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POETRY AND THE BELLES.LETTRES.
I.-BURKE ON THE SUBLIME AND BEAUTIFUL.*
[From the Monthly Review, 1757. “A Philosophical Inquiry
into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful." 8vo. Dodsley.
There are limits prescribed to all human researches, beyond which if we attempt to explore, nothing but obscurity and conjecture lie before
and doubts instead of knowledge must terminate the inquiry. The genius, not the judgment, of an author may appear in the too abstracted speculation; he may contribute to the amusement, but seldom to the instruction of the reader. His illustrations may perplex, but not enlighten the mind; and,
* (This celebrated work, which Dr. Johnson considered “an example of true criticism," and which now forms a text-book in liberal education, was planned when Mr. Burke was in his twenty-second year, and finished before he had attained his twenty-fifth. Whether Goldsmith knew the author personally at this time is doubtful; that he may have been informed of his name, and remembered him as a college contemporary, is probable.”]
like a microscope, the more he magnifies the object, he will represent it the more obscurely.
There is, perhaps, no investigation more difficult than that of the passions, and other affections resulting from them. The difference of opinion among all who have treated on this subject, serves to convince us of its uncertainty. Even the most eminent philosophers have sometimes taken novelty, not truth, for their conductor; and have destroyed the hypothesis of their predecessors without being able to establish their own.
It often happens, indeed, that while we read the productions of such a philosopher, though we condemn the reasoner, we admire the writer. Yet still learning, taste, and perspicuity, can lay claim but to a subordinate degree of esteem, when they are employed in contradicting truth, or in the investigation of inextricable difficulties.
Our author thus, with all the sagacity so abstruse a subject requires ; with all the learning necessary to the illustration of his system ; and with all the genius that can render disquisition pleasing; by proceeding on principles not sufficiently established, has been only agreeable when he might have been instructive. He rejects all former systems, and founds his philosophy on his own particular feelings. He has divided the whole into sections, with the contents of each prefixed; a method peculiarly necessary in works of a philosophical nature; as such divisions serve for resting-places to the reader, and give him time to recollect the force of the author's reasoning.
The Sublime and the Beautiful have, through inadvertency, or ignorance, been frequently confounded and mistaken one for the other. What in its own nature is sublime, has the appellation of beauty; and what is beautiful is often called sublime. This, as the author remarks, must necessarily cause many mistakes in those whose business it is to influence the passions ;
since, by being unacquainted with the difference between the sublime and the beautiful, they cannot happily succeed, unless by chance, in either. The design of the work then is, to lay down such principles as may tend to ascertain and distinguish the sublime and the beautiful in any art, and to form a sort of standard for each.
The author first inquires into the affections of the sublime and beautiful, in their own nature ; he then proceeds to investigate the properties of such things in nature as give rise to these affections; and lastly, he considers in what manner these properties act to produce those affections, and each correspondent emotion.
All our passions have their origin in self-preservation and in society; and the ends of one or the other of these they are all calculated to answer. The passions which concern self-preservation, and which are the most powerful of all the passions, turn mostly on pain or danger. For instance, the idea of pain, sickness, and death, fill the mind with strong emotions of horror ; but life and health, though they put us in a capacity of being affected with pleasure, make no such impression by the single enjoyment.
When danger or pain immediately affect us, they are simply terrible, and incapable of giving any delight; but when the idea of pain or danger is excited, without our being actually in such circumstances as to be injured by it, it may be delightful, as every one's experience demonstrates. This pleasing sensation, arising from the diminution of pain, and which may be called hereafter delight, is very different from that satisfaction which we feel without any pain preceding it, which may be, in the sequel, termed positive pleasure, or simply pleasure. Delight acts by no means so strongly as positive pleasure; since no lessening, even of the
severest pain, can rise to pleasure,* but the mind still continues impressed with awe; a sort of tranquillity shadowed with horror. When we have suffered from any violent emotion, the mind naturally continues in something like the same condition, even after the cause which first produced it has ceased to operate; as the fashion of the countenance and the gesture of the body, in those who have just escaped some imminent degree of danger, sufficiently indicate.
