« ForrigeFortsæt »
SOURCES OF FINE COMPOSITION.
It was characteristic of the eloquence of Mr. Burke, that the novelty of his thoughts and allusions always struck and engaged his hearers. I have seen, in the midst of a grave debate, the whole house agitated as by a shock of electricity, by some now and unexpected sally. These were sometimes of a witty, and sometimes of a serious description. But in either way, I believe there never was an orator of whom novelty and originality of thought was so unequivocally the attribute.
If however novelty is so powerful an instrument in the hands of genius, there is nothing in which young and incompetent writers will so much expose themselves as in attempting it. Yet some authors of very secondary talents have acquired much temporary and transient fame, by an air of novelty. Among these, I cannot but rank the author of Tristram Shandy, the Sentimental Journey, &c. In these most unclassical productions, we see all regard to connexion and arrangement thrown aside; the reader is frequently left to help himself to a meaning, or, if there is one, it is such as no two men understand alike; sentiment is strangely mingled with attempts at wit, and both introduced with little apparent design.
I was proceeding to treat, in the third place, of the sublime, but I perceive that if I introduced it here I should greatly exceed my limits.
MY DEAR JOHN,
WHEN you recollect that an author, who deservedly occupies the first place among critics, has written a whole treatise on the sublime, you will probably wonder at my boldness, when I presume to confine so important a subject within the short limits of a letter. But you will remember that these letters are intended only as an introduction to the more voluminous writers on criticism. Longinus too extends his notion of the sublime much further than I do, indeed almost to all that is excellent in serious composition.
Perhaps etymology is in general a better guide to truth than definition. The title which the invaluable treatise of Longinus bears is wep. t8 v48; “ of the lofty or high." To this you know the Latin word sublimitas perfectly corresponds, and our word sublime: though I think the grand would express it better in our language.' Perhaps Horace has nearly defined it, in describing the character of a real poet.....
Ingenium cui sit, cui mens divinior, atque os
"Is there a man whom real genius fires,
"Who talks true greatness.....Let him boldly claim
The sensation of the sublime is experienced when we survey a very large and lofty mountain, a vast extensive plain, a very wide and rapid river; and I believe it is,
felt by every person when he first contemplates the expanded ocean.
The works of art can sometimes give us the sensation. I never find myself within the long and lofty aisle of a fine Gothic cathedral, without experiencing it; and I conceive it would be impossible to survey even one of the great pyramids of Egypt, without a similar feeling.
The convulsions of nature inspire ideas of the sublime. On feeling an earthquake, or surveying the eruption of a volcano, the sensation must be the sublime. with a mixture of terror. On viewing a thunder-storm at a distance, something of the same kind is experienced.
"Who but rather turns
"To heaven's broad fire his unconstrained view,
"Thro' mountains, plains, thro' empires black with
"And continents of sand, will turn his gaze
Even ideal contemplations will sometimes affect us in a similar manner. Such are the ideas of infinite space and eternity.
"In vain do we pursue that phantom time, too small, and yet too mighty for our grasp; when shrinking to a narrow point it 'scapes our hold, or mocks our scanty thought by swelling out to all eternity: an object unproportioned to our capacity, as is thy being, O thou antient cause! Older than time, yet young with fresh eternity!
"In vain we try to fathom the abyss of space, the seat of thy extensive being, of which no place is empty, no void which is not full." Shafisbury. The same sensation is excited in us by sentiments and passions. Striking instances of magnanimity, gene
rosity, fortitude, courage and patriotism are sublime. Of these, perhaps, the finest instance that ever was pointed out is our Saviour's last prayer for his enemies “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." Sublimity may exist either in the sentiment, or the expression. When in the former, it is either displayed in the greatness and sublimity of the subject itself, or in the circumstances under which it is described. In the latter case, sublimity of expression, it will chiefly depend on the splendour and magnificence of the imagery by which the subject is illustrated.
In the first case, where the grandeur of the subject is the principal source of the sublime, a brevity of language, combined, if possible, with force and simplicity, is absolutely necessary, as in the famous instance quoted by almost every critic from Longinus to the present time: "And God said, let there be light.....and there was light." But the whole of that chapter is incomparably sublime.
Innumerable instances are to be found in Scripture of this species of the sublime, particularly in the Psalms and the books of the prophets, and especially in Isaiah and the book of Job. Such is that noble description of the Almighty Power in the 104th Psalm:
"Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters, who maketh the clouds his chariot, who walketh upon the wings of the wind."
I cannot believe the story which is related of Dryden, that he said he would rather be the author of the following translation by Sternhold and Hopkins, than of any poem in the English language.....
On cherub and on seraphim
Full royally he rode,
And on the wings of mighty winds,
Came flying all abroad.
If I am any judge of the false sublime, I find it in the two first of these lines, where a truly grand and magnificent idea is entirely degraded by the meanness of the imagery and expression.
In the 6th and 7th verses of the same Psalm, is a fine instance of the sublime, alluding, as I apprehend, to the deluge....
"Thou coveredst it (the earth) with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled, at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away."
Such also is the fine expression of Isaiah....
"And the heavens shall be rolled up as a scroll." And another in the Psalms....
"He looketh on the earth and it trembleth; he toucheth the hills and they smoke.”
An instance of this branch of the sublime as applicable to human character, will be found in Horace....
"Et cuncta terrarum subacta,
"Præter atrocem animum Catonis."
Lucan has the same thought....
"Victrix causa Diis placuit, sed victa Catoni."
That species of the sublime, which arises principally from the adjuncts and circumstances, is so frequently mixed with that which is produced by the greatness and dignity of the subject, that it is difficult sometimes to separate them. In the following passage in the 139th Psalm, which I think the finest instance extant of the sublime, I scarcely know whether to attribute the effect to the dignity of the subject, or to the grandeur of the adjuncts and circumstances....
"Whither shall I go from thy spirit?
"And whither shall 1 flee from thy presence?
"If I make my bed in the abyss, behold thou art there!
"And dwell in the extreme parts of the ccean;
"There also thy hand shall lead me,
"And thy right hand shall hold me."
The strong expressions of the two last lines have commonly escaped the notice of critics.....But how for