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Essay on Poetic Theory

from “On the Sublime” (100)


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.



All these ugly and parasitical growths arise in literature from a single cause, that pursuit of novelty in the expression of ideas which may be regarded as the fashionable craze of the day. Our defects usually spring, for the most part, from the same sources as our good points. Hence, while beauties of expression and touches of sublimity, and charming elegancies withal, are favorable to effective composition, yet these very things are the elements and foundation, not only of success, but also of the contrary. Something of the kind is true also of variations and hyperboles and the use of the plural number, and we shall show subsequently the dangers to which these seem severally to be exposed. It is necessary now to seek and to suggest means by which we may avoid the defects which attend the steps of the sublime.


The best means would be, friend, to gain, first of all, clear knowledge and appreciation of the true sublime. The enterprise is, however, an arduous one. For the judgment of style is the last and crowning fruit of long experience. None the less, if I must speak in the way of precept, it is not impossible perhaps to acquire discrimination in these matters by attention to some such hints as those which follow.


You must know, my dear friend, that it is with the sublime as in the common life of man. In life nothing can be considered great which it is held great to despise. For instance, riches, honors, distinctions, sovereignties, and all other things which possess in abundance the external trappings of the stage, will not seem, to a man of sense, to be supreme blessings, since the very contempt of them is reckoned good in no small degree, and in any case those who could have them, but are high-souled enough to disdain them, are more admired than those who have them. So also in the case of sublimity in poems and prose writings, we must consider whether some supposed examples have not simply the appearance of elevation with many idle accretions, so that when analyzed they are found to be mere vanity—objects which a noble nature will rather despise than admire. 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.

When, therefore, a thing is heard repeatedly by a man of intelligence, who is well versed in literature, and its effect is not to dispose the soul to high thoughts, and it does not leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey, but falls, if examined carefully through and through, into disesteem, it cannot rank as true sublimity because it does not survive a first hearing. For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. In general, consider those examples of sublimity, to be fine and genuine which please all and always. For when men of different pursuits, lives, ambitions, ages, languages, hold identical views on one and the same subject, then that verdict which results, so to speak, from a concert of discordant elements makes our faith in the object of admiration strong and unassailable.


There are, it may be said, five principal sources of elevated language. Beneath these five varieties there lies, as though it were a common foundation, the gift of discourse, which is indispensable. First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions, as we have elsewhere explained in our remarks on Xenophon. Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion. These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art. The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression. Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language. The fifth cause of elevation—one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it—is dignified and elevated composition. Come now, let us consider what is involved in each of these varieties, with this one remark by way of preface, that Caecilius has omitted some of the five divisions, for example, that of passion. Surely he is quite mistaken if he does so on the ground that these two, sublimity and passion, are a unity, and if it seems to him that they are by nature one and inseparable. For some passions are found which are far removed from sublimity and are of a low order, such as pity, grief and fear; and on the other hand there are many examples of the sublime which are independent of passion, such as the daring words of Homer with regard to the Aloadae, to take one out of numberless instances,

Yea, Ossa in fury they strove to upheave on Olympus on high,
With forest-clad Pelion above, that thence they might step to
    the sky.
               (Odyssey 11. 315–16)

And so of the words which follow with still greater force:—

Ay, and the deed had they done.
               (Odyssey 11. 317)

Among the orators, too, eulogies and ceremonial and occasional addresses contain on every side examples of dignity and elevation, but are for the most part void of passion. This is the reason why passionate speakers are the worst eulogists, and why, on the other hand, those who are apt in encomium are the least passionate. If, on the other hand, Caecilius thought that passion never contributes at all to sublimity, and if it was for this reason that he did not deem it worthy of mention, he is altogether deluded. I would affirm with confidence that there is no tone so lofty as that of genuine passion, in its right place, when it bursts out in a wild gust of mad enthusiasm and as it were fills the speaker’s words with frenzy.



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.


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.


An allied excellence to those already set forth is that which is termed amplification. This figure is employed when the narrative or the course of a forensic argument admits, from section to section, of many starting-points and many pauses, and elevated expressions follow, one after the other, in an unbroken succession and in an ascending order. And this may be effected either by way of the rhetorical treatment of commonplaces, or by way of intensification (whether events or arguments are to be strongly presented), or by the orderly arrangement of facts or of passions; indeed, there are innumerable kinds of amplification. Only, the orator must in every case remember that none of these methods by itself, apart from sublimity, forms a complete whole, unless indeed where pity is to be excited or an opponent to be disparaged. In all other cases of amplification, if you take away the sublime, you will remove as it were the soul from the body. For the vigor of the amplification at once loses its intensity and its substance when not resting on a firm basis of the sublime. Clearness, however, demands that we should define concisely how our present precepts differ from the point under consideration a moment ago, namely the marking-out of the most striking conceptions and the unification of them; and wherein, generally, the sublime differs from amplification.


