Longinus, like Horace, takes a pragmatic position. His central
question is, what is good writing, and how may it be
achieved? His first answer is that good writing partakes
of what he calls the "sublime." OK, so far that
isn't terribly helpful. Good writing takes part of the good.
TAUTOLOGY ALERT! TAKE COVER UNDER THE NEAREST COPY OF THE O. E.
What is the sublime?
"Sublimity is a
certain distinction and excellence in expression." Well
. . . that's a little better, but not much. The "elevated
language" of the sublime aims to cast a spell over the
audience, not merely persuading but transporting the audience in
an enthralling and delightful manner to the conclusion desired
by the writer. So what we have seems to boil down to this: good
writing partakes of the sublime, and the sublime is comprised of
elevated language which takes the audience out of itself and
into someplace the writer has in mind. This is still somewhat
nebulous, but it gets clearer along the way.
Longinus identifies three
pitfalls to avoid on the quest for sublimity:
2) Puerility; and
Tumidity tries to
"transcend the limits of the sublime" through false
elevation and overblown language. Puerility (from the Latin puer--boy)
is the fault Longinus associates with pedants: it is comprised
of "learned trifling," a hair-splitting (often seen in
the pages of College English, and anything coming out of
an MLA convention) which becomes "tawdry and
affected." Parenthyrsus is the expression of false, empty,
or out-of-place passion, a kind of mawkish, tear-jerker
sentimentality of the lowest-common-denominator sort. Longinus
identifies as the source of these "ugly and parasitical
growths in literature" the "pursuit of novelty in the
expression of ideas."
Longinus goes on to identify five
elements of the sublime:
1) "the power of forming
2) "vehement and inspired passion";
3) "the due formation of figures";
4) "noble diction"; and
5) "dignified and elevated composition."
He recognizes great art by
the presence of great ideas; great ideas, in turn, are conceived
of by great men:
"it is not possible that
men with mean and servile ideas and aims prevailing throughout
their lives should produce anything that is admirable and worthy
of immortality. Great accents we expect to fall from the lips of
those whose thoughts are deep and grave."
These great men capable of
great ideas will also be capable of deep and sincere feeling
which transcends the mawkish emotions of parenthyrsus. The
"vehement and inspired passion" required for the
sublime will, like great ideas, spring only from those without
"mean and servile ideas." The "due formation of
figures" concerns those ways in which elevated thought and
feeling may be best expressed: "a figure is at its best
when the very fact that it is a figure escapes attention."
Noble language is that which transports the audience without
distracting the audience: it is language which is transparent
to the transcendent--to borrow one of Joseph Campbell's
favorite phrases. "Dignified and elevated
composition" is that which forms important elements into an
There are, according to
Longinus, six types of "figures":
2) inversions of word order
3) polyptota--accumulations, variations, and climaxes
4) particulars combined from the plural to the singular
5) interchange of persons--addressing the audience as
6) periphrasis (circumlocution)--wordiness, circling
around the issue rather than going straight to it; Longinus
considers this especially dangerous.
Longinus seems to fit squarely
into the critical school described by T.S. Eliot's
"Tradition and the Individual Talent." He recommends,
as a way to the sublime, "the imitation and emulation of
previous great poets and writers" (a move which puts him
more clearly into alignment with the Aristotelian view of poetry
as an object-in-itself than to the Platonic view of poetry--and
any other "mimetic" art--as 3x removed from reality).
He treats poetry as an agonistic process--anticipating Bloom's
anxiety of influence--speaking of Plato struggling "with
Homer for the primacy." The poet, in evaluating his work,
should ask "How would Homer and the other greats have
expressed this or that matter? What would they think of my work?
How will succeeding ages view my work?