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In the twenty-first book of the Odyssey, there is a passage which deviates widely from the rule above laid down: it concerns that part of the history of Penelope and her suitors, in which she is made to declare in favor of him who should prove the most dextrous in shooting with the bow of Ulysses:
Now gently winding up the fair ascent
By many an easy step, the matron went:
Then o'er the pavement glides with grace divine,
Reach'd, in its splendid case, the bow unstrung.
Virgil sometimes errs against this rule: in the following passages minute circumstances are brought into full view; and, what is still worse, they are described with all the pomp of poetical diction; Eneid. L. 1. 7. 214. to 219. L. 6. l. 176. to 182. L. 6. l. 212, to 231. and the last, which describes a funeral, is the less excusable, as the man whose funeral it is makes no figure in the poem.
The speech of Clytemnestra, descending from her chariot in the Iphigenia of Euripides,* is stuffed with a number of common and trivial circumstances.
But of all writers, Lucan, as to this article, is the most injudicious. The sea-fight between the Romans and Massilians,† is described so much in detail, without exhibiting any grand or total view, that the reader is fatigued with endless circumstances, without ever feeling any degree of elevation; and yet there are some fine incidents, those for example of the two brothers, and of the old man and his son, which, taken separately, would affect us greatly. But Lucan, once engaged in a description, knows no end. See other passages of the same kind, L. 24. 1. 292. to 337. L. 4. l. 750. to 765. The episode of the sorceress Erictho, end of book 6, is intolerably minute and prolix.
To these I venture to oppose a passage from an old historical ballad:
Go, little page, tell Hardiknute,
To draw his sword, the dread of faes,
And haste to follow me.
The little page flew swift as dart
Flung by his master's arm.
"Come down, come down, Lord Hardiknute,
• Beginning of Act 3.
+ Lib. 3. beginning at line 567.
+ High, in the old Scotch language, is pronounced hee.
This rule is also applicable to other fine arts. In painting it is established, that the principal figure.must be put in the strongest light; that the beauty of attitude consists in placing the nobler parts most in view, and in suppressing the smaller parts as much as possible; that the folds of the drapery must be few and large; that fore shortenings are bad, because they make the parts appear little; and that the muscles ought to be kept as entire as possible, without being divided into small sections. Every one at present subscribes to that rule as applied to gardening, in opposition to parterres split into a thousand small parts in the stiffest regularity of figure. The most eminent architects have governed themselves by the same rule in all their works.
Another rule chiefly regards the sublime, though it is applicable to every sort of literary performance intended for amusement; and that is, to avoid, as much as possible, abstract and general terms. Such terms, similar to mathematical signs, are contrived to express our thoughts in a concise manner; but images, which are the life of poetry, cannot be raised in any perfection but by introducing particular objects. General terms that comprehend a number of indivi duals, must be excepted from that rule: our kindred, our clan, our country, and words of the like import, though they scarcely raise any image, have, however, a wonderful power over our passions: the greatness of the complex object overbalances the obscurity of the image.
Grandeur, being an extremely vivid emotion, is not readily produced in perfection but by reiterated impressions. The effect of a single impression can be but momentary; and if one feel suddenly somewhat like a swelling or exaltation of mind, the emotion vanishes as soon as felt. Single thoughts or sentiments, I know, are often cited as examples of the sublime; but their effect is far inferior to that of a grand subject displayed in its capital parts. I shall give a few examples, that the reader may judge for himself. In the famous action of Thermopylæ, where Leonidas the Spartan king, and his chosen band, fighting for their country, were cut off to the last man, a saying is reported of Diencces, one of the band, which, expressing cheerful and undisturbed bravery, is well entitled to the first place in examples of that kind. Respecting the number of their enemies, it was observed, that the arrows shot by such a multitude would intercept the light of the sun. So much the better, says he, for we shal then fight in the shade.*
Somerset. Ah! Warwick, Warwick, wert thou as we are,
The Queen from France hath brought a puissant power,
Third Part Henry VI. Act V. Sc. 3.
Such a sentiment from a man expiring of his wounds, is truly heroic. and must elevate the mind to the greatest height that can be done by a single expression: it will not suffer in a comparison with the fa
* Herodotus, Book 7.
mous sentiment Qu'il mourut of Corneille: the latter is a sentiment of indignation merely, the former of firm and cheerful courage.
To cite in opposition many a sublime passage, enriched with the finest images, and dressed in the most nervous expressions, would scarcely be fair: I shall produce but one instance, from Shakspeare, which sets a few objects before the eye, without much pomp of language: it operates its effect by representing these objects in a climax, raising the mind higher and higher till it feel the emotion of grandeur in perfection:
The cloud-capt tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The cloud-capt tow'rs produce an elevating emotion, heightened by the gorgeous palaces; and the mind is carried still higher and higher by the images that follow. Successive images, making thus deeper and deeper impressions, must elevate more than any single image can do.
