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The Romantic Sublime: What Wordsworth Said

By: Sai Diwan

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.’

William Wordsworth (Lyrical Ballads)

While it is these words that have made it into anthologies of Romantic poetry, it is the words that follow that string together the meaning in its entirety. Wordsworth goes on to state that mulling over the emotion causes the state of tranquillity to fade out and be replaced by the emotion itself such that it establishes its hold over the poet’s mind. It is in this state that the poet begins his composition, and in wording his passions finds his mind traverse happiness. The poet experiences, and is able to convince the reader of a pleasure in pain emotion that leads up to the ‘complex feeling of delight.’ This conclusion regarding ‘good poetry’ doubles as an unintended postulation about the Romantic Sublime.

Romantic AgeThe Romantics held the faculty of imagination in deep reverence. By imagination was meant the ability to awaken memories so that they may be recollected, and thus recreated in the present. ‘For our continued influxes of feelings are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings.’ (Wordsworth) Coleridge’s Kubla Khan is a manifestation of this belief. The poem is said to be Coleridge’s encounter with the sublime when under the influence of opium. Kubla Khan tumbled out as a spontaneous overflow upon his encounter with Xanadu. The lyrics flow only up to the moment of clear recollection of that splendid scenery, and leave the poem incomplete so as to not dilute the faculty of imagination. In the three stanzas that Coleridge did relive, he has captured the sublime. A striking characteristic of the poem is its deconstructed syntax that is eager in its wish to capture the scenery. ‘But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted/ Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!/ A savage place!’ (Coleridge) Grammatical necessities cannot be fulfilled as they would merely restrict the true sublime. It is a scene that Coleridge has experienced in a dream, and its recollection in reality must convey the resplendence of what he has felt.

It was the Romantic belief that poetry is composed beyond the realms of the real world, within the folds of the imaginary. ‘we are laid asleep/ In body, and become a living soul.’ (Wordsworth). However, not all imagination directs towards the sublime. Keats had great belief in the power of imagination. In a letter to Benjamine Bailey, Keats wrote ‘I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of imagination—what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or notThe imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth.’ The world of imagination encompassed his poetic reality. ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty.’ (Keats). He recognized the ability of a poet to appreciate this beauty through his Negative Capability. The concept of Negative Capability requires the poet to maintain an aesthetic distance from the object of consideration, and thus not give himself over to the object. Keats’ poetry reflects admiration and not absorption. However, the ability to experience the Sublime requires the poet to have submitted his consciousness to the object of his adulation. This does not play an exception to the rule, but instead excuses itself from the very concept of the Sublime. What Keats sought and experienced was beauty and not sublimity. The two ideas are entirely different and must not be confused.

Beauty indulges in the aesthetic experience of harmony, balance and symmetry, while the Sublime assaults the senses with its sheer enormity. ‘The picturesque world would be exemplified by variety, the beautiful by smoothness and the sublime by magnitude.’ (Leighton 12) Shelley’s Mont Blanc exemplifies the distinction through the evident gradation in the appeal of the Alps. The lower slopes that embrace ‘the fields, the lakes, the forests, and the streams’ are described as ‘daedal’ and thus are an aesthetic allure. The consonance of [l] in the description of these lush slopes gives an effect of smoothness and poise. As opposed to this, the sublime peaks are spoken of with the use of harsh sounds [ɖ] and [ʈ] that mark a clear break from the harmony of beauty and rush into the profound intensity of the sublime. The peaks are described as ‘remote, serene and inaccessible’, suggesting a higher hold on power.

The Sublime is primarily characterized by its ability to evoke powerful feelings. Wordsworth visits the idea of the power of the sublime to cause enigmatic feelings within its beholder in The Prelude. ‘The Power which these/ Acknowledge when thus moved, which Nature thus/ Thrusts forth upon the senses.’ (Wordsworth) The emotion that this power invokes within the poet is astonishment. ‘The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature is Astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.’ (Burke). The emotion is captured in the moment when the poet first sets his eyes upon Mount Snowdown. ‘When at my feet the ground appeared to brighten,/ And with a step or two seemed brighter still; / Nor was time given to ask or learn the cause,/ For instantly a light upon the turf/ Fell like a flash, and lo! as I looked up,’ (Wordsworth).

