On the Sublime by Longinus.

Over the past month or so I've been reading Classical Literary Criticism, published by Penguin in 1965 which includes Poetics by Aristotle (335 B.C.), Ars Poetica by Horace (19 B.C.) and On the Sublime by Longinus, the final part of the book (all translated by T. S. Dorsch). I did enjoy reading Horace, struggled with Aristotle, and as for Longinus - I didn't find easy at all, but it was certainly not dull! 

On the Sublime (Περὶ ὕψους) is usually ascribed to Cassius Longinus who lived in the 3rd Century A.D., however this isn't certain. Others believe it was written by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a writer of the 1st Century A.D. Others still think it wasn't either of them but some unknown author. Sadly I don't have the answer, so for tradition's sake I'll stick with Longinus. 

There are 44 very short chapters in On the Sublime, and, sadly, many parts missing. It begins with an introduction addressed to Postumius Terentianus, who, Longinus writes, worked with him on Cecilius, a Sicilian rhetorician who also wrote a treatise "on the sublime". Longinus writes that he found the treatise inadequate and "offered its readers little of the practical help that it should be the writer's main object to supply". He adds,
In any systematic treatise two things are essential: first, there must be some definition of the subject; second in order of treatment, but of greater importance, there must be some indication of the menthods by which we may ourselves reach the desired goal.
In Chapter I Longinus writes his "First Thoughts on Sublimity" - "sublimity consists in a certain excellence and distinction of expression, and that it is from this source alone that the greatest poets and historians have acquired their pre-eminence and won for themselves an eternity of fame". Sublimity entrances the reader, it does not merely persuade or gratify - 
... these sublime passages exert an irresistible force and mastery, and get the upper hand with every hearer.
Chapter II asks "Is there an Art of the Sublime?".  Some, Longinus remarks, believe that genius is innate and that rules and systems on how to write are reductive. But he replies,
Nature is the first cause and the fundamental creative principle in all activities, but the function of a system is to prescribe the degree and the right moment for each, and to lay down the clearest rules for use and practice. 
Invoking Demosthenes, Longinus writes that both good fortune and good counsel are necessary to achieve greatness.

From here a part of the manuscript was lost, so we go into Chapter III in which Longinus writes on tragedy and the need to temper one's writing so it is not tumid or pompous, but nor is it puerile. Either extreme can lead to hollowness, irrelevance, and "frigidity", which he expands on in Chapter IV. Compunding this, he writes in Chapter V, is the "pursuit of novelty in the expression of ideas".

In Chapter VI he moves forward to write about on how to avoid these pitfalls: "first of all, clear knowledge and appreciation of the true sublime". In Chapter VII he writes on what he believes is "The True Sublime", which, if achieved,
... 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.
Sublimity may be found in the everyday - the "eternal trappings" of riches and grandeur are not marks of sublimity, merely impressions. He goes on,
If an intelligent and well-read man can hear a passage several times, and it does not either touch his spirit with a sense of grandeur or leave more food for reflection in his mind that the mere words convey, but with long and careful examination loses more and more of its effectiveness, then it cannot be an example of true sublimity - certainly not unless it can outlive a single hearing.
Next, in Chapter VIII he writes on the "Five Sources of Sublimity": 
[1] The first and most important is the ability to form grand conceptions... [2] the stimulus of powerful and inspired emotion... [3] the proper formation of the two types of figure, figures of thought and figures of speech [4] together with the creation of noble diction, which in its turn may be resolved into the choice of words, the use of imagery, and the elaboration of the style. [5] The fifth source of grandeur, which embraces all of those I have already mentioned, is the total effect resulting from dignity and elevation.
Chapter IX examines the notion of the "Nobility of Soul" (this chapter has several pages missing). He argues that one should train one's mind "towards the production of grand ideas". Sublimity, he adds, "is the echo of a noble mind". In Chapter X he moves on to write about "The Selection and Organisation of Material", and in Chapters XI and XII he writes on amplification, which -
... may be managed either by the rhetorical development of a commonplace, or by exaggeration, whether facts or arguments are to be stressed, or by the orderly disposition of factual points or of appeals to the feelings.
Amplification, he goes on to say "adds substance and strength to the argument by dwelling on it", however half way through this sentence two pages of manuscript are lost.

From here he praises Plato in Chapter XIII, and then in Chapter XIV he offers practical advice, for example to consider how Homer, Plato, Demosthenes, or Thucydides may have expressed something: "How would Homer or Demosthene, if he had been present, have listened to this passage of mine, and how would it have affected him?" and later, "What kind of hearing should I get from all future ages if I wrote this?" To not consider other ages and how material may speak to them suggests, Longinus writes, a mind "obviously obscure and incomplete". 

Imagery and imagination are an essential ingredient of sublimity, as Longinus writes in Chapter XV
... dignity, grandeur, and powers of persuasion are to a very large degree derived from images - for that is what some people call the representation of mental images... in poetry its aim is to work on the feelings, in oratory to produce vividness of description, though indeed in both cases as attempt is made to stir the feelings.
This chapter lead into the next, Chapter XVI- XVIII - on rhetoric and "grandeur of utterance". The last pages of Chapter XVIII are lost, as are the first pages of Chapter XIX, which concludes,
The phrases, disconnected, but none the less rapid, give the impression of an agitation which at the same time checks the utterance and urges it on. And the poet has produced such an effect by his use of asyndeton [conjunction].
From here he considers certain techniques of rhetoric. He expands on asyndetons in Chapters XX - XXI:
A combination of figures for a common purpose usually has a very moving effect - when two or three unite in a kind of partnership to add force, persuasiveness, and beauty. 
The disadvantages, which he expands on in Chapter XXI is that emotion "loses its freedom of motion and the impression it gives of being shot from a catapult". 