Now the definition given by the writers on rhetoric does not satisfy me. Amplification is, say they, discourse which invests the subject with grandeur. This definition, however, would surely apply in equal measure to sublimity and passion and figurative language, since they too invest the discourse with a certain degree of grandeur. The point of distinction between them seems to me to be that sublimity consists in elevation, while amplification embraces a multitude of details. Consequently, sublimity is often comprised in a single thought, while amplification is universally associated with a certain magnitude and abundance. Amplification (to sum the matter up in a general way) is an aggregation of all the constituent parts and topics of a subject, lending strength to the argument by dwelling upon it, and differing herein from proof that, while the latter demonstrates the matter under investigation. . . .


To return from my digression. Although Plato thus flows on with noiseless stream, he is none the less elevated. You know this because you have read the Republic and are familiar with his manner. “Those,” says he, “who are destitute of wisdom and goodness and are ever present at carousels and the like are carried on the downward path, it seems, and wander thus throughout their life. They never look upwards to the truth, nor do they lift their heads, nor enjoy any pure and lasting pleasure, but like cattle they have their eyes ever cast downwards and bent upon the ground and upon their feeding-places, and they graze and grow fat and breed, and through their insatiate desire of these delights they kick and butt with horns and hoofs of iron and kill one another in their greed” (Republic 9. 586a).

This writer shows us, if only we were willing to pay him heed, that another way (beyond anything we have mentioned) leads to the sublime. And what, and what manner of way, may that be? It is the imitation and emulation of previous great poets and writers. And let this, my dear friend, be an aim to which we steadfastly apply ourselves. For many men are carried away by the spirit of others as if inspired, just as it is related of the Pythian priestess when she approaches the tripod, where there is a rift in the ground which (they say) exhales divine vapor. By heavenly power thus communicated she is impregnated and straightway delivers oracles in virtue of the afflatus. Similarly from the great natures of the men of old there are borne in upon the souls of those who emulate them (as from sacred caves) what we may describe as effluences, so that even those who seem little likely to be possessed are thereby inspired and succumb to the spell of the others’ greatness. Was Herodotus alone a devoted imitator of Homer? No, Stesichorus even before his time, and Archilochus, and above all Plato, who from the great Homeric source drew to himself innumerable tributary streams. And perhaps we should have found it necessary to prove this, point by point, had not Ammonius and his followers selected and recorded the particulars. This proceeding is not plagiarism; it is like taking an impression from beautiful forms or figures or other works of art. And it seems to me that there would not have been so fine a bloom of perfection on Plato’s philosophical doctrines, and that he would not in many cases have found his way to poetical subject-matter and modes of expression, unless he had with all his heart and mind struggled with Homer for the primacy, entering the lists like a young champion matched against the man whom all admire, and showing perhaps too much love of contention and breaking a lance with him as it were, but deriving some profit from the contest none the less. For, as Hesiod says, “This strife is good for mortals” (Works and Days, 24). And in truth that struggle for the crown of glory is noble and best deserves the victory in which even to be worsted by one’s predecessors brings no discredit.


Accordingly it is well that we ourselves also, when elaborating anything which requires lofty expression and elevated conception, should shape some idea in our minds as to how perchance Homer would have said this very thing, or how it would have been raised to the sublime by Plato or Demosthenes or by the historian Thucydides. For those personages, presenting themselves to us and inflaming our ardor and as it were illumining our path, will carry our minds in a mysterious way to the high standards of sublimity which are imaged within us. Still more effectual will it be to suggest this question to our thoughts, “What sort of hearing would Homer, had he been present, or Demosthenes have given to this or that when said by me, or how would they have been affected by the other?” For the ordeal is indeed a severe one, if we presuppose such a tribunal and theatre for our own utterances, and imagine that we are undergoing a scrutiny of our writings before these great heroes, acting as judges and witnesses. A greater incentive still will be supplied if you add the question, “In what spirit will each succeeding age listen to me who have written thus?” But if one shrinks from the very thought of uttering aught that may transcend the term of his own life and time, the conceptions of his mind must necessarily be incomplete, blind, and as it were untimely born, since they are by no means brought to the perfection needed to ensure a futurity of fame.


