On the Sublime
by Longinus
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[Transcriber's Note: The printed text shows most sections (Roman numerals) as a continuous block, with chapter numbers in the margin. In this e-text, chapters are given as separate paragraphs determined by sentence breaks, with continuing quotation marks supplied where necessary. Except for footnotes, any brackets are from the original text. Greek has been transliterated and shown between marks.]

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Translated into English by

H. L. HAVELL, B.A. Formerly Scholar of University College, Oxford

with an Introduction by ANDREW LANG

London MACMILLAN AND CO. and New York 1890

All rights reserved

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S. H. BUTCHER, Esq., LL.D.

Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh Formerly Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and of University College, Oxford

This Attempt to Present the Great Thoughts of Longinus in an English Form

Is Dedicated

in Acknowledgment of the Kind Support but for Which It Might Never Have Seen the Light and of the Benefits of That Instruction to Which It Largely Owes Whatever of Scholarly Quality It May Possess


The text which has been followed in the present Translation is that of Jahn (Bonn, 1867), revised by Vahlen, and republished in 1884. In several instances it has been found necessary to diverge from Vahlen's readings, such divergencies being duly pointed out in the Notes.

One word as to the aim and scope of the present Translation. My object throughout has been to make Longinus speak in English, to preserve, as far as lay in my power, the noble fire and lofty tone of the original. How to effect this, without being betrayed into a loose paraphrase, was an exceedingly difficult problem. The style of Longinus is in a high degree original, occasionally running into strange eccentricities of language; and no one who has not made the attempt can realise the difficulty of giving anything like an adequate version of the more elaborate passages. These considerations I submit to those to whom I may seem at first sight to have handled my text too freely.

My best thanks are due to Dr. Butcher, Professor of Greek in the University of Edinburgh, who from first to last has shown a lively interest in the present undertaking which I can never sufficiently acknowledge. He has read the Translation throughout, and acting on his suggestions I have been able in numerous instances to bring my version into a closer conformity with the original.

I have also to acknowledge the kindness of the distinguished writer who has contributed the Introduction, and who, in spite of the heavy demands on his time, has lent his powerful support to help on the work of one who was personally unknown to him.

In conclusion, I may be allowed to express a hope that the present attempt may contribute something to reawaken an interest in an unjustly neglected classic.


The Treatise on the Sublime may be divided into six Parts, as follows:—

I.—cc. i, ii. The Work of Caecilius. Definition of the Sublime. Whether Sublimity falls within the rules of Art.

II.—cc. iii-v. [The beginning lost.] Vices of Style opposed to the Sublime: Affectation, Bombast, False Sentiment, Frigid Conceits. The cause of such defects.

III.—cc. vi, vii. The true Sublime, what it is, and how distinguishable.

IV.—cc. viii-xl. Five Sources of the Sublime (how Sublimity is related to Passion, c. viii, Sec.Sec. 2-4).

(i.) Grandeur of Thought, cc. ix-xv.

a. As the natural outcome of nobility of soul. Examples (c. ix).

b. Choice of the most striking circumstances. Sappho's Ode (c. x).

c. Amplification. Plato compared with Demosthenes, Demosthenes with Cicero (cc. xi-xiii).

d. Imitation (cc. xiii, xiv).

e. Imagery (c. xv).

(ii.) Power of moving the Passions (omitted here, because dealt with in a separate work).

(iii.) Figures of Speech (cc. xvi-xxix).

a. The Figure of Adjuration (c. xvi). The Art to conceal Art (c. xvii).

b. Rhetorical Question (c. xviii).

c. Asyndeton (c. xix-xxi).

d. Hyperbaton (c. xxii).

e. Changes of Number, Person, Tense, etc. (cc. xxiii-xxvii).

f. Periphrasis (cc. xxviii, xxix).

(iv.) Graceful Expression (cc. xxx-xxxii and xxxvii, xxxviii).

a. Choice of Words (c. xxx).

b. Ornaments of Style (cc. xxxi, xxxii and xxxvii, xxxviii).

(a) On the use of Familiar Words (c. xxxi).

(b) Metaphors; accumulated; extract from the Timaeus; abuse of Metaphors; certain tasteless conceits blamed in Plato (c. xxxii). [Hence arises a digression (cc. xxxiii-xxxvi) on the spirit in which we should judge of the faults of great authors. Demosthenes compared with Hyperides, Lysias with Plato. Sublimity, however far from faultless, to be always preferred to a tame correctness.]

(g) Comparisons and Similes [lost] (c. xxxvii).

(d) Hyperbole (c. xxxviii).

(v.) Dignity and Elevation of Structure (cc. xxxix, xl).

a. Modulation of Syllables (c. xxxix).

b. Composition (c. xl).

V.—cc. xli-xliii. Vices of Style destructive to Sublimity.

(i.) Abuse of Rhythm }

(ii.) Broken and Jerky Clauses } (cc. xli, xlii).

(iii.) Undue Prolixity }

(iv.) Improper Use of Familiar Words. Anti-climax. Example from Theopompus (c. xliii).

VI.—Why this age is so barren of great authors—whether the cause is to be sought in a despotic form of government, or, as Longinus rather thinks, in the prevailing corruption of manners, and in the sordid and paltry views of life which almost universally prevail (c. xliv).



Boileau, in his introduction to his version of the ancient Treatise on the Sublime, says that he is making no valueless present to his age. Not valueless, to a generation which talks much about style and method in literature, should be this new rendering of the noble fragment, long attributed to Longinus, the Greek tutor and political adviser of Zenobia. There is, indeed, a modern English version by Spurden,[1] but that is now rare, and seldom comes into the market. Rare, too, is Vaucher's critical essay (1854), which is unlucky, as the French and English books both contain valuable disquisitions on the age of the author of the Treatise. This excellent work has had curious fortunes. It is never quoted nor referred to by any extant classical writer, and, among the many books attributed by Suidas to Longinus, it is not mentioned. Decidedly the old world has left no more noble relic of criticism. Yet the date of the book is obscure, and it did not come into the hands of the learned in modern Europe till Robertelli and Manutius each published editions in 1544. From that time the Treatise has often been printed, edited, translated; but opinion still floats undecided about its origin and period. Does it belong to the age of Augustus, or to the age of Aurelian? Is the author the historical Longinus—the friend of Plotinus, the tutor of Porphyry, the victim of Aurelian,—or have we here a work by an unknown hand more than two centuries earlier? Manuscripts and traditions are here of little service. The oldest manuscript, that of Paris, is regarded as the parent of the rest. It is a small quarto of 414 pages, whereof 335 are occupied by the "Problems" of Aristotle. Several leaves have been lost, hence the fragmentary character of the essay. The Paris MS. has an index, first mentioning the "Problems," and then DIONUSIOU E LONGINOU PERI UPSOUS, that is, "The work of Dionysius, or of Longinus, about the Sublime."

[Footnote 1: Longmans, London, 1836.]

On this showing the transcriber of the MS. considered its authorship dubious. Supposing that the author was Dionysius, which of the many writers of that name was he? Again, if he was Longinus, how far does his work tally with the characteristics ascribed to that late critic, and peculiar to his age?

About this Longinus, while much is written, little is certainly known. Was he a descendant of a freedman of one of the Cassii Longini, or of an eastern family with a mixture of Greek and Roman blood? The author of the Treatise avows himself a Greek, and apologises, as a Greek, for attempting an estimate of Cicero. Longinus himself was the nephew and heir of Fronto, a Syrian rhetorician of Emesa. Whether Longinus was born there or not, and when he was born, are things uncertain. Porphyry, born in 233 A.D., was his pupil: granting that Longinus was twenty years Porphyry's senior, he must have come into the world about 213 A.D. He travelled much, studied in many cities, and was the friend of the mystic Neoplatonists, Plotinus and Ammonius. The former called him "a philologist, not a philosopher." Porphyry shows us Longinus at a supper where the plagiarisms of Greek writers are discussed—a topic dear to trivial or spiteful mediocrity. He is best known by his death. As the Greek secretary of Zenobia he inspired a haughty answer from the queen to Aurelian, who therefore put him to death. Many rhetorical and philosophic treatises are ascribed to him, whereof only fragments survive. Did he write the Treatise on the Sublime? Modern students prefer to believe that the famous essay is, if not by Plutarch, as some hold, at least by some author of his age, the age of the early Caesars.

The arguments for depriving Longinus, Zenobia's tutor, of the credit of the Treatise lie on the surface, and may be briefly stated. He addresses his work as a letter to a friend, probably a Roman pupil, Terentianus, with whom he has been reading a work on the Sublime by Caecilius. Now Caecilius, a voluminous critic, certainly lived not later than Plutarch, who speaks of him with a sneer. It is unlikely then that an author, two centuries later, would make the old book of Caecilius the starting-point of his own. He would probably have selected some recent or even contemporary rhetorician. Once more, the writer of the Treatise of the Sublime quotes no authors later than the Augustan period. Had he lived as late as the historical Longinus he would surely have sought examples of bad style, if not of good, from the works of the Silver Age. Perhaps he would hardly have resisted the malicious pleasure of censuring the failures among whom he lived. On the other hand, if he cites no late author, no classical author cites him, in spite of the excellence of his book. But we can hardly draw the inference that he was of late date from this purely negative evidence.

