On The Sublime
“Manfred on the Jungfrau” John Martin, 1837
From the last half of the Eighteenth Century through the last quarter of the Nineteenth, an idea permeated popular and intellectual culture and showed itself in literature, art and music, although no one could quite agree on its definition. Like wit in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, which also defied simple definition, the sublime was something no one couldn’t quite pin down, but like Justice Potter Stewart said, you knew it when you saw it.
The Sublime features representations of vast spaces, horrifying disasters and universal chaos. Anything dark, scary, awe inspiring or supernatural.
“Alpine Avalanche,” Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1803
Of course, the idea isn’t limited to the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It has been around as long as there has been art and literature. There is The Sublime in the epic of Gilgamesh and it is all over the Bible.
There had always been a subspecies of The Sublime in art. It is in Shakespeare, in Titian, in Rubens. It runs throughout John Milton’s Paradise Lost, especially in those parts describing Satan and his acts.
But The Sublime steps into the spotlight with the advent of Romanticism. It is in the poetry of Byron, the novels of Victor Hugo, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. It is behind the fad for Gothic novels and the nature poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge.
The first clear enunciation of The Sublime in literature was set down in the First Century by an anonymous author, usually called Longinus. His treatise, usually called On the Sublime, is primarily a guidebook to rhetoric, with all the usual tropes, but he also discusses how great writing — as opposed to the merely good — overwhelms us, and it is great subjects that lend themselves to great writing.
In the climactic 35th chapter, he writes: “What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.
“Vesuvius Erupting,” Pierre-Jacques Volaire, 1877
“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”
What happened between the century of Voltaire and that of Shelley is the cultural shift from Neo-classicism to Romanticism. It is a shift from a concern for society and relations of humans to humans to a different frame of reference — to the relation of the individual to the cosmos.
Relations between people are between roughly equal, similar size entities; relations with the cosmos pit the infinitesimal human being against the infinite. There is no satisfactory reaction but awe, terror, and admiration: That is The Sublime.
“The Deluge” William Westall, 1848
Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on “European Literature” by recalling: “My whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’ which concludes that his ultimate realization of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.”
In 1757, a young Edmund Burke wrote an influential treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
He sorted The Sublime into seven constituents: darkness; obscurity; deprivation; vastness; magnificence; loudness; and suddenness. When used in art or literature, The Sublime reminds us of things we find frightening in the world, but by being framed in art, lets us contemplate it in safety, and thus we find pleasure in it.
“Chamounix, Mont Blanc and the Arve Valley” JMW Turner 1803
The next generation sought out The Sublime in reality as well as in literature. When Mary and Percy Shelley visited the valley of the Arve River in the Alps, they noted in their History of a Six Weeks Tour through a Part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland: “Mont Blanc was before us, but it was covered with cloud; its base, furrowed with dreadful gaps, was seen above. Pinnacles of snow intolerably bright, part of the chain connected with Mont Blanc, shone through the clouds at intervals on high. I never knew — I never imagined what mountains were before. The immensity of these aerial summits excited, when they suddenly burst upon the sight, a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.”
Shelley transformed this into his poem, Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni:
In her 1794 gothic novel The Mysteries of Udolpho, Ann Radcliffe has her heroine face the Alps:
“They quitted their carriages and began to ascend the Alps. And here such scenes of Sublimity opened upon them as no colors of language must dare to paint … Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”
“Hannibal Crossing the Alps in Snowstorm” JMW Turner 1812
And Byron is nothing without The Sublime. He takes his doomed hero to the Jungfrau in Manfred and used it in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage over and over, as in the lines, “Roll on thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!”
In Canto 3 of Childe Harold, he takes his hero to the Alps:
Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (1798) is all about The Sublime and its terror — and ultimately, its beauty.
Its hero, aboard a death ship is surrounded by a sea of monsters: “The very deep did rot: O Christ!/ That ever this should be!/ Yea slimy things did crawl with legs/ Upon a slimy sea.” But our mariner has a transformation of heart:
Certain artists and painters became transfixed by The Sublime. First comes Joseph Wright of Derby (he is always referred to this way, apparently to distinguish him from other Joseph Wrights, including an American artist of the same time, who designed the Liberty Hat penny).
In many of the English Wright’s paintings, a bright light glows in the darkness. He painted multiple canvasses of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in the 1770s.
“Vesuvius in Eruption, With a View of the Bay of Naples,” Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776
Although he didn’t have to travel that far. Many of his landscapes feature brooding moonlight scenes, or images of fire in the darkness, such as
“Cottage on Fire,” Joseph Wright of Derby 1786
This fascination with The Sublime is primarily a northern European thing. You find it in British art, in German art and Scandinavian art, but less so in Italian or Spanish (Goya excepted).
Germany produced Caspar David Friedrich, who specialized in images of the contemplation of vast nature.
The arctic inspired a good deal of Sublime art, as in Friederich’s Sea of Ice, with its barely noticeable shipwreck.
“Das Eismeer” Caspar David Friedrich, 1823
The ice of the arctic is where Mary Shelley had her Frankenstein creature float away on an ice raft to his death.
