Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


Let us next consider whether we can point to anything further that contributes to sublimity of style. Now, there inhere in all things by nature certain constituents which are part and parcel of their substance. It must needs be, therefore, that we shall find one source of the sublime in the systematic selection of the most important elements, and the power of forming, by their mutual combination, what may be called one body. The former process attracts the hearer by the choice of the ideas, the latter by the aggregation of those chosen. For instance, Sappho everywhere chooses the emotions that attend delirious passion from its accompaniments in actual life. Wherein does she demonstrate her supreme excellence? In the skill with which she selects and binds together the most striking and vehement circumstances of passion:—

Peer of Gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Silverly speaking,

Laughing love’s low laughter. Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;

Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
’Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;

Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.

Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, color? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions. All such things occur in the case of lovers, but it is, as I said, the selection of the most striking of them and their combination into a single whole that has produced the singular excellence of the passage. In the same way Homer, when describing tempests, picks out the most appalling circumstances. The author of the Arimaspeia thinks to inspire awe in the following way:

A marvel exceeding great is this withal to my soul—
Men dwell on the water afar from the land, where deep seas
Wretches are they, for they reap but a harvest of travail and
Their eyes on the stars ever dwell, while their hearts abide in
    the main.
Often, I ween, to the Gods are their hands upraised on high,
And with hearts in misery heavenward-lifted in prayer do they
               (Aristeas, trans. A. S. Way)

It is clear, I imagine, to everybody that there is more elegance than terror in these words. But what says Homer? Let one instance be quoted from among many:—

And he burst on them like as a wave swift-rushing beneath
    black clouds,
Heaved huge by the winds, bursts down on a ship, and the wild
    foam shrouds
From the stem to the stern her hull, and the storm-blast’s
     terrible breath
Roars in the sail, and the heart of the shipmen shuddereth
In fear, for that scantly upborne are they now from the clutches
    of death.
               (Iliad 15. 624–28).

Aratus has attempted to convert this same expression to his own use:—

And a slender plank averteth their death.

Only, he has made it trivial and neat instead of terrible. Furthermore, he has put bounds to the danger by saying A plank keeps off death. After all, it does keep it off. Homer, however, does not for one moment set a limit to the terror of the scene, but draws a vivid picture of men continually in peril of their lives, and often within an ace of perishing with each successive wave. Moreover, he has in the words hypek thanatoio, forced into union, by a kind of unnatural compulsion, prepositions not usually compounded. He has thus tortured his line into the similitude of the impending calamity, and by the constriction of the verse has excellently figured the disaster and almost stamped upon the expression the very form and pressure of the danger, hupek thanatoio pherontai. This is true also of Archilochus in his account of the shipwreck and of Demosthenes in the passage which begins “It was evening,” where he describes the bringing of the news (“On the Crown,” 169). The salient points they winnowed, one might say, according to merit and massed them together, inserting in the midst nothing frivolous, mean, or trivial. For these faults mar the effect of the whole, just as though they introduced chinks or fissures into stately and co-ordered edifices, whose walls are compacted by their reciprocal adjustment.

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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