Again, he describes, in a very interesting and earnest manner, the characteristics of his own period (Translation, pp. 82-86). Why, he is asked, has genius become so rare? There are many clever men, but scarce any highly exalted and wide-reaching genius. Has eloquence died with liberty? "We have learned the lesson of a benignant despotism, and have never tasted freedom." The author answers that it is easy and characteristic of men to blame the present times. Genius may have been corrupted, not by a world-wide peace, but by love of gain and pleasure, passions so strong that "I fear, for such men as we are it is better to serve than to be free. If our appetites were let loose altogether against our neighbours, they would be like wild beasts uncaged, and bring a deluge of calamity on the whole civilised world." Melancholy words, and appropriate to our own age, when cleverness is almost universal, and genius rare indeed, and the choice between liberty and servitude hard to make, were the choice within our power.

But these words assuredly apply closely to the peaceful period of Augustus, when Virgil and Horace "praising their tyrant sang," not to the confused age of the historical Longinus. Much has been said of the allusion to "the Lawgiver of the Jews" as "no ordinary person," but that remark might have been made by a heathen acquainted with the Septuagint, at either of the disputed dates. On the other hand, our author (Section XIII) quotes the critical ideas of "Ammonius and his school," as to the debt of Plato to Homer. Now the historical Longinus was a friend of the Neoplatonist teacher (not writer), Ammonius Saccas. If we could be sure that the Ammonius of the Treatise was this Ammonius, the question would be settled in favour of the late date. Our author would be that Longinus who inspired Zenobia to resist Aurelian, and who perished under his revenge. But Ammonius is not a very uncommon name, and we have no reason to suppose that the Neoplatonist Ammonius busied himself with the literary criticism of Homer and Plato. There was, among others, an Egyptian Ammonius, the tutor of Plutarch.

These are the mass of the arguments on both sides. M. Egger sums them up thus: "After carefully examining the tradition of the MSS., and the one very late testimony in favour of Longinus, I hesitated for long as to the date of this precious work. In 1854 M. Vaucher[2] inclined me to believe that Plutarch was the author.[3] All seems to concur towards the opinion that, if not Plutarch, at least one of his contemporaries wrote the most original Greek essay in its kind since the Rhetoric and Poetic of Aristotle."[4]

[Footnote 2: Etude Critique sur la traite du Sublime et les ecrits de Longin. Geneva.]

[Footnote 3: See also M. Naudet, Journal des Savants, Mars 1838, and M. Egger, in the same Journal, May 1884.]

[Footnote 4: Egger, Histoire de la Critique chez les Grecs, p. 426. Paris, 1887.]

We may, on the whole, agree that the nobility of the author's thought, his habit of quoting nothing more recent than the Augustan age, and his description of his own time, which seems so pertinent to that epoch, mark him as its child rather than as a great critic lost among the somnia Pythagorea of the Neoplatonists. On the other hand, if the author be a man of high heart and courage, as he seems, so was that martyr of independence, Longinus. Not without scruple, then, can we deprive Zenobia's tutor of the glory attached so long to his name.

Whatever its date, and whoever its author may be, the Treatise is fragmentary. The lost parts may very probably contain the secret of its period and authorship. The writer, at the request of his friend, Terentianus, and dissatisfied with the essay of Caecilius, sets about examining the nature of the Sublime in poetry and oratory. To the latter he assigns, as is natural, much more literary importance than we do, in an age when there is so little oratory of literary merit, and so much popular rant. The subject of sublimity must naturally have attracted a writer whose own moral nature was pure and lofty, who was inclined to discover in moral qualities the true foundation of the highest literary merit. Even in his opening words he strikes the keynote of his own disposition, where he approves the saying that "the points in which we resemble the divine nature are benevolence and love of truth." Earlier or later born, he must have lived in the midst of literary activity, curious, eager, occupied with petty questions and petty quarrels, concerned, as men in the best times are not very greatly concerned, with questions of technique and detail. Cut off from politics, people found in composition a field for their activity. We can readily fancy what literature becomes when not only its born children, but the minor busybodies whose natural place is politics, excluded from these, pour into the study of letters. Love of notoriety, vague activity, fantastic indolence, we may be sure, were working their will in the sacred close of the Muses. There were literary sets, jealousies, recitations of new poems; there was a world of amateurs, if there were no papers and paragraphs. To this world the author speaks like a voice from the older and graver age of Greece. If he lived late, we can imagine that he did not quote contemporaries, not because he did not know them, but because he estimated them correctly. He may have suffered, as we suffer, from critics who, of all the world's literature, know only "the last thing out," and who take that as a standard for the past, to them unfamiliar, and for the hidden future. As we are told that excellence is not of the great past, but of the present, not in the classical masters, but in modern Muscovites, Portuguese, or American young women, so the author of the Treatise may have been troubled by Asiatic eloquence, now long forgotten, by names of which not a shadow survives. He, on the other hand, has a right to be heard because he has practised a long familiarity with what is old and good. His mind has ever been in contact with masterpieces, as the mind of a critic should be, as the mind of a reviewer seldom is, for the reviewer has to hurry up and down inspecting new literary adventurers. Not among their experiments will he find a touchstone of excellence, a test of greatness, and that test will seldom be applied to contemporary performances. What is the test, after all, of the Sublime, by which our author means the truly great, the best and most passionate thoughts, nature's high and rare inspirations, expressed in the best chosen words? He replies that "a just judgment of style is the final fruit of long experience." "Much has he travelled in the realms of gold."

The word "style" has become a weariness to think upon; so much is said, so much is printed about the art of expression, about methods, tricks, and turns; so many people, without any long experience, set up to be judges of style, on the strength of having admired two or three modern and often rather fantastic writers. About our author, however, we know that his experience has been long, and of the best, that he does not speak from a hasty acquaintance with a few contemporary precieux and precieuses. The bad writing of his time he traces, as much of our own may be traced, to "the pursuit of novelty in thought," or rather in expression. "It is this that has turned the brain of nearly all our learned world to-day." "Gardons nous d'ecrire trop bien," he might have said, "c'est la pire maniere qu'il y'ait d'ecrire."[5]

[Footnote 5: M. Anatole France.]

The Sublime, with which he concerns himself, is "a certain loftiness and excellence of language," which "takes the reader out of himself.... The Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no." In its own sphere the Sublime does what "natural magic" does in the poetical rendering of nature, and perhaps in the same scarcely-to-be-analysed fashion. Whether this art can be taught or not is a question which the author treats with modesty. Then, as now, people were denying (and not unjustly) that this art can be taught by rule. The author does not go so far as to say that Criticism, "unlike Justice, does little evil, and little good; that is, if to entertain for a moment delicate and curious minds is to do little good." He does not rate his business so low as that. He admits that the inspiration comes from genius, from nature. But "an author can only learn from art when he is to abandon himself to the direction of his genius." Nature must "burst out with a kind of fine madness and divine inspiration." The madness must be fine. How can art aid it to this end? By knowledge of, by sympathy and emulation with, "the great poets and prose writers of the past." By these we may be inspired, as the Pythoness by Apollo. From the genius of the past "an effluence breathes upon us." The writer is not to imitate, but to keep before him the perfection of what has been done by the greatest poets. He is to look on them as beacons; he is to keep them as exemplars or ideals. He is to place them as judges of his work. "How would Homer, how would Demosthenes, have been affected by what I have written?" This is practical counsel, and even the most florid modern author, after polishing a paragraph, may tear it up when he has asked himself, "What would Addison have said about this eloquence of mine, or Sainte Beuve, or Mr. Matthew Arnold?" In this way what we call inspiration, that is the performance of the heated mind, perhaps working at its best, perhaps overstraining itself, and overstating its idea, might really be regulated. But they are few who consider so closely, fewer perhaps they who have the heart to cut out their own fine or refined things. Again, our author suggests another criterion. We are, as in Lamb's phrase, "to write for antiquity," with the souls of poets dead and gone for our judges. But we are also to write for the future, asking with what feelings posterity will read us—if it reads us at all. This is a good discipline. We know by practice what will hit some contemporary tastes; we know the measure of smartness, say, or the delicate flippancy, or the sentence with "a dying fall." But one should also know that these are fancies of the hour—these and the touch of archaism, and the spinster-like and artificial precision, which seem to be points in some styles of the moment. Such reflections as our author bids us make, with a little self-respect added, may render our work less popular and effective, and certainly are not likely to carry it down to remote posterity. But all such reflections, and action in accordance with what they teach, are elements of literary self-respect. It is hard to be conscientious, especially hard for him who writes much, and of necessity, and for bread. But conscience is never to be obeyed with ease, though the ease grows with the obedience. The book attributed to Longinus will not have missed its mark if it reminds us that, in literature at least, for conscience there is yet a place, possibly even a reward, though that is unessential. By virtue of reasonings like these, and by insisting that nobility of style is, as it were, the bloom on nobility of soul, the Treatise on the Sublime becomes a tonic work, wholesome to be read by young authors and old. "It is natural in us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime, and, conceiving a sort of generous exultation, to be filled with joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read." Here speaks his natural disinterested greatness the author himself is here sublime, and teaches by example as well as precept, for few things are purer than a pure and ardent admiration. The critic is even confident enough to expect to find his own nobility in others, believing that what is truly Sublime "will always please, and please all readers." And in this universal acceptance by the populace and the literate, by critics and creators, by young and old, he finds the true external canon of sublimity. The verdict lies not with contemporaries, but with the large public, not with the little set of dilettanti, but must be spoken by all. Such verdicts assign the crown to Shakespeare and Moliere, to Homer and Cervantes; we should not clamorously anticipate this favourable judgment for Bryant or Emerson, nor for the greatest of our own contemporaries. Boileau so much misconceived these lofty ideas that he regarded "Longinus's" judgment as solely that "of good sense," and held that, in his time, "nothing was good or bad till he had spoken." But there is far more than good sense, there is high poetic imagination and moral greatness, in the criticism of our author, who certainly would have rejected Boileau's compliment when he selects Longinus as a literary dictator.