Whatever excites this delight, whatever is fitted in to excite the ideas of pain and danger, without their actual existence, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is the source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling. f
To prevent any interruption of the author's chain of reasoning, whatever remark may happen to occur to us, in the course of our epitome of his performance, we shall subjoin it as a note. Thus with regard to his distinction between delight and pleasure, we may here observe, that most of the real pleasures we possess, proceed from a diminution of pain. Our author imagines, that positive pleasure operates upon us, by relaxing the nervous system; but that delight acts in a quite contrary manner. Yet it is evident, that a reprieve to a criminal often affects him with such pleasure, that his whole frame is relaxed, and he faints away: here, then, a diminution of pain operates just as pleasure would have done, and we can see no reason why it may not be called pleasure. To put our objections in another light-all wants that immediately affect us, are in some degree painful. If upon offering any enjoyment to the mind, it feels no consciousness of the want, no uneasiness for the fruition of the pleasure proffered, we may safely conclude it will find no great degree of pleasure in its possession. How vainly do delicacies solicit the appetite of him who feels not a want from hunger! What various methods are tried to create this pain, only that the voluptuous may enjoy a greater pleasure by its diminution! Hence, if what the author himself allows to be pleasures are increased by preceding pain, why may they not be produced from it? In fact, pleasure and pain may be found positively subsisting without relation to each other; but then they may also be found mutually to produce each other.
+ (Our Author, by assigning terror for the only source of the sublime, excludes love, admiration, &c. But to make the sublime an idea incompatible
The second head to which the passions are referred, in relation to their final cause, is society. There are two kinds of society; the first is the society of the sex, the passion belonging to which is called love; it contains a mixture of lust, and its object is the beauty of women. The other is the great society with man, and all other animals ; but this has no mixture of lust, though its object be beauty.* The passions belonging to the preservation
with these affections, is what the general sense of mankind will be apt to contradict. It is certain, we can have the most sublime ideas of the Deity, without imagining him a God of terror. Whatever raises our esteem of an object described, must be a powerful source of sublimity; and esteem is a passion nearly allied to love: our astonishment at the sublime as often proceeds from an increased love, as from an inward fear. When, after the horrors of a tempestuous night, the poet hails us with a description of the beauties of the morning, we feel double enjoyment from the contrast. Our pleasure here must arise from the beautiful or the sublime. If from the beautiful, then we have a positive pleasure, which has had its origin, contrary to what the author advances, in a diminution of pain. If from the sublime, it is all we contend for; since here is a description, which, though destitute of terror, has the same effect that any increase of terror could have produced.
* Self-interest, and not beauty, may be the object of this passion: it is not from beauty in the man, we cement friendships ; it is not from beauty in animals, that we value and maintain them; or from the beauty of vegetables, that we improve them by culture: were this the case, there would be no society betwixt the deformed of mankind; we should entertain an abhorrence of every ill-looking, though useful and inoffensive animal; receive the painted snake to our bosom, and the spotted panther into our dwelling. Even in vegetables, we prefer rise to beauty: “alba ligustra cadunt, vaccinia nigra leguntur." Reason, not sensation, certainly suggests our ideas of this species of beauty, and from the dictates of reason it is we admit of new connections. The infant, new to the world, finds all beauty in color ; as he grows older, shape, smoothness, and several other adventitious ideas are superadded, which his reason, not his senses, have suggested. Some, even among the adult, have no idea of what is called beauty in animals with which they are not conversant, as the beauty of horses, dogs, &c. : but an acquaintance with these animals, and a knowledge of their fitness, by particular symmetries, &c. to answer their own or our purposes, soon discover to us beauties of which we could otherwise have had no conception. Hence a great part of our perceptions of beauty arises not from any mechanical operation on the senses, capable of producing