Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)

by Longinus


There is further the case in which a writer, when relating something about a person, suddenly breaks off and converts himself into that selfsame person. This species of figure is a kind of outburst of passion:

Then with a far-ringing shout to the Trojans Hector cried,
Bidding them rush on the ships, bidding leave the spoils
And whom so I mark from the galleys aloof on the farther side,
I will surely devise his death.
               (Iliad 15. 346, trans. A. S. Way)

The poet assigns the task of narration, as is fit, to himself, but the abrupt threat he suddenly, with no note of warning, attributes to the angered chief. He would have been frigid had he inserted the words, “Hector said so and so.” As it is, the swift transition of the narrative has outstripped the swift transitions of the narrator. Accordingly this figure should be used by preference when a sharp crisis does not suffer the writer to tarry, but constrains him to pass at once from one person to another. An example will be found in Hecataeus: “Ceyx treated the matter gravely, and straightway bade the descendants of Heracles depart; for I am not able to succor you. In order, therefore, that ye may not perish yourselves and injure me, get you gone to some other country.” Demosthenes in dealing with Aristogeiton has, somewhat differently, employed this variation of person to betoken the quick play of emotion. “And will none of you,” he asks, “be found to be stirred by loathing or even by anger at the violent deeds of this vile and shameless fellow, who—you whose license of speech, most abandoned of men, is not confined by barriers nor by doors, which might perchance be opened!” (Against Aristogiton 1, 27) With the sense thus incomplete, he suddenly breaks off and in his anger almost tears asunder a single expression into two persons,—“he who, O thou most abandoned!” Thus, although he has turned aside his address and seems to have left Aristogeiton, yet through passion he directs it upon him with far greater force. Similarly with the words of Penelope:—

Herald, with what behest art thou come from the suitor-band?
To give to the maids of Odysseus the godlike their command
To forsake their labors, and yonder for them the banquet to lay?
I would that of all their wooing this were the latest day,
That this were the end of your banquets, your uttermost
Ye that assemble together and all our substance devour,
The wise Telemachus’ store, as though ye never had heard,
In the days overpast of your childhood, your fathers’ praising
How good Odysseus was.
               (Odyssey 4. 681–89, trans. A. S. Way)


As to whether or no Periphrasis contributes to the sublime, no one, I think, will hesitate. For just as in music the so-called accompaniments bring out the charm of the melody, so also periphrasis often harmonizes with the normal expression and adds greatly to its beauty, especially if it has a quality which is not inflated and dissonant but pleasantly tempered. Plato will furnish an instance in proof at the opening of his Funeral Oration. “In truth they have gained from us their rightful tribute, in the enjoyment of which they proceed along their destined path, escorted by their country publicly, and privately each by his kinsmen” (Menexenus 236d). Death he calls “their destined path,” and the tribute of accustomed rites he calls “being escorted publicly by their fatherland.” Is it in a slight degree only that he has magnified the conception by the use of these words? Has he not rather, starting with unadorned diction, made it musical, and shed over it like a harmony the melodious rhythm which comes from periphrasis? And Xenophon says, “You regard toil as the guide to a joyous life. You have garnered in your souls the goodliest of all possessions and the fittest for warriors. For you rejoice more in praise than in all else” (Cyropaideia 1.5.12). In using, instead of “you are willing to toil,” the words “you deem toil the guide to a joyous life,” and in expanding the rest of the sentence in like manner, he has annexed to his eulogy a lofty idea. And so with that inimitable phrase of Herodotus: “The goddess afflicted those Scythians who had pillaged the temple with an unsexing malady” (Histories 1. 105. 4).


A hazardous business, however, eminently hazardous is periphrasis, unless it be handled with discrimination; otherwise it speedily falls flat, with its odor of empty talk and its swelling amplitude. This is the reason why Plato (who is always strong in figurative language, and at times unseasonably so) is taunted because in his Laws he says that “neither gold nor silver treasure should be allowed to establish itself and abide in the city” (Laws 801b). The critic says that, if he had been forbidding the possession of cattle, he would obviously have spoken of ovine and bovine treasure. But our parenthetical disquisition with regard to the use of figures as bearing upon the sublime has run to sufficient length, dear Terentianus; for all these things lend additional passion and animation to style, and passion is as intimately allied with sublimity as sketches of character with entertainment. . . .





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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