Indeed we almost grudge our author's choice of a subject. He who wrote that "it was not in nature's plan for us, her children, to be base and ignoble; no, she brought us into life as into some great field of contest," should have had another field of contest than literary criticism. It is almost a pity that we have to doubt the tradition, according to which our author was Longinus, and, being but a rhetorician, greatly dared and bravely died. Taking literature for his theme, he wanders away into grammar, into considerations of tropes and figures, plurals and singulars, trumpery mechanical pedantries, as we think now, to whom grammar is no longer, as of old, "a new invented game." Moreover, he has to give examples of the faults opposed to sublimity, he has to dive into and search the bathos, to dally over examples of the bombastic, the over-wrought, the puerile. These faults are not the sins of "minds generous and aspiring," and we have them with us always. The additions to Boileau's preface (Paris, 1772) contain abundance of examples of faults from Voiture, Mascaron, Bossuet, selected by M. de St. Marc, who no doubt found abundance of entertainment in the chastising of these obvious affectations. It hardly seems the proper work for an author like him who wrote the Treatise on the Sublime. But it is tempting, even now, to give contemporary instances of skill in the Art of Sinking—modern cases of bombast, triviality, false rhetoric. "Speaking generally, it would seem that bombast is one of the hardest things to avoid in writing," says an author who himself avoids it so well. Bombast is the voice of sham passion, the shadow of an insincere attitude. "Even the wretched phantom who still bore the imperial title stooped to pay this ignominious blackmail," cries bombast in Macaulay's Lord Clive. The picture of a phantom who is not only a phantom but wretched, stooping to pay blackmail which is not only blackmail but ignominious, may divert the reader and remind him that the faults of the past are the faults of the present. Again, "The desolate islands along the sea-coast, overgrown by noxious vegetation, and swarming with deer and tigers"—do, what does any one suppose, perform what forlorn part in the economy of the world? Why, they "supply the cultivated districts with abundance of salt." It is as comic as—

"And thou Dalhousie, thou great God of War, Lieutenant-Colonel to the Earl of Mar."

Bombast "transcends the Sublime," and falls on the other side. Our author gives more examples of puerility. "Slips of this sort are made by those who, aiming at brilliancy, polish, and especially attractiveness, are landed in paltriness and silly affectation." Some modern instances we had chosen; the field of choice is large and richly fertile in those blossoms. But the reader may be left to twine a garland of them for himself; to select from contemporaries were invidious, and might provoke retaliation. When our author censures Timaeus for saying that Alexander took less time to annex Asia than Isocrates spent in writing an oration, to bid the Greeks attack Persia, we know what he would have thought of Macaulay's antithesis. He blames Xenophon for a poor pun, and Plato, less justly, for mere figurative badinage. It would be an easy task to ransack contemporaries, even great contemporaries, for similar failings, for pomposity, for the florid, for sentences like processions of intoxicated torch-bearers, for pedantic display of cheap erudition, for misplaced flippancy, for nice derangement of epitaphs wherein no adjective is used which is appropriate. With a library of cultivated American novelists and uncultivated English romancers at hand, with our own voluminous essays, and the essays and histories and "art criticisms" of our neighbours to draw from, no student need lack examples of what is wrong. He who writes, reflecting on his own innumerable sins, can but beat his breast, cry Mea Culpa, and resist the temptation to beat the breasts of his coevals. There are not many authors, there have never been many, who did not need to turn over the treatise of the Sublime by day and night.[6]

[Footnote 6: The examples of bombast used to be drawn as late as Spurden's translation (1836), from Lee, from Troilus and Cressida, and The Taming of the Shrew. Cowley and Crashaw furnished instances of conceits; Waller, Young, and Hayley of frigidity; and Darwin of affectation. "What beaux and beauties crowd the gaudy groves, And woo and win their vegetable loves"— a phrase adopted—"vapid vegetable loves"—by the Laureate in "The Talking Oak."]

As a literary critic of Homer our author is most interesting even in his errors. He compares the poet of the Odyssey to the sunset: the Iliad is noonday work, the Odyssey is touched with the glow of evening—the softness and the shadows. "Old age naturally leans," like childhood, "towards the fabulous." The tide has flowed back, and left dim bulks of things on the long shadowy sands. Yet he makes an exception, oddly enough, in favour of the story of the Cyclops, which really is the most fabulous and crude of the fairy tales in the first and greatest of romances. The Slaying of the Wooers, that admirable fight, worthy of a saga, he thinks too improbable, and one of the "trifles into which second childhood is apt to be betrayed." He fancies that the aged Homer had "lost his power of depicting the passions"; in fact, he is hardly a competent or sympathetic critic of the Odyssey. Perhaps he had lived among Romans till he lost his sense of humour; perhaps he never had any to lose. On the other hand, he preserved for us that inestimable and not to be translated fragment of Sappho—phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin.

It is curious to find him contrasting Apollonius Rhodius as faultless, with Homer as great but faulty. The "faultlessness" of Apollonius is not his merit, for he is often tedious, and he has little skill in selection; moreover, he is deliberately antiquarian, if not pedantic. His true merit is in his original and, as we think, modern telling of a love tale—pure, passionate, and tender, the first in known literature. Medea is often sublime, and always touching. But it is not on these merits that our author lingers; he loves only the highest literature, and, though he finds spots on the sun and faults in Homer, he condones them as oversights passed in the poet's "contempt of little things."

Such for us to-day are the lessons of Longinus. He traces dignity and fire of style to dignity and fire of soul. He detects and denounces the very faults of which, in each other, all writers are conscious, and which he brings home to ourselves. He proclaims the essential merits of conviction, and of selection. He sets before us the noblest examples of the past, most welcome in a straining age which tries already to live in the future. He admonishes and he inspires. He knows the "marvellous power and enthralling charm of appropriate and striking words" without dropping into mere word-tasting. "Beautiful words are the very light of thought," he says, but does not maunder about the "colour" of words, in the style of the decadence. And then he "leaves this generation to its fate," and calmly turns himself to the work that lies nearest his hand.

To us he is as much a moral as a literary teacher. We admire that Roman greatness of soul in a Greek, and the character of this unknown man, who carried the soul of a poet, the heart of a hero under the gown of a professor. He was one of those whom books cannot debilitate, nor a life of study incapacitate for the study of life.

A. L.


1 The treatise of Caecilius on the Sublime, when, as you remember, my dear Terentian, we examined it together, seemed to us to be beneath the dignity of the whole subject, to fail entirely in seizing the salient points, and to offer little profit (which should be the principal aim of every writer) for the trouble of its perusal. There are two things essential to a technical treatise: the first is to define the subject; the second (I mean second in order, as it is by much the first in importance) to point out how and by what methods we may become masters of it ourselves. And yet Caecilius, while wasting his efforts in a thousand illustrations of the nature of the Sublime, as though here we were quite in the dark, somehow passes by as immaterial the question how we might be able to exalt our own genius to a certain degree of progress in sublimity. However, perhaps it would be fairer to commend this writer's intelligence and zeal in themselves, instead of blaming him for his omissions.

2 And since you have bidden me also to put together, if only for your entertainment, a few notes on the subject of the Sublime, let me see if there is anything in my speculations which promises advantage to men of affairs. In you, dear friend—such is my confidence in your abilities, and such the part which becomes you—I look for a sympathising and discerning[1] critic of the several parts of my treatise. For that was a just remark of his who pronounced that the points in which we resemble the divine nature are benevolence and love of truth.

[Footnote 1: Reading philophronestata kai alethestata.]

3 As I am addressing a person so accomplished in literature, I need only state, without enlarging further on the matter, that the Sublime, wherever it occurs, consists in a certain loftiness and excellence of language, and that it is by this, and this only, that the greatest poets and prose-writers have gained eminence, and won themselves a lasting place in the Temple of Fame.

4 A lofty passage does not convince the reason of the reader, but takes him out of himself. That which is admirable ever confounds our judgment, and eclipses that which is merely reasonable or agreeable. To believe or not is usually in our own power; but the Sublime, acting with an imperious and irresistible force, sways every reader whether he will or no. Skill in invention, lucid arrangement and disposition of facts, are appreciated not by one passage, or by two, but gradually manifest themselves in the general structure of a work; but a sublime thought, if happily timed, illumines[2] an entire subject with the vividness of a lightning-flash, and exhibits the whole power of the orator in a moment of time. Your own experience, I am sure, my dearest Terentian, would enable you to illustrate these and similar points of doctrine.

[Footnote 2: Reading diephotisen.]


The first question which presents itself for solution is whether there is any art which can teach sublimity or loftiness in writing. For some hold generally that there is mere delusion in attempting to reduce such subjects to technical rules. "The Sublime," they tell us, "is born in a man, and not to be acquired by instruction; genius is the only master who can teach it. The vigorous products of nature" (such is their view) "are weakened and in every respect debased, when robbed of their flesh and blood by frigid technicalities."

