Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
Dr. Thomas P. Walsh
The nature and role of sublime experience has been an enduring topic of discussion in the history of aesthetics, dating back nearly 2000 years to the rhetorical sublime of Longinus. The emergence of English romanticism at the juncture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wrought substantial change on conceptions of the sublime, driven primarily by Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley each develop a theory of sublimity grounded in the expression of unified and universal experience in human consciousness. Naturally, certain philosophical differences arise within the theoretical discourse of the authors - most notably, with Shelly - but the number and strength of the similarities are such that an identifiable and consistent view of Romantic sublimity emerges.
Coleridge's conception of the sublime is most closely related to Kant's. Like Kant, Coleridge characterizes the sublime experience as one in which the "comparing power," or imagination is suspended ("Coleridge Marginalia" 342). The Coleridgean Sublime, however, differs from the Kantian in that it is less a reaction to infinite size and power than it is the highest apprehension of "multeity in unity," the infinitely complex and infinitely unified idea (Biographia Literaria 2: 232). Wordsworth's conception of sublimity is substantially similar, resting on an aesthetic experience that "suspends the comparing power of the mind & possesses it with a feeling or image of intense unity, without a conscious contemplation of parts" ("The Sublime and the Beautiful" 354). Shelley, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, founds his version of sublimity on the poet's perception and communication of "the eternal, the infinite, and the one" (A Defence of Poetry 124). These separate but closely comparable accounts of sublimity reveal a Romantic conception of sublimity based in discovering the universal in human experience, a conception that fundamentally differentiates Romanticism from Neo-Classicism as a philosophical and literary movement.
Leuenberger, Derek T., "A study of the sublime in English Romantic aesthetics" (1999). Student Work. 3210.
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