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Sublime

The word “sublime” is used in literature to describe writing that excites the reader beyond one’s normal experience.

It’s used in situations that take readers beyond their everyday experiences and into a new landscape of grand, grotesque, and outrageous experiences. Most commonly, the word is associated with grandeur and the experience of viewing something incredible. If something is sublime in a literary work, it exceeds what a reader usually can experience. It evokes a particular feeling and can be overwhelming.

Sublime pronunciation: suhb-lime

Sublime definition and examples


Definition of Sublime in Literature

The sublime is a literary, philosophic, and artistic term that refers to an experience that goes beyond the usual and normal. A sublime experience, artwork, or literary publication is one in which the reader feels, endures, or considers something entirely new. It is usually associated with grand, over-the-top, and even terrifying experiences. For example, watching a naval battle, a volcano erupting, or seeing another type of major disaster.

History of the Sublime

In On the Sublime by Longinus, the sublime was first defined in the 1st-3rd centuries AD in Greece. He defined the sublime as the ability to produce ecstasy in the reader. When writing, he said:

Sublimity refers to a certain type of elevated language that strikes its listener with the mighty and irresistible power of a thunderbolt. A sublime passage can be heard again and again with equal pleasure.

He went on to add that the best audience for the sublime is that which has a prior understanding of what literature and art can accomplish, the more cultivated, the better. It’s only this audience, he thought, who could judge how sublime work is and if it’s successful.

Later, in the 17th century, sublime as a literary term emerged with a certain prominence. It became even more important in the following situation with philosophers like Immanuel Kant and literary works like Dissertations Moral and Critical by James Beattie, Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, and Kant’s The Critique of Judgement.

Examples of Sublime Literature

Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth is one of the best examples of English Romantic poets who did work with the concept of the sublime. He wrote an essay on the sublime, describing it as “the mind trying to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining.” This view of the concept is one of the most popular. Consider these famous lines on the subject from the poem:

Nor less, I trust,

To them I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on,—

The world’s burden is lifted in a sublime moment, and a “blessed mood” descends. Throughout his experiences in and descriptions of the natural world, Wordsworth is seeking enlightenment. He’s trying to understand the world better.

Read more William Wordsworth poems.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

One of the best examples of the sublime in literature comes from a fantastic scene in Dracula. The title character arrives in England. The following lines are used, by Mina Harker, to describe what it was like.

The time and distance seemed endless, and my knees trembled and my breath came laboured as I toiled up the endless steps to the abbey. I must have gone fast, and yet it seemed to me as if my feet were weighted with lead, and as though every joint in my body were rusty. When I got almost to the top I could see the seat and the white figure, for I was now close enough to distinguish it even through the spells of shadow. There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, “Lucy! Lucy!” and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes.

As the previous definitions have hinted at, this experience is one that no one has ever had before. No one can quite grasp what’s happening. This means it’s hard to put into words. It’s for passages like this one that audiences return again and again to their favorite novels and poems. Literature provides, especially when the sublime is utilized, a way to escape the real world and experience something that can, at times, feel even more real.

FAQs

Is the sublime good?

The sublime is generally considered to be a good feature in literature or art. It can inspire and entrance readers, making a novel impossible to put down or even revelatory. Sublime art is usually beautiful and terrifying to behold. It allows one an interesting insight into an experience they’ll likely never have. Although, like all artistic concepts, there are problematic elements that art historians and scholars can define.

How do you use the word sublime?

The word can be used as an adjective to describe a piece of art or literature. One might say, “This piece is particularly sublime.” Or, “I like the sublime aspects of this novel.” The term is most commonly associated with philosophy (aesthetics in particular), literature, and the visual arts.

What is the sublime in art?

In the visual art world, the sublime plays the same role in the literary world. It is an art that references or refers to a greatness beyond measurement. This, again, could be something terrifying like a tsunami or something incredibly beautiful. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

What is an example of the sublime in literature?

In literature, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a good example. The poem depicts horrifying and incredible experiences that no one else is ever going to have. For example, this passage: “The cold sweat melted from their limbs, / Nor rot nor reek did they: / The look with which they looked on me / Had never passed away.”

What does the sublime refer to in Romantic literature?

In Romantic literature, the word sublime refers to experiences in the natural world that expand one’s understanding of the universe. It was defined most clearly by Wordsworth, who explored the natural world as a way of achieving enlightenment. 


  • Abjection: a literary term that refers to subjective horror or someone’s reaction to a physically or emotionally disturbing subject.
  • Arcadia: a term that refers to an idealized, unspoiled natural landscape. It is a utopia and perfect in every way.
  • Bias: undue favor or support to a particular person, group, race, or one argument over another.
  • Climax: the point at which the main character is forced to contend with the story’s central conflict.
  • Didacticism: refers to a type of literature that’s meant to convey instructions or very specific pieces of information.
  • Hubris: a classical term used to refer to excessive pride in a story’s characters.


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