2 But I maintain that the truth can be shown to stand otherwise in this matter. Let us look at the case in this way; Nature in her loftier and more passionate moods, while detesting all appearance of restraint, is not wont to show herself utterly wayward and reckless; and though in all cases the vital informing principle is derived from her, yet to determine the right degree and the right moment, and to contribute the precision of practice and experience, is the peculiar province of scientific method. The great passions, when left to their own blind and rash impulses without the control of reason, are in the same danger as a ship let drive at random without ballast. Often they need the spur, but sometimes also the curb.

3 The remark of Demosthenes with regard to human life in general,—that the greatest of all blessings is to be fortunate, but next to that and equal in importance is to be well advised,—for good fortune is utterly ruined by the absence of good counsel,—may be applied to literature, if we substitute genius for fortune, and art for counsel. Then, again (and this is the most important point of all), a writer can only learn from art when he is to abandon himself to the direction of his genius.[1]

[Footnote 1: Literally, "But the most important point of all is that the actual fact that there are some parts of literature which are in the power of natural genius alone, must be learnt from no other source than from art."]

These are the considerations which I submit to the unfavourable critic of such useful studies. Perhaps they may induce him to alter his opinion as to the vanity and idleness of our present investigations.


... "And let them check the stove's long tongues of fire: For if I see one tenant of the hearth, I'll thrust within one curling torrent flame, And bring that roof in ashes to the ground: But now not yet is sung my noble lay."[1]

Such phrases cease to be tragic, and become burlesque,—I mean phrases like "curling torrent flames" and "vomiting to heaven," and representing Boreas as a piper, and so on. Such expressions, and such images, produce an effect of confusion and obscurity, not of energy; and if each separately be examined under the light of criticism, what seemed terrible gradually sinks into absurdity. Since then, even in tragedy, where the natural dignity of the subject makes a swelling diction allowable, we cannot pardon a tasteless grandiloquence, how much more incongruous must it seem in sober prose!

[Footnote 1: Aeschylus in his lost Oreithyia.]

2 Hence we laugh at those fine words of Gorgias of Leontini, such as "Xerxes the Persian Zeus" and "vultures, those living tombs," and at certain conceits of Callisthenes which are high-flown rather than sublime, and at some in Cleitarchus more ludicrous still—a writer whose frothy style tempts us to travesty Sophocles and say, "He blows a little pipe, and blows it ill." The same faults may be observed in Amphicrates and Hegesias and Matris, who in their frequent moments (as they think) of inspiration, instead of playing the genius are simply playing the fool.

3 Speaking generally, it would seem that bombast is one of the hardest things to avoid in writing. For all those writers who are ambitious of a lofty style, through dread of being convicted of feebleness and poverty of language, slide by a natural gradation into the opposite extreme. "Who fails in great endeavour, nobly fails," is their creed.

4 Now bulk, when hollow and affected, is always objectionable, whether in material bodies or in writings, and in danger of producing on us an impression of littleness: "nothing," it is said, "is drier than a man with the dropsy."

The characteristic, then, of bombast is that it transcends the Sublime: but there is another fault diametrically opposed to grandeur: this is called puerility, and it is the failing of feeble and narrow minds,—indeed, the most ignoble of all vices in writing. By puerility we mean a pedantic habit of mind, which by over-elaboration ends in frigidity. Slips of this sort are made by those who, aiming at brilliancy, polish, and especially attractiveness, are landed in paltriness and silly affectation.

5 Closely associated with this is a third sort of vice, in dealing with the passions, which Theodorus used to call false sentiment, meaning by that an ill-timed and empty display of emotion, where no emotion is called for, or of greater emotion than the situation warrants. Thus we often see an author hurried by the tumult of his mind into tedious displays of mere personal feeling which has no connection with the subject. Yet how justly ridiculous must an author appear, whose most violent transports leave his readers quite cold! However, I will dismiss this subject, as I intend to devote a separate work to the treatment of the pathetic in writing.


The last of the faults which I mentioned is frequently observed in Timaeus—I mean the fault of frigidity. In other respects he is an able writer, and sometimes not unsuccessful in the loftier style; a man of wide knowledge, and full of ingenuity; a most bitter critic of the failings of others—but unhappily blind to his own. In his eagerness to be always striking out new thoughts he frequently falls into the most childish absurdities.

2 I will only instance one or two passages, as most of them have been pointed out by Caecilius. Wishing to say something very fine about Alexander the Great he speaks of him as a man "who annexed the whole of Asia in fewer years than Isocrates spent in writing his panegyric oration in which he urges the Greeks to make war on Persia." How strange is the comparison of the "great Emathian conqueror" with an Athenian rhetorician! By this mode of reasoning it is plain that the Spartans were very inferior to Isocrates in courage, since it took them thirty years to conquer Messene, while he finished the composition of this harangue in ten.

3 Observe, too, his language on the Athenians taken in Sicily. "They paid the penalty for their impious outrage on Hermes in mutilating his statues; and the chief agent in their destruction was one who was descended on his father's side from the injured deity—Hermocrates, son of Hermon." I wonder, my dearest Terentian, how he omitted to say of the tyrant Dionysius that for his impiety towards Zeus and Herakles he was deprived of his power by Dion and Herakleides.

4 Yet why speak of Timaeus, when even men like Xenophon and Plato—the very demi-gods of literature—though they had sat at the feet of Socrates, sometimes forgot themselves in the pursuit of such paltry conceits. The former, in his account of the Spartan Polity, has these words: "Their voice you would no more hear than if they were of marble, their gaze is as immovable as if they were cast in bronze; you would deem them more modest than the very maidens in their eyes."[1] To speak of the pupils of the eye as "modest maidens" was a piece of absurdity becoming Amphicrates[2] rather than Xenophon. And then what a strange delusion to suppose that modesty is always without exception expressed in the eye! whereas it is commonly said that there is nothing by which an impudent fellow betrays his character so much as by the expression of his eyes. Thus Achilles addresses Agamemnon in the Iliad as "drunkard, with eye of dog."[3]

[Footnote 1: Xen. de Rep. Laced. 3, 5.]

[Footnote 2: C. iii. sect. 2.]

[Footnote 3: Il. i. 225.]

5 Timaeus, however, with that want of judgment which characterises plagiarists, could not leave to Xenophon the possession of even this piece of frigidity. In relating how Agathocles carried off his cousin, who was wedded to another man, from the festival of the unveiling, he asks, "Who could have done such a deed, unless he had harlots instead of maidens in his eyes?"

6 And Plato himself, elsewhere so supreme a master of style, meaning to describe certain recording tablets, says, "They shall write, and deposit in the temples memorials of cypress wood";[4] and again, "Then concerning walls, Megillus, I give my vote with Sparta that we should let them lie asleep within the ground, and not awaken them."[5]

[Footnote 4: Plat. de Legg. v. 741, C.]

[Footnote 5: Ib. vi. 778, D.]

7 And Herodotus falls pretty much under the same censure, when he speaks of beautiful women as "tortures to the eye,"[6] though here there is some excuse, as the speakers in this passage are drunken barbarians. Still, even from dramatic motives, such errors in taste should not be permitted to deface the pages of an immortal work.

[Footnote 6: v. 18.]


Now all these glaring improprieties of language may be traced to one common root—the pursuit of novelty in thought. It is this that has turned the brain of nearly all the learned world of to-day. Human blessings and human ills commonly flow from the same source: and, to apply this principle to literature, those ornaments of style, those sublime and delightful images, which contribute to success, are the foundation and the origin, not only of excellence, but also of failure. It is thus with the figures called transitions, and hyperboles, and the use of plurals for singulars. I shall show presently the dangers which they seem to involve. Our next task, therefore, must be to propose and to settle the question how we may avoid the faults of style related to sublimity.


Our best hope of doing this will be first of all to grasp some definite theory and criterion of the true Sublime. Nevertheless this is a hard matter; for a just judgment of style is the final fruit of long experience; still, I believe that the way I shall indicate will enable us to distinguish between the true and false Sublime, so far as it can be done by rule.


It is proper to observe that in human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings, seeing that merely to despise such things is a blessing of no common order: certainly those who possess them are admired much less than those who, having the opportunity to acquire them, through greatness of soul neglect it. Now let us apply this principle to the Sublime in poetry or in prose; let us ask in all cases, is it merely a specious sublimity? is this gorgeous exterior a mere false and clumsy pageant, which if laid open will be found to conceal nothing but emptiness? for if so, a noble mind will scorn instead of admiring it.

2 It is natural to us to feel our souls lifted up by the true Sublime, and conceiving a sort of generous exultation to be filled with joy and pride, as though we had ourselves originated the ideas which we read.

3 If then any work, on being repeatedly submitted to the judgment of an acute and cultivated critic, fails to dispose his mind to lofty ideas; if the thoughts which it suggests do not extend beyond what is actually expressed; and if, the longer you read it, the less you think of it,—there can be here no true sublimity, when the effect is not sustained beyond the mere act of perusal. But when a passage is pregnant in suggestion, when it is hard, nay impossible, to distract the attention from it, and when it takes a strong and lasting hold on the memory, then we may be sure that we have lighted on the true Sublime.