Images, moreover, contribute greatly, my young friend, to dignity, elevation, and power as a pleader. In this sense some call them mental representations. In a general way the name of image or imagination is applied to every idea of the mind, in whatever form it presents itself, which gives birth to speech. But at the present day the word is predominantly used in cases where, carried away by enthusiasm and passion, you think you see what you describe, and you place it before the eyes of your hearers. Further, you will be aware of the fact that an image has one purpose with the orators and another with the poets, and that the design of the poetical image is enthrallment, of the rhetorical—vivid description. Both, however, seek to stir the passions and the emotions.

Mother!—’beseech thee, hark not thou on me
Yon maidens gory-eyed and snaky-haired!
Lo there!—lo there!—they are nigh—they leap on me!
               (Euripides, Orestes, 255, trans. A. S. Way)


Ah! she will slay me! whither can I fly?
           (Euripides, Iphigeneia in Taurus, 291, trans. A. S. Way)

In these scenes the poet himself saw Furies, and the image in his mind he almost compelled his audience also to behold. Now, Euripides is most assiduous in giving the utmost tragic effect to these two emotions—fits of love and madness. Herein he succeeds more, perhaps, than in any other respect, although he is daring enough to invade all the other regions of the imagination. Notwithstanding that he is by nature anything but elevated, he forces his own genius, in many passages, to tragic heights, and everywhere in the matter of sublimity it is true of him (to adopt Homer’s words) that

The tail of him scourgeth his ribs and his flanks to left and to
And he lasheth himself into frenzy, and spurreth him on to the
               (Iliad 20.170, trans. A. S. Way)

When the Sun hands the reins to Phaethon, he says
“Thou, driving, trespass not on Libya’s sky,
Whose heat, by dews untempered, else shall split
Thy car asunder.”

And after that,

“Speed onward toward the Pleiads seven thy course.”
Thus far the boy heard; then he snatched the reins:
He lashed the flanks of that wing-wafted team;
Loosed rein; and they through folds of cloudland soared.
Hard after on a fiery star his sire
Rode, counseling his son—“Ho! thither drive!
Hither thy car turn—hither!”

Would you not say that the soul of the writer enters the chariot at the same moment as Phaethon and shares in his dangers and in the rapid flight of his steeds? For it could never have conceived such a picture had it not been borne in no less swift career on that journey through the heavens. The same is true of the words which Euripides attributes to his Cassandra:—

O chariot-loving Trojans.

Aeschylus, too, ventures on images of a most heroic stamp. An example will be found in his Seven against Thebes, where he says

For seven heroes, squadron-captains fierce,
Over a black-rimmed shield have slain a bull,
And, dipping in the bull’s blood each his hand,
By Ares and Enyo, and by Panic
Lover of blood, have sworn.
               (Seven Against Thebes, 42, trans. A. S. Way)

In mutual fealty they devoted themselves by that joint oath to a relentless doom. Sometimes, however, he introduces ideas that are rough-hewn and uncouth and harsh; and Euripides, when stirred by the spirit of emulation, comes perilously near the same fault, even in spite of his own natural bent. Thus in Aeschylus the palace of Lycurgus at the coming of Dionysus is strangely represented as possessed:—

A frenzy thrills the hall; the roofs are bacchant
With ecstasy:
               (Trans. A. S. Way)

an idea which Euripides has echoed, in other words, it is true, and with some abatement of its crudity, where he says:—

The whole mount shared their bacchic ecstasy.
               (Bacchae, 726, trans. A. S. Way)

Magnificent are the images which Sophocles has conceived of the death of Oedipus, who makes ready his burial amid the portents of the sky (Oedipus at Colonus, 1586, trans. A. S. Way). Magnificent, too, is the passage where the Greeks are on the point of sailing away and Achilles appears above his tomb to those who are putting out to sea—a scene which I doubt whether anyone has depicted more vividly than Simonides. But it is impossible to cite all the examples that present themselves. It is no doubt true that those which are found in the poets contain, as I said, a tendency to exaggeration in the way of the fabulous and that they transcend in every way the credible, but in oratorical imagery the best feature is always its reality and truth. Whenever the form of a speech is poetical and fabulous and breaks into every kind of impossibility, such digressions have a strange and alien air. For example, the clever orators forsooth of our day, like the tragedians, see Furies, and—fine fellows that they are—cannot even understand that Orestes when he cries

