Monday, February 1, 2010

Milton and The Sublime

The writer who achieves sublimity is a boundary crosser, whose work stands the test of time and bears up under careful scrutiny, lifting the souls of its audience and filling them with, " a proud exaltation and a sense of vaunting joy" (Longinus, 120). John Milton's epic poem, Paradise Lost, exemplifies the sublime, transporting its audience through the medium of blank verse to heaven and hell and into the minds of G-d and Satan, where the audience is allowed to experience firsthand the wrath of an angry G-d and feel the despair of Lucifer, who has been cast into outer darkness for his great transgression. In the opening passage of Book III, the narrator invokes the Muse for the second time and states:

From Book III Paradise Lost:

Hail holy light, of spring of Heav'n first-born,
Or of th' Eternal Coeternal beam
May I express thee unblam'd? since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from Eternitie, dwelt then in thee, [ 5 ]
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear'st thou rather pure Ethereal stream,
Whose Fountain who shall tell? before the Sun,
Before the Heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a Mantle didst invest [ 10 ]
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I re-visit now with bolder wing,
Escap't the Stygian Pool, though long detain'd
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight [ 15 ]
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
With other notes then to th' Orphean Lyre
I sung of Chaos and Eternal Night,
Taught by the heav'nly Muse to venture down
The dark descent, and up to reascend, [ 20 ]
Though hard and rare: thee I revisit safe,
And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou
Revisit'st not these eyes, that rowle in vain
To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;
So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs, [ 25 ]
Or dim suffusion veild. Yet not the more
Cease I to wander where the Muses haunt
Cleer Spring, or shadie Grove, or Sunnie Hill,
Smit with the love of sacred Song; but chief
Thee Sion and the flowrie Brooks beneath [ 30 ]
That wash thy hallowd feet, and warbling flow,
Nightly I visit: nor somtimes forget
Those other two equal'd with me in Fate,
So were I equal'd with them in renown,
Blind Thamyris and blind Mæonides, [ 35 ]
And Tiresias and Phineus Prophets old.
Then feed on thoughts, that voluntarie move
Harmonious numbers; as the wakeful Bird
Sings darkling, and in shadiest Covert hid
Tunes her nocturnal Note. Thus with the Year [ 40 ]
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of Ev'n or Morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or Summers Rose,
Or flocks, or heards, or human face divine;
But cloud in stead, and ever-during dark [ 45 ]
Surrounds me, from the chearful wayes of men
Cut off, and for the Book of knowledg fair
Presented with a Universal blanc
Of Nature's works to mee expung'd and ras'd,
And wisdome at one entrance quite shut out. [ 50 ]
So much the rather thou Celestial light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight. [ 55 ]
(III.1–6; 21–29; 51–55)

In this passage, Milton leaps the span of more than three centuries and reaches across generations to plunge his audience into the terrifying darkness of a blind man's world as he pleads with his Muse to see the light. The narrator's blindness is both physical and spiritual and the light is a metaphor for G-d. In asking to see the light, the narrator is seeking the inner light of divine wisdom so that he may tell the story of the fall of Adam and Eve.

In his work, Milton employs what Longinus calls, "the five… fruitful sources of the grand style" (121). The first two sources, the author's mental faculty and his ability to inspire emotions, are innate. The third source is the use of rhetorical figures, the fourth is the effective use of diction, and the fifth is unity through the successful arrangement of words. Longinus warns that although emotions contribute to the sublime, emotions alone do not make a work sublime and that a writer should be careful not to overdo it.

The passage's tone is not overly emotional, but restrained and sober. The horror of the narrator's physical and spiritual blindness is conveyed through the vivid description of the light and all of the beautiful things his blindness prevents him from seeing. The author's word choice and sentence structure successfully communicates the narrator's feelings of sadness and allows the audience to participate in his darkness.

Longinus states, "…dignity, grandeur, and urgency are to a very large degree derived from visualization (phantasia)…the current usage of the word is applied to passages in which, seeing the subject of your description, and bring it before the eyes of your audience…to produce vividness of description, though indeed both seek to stir the emotions" (133). A sublime work also crosses boundaries by stirring emotions and causing a synesthetic mixing of the senses. The audience feels with its eyes and sees with its psyche the images the work presents. In his vivid description of light and beauty, the blind narrator in Paradise Lost provides the audience with the same kind of vision he possesses. Neither the narrator nor the audience is physically able to see the light, but through the medium of the written word, the audience is able to visualize his world.

The sublime transcends time and all of the limitations of this physical world, uniting artist with audience and allowing them to experience the work with every part of their being.

Classical Literary Criticism. Eds. Penelope Murray and T. S. Dorsch. London: Penguin Group, 2000.

Milton, John. The Major Works Including Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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