4 In general we may regard those words as truly noble and sublime which always please and please all readers. For when the same book always produces the same impression on all who read it, whatever be the difference in their pursuits, their manner of life, their aspirations, their ages, or their language, such a harmony of opposites gives irresistible authority to their favourable verdict.


I shall now proceed to enumerate the five principal sources, as we may call them, from which almost all sublimity is derived, assuming, of course, the preliminary gift on which all these five sources depend, namely, command of language. The first and the most important is (1) grandeur of thought, as I have pointed out elsewhere in my work on Xenophon. The second is (2) a vigorous and spirited treatment of the passions. These two conditions of sublimity depend mainly on natural endowments, whereas those which follow derive assistance from Art. The third is (3) a certain artifice in the employment of figures, which are of two kinds, figures of thought and figures of speech. The fourth is (4) dignified expression, which is sub-divided into (a) the proper choice of words, and (b) the use of metaphors and other ornaments of diction. The fifth cause of sublimity, which embraces all those preceding, is (5) majesty and elevation of structure. Let us consider what is involved in each of these five forms separately.

I must first, however, remark that some of these five divisions are omitted by Caecilius; for instance, he says nothing about the passions.

2 Now if he made this omission from a belief that the Sublime and the Pathetic are one and the same thing, holding them to be always coexistent and interdependent, he is in error. Some passions are found which, so far from being lofty, are actually low, such as pity, grief, fear; and conversely, sublimity is often not in the least affecting, as we may see (among innumerable other instances) in those bold expressions of our great poet on the sons of Aloeus—

"Highly they raged To pile huge Ossa on the Olympian peak, And Pelion with all his waving trees On Ossa's crest to raise, and climb the sky;"

and the yet more tremendous climax—

"And now had they accomplished it."

3 And in orators, in all passages dealing with panegyric, and in all the more imposing and declamatory places, dignity and sublimity play an indispensable part; but pathos is mostly absent. Hence the most pathetic orators have usually but little skill in panegyric, and conversely those who are powerful in panegyric generally fail in pathos.

4 If, on the other hand, Caecilius supposed that pathos never contributes to sublimity, and this is why he thought it alien to the subject, he is entirely deceived. For I would confidently pronounce that nothing is so conducive to sublimity as an appropriate display of genuine passion, which bursts out with a kind of "fine madness" and divine inspiration, and falls on our ears like the voice of a god.


I have already said that of all these five conditions of the Sublime the most important is the first, that is, a certain lofty cast of mind. Therefore, although this is a faculty rather natural than acquired, nevertheless it will be well for us in this instance also to train up our souls to sublimity, and make them as it were ever big with noble thoughts.

2 How, it may be asked, is this to be done? I have hinted elsewhere in my writings that sublimity is, so to say, the image of greatness of soul. Hence a thought in its naked simplicity, even though unuttered, is sometimes admirable by the sheer force of its sublimity; for instance, the silence of Ajax in the eleventh Odyssey[1] is great, and grander than anything he could have said.

[Footnote 1: Od. xi. 543.]

3 It is absolutely essential, then, first of all to settle the question whence this grandeur of conception arises; and the answer is that true eloquence can be found only in those whose spirit is generous and aspiring. For those whose whole lives are wasted in paltry and illiberal thoughts and habits cannot possibly produce any work worthy of the lasting reverence of mankind. It is only natural that their words should be full of sublimity whose thoughts are full of majesty.

4 Hence sublime thoughts belong properly to the loftiest minds. Such was the reply of Alexander to his general Parmenio, when the latter had observed, "Were I Alexander, I should have been satisfied"; "And I, were I Parmenio"...

The distance between heaven and earth[1]—a measure, one might say, not less appropriate to Homer's genius than to the stature of his discord.

[Footnote 1: Il. iv. 442.]

5 How different is that touch of Hesiod's in his description of sorrow—if the Shield is really one of his works: "rheum from her nostrils flowed"[2]—an image not terrible, but disgusting. Now consider how Homer gives dignity to his divine persons—

"As far as lies his airy ken, who sits On some tall crag, and scans the wine-dark sea: So far extends the heavenly coursers' stride."[3]

He measures their speed by the extent of the whole world—a grand comparison, which might reasonably lead us to remark that if the divine steeds were to take two such leaps in succession, they would find no room in the world for another.

[Footnote 2: Scut. Herc. 267.]

[Footnote 3: Il. v. 770.]

6 Sublime also are the images in the "Battle of the Gods"—

"A trumpet sound Rang through the air, and shook the Olympian height; Then terror seized the monarch of the dead, And springing from his throne he cried aloud With fearful voice, lest the earth, rent asunder By Neptune's mighty arm, forthwith reveal To mortal and immortal eyes those halls So drear and dank, which e'en the gods abhor."[4]

Earth rent from its foundations! Tartarus itself laid bare! The whole world torn asunder and turned upside down! Why, my dear friend, this is a perfect hurly-burly, in which the whole universe, heaven and hell, mortals and immortals, share the conflict and the peril.

[Footnote 4: Il. xxi. 388; xx. 61.]

7 A terrible picture, certainly, but (unless perhaps it is to be taken allegorically) downright impious, and overstepping the bounds of decency. It seems to me that the strange medley of wounds, quarrels, revenges, tears, bonds, and other woes which makes up the Homeric tradition of the gods was designed by its author to degrade his deities, as far as possible, into men, and exalt his men into deities—or rather, his gods are worse off than his human characters, since we, when we are unhappy, have a haven from ills in death, while the gods, according to him, not only live for ever, but live for ever in misery.

8 Far to be preferred to this description of the Battle of the Gods are those passages which exhibit the divine nature in its true light, as something spotless, great, and pure, as, for instance, a passage which has often been handled by my predecessors, the lines on Poseidon:—

"Mountain and wood and solitary peak, The ships Achaian, and the towers of Troy, Trembled beneath the god's immortal feet. Over the waves he rode, and round him played, Lured from the deeps, the ocean's monstrous brood, With uncouth gambols welcoming their lord: The charmed billows parted: on they flew."[5]

[Footnote 5: Il. xiii. 18; xx. 60; xiii. 19, 27.]

9 And thus also the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed an adequate conception of the Supreme Being, gave it adequate expression in the opening words of his "Laws": "God said"—what?—"let there be light, and there was light: let there be land, and there was."

10 I trust you will not think me tedious if I quote yet one more passage from our great poet (referring this time to human characters) in illustration of the manner in which he leads us with him to heroic heights. A sudden and baffling darkness as of night has overspread the ranks of his warring Greeks. Then Ajax in sore perplexity cries aloud—

"Almighty Sire, Only from darkness save Achaia's sons; No more I ask, but give us back the day; Grant but our sight, and slay us, if thou wilt."[6]

The feelings are just what we should look for in Ajax. He does not, you observe, ask for his life—such a request would have been unworthy of his heroic soul—but finding himself paralysed by darkness, and prohibited from employing his valour in any noble action, he chafes because his arms are idle, and prays for a speedy return of light. "At least," he thinks, "I shall find a warrior's grave, even though Zeus himself should fight against me."

[Footnote 6: Il. xvii. 645.]

11 In such passages the mind of the poet is swept along in the whirlwind of the struggle, and, in his own words, he

"Like the fierce war-god, raves, or wasting fire Through the deep thickets on a mountain-side; His lips drop foam."[7]

[Footnote 7: Il. xv. 605.]

12 But there is another and a very interesting aspect of Homer's mind. When we turn to the Odyssey we find occasion to observe that a great poetical genius in the decline of power which comes with old age naturally leans towards the fabulous. For it is evident that this work was composed after the Iliad, in proof of which we may mention, among many other indications, the introduction in the Odyssey of the sequel to the story of his heroes' adventures at Troy, as so many additional episodes in the Trojan war, and especially the tribute of sorrow and mourning which is paid in that poem to departed heroes, as if in fulfilment of some previous design. The Odyssey is, in fact, a sort of epilogue to the Iliad

"There warrior Ajax lies, Achilles there, And there Patroclus, godlike counsellor; There lies my own dear son."[8]

[Footnote 8: Od. iii. 109.]

13 And for the same reason, I imagine, whereas in the Iliad, which was written when his genius was in its prime, the whole structure of the poem is founded on action and struggle, in the Odyssey he generally prefers the narrative style, which is proper to old age. Hence Homer in his Odyssey may be compared to the setting sun: he is still as great as ever, but he has lost his fervent heat. The strain is now pitched to a lower key than in the "Tale of Troy divine": we begin to miss that high and equable sublimity which never flags or sinks, that continuous current of moving incidents, those rapid transitions, that force of eloquence, that opulence of imagery which is ever true to Nature. Like the sea when it retires upon itself and leaves its shores waste and bare, henceforth the tide of sublimity begins to ebb, and draws us away into the dim region of myth and legend.

14 In saying this I am not forgetting the fine storm-pieces in the Odyssey, the story of the Cyclops,[9] and other striking passages. It is Homer grown old I am discussing, but still it is Homer. Yet in every one of these passages the mythical predominates over the real.

My purpose in making this digression was, as I said, to point out into what trifles the second childhood of genius is too apt to be betrayed; such, I mean, as the bag in which the winds are confined,[10] the tale of Odysseus's comrades being changed by Circe into swine[11] ("whimpering porkers" Zoilus called them), and how Zeus was fed like a nestling by the doves,[12] and how Odysseus passed ten nights on the shipwreck without food,[13] and the improbable incidents in the slaying of the suitors.[14] When Homer nods like this, we must be content to say that he dreams as Zeus might dream.

