The Sublime

A lot of our time in this course so far has been devoted to how poems do the things they do, and how poetry can convey thoughts and emotions in qualitatively different ways than one can find in the other major genres like prose fiction, drama, and the essay. This page is devoted to what it looks like when poetry purposely fails, and fails spectacularly, to convey its message.

I say purposely because we have to assume that good poetry does what it’s supposed to do; I try to stay away from evaluative criticism whenever I can (and I suggest you do the same), and so in other words this lecture is not meant to equip you to root out and destroy bad poetry. What I do mean is that words sometimes fail us when the thing that is to be described is too big, too awesome, or too emotional to put into language. The simplest way to do this (in all genres actually) is called an inexpressibility topos (where “topos” is the Greek word for “common place,” here used in specifically literary settings). In this topos, you basically try to weasel out of putting a tough thought into words by claiming that it’s impossible – but by doing so, you still wind up making sure that your audience understands what you wished you could have said. Some examples of this inexpressibility topos include:

  • There are no words to describe how much I love you!
  • After I hit my toe with the hammer, I hopped about, trying and failing to think up words adequate to express my pain. Alas, none exist yet.

Both do a good job at conveying the impossible thought, thanks to this nifty convention. I hope that my two made-up examples also suggest that there will be a large variety of ways of claiming, in words, that no words exist to say what you just said.

A much more complex example is the literary sublime, which is best described as a combination of terror and ecstasy. If you like, think of a feeling of joy so huge that it gets scary (like that first kiss that goes on longer than you intended, and maybe makes a bigger promise than you intended! yikes!), or a feeling of terror that is simultaneously so engaging that it brings you joy (like the big first hill of a roller coaster).  The literary sublime is usually a moment of aesthetic appreciation, but it need not be a moment spent gazing on the world of constructed art; it can be anything so beautiful that it brings about that combination of terror and ecstasy. The natural world can afford such a combination, and so the literary sublime is often also the pastoral sublime. The moment in Wordsworth’s Prelude in which he suddenly comes into view of Mont Blanc in the Alps is certainly such a moment – and since Wordsworth records the moment as the climax of his poem, it’s possible he wished to convey some sense of his sublime feeling to you as well:

                                          That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mont Blanc, and griev’d
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurp’d upon a living thought
That never more could be…

This is a scary, pretty mountain.

This is a scarily pretty mountain.

The summit of Mont Blanc is beautiful, so there’s not necessarily a good reason to look at it and think of death. And the speaker certainly seems to be saying that he couldn’t help thinking those thoughts (it’s not simply willfulness or petulance, but you would have thought that way too, had you been there), because the natural sublime forced him to be reacquainted with just how big that mountain (the largest in Europe) actually is, and therefore how puny, low, and powerless he is in comparison.

Many artists over the centuries have devoted themselves to packaging the sublime moment into their poetry, and various conventions have grown up around it. Contemplation of the sublime, for example, is often thought to put the observer into a somewhat vulnerable state – when you look at something that defies words, or laughs at words’ ineptitude to really convey the truth of the situation, then you can be inordinately susceptible to suggestion, or to emotional swings. I’ve never tried to borrow money from the person sitting next to me on a roller coaster, but there are literary examples of similar attempts. There’s a Henry James novella called Washington Square that I like to teach for the sublime, that is mostly set in drawing rooms in New York City mansions, but includes one scene where a father desperately tries to convince his daughter not to marry a man he suspects to be a gold-digger. So he takes her to the Alps and basically stands with Mont Blanc behind him, and threatens her with writing her out of his will. Cruel, but effective use of the sublime.

The sublime is also responsible for effects of language that are otherwise hard to attribute, and can be receptacles of excess energy within a poem that draw your attention and fascinate you at the same time that they repel your final understanding of the language. A great example of this occurs in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Portrait of a Lady,” in which the entire poem is about a speaker who sets out to describe a woman’s thighs in various overly conventional ways. A skeptical interlocutor keeps interrupting him to try to pin down exactly what was so enticing about her thighs, but the speaker can’t help continuing to resort to old clichés. This is an example of the sublime — the thighs defy language, and the speaker sees it as his responsibility to do them justice, even though words keep failing him. Whether thighs should trigger a mixture of terror and ecstasy in a viewer, I leave up to you; but perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch for your imaginations.



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