Burke has also stated that ‘Whatever is any sort of terribleor operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime.’ The Sublime is thus also capable of invoking within the poet, the heightened powerful feeling of fright. The Romantics are enraptured by this violent emotion of terror. Byron, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage exclaims, ‘And if the freshening sea/ Made them a terror- ‘twas a pleasing fear.’ This overwhelming emotion entails the pleasure-in-pain flux that seems to bring ephemeral transcendence. Byron’s Darkness is the embodiment of terror in the sublime. The unconquerable, pervasive darkness with its sly hint at imminent death, and the absolute destruction and ‘mutual hideousness’ of human race that would precede evokes a turbulent surge of vehement emotions. The fast pace of the poem along with the many enjambments show a wild confusion that borders hysteria. The picture of absolute devastation brings forth the heinous degradation of humankind. ‘Unknowing who he was upon whose brow/ Famine had written Fiend’ (Byron).

Byron presents the poem as a dream and thus reiterates David Hume’s belief that Romantic imagination lies in ‘the most distant regions of the universe, or goes even beyond the universe, into the unbound chaos, where nature is supposed to lie in total confusion.’ The semblance of the nightmare however is thrust into reality by way of the vivid descriptions and tone of absolute desolation. In doing so, the tranquillity gradually disappears and the emotion that prevailed before the subject of contemplation takes shape. What is most eerie is the maddening silence that continues to ring in the reader’s ears after Byron’s prophecy about the end of the world in the last two lines. ‘And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need/ Of aid from them–She was the Universe.’ The quiet acceptance of the triumph of Darkness, and the unthinkable, infinite emptiness that would follow is terrifying.

The Romantics paint infinity as an unimaginable emptiness that is most unsettling. The disturbing quality should be reason enough for it to be a site of the sublime. ‘Another source of the sublime is infinity, infinity has the tendency to fill the mind with that delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and the truest test of the sublime.’ (Burke) This idea of emptiness is pervasive in Romantic poetry. The enthralling descriptions of Nature are shrouded by the air of solitude, desolateness and loneliness. Shelley’s six-line verse, The Cold Earth Slept Below contains the essence of this idea. The poet uses verbs devoid of any motion, and thus the landscape has a still, stagnant quality to it. The only line that indicates any action, ‘The breath of night like death did flow’ suggests a desperate attempt to enliven the landscape, and yet the cold earth lies unaffected ‘beneath the sinking moon.’ This does not convey the satisfaction that entails tranquillity, as the six lines are mere chronicling of Nature’s state of paralysis and not an ornamentation of its calm. Although it paints the picture of one night, the silence suggests perenniality.

Most poems are an unnerving account of the unchanging stillness in Nature, but Byron breaks away from this tradition in Solitude. He injects his own presence into the indolence of the Romantic landscape. He is not sorrowed by the daunting emptiness, but relishes being swallowed in it. ‘This is not solitude, ‘tis but to hold/ Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.’ (Byron) He immerses himself in the languid flow of Nature’s elements, and marvels at the synchronisation of rocks and floods, forests and mountains. The mind loses self-awareness in pure contemplation of the might of the external power. The emotion itself actually exists in the mind and stirs up the sublime experience. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement states that the sublime belongs properly to the mind, as it is the mental representation of the natural object that brings out the sublimity of the transformed subject. As exemplified by Shelley in Mont Blanc, it is only the confluence of the mind and the object that brings about the realisation of the sublime. ‘And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea/ If to the human mind’s imaginings/ Silence and solitude were vacancy?’ (Shelley) The vast landscapes, fierce ocean, and desolate mountain peaks are sites of the sublime. These unimaginable dimensions coupled with passion elevate human emotions closer to the attainment of the Sublime, the overbalance of pleasure

The sublime is a reflection of the inward greatness of the soul. Kant further states that it involves the recognition that we have a power within us that transcends the limits of the world as given to us by our senses. In other words, the Sublime is followed by the conquering of a sense of difficulty overcome. In Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, the poet makes the plea for transcendence in each of the five stanzas. ‘If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;/ If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;/ A wave to pant beneath thy power’ The Romantics paid due homage to the intellect and the ability of the mind to overcome barriers. ‘It is this movement of the sublime towards representational freedom which lies behind the Romantic preoccupation with boundary lines, edges and horizons.’ (Leighton)