[Footnote 9: Od. ix. 182.]

[Footnote 10: Od. x. 17.]

[Footnote 11: Od. x. 237.]

[Footnote 12: Od. xii. 62.]

[Footnote 13: Od. xii. 447.]

[Footnote 14: Od. xxii. passim.]

15 Another reason for these remarks on the Odyssey is that I wished to make you understand that great poets and prose-writers, after they have lost their power of depicting the passions, turn naturally to the delineation of character. Such, for instance, is the lifelike and characteristic picture of the palace of Odysseus, which may be called a sort of comedy of manners.


Let us now consider whether there is anything further which conduces to the Sublime in writing. It is a law of Nature that in all things there are certain constituent parts, coexistent with their substance. It necessarily follows, therefore, that one cause of sublimity is the choice of the most striking circumstances involved in whatever we are describing, and, further, the power of afterwards combining them into one animate whole. The reader is attracted partly by the selection of the incidents, partly by the skill which has welded them together. For instance, Sappho, in dealing with the passionate manifestations attending on the frenzy of lovers, always chooses her strokes from the signs which she has observed to be actually exhibited in such cases. But her peculiar excellence lies in the felicity with which she chooses and unites together the most striking and powerful features.

2 "I deem that man divinely blest Who sits, and, gazing on thy face, Hears thee discourse with eloquent lips, And marks thy lovely smile. This, this it is that made my heart So wildly flutter in my breast; Whene'er I look on thee, my voice Falters, and faints, and fails; My tongue's benumbed; a subtle fire Through all my body inly steals; Mine eyes in darkness reel and swim; Strange murmurs drown my ears; With dewy damps my limbs are chilled; An icy shiver shakes my frame; Paler than ashes grows my cheek; And Death seems nigh at hand."

3 Is it not wonderful how at the same moment soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour, all fail her, and are lost to her as completely as if they were not her own? Observe too how her sensations contradict one another—she freezes, she burns, she raves, she reasons, and all at the same instant. And this description is designed to show that she is assailed, not by any particular emotion, but by a tumult of different emotions. All these tokens belong to the passion of love; but it is in the choice, as I said, of the most striking features, and in the combination of them into one picture, that the perfection of this Ode of Sappho's lies. Similarly Homer in his descriptions of tempests always picks out the most terrific circumstances.

4 The poet of the "Arimaspeia" intended the following lines to be grand—

"Herein I find a wonder passing strange, That men should make their dwelling on the deep, Who far from land essaying bold to range With anxious heart their toilsome vigils keep; Their eyes are fixed on heaven's starry steep; The ravening billows hunger for their lives; And oft each shivering wretch, constrained to weep, With suppliant hands to move heaven's pity strives, While many a direful qualm his very vitals rives."

All must see that there is more of ornament than of terror in the description. Now let us turn to Homer.

5 One passage will suffice to show the contrast.

"On them he leaped, as leaps a raging wave, Child of the winds, under the darkening clouds, On a swift ship, and buries her in foam; Then cracks the sail beneath the roaring blast, And quakes the breathless seamen's shuddering heart In terror dire: death lours on every wave."[1]

[Footnote 1: Il. xv. 624.]

6 Aratus has tried to give a new turn to this last thought—

"But one frail timber shields them from their doom,"[2]—

banishing by this feeble piece of subtlety all the terror from his description; setting limits, moreover, to the peril described by saying "shields them"; for so long as it shields them it matters not whether the "timber" be "frail" or stout. But Homer does not set any fixed limit to the danger, but gives us a vivid picture of men a thousand times on the brink of destruction, every wave threatening them with instant death. Moreover, by his bold and forcible combination of prepositions of opposite meaning he tortures his language to imitate the agony of the scene, the constraint which is put on the words accurately reflecting the anxiety of the sailors' minds, and the diction being stamped, as it were, with the peculiar terror of the situation.

[Footnote 2: Phaenomena, 299.]

7 Similarly Archilochus in his description of the shipwreck, and similarly Demosthenes when he describes how the news came of the taking of Elatea[3]—"It was evening," etc. Each of these authors fastidiously rejects whatever is not essential to the subject, and in putting together the most vivid features is careful to guard against the interposition of anything frivolous, unbecoming, or tiresome. Such blemishes mar the general effect, and give a patched and gaping appearance to the edifice of sublimity, which ought to be built up in a solid and uniform structure.

[Footnote 3: De Cor. 169.]


Closely associated with the part of our subject we have just treated of is that excellence of writing which is called amplification, when a writer or pleader, whose theme admits of many successive starting-points and pauses, brings on one impressive point after another in a continuous and ascending scale.

2 Now whether this is employed in the treatment of a commonplace, or in the way of exaggeration, whether to place arguments or facts in a strong light, or in the disposition of actions, or of passions—for amplification takes a hundred different shapes—in all cases the orator must be cautioned that none of these methods is complete without the aid of sublimity,—unless, indeed, it be our object to excite pity, or to depreciate an opponent's argument. In all other uses of amplification, if you subtract the element of sublimity you will take as it were the soul from the body. No sooner is the support of sublimity removed than the whole becomes lifeless, nerveless, and dull.

3 There is a difference, however, between the rules I am now giving and those just mentioned. Then I was speaking of the delineation and co-ordination of the principal circumstances. My next task, therefore, must be briefly to define this difference, and with it the general distinction between amplification and sublimity. Our whole discourse will thus gain in clearness.


I must first remark that I am not satisfied with the definition of amplification generally given by authorities on rhetoric. They explain it to be a form of language which invests the subject with a certain grandeur. Yes, but this definition may be applied indifferently to sublimity, pathos, and the use of figurative language, since all these invest the discourse with some sort of grandeur. The difference seems to me to lie in this, that sublimity gives elevation to a subject, while amplification gives extension as well. Thus the sublime is often conveyed in a single thought,[1] but amplification can only subsist with a certain prolixity and diffusiveness.

[Footnote 1: Comp. i. 4. 26.]

2 The most general definition of amplification would explain it to consist in the gathering together of all the constituent parts and topics of a subject, emphasising the argument by repeated insistence, herein differing from proof, that whereas the object of proof is logical demonstration, ...

Plato, like the sea, pours forth his riches in a copious and expansive flood.

3 Hence the style of the orator, who is the greater master of our emotions, is often, as it were, red-hot and ablaze with passion, whereas Plato, whose strength lay in a sort of weighty and sober magnificence, though never frigid, does not rival the thunders of Demosthenes.

4 And, if a Greek may be allowed to express an opinion on the subject of Latin literature, I think the same difference may be discerned in the grandeur of Cicero as compared with that of his Grecian rival. The sublimity of Demosthenes is generally sudden and abrupt: that of Cicero is equally diffused. Demosthenes is vehement, rapid, vigorous, terrible; he burns and sweeps away all before him; and hence we may liken him to a whirlwind or a thunderbolt: Cicero is like a widespread conflagration, which rolls over and feeds on all around it, whose fire is extensive and burns long, breaking out successively in different places, and finding its fuel now here, now there.

5 Such points, however, I resign to your more competent judgment.

To resume, then, the high-strung sublimity of Demosthenes is appropriate to all cases where it is desired to exaggerate, or to rouse some vehement emotion, and generally when we want to carry away our audience with us. We must employ the diffusive style, on the other hand, when we wish to overpower them with a flood of language. It is suitable, for example, to familiar topics, and to perorations in most cases, and to digressions, and to all descriptive and declamatory passages, and in dealing with history or natural science, and in numerous other cases.


To return, however, to Plato: how grand he can be with all that gentle and noiseless flow of eloquence you will be reminded by this characteristic passage, which you have read in his Republic: "They, therefore, who have no knowledge of wisdom and virtue, whose lives are passed in feasting and similar joys, are borne downwards, as is but natural, and in this region they wander all their lives; but they never lifted up their eyes nor were borne upwards to the true world above, nor ever tasted of pleasure abiding and unalloyed; but like beasts they ever look downwards, and their heads are bent to the ground, or rather to the table; they feed full their bellies and their lusts, and longing ever more and more for such things they kick and gore one another with horns and hoofs of iron, and slay one another in their insatiable desires."[1]

[Footnote 1: Rep. ix. 586, A.]

2 We may learn from this author, if we would but observe his example, that there is yet another path besides those mentioned which leads to sublime heights. What path do I mean? The emulous imitation of the great poets and prose-writers of the past. On this mark, dear friend, let us keep our eyes ever steadfastly fixed. Many gather the divine impulse from another's spirit, just as we are told that the Pythian priestess, when she takes her seat on the tripod, where there is said to be a rent in the ground breathing upwards a heavenly emanation, straightway conceives from that source the godlike gift of prophecy, and utters her inspired oracles; so likewise from the mighty genius of the great writers of antiquity there is carried into the souls of their rivals, as from a fount of inspiration, an effluence which breathes upon them until, even though their natural temper be but cold, they share the sublime enthusiasm of others.

3 Thus Homer's name is associated with a numerous band of illustrious disciples—not only Herodotus, but Stesichorus before him, and the great Archilochus, and above all Plato, who from the great fountain-head of Homer's genius drew into himself innumerable tributary streams. Perhaps it would have been necessary to illustrate this point, had not Ammonius and his school already classified and noted down the various examples.

