The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature


“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it. Astonishment is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree…No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.”

—Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757

Sublime is the quality of excellence and grandeur beyond all possibility to inspire great admiration or awe, essentially the highest form of pleasure that one can achieve that is beyond measurement and imitation. Burke's definition of the Sublime is as an aesthetic quality strongly associated being in Nature This idea of greatness is vital for understanding the concept of sublime and what separates it from the beautiful.

As Burke describes it in his essay, tt is important to separate the beautiful and the sublime into their own exclusive rational categories they both come from different sources. These two can be seen in as a dichotomy, one that makes us feel good while the other makes us feel bad. Where the beautiful is aesthetically pleasing, the sublime has the power to compel and destroy us. The sublime moves the imagination to evoke awe and horror with the knowledge of this experience being fictional making it pleasurable. The passion caused by sublime is due to astonishment in which all motions and rationale are suspended. The power of the sublime consumes the mind and anticipates our reasoning as it is an irresistible force. Its source comes from our unconscious mind where imagination rules as our passions run forth wild and free form the restraints of the rationale of our conscious thoughts.

One of these passions that Burke says is responsible for achieving the Sublime is fear as it robs the mind of our reasoning to allow us to experience the sense of Sublime. Terror invokes a fear of physical pain or death whereas horror invokes a psychological fear with absence being the greatest source of this as our minds try to fill this void with imagination. The feeling of danger to our lives is what allows us to remove the barriers of the rational that restrict us from achieving the Sublime and to experience its incredible pleasure.

Vastness is another powerful aspect of the sublime Burke mentions with its greatness of dimension having a striking effect on its viewer. Our minds often conceive things within measurements to understand them and thus make them seem little, trying to make something with great dimensional be constrained to a small space. It is through the infinite that we can experience the sublime in the presence of something that is beyond measure and compare, making us as the individual realize how insignificant we are in the scale of existence.

The existence of the Sublime in Nature comes from both our fears and awe of objects in Nature. Mountains are a prime one of these objects in Nature the possess the Sublime. Through sheer massiveness and immeasurable heights ties into our fears by reminding us of our microscopic existence in the face of presence that will remain long after our deaths. The fact that such an object was not created through the intervention of man, that something so magnificent could simply exist without us, make us both admire and tremble before it. We hope to create something as amazing an this object in Nature, but no imitation is capable of capturing its Sublime for it is something beyond our measure and calculation of achieving.

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