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Among many others especially
this, that it was not in nature’s plan for us her chosen children to be
creatures base and ignoble,--no, she brought us into life, and into the
whole universe, as into some great field of contest, that we should be
at once spectators and ambitious rivals of her mighty deeds, and from
the first implanted in our souls an invincible yearning for all that is
great, all that is diviner than ourselves.

Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range
of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of
space.[1] When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding
everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once
what is the true end of man’s being.

[Footnote 1: Comp. Lucretius on Epicurus: “Ergo vivida vis animi
pervicit, et extra Processit longe flammantia moenia mundi,” etc.]

And this is why nature prompts us to admire, not the clearness and
usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and
far beyond all the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the
heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by
human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny
lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Aetna, from whose raging depths
are hurled up stones and whole masses of rock, and torrents sometimes
come pouring from earth’s centre of pure and living fire.

To sum the whole: whatever is useful or needful lies easily within man’s
reach; but he keeps his homage for what is astounding.


How much more do these principles apply to the Sublime in literature,
where grandeur is never, as it sometimes is in nature, dissociated from
utility and advantage. Therefore all those who have achieved it, however
far from faultless, are still more than mortal. When a writer uses any
other resource he shows himself to be a man; but the Sublime lifts him
near to the great spirit of the Deity. He who makes no slips must be
satisfied with negative approbation, but he who is sublime commands
positive reverence.

Why need I add that each one of those great writers often redeems all
his errors by one grand and masterly stroke? But the strongest point of
all is that, if you were to pick out all the blunders of Homer,
Demosthenes, Plato, and all the greatest names in literature, and add
them together, they would be found to bear a very small, or rather an
infinitesimal proportion to the passages in which these supreme masters
have attained absolute perfection. Therefore it is that all posterity,
whose judgment envy herself cannot impeach, has brought and bestowed on
them the crown of glory, has guarded their fame until this day against
all attack, and is likely to preserve it

“As long as lofty trees shall grow,
And restless waters seaward flow.”

It has been urged by one writer that we should not prefer the huge
disproportioned Colossus to the Doryphorus of Polycletus. But (to give
one out of many possible answers) in art we admire exactness, in the
works of nature magnificence; and it is from nature that man derives the
faculty of speech. Whereas, then, in statuary we look for close
resemblance to humanity, in literature we require something which
transcends humanity.

Nevertheless (to reiterate the advice which we gave at the beginning of
this essay), since that success which consists in avoidance of error is
usually the gift of art, while high, though unequal excellence is the
attribute of genius, it is proper on all occasions to call in art as an
ally to nature. By the combined resources of these two we may hope to
achieve perfection.

Such are the conclusions which were forced upon me concerning the points
at issue; but every one may consult his own taste.


To return, however, from this long digression; closely allied to
metaphors are comparisons and similes, differing only in this * * *[1]

[Footnote 1: The asterisks denote gaps in the original text.]


Such absurdities as, “Unless you carry your brains next to the ground in
your heels.”[1] Hence it is necessary to know where to draw the line;
for if ever it is overstepped the effect of the hyperbole is spoilt,
being in such cases relaxed by overstraining, and producing the very
opposite to the effect desired.

[Footnote 1: Pseud. Dem. de Halon. 45.]

Isocrates, for instance, from an ambitious desire of lending everything
a strong rhetorical colouring, shows himself in quite a childish light.
Having in his Panegyrical Oration set himself to prove that the Athenian
state has surpassed that of Sparta in her services to Hellas, he starts
off at the very outset with these words: “Such is the power of language
that it can extenuate what is great, and lend greatness to what is
little, give freshness to what is antiquated, and describe what is
recent so that it seems to be of the past.”[2] Come, Isocrates (it might
be asked), is it thus that you are going to tamper with the facts about
Sparta and Athens? This flourish about the power of language is like a
signal hung out to warn his audience not to believe him.

[Footnote 2: Paneg. 8.]

We may repeat here what we said about figures, and say that the
hyperbole is then most effective when it appears in disguise.[3] And
this effect is produced when a writer, impelled by strong feeling,
speaks in the accents of some tremendous crisis; as Thucydides does in
describing the massacre in Sicily. “The Syracusans,” he says, “went down
after them, and slew those especially who were in the river, and the
water was at once defiled, yet still they went on drinking it, though
mingled with mud and gore, most of them even fighting for it.”[4] The
drinking of mud and gore, and even the fighting for it, is made credible
by the awful horror of the scene described.