4 Now what I am speaking of is not plagiarism, but resembles the process of copying from fair forms or statues or works of skilled labour. Nor in my opinion would so many fair flowers of imagery have bloomed among the philosophical dogmas of Plato, nor would he have risen so often to the language and topics of poetry, had he not engaged heart and soul in a contest for precedence with Homer, like a young champion entering the lists against a veteran. It may be that he showed too ambitious a spirit in venturing on such a duel; but nevertheless it was not without advantage to him: "for strife like this," as Hesiod says, "is good for men."[2] And where shall we find a more glorious arena or a nobler crown than here, where even defeat at the hands of our predecessors is not ignoble?

[Footnote 2: Opp. 29.]


Therefore it is good for us also, when we are labouring on some subject which demands a lofty and majestic style, to imagine to ourselves how Homer might have expressed this or that, or how Plato or Demosthenes would have clothed it with sublimity, or, in history, Thucydides. For by our fixing an eye of rivalry on those high examples they will become like beacons to guide us, and will perhaps lift up our souls to the fulness of the stature we conceive.

2 And it would be still better should we try to realise this further thought, How would Homer, had he been here, or how would Demosthenes, have listened to what I have written, or how would they have been affected by it? For what higher incentive to exertion could a writer have than to imagine such judges or such an audience of his works, and to give an account of his writings with heroes like these to criticise and look on?

3 Yet more inspiring would be the thought, With what feelings will future ages through all time read these my works? If this should awaken a fear in any writer that he will not be intelligible to his contemporaries it will necessarily follow that the conceptions of his mind will be crude, maimed, and abortive, and lacking that ripe perfection which alone can win the applause of ages to come.


The dignity, grandeur, and energy of a style largely depend on a proper employment of images, a term which I prefer to that usually given.[1] The term image in its most general acceptation includes every thought, howsoever presented, which issues in speech. But the term is now generally confined to those cases when he who is speaking, by reason of the rapt and excited state of his feelings, imagines himself to see what he is talking about, and produces a similar illusion in his hearers.

[Footnote 1: eidolopoiiai, "fictions of the imagination," Hickie.]

2 Poets and orators both employ images, but with a very different object, as you are well aware. The poetical image is designed to astound; the oratorical image to give perspicuity. Both, however, seek to work on the emotions.

"Mother, I pray thee, set not thou upon me Those maids with bloody face and serpent hair: See, see, they come, they're here, they spring upon me!"[2]

And again—

"Ah, ah, she'll slay me! whither shall I fly?"[3]

The poet when he wrote like this saw the Erinyes with his own eyes, and he almost compels his readers to see them too.

[Footnote 2: Eur. Orest. 255.]

[Footnote 3: Iph. Taur. 291.]

3 Euripides found his chief delight in the labour of giving tragic expression to these two passions of madness and love, showing here a real mastery which I cannot think he exhibited elsewhere. Still, he is by no means diffident in venturing on other fields of the imagination. His genius was far from being of the highest order, but by taking pains he often raises himself to a tragic elevation. In his sublimer moments he generally reminds us of Homer's description of the lion—

"With tail he lashes both his flanks and sides, And spurs himself to battle."[4]

[Footnote 4: Il. xx. 170.]

4 Take, for instance, that passage in which Helios, in handing the reins to his son, says—

"Drive on, but shun the burning Libyan tract; The hot dry air will let thine axle down: Toward the seven Pleiades keep thy steadfast way."

And then—

"This said, his son undaunted snatched the reins, Then smote the winged coursers' sides: they bound Forth on the void and cavernous vault of air. His father mounts another steed, and rides With warning voice guiding his son. 'Drive there! Turn, turn thy car this way.'"[5]

May we not say that the spirit of the poet mounts the chariot with his hero, and accompanies the winged steeds in their perilous flight? Were it not so,—had not his imagination soared side by side with them in that celestial passage,—he would never have conceived so vivid an image. Similar is that passage in his "Cassandra," beginning

"Ye Trojans, lovers of the steed."[6]

[Footnote 5: Eur. Phaet.]

[Footnote 6: Perhaps from the lost "Alexander" (Jahn).]

5 Aeschylus is especially bold in forming images suited to his heroic themes: as when he says of his "Seven against Thebes"—

"Seven mighty men, and valiant captains, slew Over an iron-bound shield a bull, then dipped Their fingers in the blood, and all invoked Ares, Enyo, and death-dealing Flight In witness of their oaths,"[7]

and describes how they all mutually pledged themselves without flinching to die. Sometimes, however, his thoughts are unshapen, and as it were rough-hewn and rugged. Not observing this, Euripides, from too blind a rivalry, sometimes falls under the same censure.

[Footnote 7: Sept. c. Th. 42.]

6 Aeschylus with a strange violence of language represents the palace of Lycurgus as possessed at the appearance of Dionysus—

"The halls with rapture thrill, the roof's inspired."[8]

Here Euripides, in borrowing the image, softens its extravagance[9]—

"And all the mountain felt the god."[10]

[Footnote 8: Aesch. Lycurg.]

[Footnote 9: Lit. "Giving it a different flavour," as Arist. Poet. hedusmeno logo choris hekasto ton eidon, ii. 10.]

[Footnote 10: Bacch. 726.]

7 Sophocles has also shown himself a great master of the imagination in the scene in which the dying Oedipus prepares himself for burial in the midst of a tempest,[11] and where he tells how Achilles appeared to the Greeks over his tomb just as they were putting out to sea on their departure from Troy.[12] This last scene has also been delineated by Simonides with a vividness which leaves him inferior to none. But it would be an endless task to cite all possible examples.

[Footnote 11: Oed. Col. 1586.]

[Footnote 12: In his lost "Polyxena."]

8 To return, then,[13] in poetry, as I observed, a certain mythical exaggeration is allowable, transcending altogether mere logical credence. But the chief beauties of an oratorical image are its energy and reality. Such digressions become offensive and monstrous when the language is cast in a poetical and fabulous mould, and runs into all sorts of impossibilities. Thus much may be learnt from the great orators of our own day, when they tell us in tragic tones that they see the Furies[14]—good people, can't they understand that when Orestes cries out

"Off, off, I say! I know thee who thou art, One of the fiends that haunt me: I feel thine arms About me cast, to drag me down to hell,"[15]

these are the hallucinations of a madman?

[Footnote 13: Sec. 2.]

[Footnote 14: Comp. Petronius, Satyricon, ch. i. passim.]

[Footnote 15: Orest. 264.]

9 Wherein, then, lies the force of an oratorical image? Doubtless in adding energy and passion in a hundred different ways to a speech; but especially in this, that when it is mingled with the practical, argumentative parts of an oration, it does not merely convince the hearer, but enthralls him. Such is the effect of those words of Demosthenes:[16] "Supposing, now, at this moment a cry of alarm were heard outside the assize courts, and the news came that the prison was broken open and the prisoners escaped, is there any man here who is such a trifler that he would not run to the rescue at the top of his speed? But suppose some one came forward with the information that they had been set at liberty by the defendant, what then? Why, he would be lynched on the spot!"

[Footnote 16: c. Timocrat. 208.]

10 Compare also the way in which Hyperides excused himself, when he was proceeded against for bringing in a bill to liberate the slaves after Chaeronea. "This measure," he said, "was not drawn up by any orator, but by the battle of Chaeronea." This striking image, being thrown in by the speaker in the midst of his proofs, enables him by one bold stroke to carry all mere logical objection before him.

11 In all such cases our nature is drawn towards that which affects it most powerfully: hence an image lures us away from an argument: judgment is paralysed, matters of fact disappear from view, eclipsed by the superior blaze. Nor is it surprising that we should be thus affected; for when two forces are thus placed in juxtaposition, the stronger must always absorb into itself the weaker.

12 On sublimity of thought, and the manner in which it arises from native greatness of mind, from imitation, and from the employment of images, this brief outline must suffice.[17]

[Footnote 17: He passes over chs. x. xi.]


The subject which next claims our attention is that of figures of speech. I have already observed that figures, judiciously employed, play an important part in producing sublimity. It would be a tedious, or rather an endless task, to deal with every detail of this subject here; so in order to establish what I have laid down, I will just run over, without further preface, a few of those figures which are most effective in lending grandeur to language.

2 Demosthenes is defending his policy; his natural line of argument would have been: "You did not do wrong, men of Athens, to take upon yourselves the struggle for the liberties of Hellas. Of this you have home proofs. They did not wrong who fought at Marathon, at Salamis, and Plataea." Instead of this, in a sudden moment of supreme exaltation he bursts out like some inspired prophet with that famous appeal to the mighty dead: "Ye did not, could not have done wrong. I swear it by the men who faced the foe at Marathon!"[1] He employs the figure of adjuration, to which I will here give the name of Apostrophe. And what does he gain by it? He exalts the Athenian ancestors to the rank of divinities, showing that we ought to invoke those who have fallen for their country as gods; he fills the hearts of his judges with the heroic pride of the old warriors of Hellas; forsaking the beaten path of argument he rises to the loftiest altitude of grandeur and passion, and commands assent by the startling novelty of his appeal; he applies the healing charm of eloquence, and thus "ministers to the mind diseased" of his countrymen, until lifted by his brave words above their misfortunes they begin to feel that the disaster of Chaeronea is no less glorious than the victories of Marathon and Salamis. All this he effects by the use of one figure, and so carries his hearers away with him.

