On the Sublime

On the Sublime

Literary Criticism


The treatise, ‘Peri Hypsos’ or On the Sublime written probably around 1st Century AD, is often considered the second most important document of classical literary criticism and theory, only after Aristotle’s Poetics (circa 335 BC). Though, the authorship of the document is not confirmed, it is attributed to some “Longinus” as a preference over an anonymous author. The author reveals his purpose of writing the treatise, to throw light on “great writing” or “the sublime” and present ways to achieve it. He also makes some other preliminary observations.

Sublime and Sublimity

Longinus had not used the term ‘sublime’ in its modern, narrow and limited sense. According to him, sublime is an ‘elevation’ or ‘loftiness’ which raises the style of a composition above the ‘ordinary’. This sublime gives distinction or sublimity to the composition and were present in the earliest Greek Masterpieces which gave them their permanent value. As Longinus says:

Great passages have a high distinction of thought and expression to which great writers owe their supremacy and their lasting renown.”

Longinus is often regarded as the first romantic critic, as he departs from the usual concerns of the rhetoricians, of skillful invention, careful arrangement and decorum.

True and False Sublime

Longinus differentiates between the true and false sublime. True sublime uplifts the soul. It is the result of elevated ideas expressed in elevated language. It has the quality of providing joy. True sublime, “pleases all, and pleases always”.

False sublime lacks elevated ideas and consists of only gorgeous exteriors inside which there is nothing, but emptiness. Since, they lack elevated, the attempt of using elevated expressions does no good. There is a bombast of language and cheap display of passion which does not justify with the subject.
Five Sources of Sublime

According to Longinus, to achieve sublimity, nature and art—both are equally important. Though, he believed that sublimity cannot be taught because an artist is born with such qualities which makes his work sublime. However, art has its own significance. Art teaches the artist to regulate and refine his genius. It helps him to cultivate a kind of discipline which is necessary to create ‘true’ sublimity and whose absence may lead to ‘false’ sublimity. Longinus says,

Fine writing needs the curb as well as the spur.”

Longinus indicates the following five sources of sublime:

1. Grandeur of Thought

Grandeur of thought is essential source of sublime, because mean and ignoble thoughts can never inspire lofty utterances. Great thought comes from the imagination of great creative genius and from the sound interpretation of the imitation of nature and great predecessors.

2. Passion

Nothing contributes more to loftiness of tone in writing that genuine emotion. The emotion should be strong and natural, expressed in lofty and elevated language so that it can move the readers with pleasure and persuasion.

3. Use of Figures

Third source of sublime is poetic use of language. The proper formation and use of figures (tropes) enhances the elevated expression. However, figures should be used naturally. It should not seem mechanical or forceful. They should be used genuinely and only as per the demands of the contextual environment.

4. Diction

The fourth source of sublime is diction which includes choice and arrangement of words, and the use of metaphor and simile. Use of correct and proper words enthral the hearers. The words should be noble corresponding to the subject matter and emotion.

5. Dignified Composition

Dignified and noble composition and arrangement is the fifth source of sublime. This simply means the verbal order which is usually called rhythm. It helps create harmony which enables the readers to share emotions of the author.



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©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]


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