“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed in their conflict. The cold is excessive, and many of my unfortunate comrades have already found a grave amidst this scene of desolation.”
And the final words of the novel:
“He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.”
Later in the century, American painter Frederick Edwin Church painted a dozen or so studies of icebergs.
“Floating Iceberg,” Frederick Edwin Church 1859
Church also painted volcanoes, such as Cotopaxi in Ecuador.
“Cotopaxi,” Frederick Edwin Church 1862
Church’s most famous painting, now at the National Gallery in Washington DC, is his Niagara, a nearly 8-foot across panorama of the falls. It was shown in New York in 1857, where visitors could pay 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened art gallery (for best effect). The painting went on a cross-Atlantic tour, shown the same way.
“Niagara,” Frederick Edwin Church 1857
Its effect was stunning for the time. Even a century later, writer David Harrington could say “Niagara is the American’s mythical Deluge which washes away the memory of an Old World so that man may live at home in a New World. The painting is an icon of psychic natural purgation and rebirth. Poetically a New World emerges as the waters of a flood subside. The rainbow, sign of the ‘God of Nature’s’ covenant with man, transfixes the beholder. … Niagara is a revelation of the cosmos to each and every man.”
The biblical reference is apposite. Much of the imagery of The Sublime in the 19th Century comes from the Bible. Painters loved to depict certain scenes from the Old Testament: the Deluge; the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Balshazzar’s Feast; Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines; the Plagues of Egypt — anything that would have delighted Cecil B. Demille.
In such paintings, you can see the difference between earlier ages and the rise of The Sublime. In Renaissance and Baroque paintings, the action centers on the people involved. Landscape is mere backdrop. But in the century and a half I’m writing about, the people shrink to insignificance and the landscape takes over, full of rocky climes, lightning bolts, hurtling boulders, spewing volcanoes and roiling stormclouds. You can almost make a stop-action movie, like watching a flower unfold in a nature film, showing the people getting smaller and smaller and the landscape becoming ever more menacing.
“Gordale Scar, Yorkshire,” James Ward 1812
It is clear that as you go later into the 19th Century, The Sublime verges all too often at the edge of kitsch. The sense of cosmic overload funnels into a kind of religious sentimentality. Where you draw the line, personally, depends very much on your willingness to accept the underlying metaphor of the vastness and impenetrability of the universe.
There are two British artists who straddle that line. John Martin and Joseph Mallord William Turner. Martin was very popular in the early years of the century, but is largely forgotten now. Turner was popular then and even more so today. Still, I have to admit a soft spot in my head for John Martin and his extravagance.
“Pandemonium,” John Martin 1841
I first learned of him and his large painting (now in the St. Louis Art Museum) called Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion. First painted in 1812, it exists in several forms, both in paint and as print. In it, the Persian prince, Sadak, must fulfill a quest for the legendary Waters of Oblivion, in order to save his kidnapped wife. It is based on one of the Tales of the Genii, by English author James Ridley and was a huge success when first exhibited.
Martin turned to printmaking to make his work available to a wider audience and published, in 1824, an enormously popular series of illustrations to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. (These were, in part, the inspiration for the later Gustave Dore to make his own series for the epic poem).
“The Bridge Over Chaos” from “Paradise Lost,” John Martin 1826
Biblical subjects became Martin’s bread and butter. The more grandiose the image, the more popular became his prints. They include The Fall of Babylon:
The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
The Seventh Plague of Egypt:
And Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Upon Gideon:
And my favorite — The Great Day of His Wrath:
He ventured out of his biblical Fach for the historical:
“The Destruction of Pompeii,” John Martin 1822
And even the prehistorical — on of my favorite for its goofiness. It was the frontispiece illustration for Gideon Mantell’s book, The Wonders of Geology:
“The Country of the Iguanodon,” John Martin 1837
Martin’s appeal was to vastness and number. His Balshazzar’s Feast prompted Charles Lamb to deem it “vulgar and bombastic.”
“Balshazzar’s Feast,” John Martin 1821
In contrast, JMW Turner also painted one of the plagues of Egypt, and it has its share of grandiosity, but Turner’s shtick was mist and fog, indistinct outlines — and uncertain scholarship (It is titled the Fifth Plague, but actually illustrates the biblical Seventh Plague).
“The Fifth Plague of Egypt,” JMW Turner 1800
In 1840, Turner exhibited a painting called Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying — Typhoon Coming On. It depicts an event from 1781 when the captain of the slave ship Zong threw overboard 132 of his captives when drinking water was running low. Since insurance would not cover the cost of slaves dying of natural causes, he drowned them instead, so he could collect. Turner seems to have added the typhoon for effect.
“Slave Ship,” JMW Turner 1840
The storm, the swirling air and sea, the lurid color and the loose brushwork all contribute to the sense of disaster. While the painting had an abolitionist intent, it is its forward-looking esthetics that appealed to critic John Ruskin. Turner is often seen as a precursor to the Impressionists. But while they tended to paint everyday scenes, Turner favored turmoil and disaster.