[Footnote 1: De Cor. 208.]

3 It is said that the germ of this adjuration is found in Eupolis—

"By mine own fight, by Marathon, I say, Who makes my heart to ache shall rue the day!"[2]

But there is nothing grand in the mere employment of an oath. Its grandeur will depend on its being employed in the right place and the right manner, on the right occasion, and with the right motive. In Eupolis the oath is nothing beyond an oath; and the Athenians to whom it is addressed are still prosperous, and in need of no consolation. Moreover, the poet does not, like Demosthenes, swear by the departed heroes as deities, so as to engender in his audience a just conception of their valour, but diverges from the champions to the battle—a mere lifeless thing. But Demosthenes has so skilfully managed the oath that in addressing his countrymen after the defeat of Chaeronea he takes out of their minds all sense of disaster; and at the same time, while proving that no mistake has been made, he holds up an example, confirms his arguments by an oath, and makes his praise of the dead an incentive to the living.

[Footnote 2: In his (lost) "Demis."]

4 And to rebut a possible objection which occurred to him—"Can you, Demosthenes, whose policy ended in defeat, swear by a victory?"—the orator proceeds to measure his language, choosing his very words so as to give no handle to opponents, thus showing us that even in our most inspired moments reason ought to hold the reins.[3] Let us mark his words: "Those who faced the foe at Marathon; those who fought in the sea-fights of Salamis and Artemisium; those who stood in the ranks at Plataea." Note that he nowhere says "those who conquered," artfully suppressing any word which might hint at the successful issue of those battles, which would have spoilt the parallel with Chaeronea. And for the same reason he steals a march on his audience, adding immediately: "All of whom, Aeschines,—not those who were successful only,—were buried by the state at the public expense."

[Footnote 3: Lit. "That even in the midst of the revels of Bacchus we ought to remain sober."]


There is one truth which my studies have led me to observe, which perhaps it would be worth while to set down briefly here. It is this, that by a natural law the Sublime, besides receiving an acquisition of strength from figures, in its turn lends support in a remarkable manner to them. To explain: the use of figures has a peculiar tendency to rouse a suspicion of dishonesty, and to create an impression of treachery, scheming, and false reasoning; especially if the person addressed be a judge, who is master of the situation, and still more in the case of a despot, a king, a military potentate, or any of those who sit in high places.[1] If a man feels that this artful speaker is treating him like a silly boy and trying to throw dust in his eyes, he at once grows irritated, and thinking that such false reasoning implies a contempt of his understanding, he perhaps flies into a rage and will not hear another word; or even if he masters his resentment, still he is utterly indisposed to yield to the persuasive power of eloquence. Hence it follows that a figure is then most effectual when it appears in disguise.

[Footnote 1: Reading with Cobet, kai pantas tous en huperochais.]

2 To allay, then, this distrust which attaches to the use of figures we must call in the powerful aid of sublimity and passion. For art, once associated with these great allies, will be overshadowed by their grandeur and beauty, and pass beyond the reach of all suspicion. To prove this I need only refer to the passage already quoted: "I swear it by the men," etc. It is the very brilliancy of the orator's figure which blinds us to the fact that it is a figure. For as the fainter lustre of the stars is put out of sight by the all-encompassing rays of the sun, so when sublimity sheds its light all round the sophistries of rhetoric they become invisible.

3 A similar illusion is produced by the painter's art. When light and shadow are represented in colour, though they lie on the same surface side by side, it is the light which meets the eye first, and appears not only more conspicuous but also much nearer. In the same manner passion and grandeur of language, lying nearer to our souls by reason both of a certain natural affinity and of their radiance, always strike our mental eye before we become conscious of the figure, throwing its artificial character into the shade and hiding it as it were in a veil.


The figures of question and interrogation[1] also possess a specific quality which tends strongly to stir an audience and give energy to the speaker's words. "Or tell me, do you want to run about asking one another, is there any news? what greater news could you have than that a man of Macedon is making himself master of Hellas? Is Philip dead? Not he. However, he is ill. But what is that to you? Even if anything happens to him you will soon raise up another Philip."[2] Or this passage: "Shall we sail against Macedon? And where, asks one, shall we effect a landing? The war itself will show us where Philip's weak places lie."[2] Now if this had been put baldly it would have lost greatly in force. As we see it, it is full of the quick alternation of question and answer. The orator replies to himself as though he were meeting another man's objections. And this figure not only raises the tone of his words but makes them more convincing.

[Footnote 1: See Note.]

[Footnote 2: Phil. i. 44.]

2 For an exhibition of feeling has then most effect on an audience when it appears to flow naturally from the occasion, not to have been laboured by the art of the speaker; and this device of questioning and replying to himself reproduces the moment of passion. For as a sudden question addressed to an individual will sometimes startle him into a reply which is an unguarded expression of his genuine sentiments, so the figure of question and interrogation blinds the judgment of an audience, and deceives them into a belief that what is really the result of labour in every detail has been struck out of the speaker by the inspiration of the moment.

There is one passage in Herodotus which is generally credited with extraordinary sublimity....


... The removal of connecting particles gives a quick rush and "torrent rapture" to a passage, the writer appearing to be actually almost left behind by his own words. There is an example in Xenophon: "Clashing their shields together they pushed, they fought, they slew, they fell."[1] And the words of Eurylochus in the Odyssey

"We passed at thy command the woodland's shade; We found a stately hall built in a mountain glade."[2]

Words thus severed from one another without the intervention of stops give a lively impression of one who through distress of mind at once halts and hurries in his speech. And this is what Homer has expressed by using the figure Asyndeton.

[Footnote 1: Xen. Hel. iv. 3. 19.]

[Footnote 2: Od. x. 251.]


But nothing is so conducive to energy as a combination of different figures, when two or three uniting their resources mutually contribute to the vigour, the cogency, and the beauty of a speech. So Demosthenes in his speech against Meidias repeats the same words and breaks up his sentences in one lively descriptive passage: "He who receives a blow is hurt in many ways which he could not even describe to another, by gesture, by look, by tone."

2 Then, to vary the movement of his speech, and prevent it from standing still (for stillness produces rest, but passion requires a certain disorder of language, imitating the agitation and commotion of the soul), he at once dashes off in another direction, breaking up his words again, and repeating them in a different form, "by gesture, by look, by tone—when insult, when hatred, is added to violence, when he is struck with the fist, when he is struck as a slave!" By such means the orator imitates the action of Meidias, dealing blow upon blow on the minds of his judges. Immediately after like a hurricane he makes a fresh attack: "When he is struck with the fist, when he is struck in the face; this is what moves, this is what maddens a man, unless he is inured to outrage; no one could describe all this so as to bring home to his hearers its bitterness."[1] You see how he preserves, by continual variation, the intrinsic force of these repetitions and broken clauses, so that his order seems irregular, and conversely his irregularity acquires a certain measure of order.

[Footnote 1: Meid. 72.]


Supposing we add the conjunctions, after the practice of Isocrates and his school: "Moreover, I must not omit to mention that he who strikes a blow may hurt in many ways, in the first place by gesture, in the second place by look, in the third and last place by his tone." If you compare the words thus set down in logical sequence with the expressions of the "Meidias," you will see that the rapidity and rugged abruptness of passion, when all is made regular by connecting links, will be smoothed away, and the whole point and fire of the passage will at once disappear.

2 For as, if you were to bind two runners together, they will forthwith be deprived of all liberty of movement, even so passion rebels against the trammels of conjunctions and other particles, because they curb its free rush and destroy the impression of mechanical impulse.


The figure hyperbaton belongs to the same class. By hyperbaton we mean a transposition of words or thoughts from their usual order, bearing unmistakably the characteristic stamp of violent mental agitation. In real life we often see a man under the influence of rage, or fear, or indignation, or beside himself with jealousy, or with some other out of the interminable list of human passions, begin a sentence, and then swerve aside into some inconsequent parenthesis, and then again double back to his original statement, being borne with quick turns by his distress, as though by a shifting wind, now this way, now that, and playing a thousand capricious variations on his words, his thoughts, and the natural order of his discourse. Now the figure hyperbaton is the means which is employed by the best writers to imitate these signs of natural emotion. For art is then perfect when it seems to be nature, and nature, again, is most effective when pervaded by the unseen presence of art. An illustration will be found in the speech of Dionysius of Phocaea in Herodotus: "A hair's breadth now decides our destiny, Ionians, whether we shall live as freemen or as slaves—ay, as runaway slaves. Now, therefore, if you choose to endure a little hardship, you will be able at the cost of some present exertion to overcome your enemies."[1]

[Footnote 1: vi. 11.]

2 The regular sequence here would have been: "Ionians, now is the time for you to endure a little hardship; for a hair's breadth will now decide our destiny." But the Phocaean transposes the title "Ionians," rushing at once to the subject of alarm, as though in the terror of the moment he had forgotten the usual address to his audience. Moreover, he inverts the logical order of his thoughts, and instead of beginning with the necessity for exertion, which is the point he wishes to urge upon them, he first gives them the reason for that necessity in the words, "a hair's breadth now decides our destiny," so that his words seem unpremeditated, and forced upon him by the crisis.

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