As, on the one hand, no means directly applied have more influence to raise the mind than grandeur and sublimity; so, on the other, no means indirectly applied have more influence to sink and depress it for in a state of elevation, the artful introduction of an humbling object, makes the fall great in proportion to the elevation. Of this observation Shakspeare gives a beautiful example, in the passage last quoted:
The cloud-capt tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
Tempest, Act IV. Sc. 4.
The elevation of the mind in the former part of this beautiful passage, makes the fall great in proportion, when the most humbling of all images is introduced, that of an utter dissolution of the earth and its inhabitants. The mind, when warmed, is more susceptible of impressions than in a cool state; and a depressing or melancholy object listened to, makes the strongest impression when it reaches the mind in its highest state of elevation or cheerfulness.
But a humbling image is not always necessary to produce that effect a remark is made above, that, in describing superior beings, the reader's imagination, unable to support itself in a strained elevation, falls often as from a height, and sinks even below its ordinary tone. The following instance comes luckily in view; for a better cannot be given: God said, Let there be light, and there was light." Longinus quotes this passage from Moses as a shining example of the sublime; and it is scarcely possible, in fewer words, to convey so clear an image of the infinite power of the Deity: but then it belongs to the present subject to remark, that the emotion of sublimity raised by this image is but momentary; and that the mind, unable to support itself in an elevation so much above nature, immediately sinks down into humility and veneration for a being so far
exalted aoove groveling mortals. Every one is acquainted with a dispute about that passage between two French critics, the one positively affirming it to be sublime, the other as positively denying. What I have remarked shows that both of them have reached the truth, but neither of them the whole truth: the primary effect of the passage is undoubtedly an emotion of grandeur; which so far justifies Boileau: but then every one must be sensible, that the emotion is merely a flash, which, vanishing instantaneously, gives way to humility and veneration. That indirect effect of sublimity justifies Huet, who, being a man of true piety, and probably not much carried by imagination, felt the humbling passion more sensibly than his antagonist did. And, laying aside difference of character, Huet's opinion may, I think, be defended as the more solid; because in such images, the depressing emotions are the more sensibly felt, and have the longer endurance.
The straining of an elevated subject beyond due bounds, is a vice not so frequent as to require the correction of criticism. But false sublime is a rock on which writers of more fire than judgment commonly split; and therefore a collection of examples may be of use as a beacon to future adventurers. One species of false sublime, known by the name of bombast, is common among writers of a mean genius: it is a serious endeavor, by strained description, to raise a low or familiar subject above its rank; which, instead of being sublime, becomes ridiculous. I am extremely sensible how prone the mind is, in some animating passions, to magnify its objects beyond natural bounds: but such hyperbolical description has its limits; and, when carried beyond the impulse of the propensity, it degenerates into burlesque. Take the following examples.
-Great and high
Sejanus, Ben Johnson, Act V.
A writer who has no natural elevation of mind, deviates readily into bombast: he strains above his natural powers; and the violent effort carries him beyond the bounds of propriety. Boileau expresses this happily:
L'autre à peur de ramper, il se perd dans la nue.t
The same author, Ben Johnson, abounds in the bombast:
Th' expulsed Apicata, finds them there;
Whom when she saw lie spread on the degrees,
After a world of fury on herself,
Tearing her hair, defacing of her face,
Beating her breasts and womb, kneeling amaz'd,
+ L'art Poet. chant. 1. 1. 68.
Deformed chaos rise again t' o'erwhelm
Sejanus, Act V. Sc. last.
-Lentulus, the man,
If all our fire were out, would fetch down new
Cataline, Act III.
Can these, or such, be any aid to us?
A thousand, such as they are, could not make
This is the language of a madman :
Cataline, Act IV.
Guildford. Give way, and let the gushing torrent come,
Till the flood rise upon the guilty world
And make the ruin common.
Lady Jane Gray, Act IV. near the end.
I am sorry to observe that the following bombast stuff dropt from the pen of Dryden :
To see this fleet upon the ocean move,
Angels drew wide the curtains of the skies;
Another species of false sublime is still more faulty than bombast; and that is, to force elevation by introducing imaginary beings without preserving any propriety in their actions; as if it were lawful to ascribe every extravagance and inconsistence to beings of the poet's creation. No writers are more licentious in that article than Johnson and Dryden:
Methinks I see Death and the Furies waiting
The honor of the day, yet let us care
Cataline, Act V.