiration. In what way, you may ask, is this to be done? Elsewhere I have written as follows: “Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.” Hence also a bare idea, by itself and without a spoken word, sometimes excites admiration just because of the greatness of soul implied. Thus the silence of Ajax in the Underworld is great and more sublime than words (Odyssey 11. 543 ff.). First, then, it is absolutely necessary to indicate the source of this elevation, namely, that the truly eloquent must be free from low and ignoble thoughts. For it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality. Great accents we expect to fall from the lips of those whose thoughts are deep and grave. Thus it is that stately speech comes naturally to the proudest spirits. [You will remember the answer of] Alexander to Parmenio when he said “For my part I had been well content” [quotation from Arrian—Roberts’s note] . . .

. . . the distance [ellipses here indicate gap in text—ed.] from earth to heaven; and this might well be considered the measure of Homer no less than of Strife. How unlike to this the expression which is used of Sorrow by Hesiod, if indeed the Shield is to be attributed to Hesiod:

Rheum from her nostrils was trickling.
               (“Shield of Heracles,” 267, trans. A. S. Way)

The image he has suggested is not terrible but rather loathsome. Contrast the way in which Homer magnifies the higher powers:

And far as a man with his eyes through the sea-line haze may
On a cliff as he sitteth and gazeth away o’er the wine-dark
So far at a bound do the loud-neighing steeds of the Deathless
               (Iliad 5. 770, trans. A. S. Way)

He makes the vastness of the world the measure of their leap. The sublimity is so overpowering as naturally to prompt the exclamation that if the divine steeds were to leap thus twice in succession they would pass beyond the confines of the world. How transcendent also are the images in the Battle of the Gods:—

Far round wide heaven and Olympus echoed his clarion of
               (Iliad 21. 388)

And Hades, king of the realm of shadows, quaked thereunder.
And he sprang from his throne, and he cried aloud in the dread
    of his heart
Lest o’er him earth-shaker Poseidon should cleave the ground
And revealed to Immortals and mortals should stand those
    awful abodes,
Those mansions ghastly and grim, abhorred of the very Gods.
               (Iliad 20. 61–65)

You see, my friend, how the earth is torn from its foundations, Tartarus itself is laid bare, the whole world is upturned and parted asunder, and all things together—heaven and hell, things mortal and things immortal—share in the conflict and the perils of that battle!

But although these things are awe-inspiring, yet from another point of view, if they be not taken allegorically, they are altogether impious, and violate our sense of what is fitting. Homer seems to me, in his legends of wounds suffered by the gods, and of their feuds, reprisals, tears, bonds, and all their manifold passions, to have made, as far as lay within his power, gods of the men concerned in the Siege of Troy, and men of the gods. But whereas we mortals have death as the destined haven of our ills if our lot is miserable, he portrays the gods as immortal not only in nature but also in misfortune. Much superior to the passages respecting the Battle of the Gods are those which represent the divine nature as it really is—pure and great and undefiled; for example, what is said of Poseidon in a passage fully treated by many before ourselves:—

Her far-stretching ridges, her forest-trees, quaked in dismay,
And her peaks, and the Trojans’ town, and the ships of Achaia’s
Beneath his immortal feet, as onward Poseidon strode.
Then over the surges he drave: leapt sporting before the God
Sea-beasts that uprose all round from the depths, for their king
    they knew,
And for rapture the sea was disparted, and onward the
    carsteeds flew.
               (Iliad 13. 18)

Similarly, the legislator of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his Laws, “God said”—what? “Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land.” Perhaps I shall not seem tedious, friend, if I bring forward one passage more from Homer—this time with regard to the concerns of men—in order to show that he is wont himself to enter into the sublime actions of his heroes. In his poem the battle of the Greeks is suddenly veiled by mist and baffling night. Then Ajax, at his wits’ end, cries:

Zeus, Father, yet save thou Achaia’s sons from beneath the
And make clear day, and vouchsafe unto us with our eyes to
So it be but in light, destroy us!
               (Iliad 17. 645)

That is the true attitude of an Ajax. He does not pray for life, for such a petition would have ill beseemed a hero. But since in the hopeless darkness he can turn his valor to no noble end, he chafes at his slackness in the fray and craves the boon of immediate light, resolved to find a death worthy of his bravery, even though Zeus should fight in the ranks against him. In truth, Homer in these cases shares the full inspiration of the combat, and it is neither more nor less than true of the poet himself that

Mad rageth he as Arěs the shaker of spears, or as mad flames
Wild-wasting from hill unto hill in the folds of a forest deep,
And the foam-froth fringeth his lips.
               (Iliad 15. 605–7)

He shows, however, in the Odyssey (and this further observation deserves attention on many grounds) that, when a great genius is declining, the special token of old age is the love of marvelous tales.

It is clear from many indications that the Odyssey was his second subject. A special proof is the fact that he introduces in that poem remnants of the adventures before Ilium as episodes, so to say, of the Trojan War. And indeed, he there renders a tribute of mourning and lamentation to his heroes as though he were carrying out a long-cherished purpose. In fact, the Odyssey is simply an epilogue to the Iliad:—

There lieth Ajax the warrior wight, Achilles is there,

There is Patroclus, whose words had weight as a God
    he were;
There lieth mine own dear son.

               (Odyssey 3. 109–11)

It is for the same reason, I suppose, that he has made the whole structure of the Iliad, which was written at the height of his inspiration, full of action and conflict, while the Odyssey for the most part consists of narrative, as is characteristic of old age. Accordingly, in the Odyssey Homer may be likened to a sinking sun, whose grandeur remains without its intensity. He does not in the Odyssey maintain so high a pitch as in those poems of Ilium. His sublimities are not evenly sustained and free from the liability to sink; there is not the same profusion of accumulated passions, nor the supple and oratorical style, packed with images drawn from real life. You seem to see henceforth the ebb and flow of greatness, and a fancy roving in the fabulous and incredible, as though the ocean were withdrawing into itself and was being laid bare within its own confines. In saying this I have not forgotten the tempests in the Odyssey and the story of the Cyclops and the like. If I speak of old age, it is nevertheless the old age of Homer. The fabulous element, however, prevails throughout this poem over the real. The object of this digression has been, as I said, to show how easily great natures in their decline are sometimes diverted into absurdity, as in the incident of the wine-skin and of the men who were fed like swine by Circe (whining porkers, as Zoilus called them), and of Zeus like a nestling nurtured by the doves, and of the hero who was without food for ten days upon the wreck, and of the incredible tale of the slaying of the suitors (Odyssey 9. 182; 10.17; 10.237; 12.62; 12.447; 22.79.) For what else can we term these things than veritable dreams of Zeus? These observations with regard to the Odyssey should be made for another reason—in order that you may know that the genius of great poets and prose-writers, as their passion declines, finds its final expression in the delineation of character. For such are the details which Homer gives, with an eye to characterization, of life in the home of Odysseus; they form as it were a comedy of manners.

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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