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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Radical though England was in the “new science,”
it remained conservative in literary criticism, drawing
primarily from French rhetoricians. In France the
“Sublime” was for many years a rhetorical concept.
Yet even though Boileau's Traité de l'art poétique was
known in England from the time of its publication in
1674, it is many years before we find the kind of
estimate of Longinus implied by Alexander Pope in
An Essay on Criticism, first published in 1711 (lines

Thee, bold Longinus! all the Nine inspire,
And bless their Critick with a Poet's Fire,
An ardent Judge, who Zealous in his Trust,
With warmth gives Sentence, yet is always Just;
Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws,
and Is himself the great Sublime he draws.
But in the meantime, during the late seventeenth cen-
tury, a “natural Sublime” was developing in England
with the result that travellers to the Alps were both
appalled and enthralled by the vast and grand in exter-
nal Nature [see Mountains,...]. A climax emerges in
the extraordinary ambivalence of Thomas Burnet, in
A Sacred Theory of the Earth (Latin, 1681; English,
1684), who on the one hand condemned mountains as
monstrosities, the “ruines of a broken World,” and on
the other responded to their majesty emotionally as
had no English writer before that time. In England
a “natural Sublime” preceded the “rhetorical

In 1688 John Dennis, an English dramatist and critic,
crossed the Alps and left an account of the experience
in a journal-letter, later published in his Miscellanies
(1693). Like many before him, he pondered the prob-
lem whether mountains had been original with the
creation of the world, or whether they were ruins, a
result of destruction by the Flood. Mountain travel was
still very dangerous, and some part of the “horror” and
“terror” expressed by Dennis was the result of natural
and instinctive fear. “We walk'd upon the very brink,
in a literal sense, of Destruction,” he wrote. “One
Stumble and both Life and Carcass had been at once
destroy'd.” Everywhere about him, Dennis saw the
ruins of a broken world: “Ruins upon Ruins in mon-
strous Heaps, and Heaven and Earth confounded.” The
frightful view of precipices and foaming waters that
fell headlong from them “made all such a Consort up
for the Eye, as that sort of Musick does for the Ear,
in which Horrour can be joyn'd with Harmony.” The
Alps are works which “Nature seems to have design'd,
and execut'd too in Fury. Yet she moves us less when
she studies to please us more.” Before his Alpine
journey Dennis had been “delighted” at the beauty of
hills and valleys, meadows and streams, but that had
been “a delight that is consistent with reason.... But
transporting Pleasures followed the sight of the Alpes,
and what unusual Transports think you were those, that
were mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost


with despair.” In a sentence Dennis expressed the idea
of the Sublime that was to become a new aesthetic
experience: “The sense of all this produc'd different
emotions in me, viz., a delightful Horrour, a terrible
Joy, and at the same time, that I was infinitely pleas'd,
I trembled.” Dennis returned to England to write
various works in which he developed an aesthetic only
dawning when he went abroad, to attempt to establish
new literary criteria, and to make the first important
distinction in English literary criticism between the
Beautiful and the Sublime, categories which remained
sharply opposed in his mind.

Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury,
made the Grand Tour in 1686, two years earlier than
Dennis, but did not publish his memoirs of it until The
appeared in 1709. Perhaps like Dennis he
had written a journal-letter. His account of the
mountain-experience is an episode in a grand tour of
the universe, on which a master conducted a pupil.
It begins with sight of a vast tract of sky above the
mighty Atlas, rearing his snow-covered head, where
“huge embodied rocks lie piled one on another.” “See
with what trembling steps poor mankind tread the
narrow brink of the deep precipices, mistrusting even
the ground which bears them.” They ponder the evi-
dences of ruin they see on all sides, “whilst the appar-
ent spoil and irreparable breaches of the wasted moun-
tain show them the world itself only as a noble ruin.”
“Midway the mountain,” the travellers felt that “space
astonishes”; but space did not appall Shaftesbury as
it had Blaise Pascal who wrote in his Pensées (1670,
posthumous): “The eternal silence of these infinite
spaces terrifies me.” To Shaftesbury the apparent
infinity of space led men to thoughts of God, in whose
“immensity all thought is lost, fancy gives over its
flight, and wearied imagination spends itself in vain,
finding no coast nor limit of this ocean.” Shaftesbury
made no such sharp distinction as Dennis between
beauty and sublimity: to him the Sublime was a higher
and a grander Beauty.

