The Sublime:

The experience of overwhelming power: the viewer feels obliterated by the vastness and power of the object viewed, until the viewer finds a means of identifying him/herself with something even greater than the object viewed. One can look at a mountain and feel dwarfed, to the point of insignificance, until one imagines a God (or a way of gaining perspective) that made the mountain.

              Longinus: defines the sublime primarily by its contagion, i.e., we contemplate or view sublime subjects, or read sublime passages of poetry, and get a rush off them, a sense of swelling inward importance, even though we're partaking of something else's grandeur. In Longinus, hyposos, or height, is metaphor presiding over the illusions endemic to reading: we are uplifted as if instinctively, and our proud flight exalts our soul as though we had created what we merely heard (7.2)

              Burke: Conditions for sublime perceptions include terror, obscurity, power, privation, vastness, infinity, succession and uniformity (artificial or architectural infinity, as with columns), magnitude in building, difficulty, magnificence, light, color, sound and loudness, suddenness, discontinuity.               Sublime language for Burke is nondescriptive, unclear, strong, full of emotional abstraction, and inciting sympathy and contagion of passions.

              In painting, a practical way to look for the sublime is to measure the blastedness of the landscape, barrenness, terror. Look for raw geological time, few plants, large rocks, ruins, architectural fragments, the vertical axis of cloud masses, mountains, abysses, natural and supernatural forces (oceans, storms, earthquake, fire, plagues, Armageddon, general bombast).

              Literary/painting sources: see: Collins' "Ode on the Poetical Character" ll. 55-60, Wordsworth's and Milton's poetry, Turner's paitings, esp. of Alps, oceans, and atmospheric intensity; John MartinÕs paintings; FuseliÕs paintings; BlakeÕs paintings; BeethovenÕs later music; WagnerÕs operas; etc.


The Beautiful:

An aesthetic based in symmetry, softness, intricacy, attractiveness, fecundity, and powerlessness. Burke defines this as the feminine component to the clearly masculine sublime; if sublimity is that which overwhelms us with its power, then beauty is that which overwhelms us with its need to be protected.

              Burke sexualizes the beautiful by adding to existing definitions of symmetry and fine detail that of attractiveness--the beautiful for Burke is that which inspires us to love it. Obviously, he presupposes a masculine viewer holding considerable power: "we love what submits to us...the smoothness; the softnesses; the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze, through which the unsteady eye slides giddily." [Note here he is defining the beautfiul as having the same qualities as a woman's neck and breasts].

              Literary/painting sources: see Pope's poems, especially The Rape of the Lock; comic opera, anything pastoral; Mozart's and Vivaldi's most spritely and light music; most 18th-century portraiture of women, especially the painting of Gainsborough, Boucher, and Fragonard.


The Picturesque:

An aesthetic derived from idealized landscape painting, with crags, flaring and blasted trees, a torrent or winding stream, ruins, and perhaps a quiet cottage and cart, with contrasting light and shadow. Considered in the period as the aesthetic mean between Burke's Sublime and Beautiful. The big seller of the picturesque was William Gilpin, to conducted tours to admire it. The houses and grounds of many great estates were remodelled to conform to picturesque rules. Claude glasses were special hand-held mirrors that one could hold up to a landscape, with oneÕs back turned away from it, and frame the landscape. They tended to be shaded in appropriately melancholy and moody colors.

              The 1801 Supplement to Johnson's Dictionary defines it as: 1) what pleases the eye; 2) remarkable for its singularity and ability to strike the imagination with the force of paintings; 3) either proper for a landscape painting, or a landscape expressed through painting (but inevitably linked to painting). The picturesque quickly becomes a kind of genre painting, and idealizes rural life, thereby removing its materiality, not to mention its misery.

              See also Northanger Abbey (chapter 14, page 86 of Oxford paper edition), GilpinÕs books, Uvedale Price, Essays on the Picturesque as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful and On the Use of Studying Pictures for the Purpose of Improving Real Landscape. Gilpin likes horses and rural waifs, while Price is hot for sheep and spaniels--disposition of objects which by partial and uncertain concealment, excites curiosity.



Traditionally an unrealistic and urban genre, where a sophisticated urban dweller waxes nostaligically about the pleasures of rural life. Full of passionate shepherds and beautiful milk-maids, celebrations of simple life, simple pleasures, etc. Often, the pastoral becomes a way for writers to argue that certain things are "natural," because pastoral shepherds and their environments are equated in these writings with "nature."

              Pope's defines it as "an imitation of the action of a shepherd," carrying with it an explicit rejection of realism: "We must use some illusion in order to render a Pastoral delightful; and this consists in exposing the best side only of a shepherd's life, and in concealing its miseries."

              Samuel Johnson reacted with his closely argued attack on the neo-classical conventions of 'golden age' pastoral; and it is his Virgilian definition--'"a poem in which any action or passion is represented by its effects upon a country life"' [see Rambler no. 37 (24 July 1750), The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (Yale UP 1958-68), iii.201]--that pave the way for Hugh Blair's demand in the 1780s, 'why may not Pastoral Poetry take a wider range?' [see Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, ii.346-7.]"



The capacity to feel; sensitivity to emotion. In the late 18th century, the capacity to feel deeply and to distinguish between fine gradations of feeling. Hence, having sensibility comes to mean something similar to having taste, since people of sensibility are able to feel more and to feel finer gradations of emotion than normal people. For similar reasons, literature of sensibility becomes obsessed with the body as an expressive entity. The person of sensibility has such strong emotional responses to events that she becomes an object that can be read. Hence, we see late 18th-century texts fascinated with involuntary displays of emotion, such as fainting, weeping, sighing, and blushing. For similar reasons, we see them indulge in scenes designed to elicit an emotional response from their readers, especially deathbed and prison episodes, scenes in which destitute families are relieved or prostitutes are reformed, etc.

              Where feeling fine and moral thoughts becomes a means of displaying one's internal virtue, sensibility becomes paradoxically about performance and truthfulness--is a character weeping out of real remorse or is he merely acting in order to make other characters believe he is remorseful? Can one shed false tears, or blush false blushes?

              Literature of sensibility is also interested in representation emotion as contagious, and as something to be exchanged like a currency. See Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey, and Henry Mackenzie's Man of Feeling.


The Gothic:

Popular architecturally during the second half of the 18th century, the Gothic competed with Chinoiserie as a home-grown, domestic (patriotic) aesthetic. We find its beginnings in literature at mid-century -- most notably with Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1757), Thomas Leland's Earl Strongbow (1762), and Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764). With the dramatic growth of circulating libraries over the next decades, popular gothic fiction exploded on the scene in the 1780s and 1790s. It is full of chivalric fantasy; characterized by its cultural nostalgia--a fascination with the un-modern, the un-civilized, the ir-rational--articulated in its fascination with haunted abbeys, castles, superstition, religion, and aestheticized violence. Also a fascination with the temporal trace--the epitaph, the path, the ruin--where the lost past is represented in sublime terms through geological time and decay.

              Various studies locate the meaning of the Gothic in different realms--the numinous, the psychological, the political. Yet they share a common structure; for each of these approaches sees the Gothic as unveiling or recovering something that stands outside the boundaries of the natural and social orders, whether it be the supernatural, the psychologically repressed, or the politically oppressed. It is an attempt to embody exactly those features of the psyche, the social order, or the cosmos that most difficult to represent and least liable to be controlled and assimilated.