Unhand me!—of mine Haunting Fiends thou art—
Dost grip my waist to hurl me into hell!
               (Euripides, Orestes, 264, trans. A. S. Way)

has these fancies because he is mad. What, then, can oratorical imagery effect? Well, it is able in many ways to infuse vehemence and passion into spoken words, while more particularly when it is combined with the argumentative passages it not only persuades the hearer but actually makes him its slave. Here is an example. “Why, if at this very moment,” says Demosthenes, “a loud cry were to be heard in front of the courts, and we were told that the prison-house lies open and the prisoners are in full flight, no one, whether he be old or young, is so heedless as not to lend aid to the utmost of his power; aye, and if any one came forward and said that yonder stands the man who let them go, the offender would be promptly put to death without a hearing” (Against Timocrates, 208). In the same way, too, Hyperides on being accused, after he had proposed the liberation of the slaves subsequently to the great defeat, said, “This proposal was framed, not by the orator, but by the battle of Chaeroneia.” The speaker has here at one and the same time followed a train of reasoning and indulged a flight of imagination. He has, therefore, passed the bounds of mere persuasion by the boldness of his conception. By a sort of natural law in all such matters we always attend to whatever possesses superior force; whence it is that we are drawn away from demonstration pure and simple to any startling image within whose dazzling brilliancy the argument lies concealed. And it is not unreasonable that we should be affected in this way, for when two things are brought together, the more powerful always attracts to itself the virtue of the weaker. It will be enough to have said thus much with regard to examples of the sublime in thought, when produced by greatness of soul, imitation, or imagery.


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.


Come now, add, if you please, in these cases connecting particles after the fashion of the followers of Isocrates. “Furthermore, this fact too must not be overlooked that the smiter may do many things, first by attitude, then by look, then again by the mere voice.” You will feel, if you transcribe the passage in this orderly fashion, that the rugged impetuosity of passion, once you make it smooth and equable by adding the copulatives, falls pointless and immediately loses all its fire. Just as the binding of the limbs of runners deprives them of their power of rapid motion, so also passion, when shackled by connecting links and other appendages, chafes at the restriction, for it loses the freedom of its advance and its rapid emission as though from an engine of war.


Hyperbata, or inversions, must be placed under the same category. They are departures in the order of expressions or ideas from the natural sequence; and they bear, it may be said, the very stamp and impress of vehement emotion. Just as those who are really moved by anger, or fear, or indignation, or jealousy, or any other emotion (for the passions are many and countless, and none can give their number), at times turn aside, and when they have taken one thing as their subject often leap to another, foisting in the midst some irrelevant matter, and then again wheel round to their original theme, and driven by their vehemence, as by a veering wind, now this way now that with rapid changes, transform their expressions, their thoughts, the order suggested by a natural sequence, into numberless variations of every kind; so also among the best writers it is by means of hyperbaton that imitation approaches the effects of nature. For art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her. We may illustrate by the words of Dionysius of Phocaea in Herodotus. “Our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge, men of Ionia; for freedom or for bondage, and that the bondage of runaway slaves. Now, therefore, if you choose to submit to hardships, you will have toil for the moment, but you will be able to overcome your foes” (Histories, 11). Here the natural order would have been: “Men of Ionia, now is the time for you to meet hardships; for our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge.” But the speaker postpones the words “Men of Ionia.” He starts at once with the danger of the situation, as though in such imminent peril he had no time at all to address his hearers. Moreover, he inverts the order of ideas. For instead of saying that they ought to endure hardships, which is the real object of his exhortation, he first assigns the reason because of which they ought to endure hardships, in the words “our fortunes lie on a razor’s edge.” The result is that what he says seems not to be premeditated but to be prompted by the necessities of the moment. In a still higher degree Thucydides is most bold and skilful in disjoining from one another by means of transpositions things that are by nature intimately united and indivisible. Demosthenes is not so masterful as Thucydides, but of all writers he most abounds in this kind of figure, and through his use of hyperbata makes a great impression of vehemence, yes and of unpremeditated speech; and moreover draws his hearers with him into all the perils of his long inversions. For he will often leave in suspense the thought which he has begun to express, and meanwhile he will heap, into a position seemingly alien and unnatural, one thing upon another parenthetically and from any external source whatsoever, throwing his hearer into alarm lest the whole structure of his words should fall to pieces, and compelling him in anxious sympathy to share the peril of the speaker; and then unexpectedly, after a long interval, he adds the long-awaited conclusion at the right place, namely the end, and produces a far greater effect by this very use, so bold and hazardous, of hyperbaton. Examples may be spared because of their abundance.


