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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.




I

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 φιλοφρονέστατα καὶ ἀληθέστατα.]

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 διεφώτισεν.]


II

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.


III

... “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.


IV

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.



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