So far as England was concerned, the most important
early treatment of the Sublime was that of Joseph
Addison in his Pleasures of the Imagination. Drafts of
some of the papers had been written well before the
full text was published in the Spectator in 1712. Even
in his earliest printed work, his Oration in Praise of
the New Philosophy,
delivered when he was still a stu-
dent at Oxford, Addison had shown the impact upon his
imagination of a greatly expanded telescopic and micro-
scopic “Nature” in the new universe. When he set out
on the Grand Tour in 1699, he was better prepared
than some of his predecessors for experience with the
“grand” in Nature. “The Alps,” he wrote, “fill the mind
with an agreeable kind of horror, and form one of
the most irregular, mis-shapen scenes in the world.”

The Pleasures of the Imagination, as published, deal
with two groups of “pleasures”: a “secondary” (Spec-
416-20), in which Addison studies the effect upon
imagination of various arts, architecture and landscape-
gardening in particular. These essays, like a group of
papers on Milton, may be said to treat the “rhetorical
Sublime.” They are less original than the first group
of essays (Spectator 411-15), in which he discussed the
effect of the primary pleasures of imagination. While
he was dealing with what is there called “the Sublime
in external Nature,” it is significant that he carefully
avoided in this group of essays the word “Sublime,”
using such adjectives as great, stupendous, unlimited,
spacious, unbounded,
and—though on only two
occasions—vast, which he probably considered, as did
the French, an adjective of excess. The primary pleas-
ures of the imagination are such as man receives, not
through books but directly from Nature. They come
to him through his senses, most of all through sight.
“By pleasures of imagination,” Addison said (Spectator
411), “I here mean such as arise from visible objects.
... We cannot, indeed, have a single image in the
fancy that did not make its first appearance through
the sight.” In the essays Addison discussed three
categories, “the great, the uncommon and the beauti-
ful.” His treatment of “beauty” remained conventional,
that of the “new or uncommon” somewhat vague. His
originality lay in his stress upon the effect on imagina-
tion of greatness, particularly as it was perceived
through the eyes. Classical, medieval, and Arabic
philosophers had stressed the importance of sight, but
in the period of the telescope and the microscope it
took on new significance. To Locke, sight was “the
most comprehensive of all the senses,” to Berkeley “the
most noble, pleasant and comprehensive of all the
senses.” More than one philosopher of the period
paused to consider the problems of a man born blind.
But although Addison shared with predecessors and
contemporaries his interest in the effect of sight, he
was original in his emphasis on the influence of sight
less on the mind, than on the imagination.

In Spectator 414 Addison particularly developed the
idea of the great as a primary stimulus to the imagina-
tion. Works of art may be beautiful, but they cannot
rise to “greatness.” “There is something more bold and
masterly in the rough careless strokes of nature, than
in the nice touches and embellishments of art.” “By
greatness,” he wrote in Spectator 412, “I do not mean
only the bulk of any single object, but the largeness
of a whole view.” His memory went back to his Conti-
nental travels:

Such are the prospects of an open champaign country, a
vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high
rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters where


we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight,
but with that rude kind of magnificence which appears in
many of these stupendous works of nature.

A reader becomes aware that Addison is greatly
interested in what we now think of as psychological
effects of vastness and greatness upon the imagination.
In this particular essay he continued:

Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp
at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung
into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and
feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the
apprehension of them. The mind of man naturally hates
every thing that looks like a restraint upon it, and is apt
to fancy itself under a sort of confinement when the sight
is pent up in a narrow compass, and shortened on every
side by the neighborhood of walls or mountains. On the
contrary, a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where
the eye has room to range abroad, to expatiate at large on
the immensity of its views, and to lose itself amidst the
variety of objects that offer themselves to its observation.
Such wide and undetermined prospects are as pleasing to
the fancy, as the speculations of eternity or infinitude are
to the understanding.