[Footnote 3: xvii. 1.]

[Footnote 4: Thuc. vii. 84.]

Similarly Herodotus on those who fell at Thermopylae: “Here as they
fought, those who still had them, with daggers, the rest with hands and
teeth, the barbarians buried them under their javelins.”[5] That they
fought with the teeth against heavy-armed assailants, and that they were
buried with javelins, are perhaps hard sayings, but not incredible, for
the reasons already explained. We can see that these circumstances have
not been dragged in to produce a hyperbole, but that the hyperbole has
grown naturally out of the circumstances.

[Footnote 5: vii. 225.]

For, as I am never tired of explaining, in actions and passions verging
on frenzy there lies a kind of remission and palliation of any licence
of language. Hence some comic extravagances, however improbable, gain
credence by their humour, such as--

“He had a farm, a little farm, where space severely pinches;
’Twas smaller than the last despatch from Sparta by some inches.”

For mirth is one of the passions, having its seat in pleasure. And
hyperboles may be employed either to increase or to lessen--since
exaggeration is common to both uses. Thus in extenuating an opponent’s
argument we try to make it seem smaller than it is.


We have still left, my dear sir, the fifth of those sources which we set
down at the outset as contributing to sublimity, that which consists in
the mere arrangement of words in a certain order. Having already
published two books dealing fully with this subject--so far at least as
our investigations had carried us--it will be sufficient for the purpose
of our present inquiry to add that harmony is an instrument which has a
natural power, not only to win and to delight, but also in a remarkable
degree to exalt the soul and sway the heart of man.

When we see that a flute kindles certain emotions in its hearers,
rendering them almost beside themselves and full of an orgiastic frenzy,
and that by starting some kind of rhythmical beat it compels him who
listens to move in time and assimilate his gestures to the tune, even
though he has no taste whatever for music; when we know that the sounds
of a harp, which in themselves have no meaning, by the change of key, by
the mutual relation of the notes, and their arrangement in symphony,
often lay a wonderful spell on an audience--

though these are mere shadows and spurious imitations of persuasion,
not, as I have said, genuine manifestations of human nature:--can we
doubt that composition (being a kind of harmony of that language which
nature has taught us, and which reaches, not our ears only, but our very
souls), when it raises changing forms of words, of thoughts, of actions,
of beauty, of melody, all of which are engrained in and akin to
ourselves, and when by the blending of its manifold tones it brings home
to the minds of those who stand by the feelings present to the speaker,
and ever disposes the hearer to sympathise with those feelings, adding
word to word, until it has raised a majestic and harmonious
structure:--can we wonder if all this enchants us, wherever we meet with
it, and filling us with the sense of pomp and dignity and sublimity, and
whatever else it embraces, gains a complete mastery over our minds? It
would be mere infatuation to join issue on truths so universally
acknowledged, and established by experience beyond dispute.[1]

[Footnote 1: Reading ἀλλ᾽ ἔοικε μανίᾳ, and putting a full stop at

Now to give an instance: that is doubtless a sublime thought, indeed
wonderfully fine, which Demosthenes applies to his decree: τοῦτο τὸ
ψήφισμα τὸν τότε τῇ πόλει περιστάντα κίνδυνον παρελθεῖν ἐποίησεν ὥσπερ
νέφος, “This decree caused the danger which then hung round our city to
pass away like a cloud.” But the modulation is as perfect as the
sentiment itself is weighty. It is uttered wholly in the dactylic
measure, the noblest and most magnificent of all measures, and hence
forming the chief constituent in the finest metre we know, the heroic.
[And it is with great judgment that the words ὥσπερ νέφος are reserved
till the end.[2]] Supposing we transpose them from their proper place
and read, say τοῦτο τὸ ψήφισμα ὥσπερ νέφος ἐποίησε τὸν τότε κίνδυνον
παρελθεῖν--nay, let us merely cut off one syllable, reading ἐποίησε
παρελθεῖν ὡς νέφος--and you will understand how close is the unison
between harmony and sublimity.

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