“Great utterance” says Longinus “is the echo of greatness of the soul. ” It is impossible that those whose are trivial and servile should flash out anything wonderful and worthy of immortality. Great literature is thus the creation of instinctive genius. Thoughts that are lofty and awe-inspiring find their natural expression in exalted phrase. Such loftiness of thought is normally a gift of nature rather than an acquired quality. But art can help in putting a curb on the wild and licentious tendencies of nature. “Fine writing” says Longinus, “needs the spur as well as curb “. Both nature and art are, therefore, necessary for the creation of the Sublime in literature.
Great thoughts spring from great souls. The truly eloquent must be free from low and ignoble thoughts. Men with mean and servile ideas cannot produce immortal literature. It is only great minds that produce great literature. So the first source of the Sublime is that of grasping great thoughts. Sublimity is the image of the soul. A thought, even when it is not uttered, is at times admirable or Sublime. Such is the silence of Ajax in Odyssey. The- spirit is generous and aspiring in Browning’s Grammarian’s Funeral and Abt Vogler, and we find here the true eloquence. The Sublime thought is expressed in the grand style; and such a thought comes from the loftiest mind. Longinus observes: “the lawgiver of the Jews having formed an adequate conception of the Supreme Being, gave it adequate expression in the opening words of his “Laws”, “God said let there be light and there was light, etc. “
But, what does actually the Sublime consist of? Longinus tries to answer the question at the very outset of his treatise :
The Sublime consists in a certain loftiness and consummateness of language, and it is by this and this only that the greatest poets and prose writers have won pre-eminence and lasting fame.
And he goes on :
For a work of genius does not aim at persuasion, but ecstasy—of lifting the reader out of himself. The wonder of it, wherever and whenever it appears, startles us; it prevails where the persuasive or agreeable may fail; for persuasion depends mainly on ourselves, but there is no fighting against the sovereignty of genius. It imposes its irresistible will upon us all.
Where there is only skill in invention and laborious arrangement of matter a whole treatise, let alone a sentence or two, will scarcely avail to throw light on a subject. But the Sublime at the critical moment shoots forth and tears the whole thing to pieces and like a thunderbolt, and in a flash reveals all the author’s power.
“Here then,” says R. A. Scott-James “We have the first perfectly definite statement of a doctrine which Joubert could not make more precise when he said : “Nothing is poetry unless it transports”; which Sir Thomas Browne was to translate into the language of sentiment when he exclaimed, “I love to lose myself in a mystery, to pursue my reason to an O Altitudel” and which De Quincey was to nail down in his distinction between the literature of knowledge and the literature of power—’The function of the first is to teach; the function of the second is to move.’ The sublime effect of literature, for Longinus, attained, not by argument, but by revelation, or illumination. Its appeal is not through the reason, but what we should call imagination. Its effect upon the mind is immediate, like a flash of lightning upon the eye.”
Is Transport a mere subjective quality or can it be sufficiently objective to be isolated for critical discussion? Longinus does not explicitly answer this question. But he seems to believe that this quality is both subjective and objective. It is subjective in a double sense; it springs from a lofty soul and at the same time it places much stress on the power of introspection in a reader. The value of a work is to be ultimately stressed by its power to carry away a reader. There is, however, another implication. There are some elements of style and structure which definitely contribute to the grandeur and elevation of a work. Since the quality of transport is the result of the grandeur and passion of the work, partly, contributed by art, the quality may be objective also. It is here that Longinus comes close to modern critics. He seems to suggest that there can be “a criticism of convincing objectivity which approaches the literary work through the analysis of style and which arrives at its larger aspects through that aperture.”
Before Longinus the function of literature, if it was poetry, was to instruct or to delight or to do both and, if it was prose, to persuade. Longinus found this three-word formula wanting. For he discovered that the masterpieces of Greek classical literature—epics of Homer, the lyrics of Sappho (a Greek poetess) and Pindar, the tragedies of Aeschylus, the orations of Demosthenes were great for a different reason altogether— their Sublimity. Not instruction or delight or persuasion, therefore, is the test of great literature, but transport—its capacity to move the reader to ecstasy—caused by an irresistible magic of speech. If he is spell-bound by what the writer says, so that he can neither think nor feel except what the writer thinks or feels, the work has the quality of the Sublime.