“Disaster at Sea,” JMW Turner 1835
The circular swirl was a trademark of the later Turner. In 1842, he had himself lashed to the mast of a ship in a snowstorm in order to paint Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Making Signals in Shallow Water, and going by the Lead. The Author was in this Storm on the Night the “Ariel” left Harwich. Yes, that was its full title when first exhibited.
“Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth,” JMW Turner 1842
He also did a snow storm in the Alps.
“Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche and Thunderstorm,” JMW Turner 1836
In the United States, The Sublime was a natural. The American West lent itself to large paintings of vast landscape, often in mist or early sunrise. An entire school of artists, usually called the Hudson River School, latched onto The Sublime, beginning with Thomas Cole.
“The Expulsion from Eden,” Thomas Cole 1828
Cole’s most famous protege was Frederic Edwin Church, whose paintings of South America brought the exotic landscape to the U.S.
“Rainy Season in the Tropics,” Frederic Edwin Church 1866
And Martin Johnson Heade verged on the surreal in many of his paintings.
“Approaching Storm — Beach Near Newport,” Martin Johnson Heade 1859
But it was the West that threw open the gates of heaven, with any number of painters, first among them, German-born Albert Bierstadt.
“Among the Sierra Nevada, California,” Albert Bierstadt 1858
Latterly among them was Thomas Moran, whose huge and colorful canvases persuaded Congress to create our first national parks.
“Shoshone Falls,” Thomas Moran 1900
These painters are the clear progenitors of the landscape photographs of Ansel Adams.
“Clearing Storm, Yosemite,” Ansel Adams 1944
But The Sublime had pretty well worked itself out by the end of the 19th Century. It was harder to believe in the awesome beauty of Providence after the First World War, to say nothing of the horrors that followed. Post-Traumatic Stress wasn’t quite the same thing. Still, The Sublime hung on in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, and especially Mark Rothko, whose mysterious canvases of hovering colors evoke the same sort of awe among those willing to be seduced by them.
“Black on Maroon,” Mark Rothko 1958
I’ve covered literature and painting, but The Sublime appears in music, also. The first sound depiction of it occurred when Franz Joseph Haydn depicted biblical Chaos as the prelude to his oratorio The Creation, which premiered in 1803.
Hector Berlioz assayed The Sublime in several of his works, but none more grippingly than in the Tuba Mirum section of the Dies Irae of his Requiem Mass of 1837, which requires, in addition to a huge orchestra and chorus, four extra brass bands, set into the four corners of the concert hall, and 20 tympani, which roll doom out in the Dies Irae.
Another Dies Irae with the power to blow you away is Giuseppe Verdi’s, from his Requiem Mass, which whacks the bass drum in alternation of staccato blasts from the strings and brass.
Perhaps the cake is taken by Gustav Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand — his Symphony No. 8, which in an ideal performance has an orchestra of about 200 and a chorus of 800. It is gargantuan, and the opening Veni Creator Spiritus is as close to manic insanity as music can probably sustain.
There are moments in Wagner, in Liszt, Bruckner and many in Mahler’s other symphonies.
Then, there’s The Ninth. I don’t need to mention whose. The Sublime makes itself present in each of the four movements, but rises to a climax in the choral finale, where voices and instruments poise at the limits of their abilities and hold those notes as they sing, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” — “Be embraced, you millions” and then “Ahnest du den Schopfer… — hold it, and then belt out — “Welt?” There follows a coda of ecstasy bringing home the central message of the symphony: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” — “Joy, beautiful spark of divinity.”
But perhaps the greatest moment of The Sublime, as terror and grandeur, comes with the recapitulation section of the first movement. The theme that began the symphony in uncertainty and mist — we don’t even know originally what key it is in — comes back forte underlined by two solid minutes of rolling tympani thunder. Some conductors downplay this moment, letting the tympani merely enforce the bass line, but done right, the drums are an earthquake of apocalyptic rumble.
Perhaps I have been fascinated by The Sublime in art and poetry so much because I have experienced in life — probably a dozen times or so, maybe a score if I catalogued them — a moment when you don’t merely feel the joy of beauty found in nature, but experience a cosmic tingle, a sense of life magnified, intensified, made mythic. A body-sense of the vastness of existence and my minuscule place in it.
It tends to come, as it does in art, in mountains or deserts or at sea. I recall the sense while crossing the Atlantic on a ship and walking the deck after midnight and seeing in the vast emptiness of the ocean a twinkle of a light on a ship many miles off, heading in the opposite direction. The sea swells were rocking the boat and I could make out the shifting facets of waves in the dark, where some starlight was caught in the reflection of the water.
Or the Grand Canyon at five in the morning just before the sun broke the horizon.
Once, driving east in North Carolina on my way to Cape Hatteras, it was near sunset and in front of me in the windshield was a sooty-dark thunderhead and rain on the road perhaps a mile in front of me, obscuring the road and any horizon. It was a canyon of charcoal cloud climbing up to the stratosphere, with spikes of lightning, while in the rear window, the sun was brilliant and red in a clear sky. It was the definition of The Sublime.
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