Here is Addison's attempt at explicating what in mod-
ern times is “agoraphobia” and “claustrophobia.”

In the last analysis, Addison declares (Spectator 413)
that such appreciation of and aspiration toward the
great is man's gift from God, who has “so formed the
soul of man, that nothing but himself can be its last,
adequate, and proper happiness.” God has made man
“naturally delighted in the apprehension of what is
great or unlimited.” From Infinite God through the
vastness of Nature to the soul of man; from the soul
of man through vast Nature to God—such was the
process of what can be called “The Aesthetics of the

There was nothing particularly original in Addison's
development of the categories of beauty or novelty,
but his analysis of greatness was of the first importance.
As we shall see, his ideas were versified by Mark
Akenside and made into an elaborate system by
Edmund Burke. His analysis of beauty and sublimity
also lay behind various of Immanuel Kant's conceptions
in his Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790). To some extent
his distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime
lay behind a new descriptive poetry in eighteenth-
century England (discussed in Mountain Gloom and
Mountain Glory,
1959). The sense of a new “vast
Sublime” is to be seen particularly in the “excursion”
poets who sent their imaginations on grand tours of
the universe to marvel at all that was vast or grand—
mighty continents with mountains and oceans, majestic
rivers, subterraneous regions with caverns measureless
to man. “Sublimity,” James Thomson wrote to David
Mallett who was planning The Excursion (1728), “must
be the characteristic of your piece.” Mallett willingly
responded with “great scenes”: the violence of storm,
eruptions, earthquakes, volcanoes, the Deluge. This,
Thomson replied, “is arousing fancy—enthusiasm—
rapturous terror.”

In 1744-46 appeared editions of three long poems,
all concerned in part with the Sublime: James
Thomson's complete Seasons, Mark Akenside's The
Pleasures of Imagination,
Edward Young's Night
Having wisely left to Mallett the most vio-
lent manifestations of natural forces, Thomson sent his
imagination over the British Isles, Europe, and upon
occasion South America, which he had not seen, finding
both the Beautiful and the Sublime. “Spring” alone,
in which he emphasized Beauty, is limited in its canvas.
In the other seasons, rivers and mountains became more
and more majestic as the various books grew under
the poet's hand. “Air, earth and ocean smile immense”;
“Earth's universal face is one wild dazzling waste.”
When shadows fall, the far horizon becomes a
“boundless deep immensity of shade.” “Solemn and
slow the shadows blacker fall/ And all is awful listening
gloom around.” Nature grows increasingly richer, more
diversified, more boundless, more sublime:

Nature! great parent! whose unceasing hand
Rolls round the Seasons of the changeful year.
How mighty, how majestic are thy works!
With what a pleasing dread they swell the soul,
That sees astonish'd, and astonish'd sings!

(“Winter,” lines 106-10).

In his earlier version of The Pleasures of Imagination
(1744), Mark Akenside, like Addison before him,
treated the three categories of the sublime, the won-
derful, and the fair, the second of which he omitted
in a later edition. Unlike Thomson, Akenside was not
a descriptive but a philosophical poet, less interested
in scenery than in its effect upon the imagination.
There was a significant difference, he felt, between
responses to the Beautiful and the Sublime:

Diff'rent minds
Incline to different objects: one pursues
The vast alone, the wonderful, the wild;
Another sighs for harmony and grace,
And gentlest beauty

(III, 546-50).

The Beautiful and the Sublime were not antithetical
to Akenside as they were to Dennis. Rather—as with
Shaftesbury—the Sublime was the highest Beauty:

... celestial truth
Her awful light discloses, to bestow
A more majestic pomp on beauty's frame.