The figures, which are termed polyptota—accumulations, and variations, and climaxes—are excellent weapons of public oratory, as you are aware, and contribute to elegance and to every form of sublimity and passion. Again, how greatly do changes of cases, tenses, persons, numbers, genders, diversify and enliven exposition. Where the use of numbers is concerned, I would point out that style is not adorned only or chiefly by those words which are, as far as their forms go, in the singular but in meaning are, when examined, found to be plural: as in the lines

A countless crowd forthright
Far-ranged along the beaches were clamoring “Thunny
    [tunny—ed.] in sight!”

The fact is more worthy of observation that in certain cases the use of the plural (for the singular) falls with still more imposing effect and impresses us by the very sense of multitude which the number conveys. Such are the words of Oedipus in Sophocles:

O nuptials, nuptials,
Ye gendered me, and, having gendered, brought
To light the selfsame seed, and so revealed
Sires, brothers, sons, in one—all kindred blood!—
Brides, mothers, wives, in one!—yea, whatso deeds
Most shameful among humankind are done.
               (Oedipus Tyrannus, 1403, trans. A. S. Way)

The whole enumeration can be summed up in a single proper name—on the one side Oedipus, on the other Jocasta. None the less, the expansion of the number into the plural helps to pluralize the misfortunes as well. There is a similar instance of multiplication in the line:—

Forth Hectors and Sarpedons marching came,

and in that passage of Plato concerning the Athenians which we have quoted elsewhere. “For no Pelopes, nor Cadmi, nor Aegypti and Danai, nor the rest of the crowd of born foreigners dwell with us, but ours is the land of pure Greeks, free from foreign admixture,” etc. (Menexenus 245d). For naturally a theme seems more imposing to the ear when proper names are thus added, one upon the other, in troops. But this must only be done in cases in which the subject admits of amplification or redundancy or exaggeration or passion—one or more of these—since we all know that a richly caparisoned style is extremely pretentious.


Further (to take the converse case) particulars which are combined from the plural into the singular are sometimes most elevated in appearance. “Thereafter,” says Demosthenes, “all Peloponnesus was at variance” (“On the Crown,” 18). “And when Phrynichus had brought out a play entitled the Capture of Miletus, the whole theatre burst into tears (Histories, 21). For the compression of the number from multiplicity into unity gives more fully the feeling of a single body. In both cases the explanation of the elegance of expression is, I think, the same. Where the words are singular, to make them plural is the mark of unlooked-for passion; and where they are plural, the rounding of a number of things into a fine-sounding singular is surprising owing to the converse change.


If you introduce things which are past as present and now taking place, you will make your story no longer a narration but an actuality. Xenophon furnishes an illustration. “A man,” says he, “has fallen under Cyrus’ horse, and being trampled strikes the horse with his sword in the belly. He rears and unseats Cyrus, who falls” (Xenophon, Cyropaideia 7.1.37). This construction is specially characteristic of Thucydides.


In like manner the interchange of persons produces a vivid impression, and often makes the hearer feel that he is moving in the midst of perils:—

Thou hadst said that with toil unspent, and all unwasted of limb,
They closed in the grapple of war, so fiercely they rushed to the
               (Iliad 15.697)

and the lines of Aratus:—

Never in that month launch thou forth amid lashing seas.

So also Herodotus: “From the city of Elephantine thou shalt sail upwards, and then shalt come to a level plain; and after crossing this tract, thou shalt embark upon another vessel and sail for two days, and then shalt thou come to a great city whose name is Meroe” (Herodotus, Histories, 2. 29). Do you observe, my friend, how he leads you in imagination through the region and makes you see what you hear? All such cases of direct personal address place the hearer on the very scene of action. So it is when you seem to be speaking, not to all and sundry, but to a single individual:—

But Tydeides—thou wouldst not have known him, for whom that
    hero fought.
               (Iliad 5. 85)

You will make your hearer more excited and more attentive, and full of active participation, if you keep him on the alert by words addressed to himself.


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 13th, 2009
  • 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...

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