Page images
PDF
EPUB

discover the same way of speaking in the language even of Japan ;* and it universally proves it the offspring of a natural feeling

The foregoing observation leads us to consider grandeur and sublimity in a figurative sense, and as applicable to the fine arts. Hitherto these terms have been taken in their proper sense, as applicable to objects of sight only: and it was of importance to bestow some pains upon that article ; because, generally speaking, the figurative sense of a word is derived from its proper sense, which holds remarkably at present.. Beauty in its original signification is confined to objects of sight; but, as many other objects, intellectual as well as moral, raise emotions resembling that of beauty, the resemblance of the effects prompts us to extend the term beauty to these objects. This equally accounts for the terms grandeur and sublimity taken in a figurative sense. Every motion, from whatever cause proceeding, that resembles an emotion of grandeur or elevation, is called by the same name: thus generosity is said to be an elevated 'emotion, as well as great courage; and that firmness of soul which is superior to misfortunes, obtains the peculiar name of magnanimity. On the other hand, every emotion that contracts the mind, and fixeth it upon things trivial or of no importance, is termed low, by its resemblance to an emotion produced by a little or low object of sight : thus an appetite for trifling amusements is called a low taste. The same terms are applied to characters and actions: we talk familiarly of an elevated genius, of a great man, and equally so of littleness of mind : some actions are great and elevated, and others are little and grovelling. Sentiments, and even expressions, are characterised in the same manner: an expression or sentiment that raises the mind is denominated great or elevated; and hence the sublime † in poetry. In such figurative terms, we lose the distinction between great and elevated in their proper sense; for the resemblance is not so entire as to preserve these terms distinct in their figurative application. We carry this figure still farther. Elevation in its proper sense, imports superiority of place; and lowness, inferiority of place; and hence a man of superior talents, of superior rank, of inferior parts, of inferior taste, and such like. The veneration we have for our ancestors, and for the ancients in general, being similar to the emotion produced by an elevated object of sight, justifies the figurative expression, of the ancients being raised above us, or possessing a superior place. And we may remark in passing, that as words are intimately connected with ideas, many, by this form of expression, are led to conceive their ancestors are really above them in place, and their posterity below them:

* Kempfer's History of Japan, b. v. chap. 2. + Longinus gives a description of the Sublime that is not amiss, though far from being just in every circumstance, “ That the mind is elevated by “ it, and so sensibly affected, as to swell in transport and inward pride, as if 6. what is only heard or read, were its own invention.” But he adheres not to this description; in bis 6th chapter, he justly observes, that many passions have nothing of the grand, such as grief, fear, and pity, which depress the mind instead of raising it ; and yet in chap. 8. he mentions Sapho's ode upon love as sublime: beautiful it is undoubtedly, but it cannot be sublime, because it really depresses the mind instead of raising it. His translator Boileaux in not more successful in his instances : in his tenth reflection, he cites a passage from Demosthenes and another from Herodotus as sublime, which have not the least tincture of that quality.

A grandam's name is little less in love,
Than is the doting title of a mother :
They are as children but one step below.

Richard III. Act IV. Sc. 5.

The notes of the gamut, proceeding regularly from the blunter or grosser sounds to the more acute and piercing, produce in the hearer a feeling somewhat similar to what is produced by mounting upward; and this gives occasion to the figurative expressions, a high note, a low note.

Such is the resemblance in feeling between real and figurative grandeur, that among the nations on the east coast of Africa, who are directed purely by nature, the officers of state are, with respect to rank, distinguished by the length of the batoon each carries in his hand; and in Japan, princes and great lords shew their rank by the length and size of their sedan-poles.* Again, it is a rule in painting, that figures of a small size are proper for a grotesque piece; but that an historical subject, grand and important, requires figures as great as the life. The resemblance of these feelings is in reality so strong, that elevation, in a figurative sense, is observed to have the same effect, even externally, with real elevation.

K. Henry. This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

Henry V. Act IV. Sc. 8.

