Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


Here, however, in due order comes the place assigned to Figures; for they, if handled in the proper manner, will contribute, as I have said, in no mean degree to sublimity. But since to treat thoroughly of them all at the present moment would be a great, or rather an endless task, we will now, with the object of proving our proposition, run over a few only of those which produce elevation of diction. Demosthenes is bringing forward a reasoned vindication of his public policy. What was the natural way of treating the subject? It was this. “You were not wrong, you who engaged in the struggle for the freedom of Greece. You have domestic warrant for it. For the warriors of Marathon did no wrong, nor they of Salamis, nor they of Plataea.” When, however, as though suddenly inspired by heaven and as it were frenzied by the God of Prophecy, he utters his famous oath by the champions of Greece (“assuredly ye did no wrong; I swear it by those who at Marathon stood in the forefront of the danger,” (“On the Crown” 208)), in the public view by this one Figure of Adjuration, which I here term Apostrophe, he deifies his ancestors. He brings home the thought that we ought to swear by those who have thus nobly died as we swear by Gods, and he fills the mind of the judges with the high spirit of those who there bore the brunt of the danger, and he has transformed the natural course of the argument into transcendent sublimity and passion and that secure belief which rests upon strange and prodigious oaths. He instills into the minds of his hearers the conviction—which acts as a medicine and an antidote—that they should, uplifted by these eulogies, feel no less proud of the fight against Philip than of the triumph at Marathon and Salamis. By all these means he carries his hearers clean away with him through the employment of a single figure. It is said, indeed, that the germ of the oath is found in Eupolis:—

For, by the fight I won at Marathon,
No one shall vex my soul and rue it not.

But it is not sublime to swear by a person in any chance way; the sublimity depends upon the place and the manner and the circumstances and the motive. Now in the passage of Eupolis there is nothing but the mere oath, addressed to the Athenians when still prosperous and in no need of comfort. Furthermore, the poet in his oath has not made divinities of the men in order so to create in his hearers a worthy conception of their valor, but he has wandered away from those who stood in the forefront of the danger to an inanimate thing—the fight. In Demosthenes the oath is framed for vanquished men, with the intention that Chaeroneia should no longer appear a failure to the Athenians. He gives them at one and the same time, as I remarked, a demonstration that they have done no wrong, an example, the sure evidence of oaths, a eulogy, an exhortation. And since the orator was likely to be confronted with the objection, “You are speaking of the defeat which has attended your administration, and yet you swear by victories,” in what follows he consequently measures even individual words, and chooses them unerringly, showing that even in the revels of the imagination sobriety is required. “Those,” he says, “who stood in the forefront of the danger at Marathon, and those who fought by sea at Salamis and Artemisium, and those who stood in the ranks at Plataea.” Nowhere does he use the word “conquered,” but at every turn he has evaded any indication of the result, since it was fortunate and the opposite of what happened at Chaeroneia. So he at once rushes forward and carries his hearer off his feet. “All of whom,” says he, “were accorded a public burial by the state, Aeschines, and not the successful only. . . .”


But, what are we next to say of questions and interrogations? Is it not precisely by the visualizing qualities of these figures that Demosthenes strives to make his speeches far more effective and impressive? “Pray tell me,—tell me, you sir,—do you wish to go about and inquire of one another, Is there any news? Why, what greater news could there be than this, that a Macedonian is subduing Greece? Is Philip dead? No; but he is ill. Dead or ill, what difference to you? Should anything happen to him, you will speedily create another Philip” (Philippic 1, 10). Again he says, “Let us sail against Macedonia. Where shall we find a landing-place? someone asks. The war itself will discover the weak places in Philip’s position” (Philippic 1, 44). All this, if stated plainly and directly, would have been altogether weaker. As it is, the excitement, and the rapid play of question and answer, and the plan of meeting his own objections as though they were urged by another, have by the help of the figure made the language used not only more elevated but also more convincing. For an exhibition of passion has a greater effect when it seems not to be studied by the speaker himself but to be inspired by the occasion; and questions asked and answered by oneself simulate a natural outburst of passion. For just as those who are interrogated by others experience a sudden excitement and answer the inquiry incisively and with the utmost candor, so the figure of question and answer leads the hearer to suppose that each deliberate thought is struck out and uttered on the spur of the moment, and so beguiles his reason. We may further quote that passage of Herodotus which is regarded as one of the most elevated: “if thus . . .”


The words issue forth without connecting links and are poured out as it were, almost outstripping the speaker himself. “Locking their shields,” says Xenophon, “they thrust fought slew fell” (Hellenica IV. 3, 19). And so with the words of Eurylochus:—

We passed, as thou badst, Odysseus, midst twilight of oak-trees
There amidst of the forest-glens a beautiful palace we found.
               (Odyssey 10. 251–52, trans. A. S. Way)

For the lines detached from one another, but none the less hurried along, produce the impression of an agitation which interposes obstacles and at the same time adds impetuosity. This result Homer has produced by the omission of conjunctions.


A powerful effect usually attends the union of figures for a common object, when two or three mingle together as it were in partnership, and contribute a fund of strength, persuasiveness, beauty. Thus, in the speech against Meidias, examples will be found of asyndeton, interwoven with instances of anaphora and diatyposis. “For the smiter can do many things (some of which the sufferer cannot even describe to another) by attitude, by look, by voice” (Against Midias, 72). Then, in order that the narrative may not, as it advances, continue in the same groove (for continuance betokens tranquillity, while passion—the transport and commotion of the soul—sets order at defiance), straightway he hurries off to other Asyndeta and Repetitions. “By attitude, by look, by voice, when he acts with insolence, when he acts like an enemy, when he smites with his fists, when he smites you like a slave.” By these words the orator produces the same effect as the assailant—he strikes the mind of the judges by the swift succession of blow on blow. Starting from this point again, as suddenly as a gust of wind, he makes another attack. “When smitten with blows of fists,” he says, “when smitten upon the cheek. These things stir the blood, these drive men beyond themselves, when unused to insult. No one can, in describing them, convey a notion of the indignity they imply.” So he maintains throughout, though with continual variation, the essential character of the Repetitions and Asyndeta. In this way, with him, order is disorderly, and on the other hand disorder contains a certain element of order.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009

Poetry is looking for thought-provoking responses to work published in the magazine, as well as letters that raise new questions about the state of contemporary poetry. To send us your letter, please fill out all the fields below.

If we choose to use your letter, we will notify you by phone. If you have not heard from us within two weeks of sending your letter, you may assume we will not be using it. All letters may be edited for length and clarity, and may appear online, in print, or both.

Please do NOT send poetry submissions to this account. See Submission Guidelines for further information and policies regarding poetry submissions.


* All fields are required


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 . . .

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.