(II, 97-99)

To Akenside as to Thomson color was equated with
beauty, light with sublimity. His “high-born soul,”


refusing to be satisfied with “earth and this diurnal
scene,” spreads its wings and takes off on a cosmic
voyage through streams of light, past the planets and
the “devious comets” until she “looks back on all the
starrs whose blended light, as with a milky zone invests
the orient.”

... she springs aloft
Through fields of air; pursues the flying storm;
Rides on the volley'd lightnings thro' the heav'ns,
Or, yok'd with whirlwinds and the northern blast
Sweeps the long tract of day

(I, 186-91).

A climax in the poetic treatment of sublimity came
in the “Ninth Night” of Thomas Young's Night
(1745-46). Young paid no attention to Beauty,
none to landscape. As the title implies, the scene is
laid at night. Young's external Nature is dark and void
of color. His character, Lorenzo, had remained uncon-
vinced throughout eight long and tedious books of the
Night Thoughts, to be converted finally as the result
of a series of cosmic voyages on which his mentor
conducted his imagination. Young used the technique
of cosmic voyagers of the seventeenth century. “The
soul of man was made to walk the skies.”

In the remote past, men had found “the great” in
the Seven Wonders of the World—works of Art, not
Nature. More recently they had sought it in the land-
scape of Nature, in the

Seas, rivers, mountains, forests, deserts, rocks,
The promontory's height, the depth profound
Of subterranean, excavated grots,
Black-brow'd, and vaulted high, and yawning wide
From Nature's structure, or the scoop of Time.

(IX, 905-09)

But great though these may seem to man, they were
not enough for Young's imagination. “But what of vast
in these?” he asked, and replied, “Nothing—or we must
own the skies forgot.” Greatness is found not in the
landscape of earth but in the space of the heavens,
that “noble pasture of the mind,” where the soul
“expatiates, strengthens, and exults.” There she

... can rove at large;
There, freely can respire, dilate, extend,
In full proportion let loose all her powers;
And, undeluded, grasp at something great.

(IX, 1016-19)

In his series of cosmic voyages Young's Lorenzo found
his mind and soul expanding with the enlargement of

... How great,
How glorious, then, appears the mind of man
When in it all the stars, and planets, roll!
And what it seems, it is; Great objects make
Great minds, enlarging as their views enlarge;
Those still more godlike, as these more divine.

(IX, 1059-64)

Young added to the concept of infinite space an idea
that had been dawning in his century—infinite time.
“Eternity,” he said, “is written in the stars.” As
Lorenzo journeyed in the heavens among stars and
planets, he learned

The boundless space through which these rovers take
Their restless roam, suggests the sister thought
Of boundless time

(IX, 1172-74).

Lorenzo returned from his cosmic voyaging with a new
feeling for grandeur, a new awareness of the range of
imagination, a new sense of God:

True, all things speak a God; but in the small,
Men trace out him; in great, he seizes Man;
Seizes, and elevates, and raps, and fills

(IX, 772-74).

From Art through grand Nature in the landscape
of an enlarged and enlarging world, then through cos-
mic Nature, the imagination of the eighteenth century
rose to the source of eternity and infinity. From the
Infinite, through the new space discovered by astron-
omy, vastness descended to carry a new sense of the
Sublime to exalt “the wide Sea and Mountains of the
Earth.” Such is the process of “The Aesthetics of the

Not long after Thomson, Akenside, and Young had
published their poems, Edmund Burke, then a student
of nineteen, read before a club at Trinity College,
Dublin, the draft of an essay published in 1756 or 1757
as A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas
of the Sublime and Beautiful.
Addison's Pleasures of
the Imagination
was clearly one of his points of
departure, but similarities with the three poets may
also be seen. Particularly in his penetrating analysis
of color and light, his debt to Thomson, Akenside, and
Young is greater than to Addison. Burke's treatment
of Beauty is more conventional than that of the
Sublime, which recalls the pleasure-pain theory
frequently discussed by Locke, Shaftesbury, and Hume.
The qualities of Beauty are pleasant ones, such as
smallness, smoothness, delicacy, variation, color. Those
of the Sublime are terror, obscurity, difficulty, power,
vastness, leading to magnificence and infinity.