The emphatic outline of Mont Blanchas enchanted many Romantics, and has made a particular impression on Shelley. Being an atheist, Shelley refrained from the adulation for the Creator, and instead transferred it to the ‘awful scene’ of the landscape. It is not the pristine novelty of the untreaded mountains that enchants him but the rude magnificence of the incommensurability of the entire view. The ‘deep, dark Ravine’ and the ‘giant brood of pines’ form an appalling whole that stuns his mind into a pleasing apprehension of the grandeur that is beyond his imagination. The attainment of the Sublime, thus lies in surrendering the self to this gyrating rush of emotions. ‘To gain the unified consciousness which marks the sublime moment is to endure, paradoxically, a humiliation or prostration of the mind, which marks its inability to encompass the object.’ (Leighton 50)

The feeling of inadequacy, the painful feeling is an essential requisite to the attainment of the Sublime, the powerful description of deeper passions. To be eligible to experience this incredulity is to acknowledge the defeat of the mind before the object of its contemplation. This disruption of balance that causes a power influx into the viewer and elevates his mind to achieve a sense of intense unity with the external world is captured in Shelley’s Mont Blanc ‘My own, my human mind, which passively/ Now renders and receives fast/ Holding an unremitting interchange/ With the clear universe of things around.’The speaker’s mind lapses into passivity in the immediacy of the sight of Mont Blanc. The word ‘now’ closely follows and thus imposes itself upon the awed state of the mind. His mind that would otherwise be capable of dynamic activity is overwhelmed by the vast extent of Mont Blanc. It is only after the admission of this undefeatable superiority of Nature that he achieves ‘a trance sublime and strange’. This final act of submission is only the culmination of a prolonged contemplation regarding the power of the Sublime. Shelley sows the seeds in the very first stanza of philosophical insight into ‘human thoughts’. By using the metaphor of the ‘feeble brook’ he presents the case of his own transcendence. The moderately pleasing image of the ‘feeble brook’ is shaken by the force of the vast river that ‘over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves’. This juxtaposition of the feeble nature of the brook and the power of the river in its channel raises the question whether this ineffective tributary is able to retain its identity in the face of the ‘vast river’. Not only does it give itself over to the dynamism in the confluence, but also transcends itself in a power influx.

The mind thus being ravished and elevated in its apprehension of the divine grandeur loses its ability to express the experience of the sublime in words. The poet has to manoeuvre his words through metaphors, symbols, and the Romantic model of the language of the negatives. Accosted by that absolute that is beyond imagination, and being thus unable to express it in sensory terms, the language that Wordsworth suggests must closely resemble real life echoes the poet’s inability to express. Shelley presents his sublime experience with the majestic mountain in the language of the negatives in a letter to a fellow poet. ‘The scenery perpetually grows more wonderful and sublime: pine forests of impenetrable thickness and untrodden, nay inaccessible expanse, spread on every side.’ (Shelley 51) The inability to capture this astounding landscape echoes in his poetic representation, Mont Blanc where he studs the description with images of ‘chainless winds’, ‘unresting sound’ and ‘unfathomable deeps’ that celebrate the magnificence of Nature.

For the band of poets that is remembered for its devotion to the expression of emotions, the usage of negatives shines bright through the edifice of the Sublime. The ballads, lyrics, odes and stanzas have taken readers temporarily beyond the human. Such is the enigma of the Sublime. Perhaps it is this mysterious power influx that has given poetry the upper hand among the Romantics. In the quest of sublimity lies Romantic poetry fulfilment of Wordsworth’s ultimate proclamation, ‘the verse will be read a hundred times where the prose is read once.’


Works Cited

  1. Ed. Abrams, M.H. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. USA: Oxford University Press, 1969.

  2. Ed. Bone, Drummond. The Cambridge Companion to Byron. Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2004.

  3. Ed. Curran, Stuart. The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

  4. Ferguson, Frances. “Shelley’s Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said” Coleridge, Keats and Shelley. Ed. Kitson, Peter J. Hong Kong: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1996.

  5. Jarvis, Robin The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature. Malaysia: Pearson Education Limited, 2004.

  6. Leighton, Angela. Shelley and the Sublime. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

  7. Ed. Wolfson, Susan. The Cambridge Companion to Keats. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

  8. Bartleby <> 28/10/2013

  9. Bartleby <> 29/10/2013

  10. Scott McLemee <> 25/10/2013



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