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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.

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.

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.

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.]

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?”

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.]

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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 Aloëus--

“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.”

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.

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

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.

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