The resemblance in feeling between real and figurative grandeur, is humorously illustrated by Addison in criticising upon English tragedy: “ The ordinary method of “ making an hero, is to clap a huge plume of feathers up" on his head, which rises so high, that there is often

a greater length from his chin to the top of his 6 head, than to the sole of his foot. One would be“lieve, that we thought a great man and a tall man the

same thing. As these superfluous ornaments upon the “head make a great man, a princess generally receives “her grandeur from those additional incumbrances that “ fall into her tail : I mean the broad sweeping train, that 66 follows her in all her motions: and finds constant em

ployment for a boy, who stands behind her to open and spread it to advantage.Ӡ The Scythians, impressed with the fame of Alexander, were astonished when they found him a little man.

* Kempfer's History of Japan.

† Spectator, No. 42.

A gradual progress from small to great is no less remarkable in-figurative, than in real grandeur or elevation. Every one must have observed the delightful effect of a number of thoughts or sentiments artfully disposed like an ascending series, and making impressions deeper and deeper: such disposition of members in a period is termed a climax.

Within certain limits, grandeur and sublimity produce their strongest effects, which lessen by excess as well as by defect. This is remarkable in grandeur and sublimity taken in their proper sense : the grandest emotion that can be raised by a visible object, is where the object can be taken in at one view; if so immense as not to be

com prehended but in parts, it tends rather to distract than satisfy the mind :* in like manner, the strongest emotion produced by elevation is where the object is seen distinctly; a greater elevation lessens in appearance the object, till it vanishes out of sight with its pleasant emotion. The same is equally remarkable in figurative grandeur and elevation, which shall be handled together, because as observed above, they are scarce distinguishable. Sentiments may be so strained as to become obscure, or to exceed the capacity of the human mind : against such license of imagination, every good writer will be

upon

his guard. And therefore it is of greater importance to observe, that even the true sublime may be carried beyond that pitch which produces the highest entertainment : we are undoubtedly susceptible of a greater elevation than

Y

* It is justly observed by Addison, that perhaps a man would have been more astonished with the majestic air that appeared in one of Lysippus's statues of Alexander, though no bigger than the life, than he might have been with Mount Athos, had it been cut into the figure of the hero, according to the proposal of Phidias, with a river in one hand, and a city in the other. Spectator, No. 415.

can be inspired by human actions, the most heroic and magnanimous; witness what we feel from Milton's description of superior beings; yet every man must be sensible of a more constant and sweet elevation, when the history of his own species is the subject; he enjoys an elevation equal to that of the greatest hero, of an Alexander or a Cæsar, of a Brutus or an Epaminondas ; he accompanies these heroes in their sublimest sentiments and most hazardous exploits, with a magnanimity equal to theirs; and finds it no stretch, to preserve the same tone of mind, for hours together, without sinking. The case is not the same in describing the actions or qualities of superior beings: the reader's imagination cannot keep pace with that of the poet; the mind, unable to support itself in a strained elevation, falls as if from a height; and the fall is immoderate, like the elevation: where that effect is not felt, it must be prevented by some obscurity in the conception, which frequently attends the description of unknown objects. Hence the St. Francises, St. Dominics, and other tutelary saints, among the Roman Catholics. A mind unable to raise itself to the Supreme being, self-existent and eternal, or to support itself in a strained elevation, finds itself more at ease in using the intercession of some saint whose piety and penances while on earth are supposed to have made him a favourite in heaven.

A strained elevation is attended with another inconvenience, that the author is apt to fall suddenly as well as the reader: because it is not a little difficult, to descend sweetly and easily from such elevation to the ordinary tone of the subject. The following passage is a good illustration of that observation :

Sæpe etiam immensum cælo venit agmen aquarum,
Et fædam glomerant tempestatem imbribus atris
Conlectæ ex alto nubes. Ruit arduus æther,
Et pluvia ingenti sata læta boumque labores

« PreviousContinue »