By the word ‘sublime’ Longinus means “elevation” or “loftiness”—all that which raises style above the ordinary, and gives to it distinction in its widest and truest sense. So sublimity is “a certain distinction and excellence in composition. ” Both nature and art, says Longinus, contribute to sublimity in literature. “Art is perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature hits the mark when she contains art hidden within her.” (Longinus)
Longinus finds five principal sources of the sublime, the first two of which are largely the gifts of nature the remaining three the gifts of art (1) grandeur of thought, (2) capacity for strong emotion, (3) appropriate use of Figures, (4) Nobility of diction, and (5) dignity of composition or a happy synthesis of all the preceding elements.
(1) Grandeur of Thought
Nobody can produce a sublime work unless his thoughts are sublime. For “sublimity is the echo of greatness of soul It is impossible for those whose whole lives are full of mean and servile ideas and habits, to produce anything that is admirable and worthy of an immortal life. It is only natural that great accents should fall from the lips of those whose thoughts have always been deep and full of majesty.” Stately thoughts belong to the loftiest minds.
Therefore, he who would attain distinction of style must feed his soul on the works of the great masters, as Homer, Plato and Demosthenes, and capture from them some of their own greatness, This reflects the classicism of Longinus. However, what Longinus has in mind is not mere imitation or borrowing, but that “men catch fire from the spirit of others.” To Longinus the operation is one that aims at capturing something of the ancient spirit, something of that vital creative force which had gone to the ” making, of the earlier masterpieces; and its effect he describes as that of illumination, guiding the mind in some mysterious way to the lofty standards of the ideal.
The grandeur of conception is to be emphasized and made effective by a suitable treatment of material. Details should be so chosen as to form an organic whole. Amplification or accumulation of all the details of a given subject is also helpful. Such an amplification by its profusion suggests overwhelming strength and magnitude. The use of vivid and compelling images is also useful, for it brings home to the readers the conception of the writer, effectively and forcefully.
(2) Capacity for Strong Emotion
The second source of the sublime is vehement and inspired passion. Longinus asserts that nothing contributes more to loftiness of tone in writing than genuine emotion. At one place, for instance, he says, “I would confidently affirm that nothing makes so much for grandeur as true emotion in the right place, for it inspires the words, as it were, with a wild gust of mad enthusiasm and fills them with divine frenzy. ” It is for this reason that he prefers the Illiad to the Odyssey and Demosthenes to Cicero. But the emotions have to be ‘true emotions’ and ‘in the right place’. He thus justifies emotions more artistically than Aristotle. However, the subject of emotions has not been dealt with in detail. The author declares his intention of dealing with it in a second treatise, which unfortunately has not come down to us.
(3) Appropriate Use of Pictures
The third source of attaining excellence of style is the use of figures of speech which he considers very important, and so devotes nearly one third of his work to it. He shows great discrimination and originality of thinking in his treatment of the subject. Figures of speech should not be used mechanically, rather they must be rooted in genuine emotion. Used naturally, they impart elevation to style, and are themselves made more effective by an elevated style.
The figures of thought and diction have to be judiciously employed. The grandeur of any figure “will depend on its being employed in the right place and the right manner, on the right occasion, and with the right motive.'” It strengthens the sublime, and the sublime supports it. We need the figures only “when the nature of the theme makes it allowable to amplify, to multiply or to speak in the tones of exaggeration or passion; to overlay every sentence with ornament is very pedantic.” When the figure is unrelated to passion, it creates a suspicion of dishonesty and is divorced from sublimity. The chief figures that make for sublimity are the theoretical question, asyndeton, hyperbaton, and periphrasis. In brief, the use of figures must be psychological—intimately connected with thought and emotion, and not merely mechanical.
(4) Nobility of Diction
The fourth source of the ‘sublime’ is diction which includes choice and arrangement of words and the use of metaphors and ornamental language. The discussion of diction is incomplete because four leaves of this part of the book are unfortunately lost. Nevertheless, words, when suitable and striking, he says, have ”a moving and seductive effect” upon the reader and are the first things in a style to lend it “grandeur, beauty and mellowness, dignity, force, power, and a sort of glittering charm.” It is they that breathe voice into dead things. They are ‘the very light of ought’—a radiance that illumines the innermost recesses of the writer’s mind. But ‘it should be noted that imposing language is not suitable for every occasion. When the object is trivial, to invest it with grand and stately words would have the same effect as putting a full-sized tragic mask on the head of a little child.’ This necessitates the use of common words which, when in elegant, make up for it by their raciness and forcefulness. Among these ornaments of speech Longinus considers metaphor and hyperbole.
(5) Dignity of Composition
The fifth source of the sublime is the dignity of composition, that is, a dignified composition or the arrangement of words. It should be one that blends thought, emotion, figures, and words themselves—the preceding four elements of sublimity—into a harmonious whole. Such an arrangement has not only ‘a natural power of persuasion and of giving pleasure but also the marvellous power of exalting the soul and swaying the heart of men.” It makes the hearer or reader share the emotion of the speaker. But ‘if the elements of grandeur be separated from one another, the sublimity is scattered and made to vanish but when organised into a compact system and still further encircled in a chain of harmony they gain a living voice by being merely rounded into a period.’ A harmonious composition alone sometimes makes up for the deficiency of the other elements. A proper rhythm is one of the elements in this harmony. Negatively, deformity and not grandeur is the result if the composition is either extremely concise or unduly prolix. The one cripples the thought and the other overextends it.
(6) The False and the True Sublime
Making a distinction between the false and the true sublime, Longinus says that the false sublime is characterised first, by timidity or bombast of language, which is as great an evil as swellings in the body. “It is drier than dropsy.” Secondly, the false sublime is characterised by puerility, which is a parade and pomp of language, tawdry and affected, and so frigid. Thirdly, the false sublime results when there is a cheap display of passion, when it is not justified by the occasion, and so is wearisome. True sublime, on the other hand, pleases all and “pleases always,” for it expresses thoughts of universal validity—thoughts common to man of all ages and centuries—in a language which instinctively uplifts our souls.
POINTS TO REMEMBER
1. “Sublime” means “elevation”, or “loftiness”—”a certain distinction and excellence in composition.”
2. The principal sources of the Sublime are—(1) grandeur of thought; (2) capacity for strong emotion; (3) appropriate use of figures of speech; (4) Nobility of diction, and (5) dignity of composition or a happy blend of the preceding four elements.
3. Sublimity the echo of a great soul; lofty thoughts and ideas a pre condition for sublimity; trivial thoughts—mean and servile ideas— do not lead to sublimity.
4. The second source of the sublime is the vehement, inspired and genuine emotion.
5. Sublimity can be attained by the appropriate use of the figures of speech which should not be used mechanically but naturally to be rooted in genuine emotion—should be employed in the right place and right manner. The chief figures that make for sublimily are asyndaton, hyperbaton and periphrasis.
6. For sublimity the choice and arrangement of right words. Use of grand words for a trivial object will only be ridiculous.
7. Hence sublimity in a work of art is the result of a happy blending of lofty thought, strong and genuine emotion, appropriate figures of speech and suitable words. Elements of grandeur cannot he separated from each other.
8. True Vs. False Sublime—False sublime is characterized by timidity or bombast of language and also by puerility (a parade and pomp of language). True Sublime, on the other hand, is marked by universality of appeal: it pleases all and always : it uplifts our souls.