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature,
when their causes operate most powerfully is Astonishment;
and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its
motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this
case the mind is so entirely filled with its objects, that it
cannot entertain any other.... Hence arises the great
power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them,
it anticipates our reasonings, it hurries us on by an irre-
sistible force.


“Whatever is fitted in any soul,” Burke went on, “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 emotions which the mind is capable
of feeling.” “All general privations,” he wrote, “are
great, because they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness,
and Silence.

Naturally Burke had much to say of color and light.
Ordinarily color belongs to Beauty, but it may mount
to the Sublime if it is strong and violent. But light—
when it is more than “mere light”—approaches the
Sublime: the light of the sun which blinds, lightning
involving grandeur or terror, rapid transition from light
to darkness or from darkness to light. “Extreme light,
by overcoming the organs of sight, obliterates all ob-
jects, so as in its effect exactly to resemble darkness.”
Light may be Sublime because of either magnificence
or horror. The sublimity of light partakes to some
degree of all the qualities of the Sublime that have
been listed: it may astonish by its suddenness, over-
whelm by vastness or power, evoke an aesthetic re-
sponse by its magnificence, or rouse the passions by
terror in excess or by privation.

Burke rises to one of his few emotional heights in
his analysis of the power of darkness. Darkness, he tells
us, is more productive of sublime ideas than light.
“Night increases our terror more perhaps than any
thing else.” If light may be Sublime, darkness is more
so. Burke's usual objectivity and dispassionateness de-
part when he ponders the effect of darkness on human
imagination. Light may be sublime in its magnificence,
pain, or danger. Darkness, the greatest of the “priva-
tions,” is still more sublime because more terrible. In
a section on the sublimity of darkness, Burke remem-
bered the poet who, “blinded by excess of light,” closed
his eyes in endless night, recollecting that although
Milton's Heaven was a place of sublime light, God
himself could not be seen even by Cherubim and
Seraphim. God circled his throne with the majesty of

Fountain of light, thyself invisible
Amidst the glorious darkness where thou sitt'st
Throned inaccessible, but when thou shadest
The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud
Drawn round about thee like a radiant shrine,
Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.

(Paradise Lost, III, 375-80)

It was not Burke or Young, Thomson or Akenside
who best expressed the eighteenth-century response to
the great “privation” of light. It was Alexander Pope
who in the ending of The Dunciad (1728; 1741-42)
described both the majesty and terror of universal

She comes! she comes! the stable Throne behold
Of Night primaeval and of Chaos old....
There at her felt approach and secret might,
Art after Art goes out and all is Night....
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restpr'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word;
Thy hand, great Anarck! lets the curtain fall,
And universal Darkness buries All.


Joseph Addison, The Spectator, ed. Donald E. Bond
(Oxford, 1965). Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination
(London, 1744). B. Sprague Allen, Tides in English Taste
(Cambridge, Mass., 1937). Edmund Burke, A Philosophical
Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and
(London, 1958). R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of
(Oxford, 1945). Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl
of Shaftesbury, The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody,
in Characteristics, ed. John M. Robertson (London, 1900),
II, 122ff. John Dennis, Miscellanies in Verse and Prose
(London, 1693), in Critical Works, ed. Edward Niles Hooker
(Baltimore, 1939-43), II, 350ff. Christopher Hussey, The
Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View
(London, 1927).
Elizabeth Manwaring, Italian Landscape in Eighteenth
Century England
(New York, 1925). Marjorie Hope Nicolson,
Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory (Ithaca, 1959); idem,
Newton Demands the Muse (Princeton, 1946). James
Thomson, Complete Poetical Works, ed. J. L. Robertson
(London, 1908). Walter J. Whipple, The Beautiful, the
Sublime and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British
Aesthetic Theory
(Carbondale, Ill., 1957). Edward Young,
Night Thoughts (London, 1793).


[See also Beauty; Cosmic Voyages; Cosmology; Infinity;
Mountain Attitudes; Nature; Space; Taste.]