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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. 543.]

It is absolutely essential, then, first of all to settle the question
whence this grandeur of conception arises; and the answer is that true
eloquence can be found only in those whose spirit is generous and
aspiring. For those whose whole lives are wasted in paltry and illiberal
thoughts and habits cannot possibly produce any work worthy of the
lasting reverence of mankind. It is only natural that their words should
be full of sublimity whose thoughts are full of majesty.

Hence sublime thoughts belong properly to the loftiest minds. Such was
the reply of Alexander to his general Parmenio, when the latter had
observed, “Were I Alexander, I should have been satisfied”; “And I, were
I Parmenio”...

The distance between heaven and earth[1]--a measure, one might say, not
less appropriate to Homer’s genius than to the stature of his discord.

[Footnote 1: _Il._ iv. 442.]

How different is that touch of Hesiod’s in his description of sorrow--if
the _Shield_ is really one of his works: “rheum from her nostrils
flowed”[2]--an image not terrible, but disgusting. Now consider how
Homer gives dignity to his divine persons--

“As far as lies his airy ken, who sits
On some tall crag, and scans the wine-dark sea:
So far extends the heavenly coursers’ stride.”[3]

He measures their speed by the extent of the whole world--a grand
comparison, which might reasonably lead us to remark that if the divine
steeds were to take two such leaps in succession, they would find no
room in the world for another.

[Footnote 2: _Scut. Herc._ 267.]

[Footnote 3: _Il._ v. 770.]

Sublime also are the images in the “Battle of the Gods”--

“A trumpet sound
Rang through the air, and shook the Olympian height;
Then terror seized the monarch of the dead,
And springing from his throne he cried aloud
With fearful voice, lest the earth, rent asunder
By Neptune’s mighty arm, forthwith reveal
To mortal and immortal eyes those halls
So drear and dank, which e’en the gods abhor.”[4]

Earth rent from its foundations! Tartarus itself laid bare! The whole
world torn asunder and turned upside down! Why, my dear friend, this is
a perfect hurly-burly, in which the whole universe, heaven and hell,
mortals and immortals, share the conflict and the peril.

[Footnote 4: _Il._ xxi. 388; xx. 61.]

A terrible picture, certainly, but (unless perhaps it is to be taken
allegorically) downright impious, and overstepping the bounds of
decency. It seems to me that the strange medley of wounds, quarrels,
revenges, tears, bonds, and other woes which makes up the Homeric
tradition of the gods was designed by its author to degrade his deities,
as far as possible, into men, and exalt his men into deities--or rather,
his gods are worse off than his human characters, since we, when we are
unhappy, have a haven from ills in death, while the gods, according to
him, not only live for ever, but live for ever in misery.

Far to be preferred to this description of the Battle of the Gods are
those passages which exhibit the divine nature in its true light, as
something spotless, great, and pure, as, for instance, a passage which
has often been handled by my predecessors, the lines on Poseidon:--

“Mountain and wood and solitary peak,
The ships Achaian, and the towers of Troy,
Trembled beneath the god’s immortal feet.
Over the waves he rode, and round him played,
Lured from the deeps, the ocean’s monstrous brood,
With uncouth gambols welcoming their lord:
The charmèd billows parted: on they flew.”[5]

[Footnote 5: _Il._ xiii. 18; xx. 60; xiii. 19, 27.]

And thus also the lawgiver of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed
an adequate conception of the Supreme Being, gave it adequate expression
in the opening words of his “Laws”: “God said”--what?--“let there be
light, and there was light: let there be land, and there was.”

I trust you will not think me tedious if I quote yet one more passage
from our great poet (referring this time to human characters) in
illustration of the manner in which he leads us with him to heroic
heights. A sudden and baffling darkness as of night has overspread the
ranks of his warring Greeks. Then Ajax in sore perplexity cries aloud--

“Almighty Sire,
Only from darkness save Achaia’s sons;
No more I ask, but give us back the day;
Grant but our sight, and slay us, if thou wilt.”[6]

The feelings are just what we should look for in Ajax. He does not, you
observe, ask for his life--such a request would have been unworthy of
his heroic soul--but finding himself paralysed by darkness, and
prohibited from employing his valour in any noble action, he chafes
because his arms are idle, and prays for a speedy return of light. “At
least,” he thinks, “I shall find a warrior’s grave, even though Zeus
himself should fight against me.”

[Footnote 6: _Il._ xvii. 645.]