In Chapter XXII he writes on "hyperbaton": 
These consist in the arrangement of words or ideas out of their normal sequence, and they carry, so to speak, the genuine stamp of powerful emotion.
He suggests this is because this carries more emotion and reflects a heightened state of emotion. In Chapters XXIII - XXVII he considers "polyptotons" - 
The figures called polyptota (accumulations, variations, and climaxes) are, as you know, very powerful auxiliaries in the production of elegance and of every kind of sublime and emotional effect.
 And in Chapters XXVIII - XXIX he writes on periphrasis - use of a longer phrasing in place of a possible shorter form of expression:
For as in music the sweetness of the dominant melody is enhanced by what are known as the decorative additions, so periphrasis often harmonises with the direct expression of a thought and greatly embellishes it, especially if it is not bombastic or inelegant, but pleasantly tempered.
The next part of On Sublimity Longinus considers 'the proper choice of diction', 'familiar language', and metaphor (Chapters XXX - XXXII). Chapter XXX unfortunately has pages missing, but of what remains I did admire the sentiment, "For words finely used are in truth the very light of thought". The beginning of Chapter XXXI is also missing, but in what remains Longinus writes on familiar language as opposed to elegant: "being taken from the everyday life, it is at once recognised, and carries the more conviction from its familiarity". On metaphor he writes that whilst use may lead to grandeur, it may also lead to excess. 

In Chapter XXXIII Longinus attempts to seek a writer "flawless and beyond reproach" and then argues there cannot be such a writer. There are faults in Homer and many others, but, as the title of the chapter suggests, there is the "superiority of flawed sublimity to flawless mediocrity". 

Next Longinus talks more generally about technique, and writes about Hyperides and Demosthenes in Chapter XXXIV - he argues that Hyperides is a great technician, however it is Demosthenes that shows great soul:
... when Demosthenes takes up the tale, he displays the great genius in their highest form: a sublime intensity, lifelike passions, copiousness, readiness, speed, where it is appropriate, and his own unapproachable power and vehemence. 
Moving on, he writes about Plato and Lysias in Chapter XXXV, that "Lysias is much inferior to Plato in both the greatness and the number of his merits, and at the same time he surpasses him in his faults even more than he falls short of him in his virtues", and in Chapter XXXVI he writes on "sublimity and literary fame": that sublimity leads to fame and,
It need scarcely be added that each of these outstanding authors time and again redeems all his failues by a single happy stroke of sublimity; and, most decisive of all, that if we were to pick out all the blunders of Homer, Demosthenes, Plato, and the greatest of all our other authors, and were to put them all together, it would be found that they amounted to a very small part, say rather an infinitesimal fraction, of the triumphs achieved by these demigods on every page. That is why judgement of all ages, which envy itself cannot convict perversity, has awarded them the palm of victory, guarding it as their inalienable right, and likely so to preserve it 'as long as rivers run and tall trees flourish'.
The next chapter, Chapter XXXVII, is all but lost. All that remains is,
Closely related to metaphors - for we must go back to them - are comparisons and similies, which differ only in this...
A part of Chapter XXXVIII on 'Hyperboles' is also missing; it begins with the assertion that with hyperboles one must always know where to draw the line.

From Chapter XXXIX Longinus considers the fifth and final part of what contributes to sublimity: "the arrangement of works in due order". Much is technique, but crucially they must reflect "a genuine expression of human nature". In Chapter XL he writes on sentence structure; composition and ideas, and then he writes on rhythm, which he expands upon in Chapter XLI - "nothing has so debasing an effect as broken or agitated rhythm". He then writes on conciseness in Chapter XLII - which, he warns, can be overdone, and in the penultimate chapter, Chapter XLIII he argues, "The use of trivial words terribly disfigures passages in the grand style". He adds,
In sublime passages we ought not to resort to sordid and contemptible terms unless constrained by some extreme necessity. We should use words that suit the dignity of the subject, and imitate nature, the artist who has fashioned man, for she has not placed in full view our private parts or the means by which our whole frame is purged, but as far as possible has concealed them, and, as Xenophon says, has put their passages into the farthest background so as not to sully the whole figure.
In the final chapter, Chapter XLV, Longinus argues there has been a declien or decay in elegance:
... what wears down the spirit of the present generation is the apathy in which, with few exceptions, we all pass our lives; for we do no work nor show any enterprise from any other motives than those of being praised or being able to enjoy our pleasures - never from an eager and honourable desire to serve our fellows.
He then quotes Euripides;
'It is best to leave such things at a guess', and to pass on to the next problem, that is, the emotions, about which I previously undertook to write in a separate treatise, for they seem to me to share a place in literature generally, and especially in the sublime....
And from here the rest of the manuscript is lost.

On the Sublime is exceptionally dense and not always so easy to follow, but it remains inspiring. I think it's certainly useful and one to be read and re-read, and I thought it would come in handy for me to have these notes recorded. It is an essential read not only for writers but readers too.


Popular Posts of the Month