The Concept of Literary Sublime Reflected in Select Works of William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge and John Keats
Cassius Longinus’ definition of the sublime (the use of descriptive language and diction that provoke strong emotions transcending ordinary experiences), in his celebrated treatise On the Sublime, has shaped what Romantic poets have made out of the terms like aesthetics, provocation of ecstasy and the excellence and grandeur of language. And although Wordsworth and Coleridge differ in experience and style from Keats, the idea of sublime is equally inherited and present in both the 1st and 2nd generation Romantic poets. The intrinsic elements may be found in profusion in their works, especially John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The concept of sublime varies in kind from the more general idea of beauty. As Coleridge clearly states in his most notable work, Biographia Literaria - “The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes Sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure”, we find indication of the complexity of the term ‘sublime’. Sublime should not be confused with the simple beauty that is usually associated with Romantic poetry, and the full understanding and appreciation of the power and capability of this otherwise complicated term demands a close study and analysis of some of the exemplary works produced by the poets whom Longinus has heavily inspired. Considering the conditions that validate the sublimity of an object, idea or art, there are tools that aid in attaining this near transcendental state, that which is beyond earthly beauty. Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats have re-mastered the concept of sublime, in their own terms, suited for their own use, without skimming the essence – powerful feelings that also evoke awe and fear.
THE PRESENCE OF SUBLIME ELEMENTS IN SELECT WORKS OF WORDSWORTH, COLERIDGE AND KEATS:
In heralding the Romantic age of English literature, William Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, contributed to the most valuable asset in their contemporary poetic sphere, Lyrical Ballads. The purpose of bringing forth such a fine assortment of morally elevating poems was to bring man closer to Nature (primarily by Wordsworth), through the use of simple diction and ideas to which common man could relate easily, without having to traverse the road of much acquired knowledge, intelligence and vocabulary. The simplicity in language and concepts in the poems in this collection pushed readers beyond what was simple. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth pointed out his experimental intent to see if simple language used by man could impart the same “quantity of pleasure” as any other poet would rationally struggle to evoke.
Since the grandeur of noble diction had to be toned down in order for an easy reading experience, the element of strong emotion needed to be present abundantly to compensate for the technical loss. Keeping that in mind, Wordsworth in The Prelude has used lucid language to make the fourteen books long poem readable, while also keeping the expression of his powerful emotions a priority. This chronological kunstlerroman depicts the poet’s changing views with age, of the same objects, memories and sights, and the acquired sophistry in an adult’s mind. The vividness with which Wordsworth describes the pastoral setting, the moonlight, the mountains and his own presence amidst the full winged nature in the final book of his poem, makes evident the fact that his wish to attain literary sublime through the words of common man, much like William Shakespeare, has yielded great results, lending support through the clarity of his well-intended imagery.
Coleridge, in most of his works, has shown more vigour in pure expression, unrestricted by poetic ties. His fragmented Kubla Khan serves a perfect platter for interpretation, experience and the full blow of sublimity that he is conscious of, and intentionally or under the influence of opium, successfully imparts to his readers. As the poet describes the very real Kubla Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) and his “stately pleasure dome” in the fertile land of Xanadu, the sacred river Alph and the underground caves, the forests and the immeasurable sea, he strides the conceivable path in propagating parts and pieces of descriptive art to readers. Moving on to the more personal experiences and their expressions, Coleridge brings in the freeness in poetry that lends a hand in provoking that kind of ecstasy that is associated with the awe evoking sublime beauty, that which does not necessarily mean serene and visually appealing. The fear inspiring figure with flashing eyes and floating hair does not give us the general picture of “beauty” as we may commonly perceive. But the unusual introduction of such a scene and expression, instead of ideally distracting the readers from experiencing poetic appeal, goes on to tingle their aesthetic nerves and induces what we may call sublime.
Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a remarkable inclusion in the Lyrical Ballads, is a lengthy piece of simple (in language and diction) art, wrapped in supernatural elements that adorn it. The retributive tale that is reproduced by the mariner is so simple so as to even catch the attention of a child, but just as the tale has the supernatural capability of hypnotising the listener, the readers are so mesmerized by the poem that are almost elevated morally not by didacticism, but by the simplistic appeal of diction and the power of imagination.
“I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
The moment that his face I see
I know the man that must hear me;
To him my tale I teach.”
(The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
The pantheistic properties shown in the poem, especially the climactic episode of the albatross falling off of the mariner’s neck upon his realization and acknowledgement of the sublime creations of nature apart from humans lend reasons to believe in the symbolic sublimity of the overall text, and more so with the added element of elevation from mere attribution of power to the church to the mariner’s confession to the hermit outside the church (nature over religion).
John Keats, unlike Wordsworth, but much like Coleridge, preferred to display his uninhibited, expressive side (Wordsworth expresses himself freely too, but usually until he is jeopardising his moral stance). The individualistic tendencies may be easily noticed in his works. Unlike the pied piper (The Pied Piper of Hamelin - Robert Browning), the power to draw an entire society to experience the sublime is difficult, especially through scattered thoughts and views related to the society as a whole. Coming down to a more personal level, Keats’ indulgence in life and poetic drunkenness (figurative) eases the process of attaining sublimity in poetry.
Although Keats speaks of beauty in Ode on a Grecian Urn, the hellenistic features prominent in his work bring the readers a delightful experience in revisiting the ancient Greek, culturally sophisticated and expressive art that the urn withholds.
“What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What to struggle to escape?
What pipes and tumbrels? What wild ecstasy?”
(Ode on a Grecian Urn – John Keats)
The human attribution of Greek gods attracts attention here when we speak of hellenism.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty…ye need to know”.
It must be noted here that although Keats uses the term beauty here, he associates it with a deeper concept of truth, decorating the simple term with the sublime ornament of eternity and mysteriousness.
The concept of negative capability in Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale is a perfect example where he transgresses momentarily into the nightingale’s world of freedom and carefree joy, deceiving death, at least temporarily. This intentional break in consciousness serves as a loophole used to switch between what is real and what is imaginative. The fact that the poet has to return to “life” is absolute, but the gap that is created to blend the two worlds is the sheer mastery of poetic style and freedom of expression, the fluidity of this aesthetic art of composition. This ability to negate the logical and rational mind for a while to buy a ticket into a created reality is what elevates Keats and other Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and S.T. Coleridge (their works) to the point of literary sublimity.
Keats’ use of synaesthesia is commendable in this poem and the degree to which he pulls the power of this device is a tricky art, which leaves room for experiencing the ecstatic presence of objects with different senses, making the experience sublime through the disparateness in the usually accepted organs used to sense anything -“Tasting of Flora and the country green”, “In some melodious plot…full throated ease.”
Although the 1st century B.C.E. (supposedly) concept of the sublime almost demands the tedious following of a refined rulebook, the 1st and 2nd generation Romantic poets have individually or unitedly catered to the requirements of the same and have enabled readers, through their works, to experience true sublimity in literature, especially in poetry. Minor digressions are the result of flexibility in demand in later, more rational times, but the essence has remained untainted through both experimental works and pieces that have a more traditional touch.
Coleridge, S.T. Biographia Literaria Volume I. London: Oxford At The Clarendon Press, 1907. Print.
-. Biographia Literaria Volume II. London: Oxford University Press, 1907. Print.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge | Poetry Foundation. 2020. Web Site. 16 November 2020.
Coleridge, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor. Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1802. London: Oxford World's Classics , 2013. Print.
Wordsworth, William. The Prelude. DjVu Editions, 1805, 1850. Print.