In such passages the mind of the poet is swept along in the whirlwind of
the struggle, and, in his own words, he

“Like the fierce war-god, raves, or wasting fire
Through the deep thickets on a mountain-side;
His lips drop foam.”[7]

[Footnote 7: _Il._ xv. 605.]

But there is another and a very interesting aspect of Homer’s mind. When
we turn to the _Odyssey_ we find occasion to observe that a great
poetical genius in the decline of power which comes with old age
naturally leans towards the fabulous. For it is evident that this work
was composed after the _Iliad_, in proof of which we may mention, among
many other indications, the introduction in the _Odyssey_ of the sequel
to the story of his heroes’ adventures at Troy, as so many additional
episodes in the Trojan war, and especially the tribute of sorrow and
mourning which is paid in that poem to departed heroes, as if in
fulfilment of some previous design. The _Odyssey_ is, in fact, a sort of
epilogue to the _Iliad_--

“There warrior Ajax lies, Achilles there,
And there Patroclus, godlike counsellor;
There lies my own dear son.”[8]

[Footnote 8: _Od._ iii. 109.]

And for the same reason, I imagine, whereas in the _Iliad_, which was
written when his genius was in its prime, the whole structure of the
poem is founded on action and struggle, in the _Odyssey_ he generally
prefers the narrative style, which is proper to old age. Hence Homer in
his _Odyssey_ may be compared to the setting sun: he is still as great
as ever, but he has lost his fervent heat. The strain is now pitched to
a lower key than in the “Tale of Troy divine”: we begin to miss that
high and equable sublimity which never flags or sinks, that continuous
current of moving incidents, those rapid transitions, that force of
eloquence, that opulence of imagery which is ever true to Nature. Like
the sea when it retires upon itself and leaves its shores waste and
bare, henceforth the tide of sublimity begins to ebb, and draws us away
into the dim region of myth and legend.

In saying this I am not forgetting the fine storm-pieces in the
_Odyssey_, the story of the Cyclops,[9] and other striking passages. It
is Homer grown old I am discussing, but still it is Homer. Yet in every
one of these passages the mythical predominates over the real.

My purpose in making this digression was, as I said, to point out into
what trifles the second childhood of genius is too apt to be betrayed;
such, I mean, as the bag in which the winds are confined,[10] the
tale of Odysseus’s comrades being changed by Circe into swine[11]
(“whimpering porkers” Zoïlus called them), and how Zeus was fed like
a nestling by the doves,[12] and how Odysseus passed ten nights on the
shipwreck without food,[13] and the improbable incidents in the slaying
of the suitors.[14] When Homer nods like this, we must be content to say
that he dreams as Zeus might dream.

[Footnote 9: _Od._ ix. 182.]

[Footnote 10: _Od._ x. 17.]

[Footnote 11: _Od._ x. 237.]

[Footnote 12: _Od._ xii. 62.]

[Footnote 13: _Od._ xii. 447.]

[Footnote 14: _Od._ xxii. _passim_.]

Another reason for these remarks on the _Odyssey_ is that I wished to
make you understand that great poets and prose-writers, after they have
lost their power of depicting the passions, turn naturally to the
delineation of character. Such, for instance, is the lifelike and
characteristic picture of the palace of Odysseus, which may be called a
sort of comedy of manners.


Let us now consider whether there is anything further which conduces to
the Sublime in writing. It is a law of Nature that in all things there
are certain constituent parts, coexistent with their substance. It
necessarily follows, therefore, that one cause of sublimity is the
choice of the most striking circumstances involved in whatever we are
describing, and, further, the power of afterwards combining them into
one animate whole. The reader is attracted partly by the selection of
the incidents, partly by the skill which has welded them together. For
instance, Sappho, in dealing with the passionate manifestations
attending on the frenzy of lovers, always chooses her strokes from the
signs which she has observed to be actually exhibited in such cases. But
her peculiar excellence lies in the felicity with which she chooses and
unites together the most striking and powerful features.

“I deem that man divinely blest
Who sits, and, gazing on thy face,
Hears thee discourse with eloquent lips,
And marks thy lovely smile.
This, this it is that made my heart
So wildly flutter in my breast;
Whene’er I look on thee, my voice
Falters, and faints, and fails;
My tongue’s benumbed; a subtle fire
Through all my body inly steals;
Mine eyes in darkness reel and swim;
Strange murmurs drown my ears;
With dewy damps my limbs are chilled;
An icy shiver shakes my frame;
Paler than ashes grows my cheek;
And Death seems nigh at hand.”

Is it not wonderful how at the same moment soul, body, ears, tongue,
eyes, colour, all fail her, and are lost to her as completely as if they
were not her own?

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