Before I jump into a discussion of what the sublime actually is, let me start by discussing the difference between two words which are essential to the sublime and which these days are considered to be synonymous: terror and horror.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), a Gothic novelist who is only read by academics nowadays, discussed these two terms in a posthumously published dialogue, “On the Supernatural in Poetry”:
Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them. (6)
Terror, according to Radcliffe, makes us feel alive, whereas horror essentially kills us (i.e., it literally almost scares us to death). This hearkens back to the original meaning of “terror”, which was, according to Etymonline, the “quality of causing dread.” (Dread in this sense means “anxiety and awe” — it is not necessarily a bad thing, as we will see later in this essay.) Like beauty, which I discussed in the previous section, terror and horror can both be evoked in art; the Gothic and Romantic movements thrived on them. To understand how these artists distinguished between terror and horror, think about the words this way: terror is walking down a dark corridor, holding a candle that flickers as you proceed and that throws strange shadows on the walls; as you walk, you hear heavy breathing and muffled footsteps. Horror is having the killer finally catch up with you, spin you around, and sink a knife into your throat. In the terror scenario, you are trembling and entirely anxious because of the strangeness around you; the horror scenario is almost a let-down after this, because you actually see what it is you have been dreading. (This is why The Blair Witch Project is a wonderful example of terror: you never actually see anything! Imagine how much of a disappointment the movie would be if you did…)
Because you are so terrified, you are hyper-alert, observing everything you see closely with wide eyes — you are in utter, jaw-dropping awe of your strange, terrifying environment. This is what Radcliffe means when she says that terror “awakens the faculties to a high degree of life.”
The word “awe” is the connecting piece between terror and the sublime. Again consulting Etymonline, we see that the definition of “awe” meaning “dread [see above] mixed with veneration” comes from c. 1300, from a biblical description of God. In this sense, God is described as being at once anxiety-inducing and awe-inspiring and respected on high. This seems like a contradiction, but the Gothic novelists and Romantic poets found much inspiration in the idea, for this awe leads us directly to the sublime, which the Romantics in particular extolled on high.
Sublime comes from the Latin adjective, sublimis, meaning “lofty” or “exalted”. In our current aesthetic sense, it refers to anything in art that is surpassingly “great,” which like aesthetics and beauty is a frustratingly vague word. The Romantic poets pointed us in the direction of a precise definition of great, however: they simply took the biblical description of God as being “awesome” (that is, “simultaneously inspiring anxiety and respect”) and applied it to things in nature, like enormous mountains, in whose presence one feels helplessly small and insignificant (not unlike one would ostensibly feel in the presence of God). Consider this famous painting, “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog,” by Caspar David Friedrich:
Here we have a typical early 19th century gentleman — complete with suit coat and walking stick — standing on a precipice before an enormous, ominous landscape that seems to stretch on forever. If the jagged rocks aren’t enough to make us uneasy, then the fog will certainly do the trick. This vista is truly sublime: if you, like the man whose perspective we are usurping, were to stand on a precipice such as this, you would be confronted of feelings of unspeakable smallness; you could fall off the cliff at any moment, and the vast, menacing natural landscape would show no sign of care and would in fact aid in your painful death. As I mentioned earlier, the fog only furthers our feelings of terror, for it denies us even the comfort of knowing how far below the valley extends.
In literary criticism, we judge texts to be worthy if they demonstrate sublimity — that certain “greatness” that makes them at once awesome and venerable, at once lofty and exalted. We look for terrifying passages that evoke uneasiness due to awe-inspiring depictions of something like a natural landscape — or, more often, human nature. Certainly, our natures have mesmerized artists since the dawn of time, for even ancient poets like Homer recognized that the human spirit is a terrifying and awesome force that can quickly shift from good to evil. But in addition to terror, we also look for majesty, for passages that seem to transcend the narrative or idea being discussed and speak to the part of our unconscious selves that we all share. Take, for instance, this passage, from the end of The Lord of the Rings:
Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise. (1068-9)
Though this passage bears traces of terror (it is, after all, describing Frodo’s metaphoric death and ascension to heaven), its majesty is undeniable. Notice how the beautiful things constructed in the previous world — the Elven ship and the phial of Galadriel — are lost, but not painfully, for their loss is seamlessly tied to the vastly heartening images of the “silver glass,” “white shores,” and “far green country under a swift sunrise”. Though his writing style throughout much of The Lord of the Rings is overly archaic and thus rigid, Tolkien’s prose here is grandiose — as grandiose as, say, Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog” — and like literary beauty, our appreciation of it grows with each re-reading.
Encounters with the literary sublime are the most rewarding experiences any reader can have, for you are uncontrollably moved by your meeting with something larger than you, something like the ugly face of humanity’s inherent self-centeredness, or, paradoxically, the divine face of humanity’s inherent selflessness. When you are moved by an encounter with the literary sublime, you most likely will have to stop reading and will perhaps even have to re-read the passage (or passages) again — maybe more than once. You will be swept away towards a particular deep meditation on life and humanity, and you will come out on the other end a better person for it. If you have not felt this way yet, if you have not yet had the privilege of experiencing the literary sublime, I sincerely hope that you will soon. In the meantime, all I can suggest is to brush up on your classic literature — the nexus of the literary sublime — and read.