Random Readings 5

For Longinus, in his first-century essay “On the Sublime,” sublimity arises in the conjunction of both innate and learned qualities in a writer. He sees the innate qualities as being the “power to form great conceptions” (that is to say, a fertile and impressive imagination) and “vehement and inspired passion” (the power of emotion and the ability to bring it to bear on a piece of writing). With these qualities in mind, he pronounces, “sublimity is the echo of a great soul.” The learned qualities have more to do with style: facility with “due formations of figures” of thought and expression, “noble diction,” and “dignified and elevated composition.” Longinus also seems to be doing his part in the feud between philosophers and poets that Plato mentioned. He devotes a lengthy passage to delivering barbs to a succession of poets, thereby coming down firmly on Socrates’ side, and then also attacks pedants and their “puerility,” which he defines as the opposite of elevation. The most fascinating aspect of the essay is the sense of loss one feels when considering the culture in and of which Longinus writes -- all the names that have become meaningless ciphers, and the works, just mentioned in passing, that are gone forever. A culture as rich as our own, but all we have left of it are mere scraps of information. Ironic, when Longinus remarks that “it is not possible that men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy of immortality.”

William Wordsworth addresses an issue mirroring Longinus’ attack on puerility in the preface to the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads (1800) when he argues that the matter of poetry must not be trivial. However, Wordsworth disagrees with Longinus’ belief that poetry must contain “noble diction” and “elevated composition,” arguing that poetry should reflect the language of rural people, who are closer to nature than urban people and therefore have language of greater purity. He argues specifically against the idea of “poetic diction” that held sway in the 18th century, which led to Shakespeare being denounced for using “unpoetic” language in his verse, a denunciation that was in turn denounced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his lecture “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius.” Wordsworth seems to echo Plato in the passage where he states that the “dramatic parts of composition,” where the poet creates dialogue, “are defective, in proportion as they deviate from the real language of nature.” Wordsworth transforms Plato’s argument that the imitative element of poetry leads one away from the truth, in order to make a point about maintaining the integrity of common speech when transferring it into verse.

In his letters, John Keats echoes the notions Longinus held about the innate qualities that make for a great poet. In an 1818 letter to John Taylor, he quips that “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all,” which illustrates Longinus’ first criterion. And in a letter to his brothers from the previous year, Keats says, “The excellence of every art is its intensity,” fulfilling Longinus’ second criterion.



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