The Dark Sublime

I recently wrote a term paper on the poetic and philosophic conception of the sublime. It was an examination of Wordsworth’s poetry in light of Edmund Burke’s treatise on the subject. Burke believed that the sublime, far from being an experience purely of pleasure and enlightenment, was essentially an incarnation of terror in the face of the incomprehensible. In order for an observation to trigger the sublime, the vision at hand had to be, beyond any other characteristic, obscure. When faced with the obscure, the imagination is given free range to grow beyond the realms of the senses and rationality, and conceive of something otherwise bound by physical reality as infinite.

Some have termed this as the ‘oceanic sense’, so I find it only natural to use the ocean as an example. Objects of great proportions have always been a source of the sublime for poets. What makes the ocean such an excellent source of the sublime is that we can perceive no limitations to its scope. Facing out over the water, once can almost feel the curvature of the earth, and since the opposite shore is beyond our ability to see, our imagination fills the blank space with endless blue. This solved for me a riddle I had encountered in Wordsworth: his preferential fascination with what he could not see over what he could. Wordsworth idolized the imagination, and coupled with Burke’s philosophy it is apparent that the obscure, the dark, and the abyss provide the imagination with its most powerful ability. Seeking to grasp the infinite, it was such obscure images as chasms in a sea of mist, or mountains larger than any mind can logically cogitate, that brought Wordsworth closest to extrasensory experience.

Poetry has always been preoccupied with the sublime, and it seems to me, preoccupied also with those forms and presences that our senses fail to reveal. The Romantics wanted to believe the boundlessness their imaginations conjured from the obscure and the vast was reality—that they were imagining something that is there. But extending this principle to its extreme indicates a dangerous leaning towards solipsism. I now see this struggle in every fragment of great literature I come across: a conflict between the collective, rational reality and the individual, imaginative surreality.

Then again, it’s an acute possibility that I am simply imagining this conflict into the obscurity of artistic language.

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One Response to The Dark Sublime

  1. Morey Hill says:

    This entry relates somewhat to my earlier post on the unsaid. In it, I referenced Shelley’s apparent interest in the same notion of the sublime or the unseen. Shelley, too, calls upon vague and vast concepts to evoke this transcendence. I don’t believe you are imagining this conflict, and you’re right, this poetic mission is certainly inherent to the Romantic attention to the imagination.

    I think an appropriate supplement to your comment comes from Shelley’s 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry.” Towards the end, he makes an interesting claim about the relationship between a poets and their work, “they are themselves perhaps the most sincerely astonished at its manifestations; for it is less their spirit than the spirit of the age.” Here, Shelley suggests, as does your discussion of Wordsworth, that poets struggle to grasp these vast ideas just as much as their readers do. Therefore, perhaps they are equally as frustrated by the obscurity of their language as we are.

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