2. The Sublime and the Beautiful according to Edmund Burke
3. The Sublime and the Beautiful in the Poems of W.C. Bryant
3.1 The Sublime and the Beautiful in Nature: “A Forest Hymn” and “The Yellow Violet” compared
3.2 Dissolving the Binary: “The Prairies”
At a first reading it might appear as if the poems of William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) simply attempt to accurately represent nature, striving for a certain degree of poetical realism. A closer look at Bryant's work however will reveal that the nature which is described in the poems is also always a space constructed by the poet. There is a consciousness to the depiction of spaces and objects in Bryant’s works which goes beyond simple representation. We are therefore not confronted with a lyrical I that just tells us about what it sees, hears, and feels on a walk through the woods or a quiet moment in the mountains, but with a creative force that builds a landscape with the material of language.
In Bryant’s poetry a landscape has an encoded significance similar to a text which can be read and understood. Often this allegorical meaning is a culture-political one, for Bryant was concerned with establishing a distinctive American identity in his work, and he saw its manifestation in the landscapes of his country. Whereas the European poets of that time could look back on a long artistic tradition, the American nation of the early 19th century was not able to verify its existence through a distinguished cultural past. What it could rely on though were the magnificent landscapes still unspoiled by the assumed decadence and environmental corruption of the Industrial Revolution, which was consuming both, nature and humans on the Old Continent.
The rise of national self-consciousness which followed the American Revolution paved the way for new artistic approaches in literature and the fine arts. Painters and poets alike began to glorify the grandeur of the national landscapes, not only by painting or describing them, but by giving them a cultural significance through the use of certain compositional devices.
Bryant’s poems for example often promote his vision of a pastoral, Eden-like America in which simple rural virtues are supposed to contrast with the decadence of the urban European society. In his poems nature becomes a space which is both sublime and fragile. The poet praises nature’s permanence compared to the transience of man’s achievements and its ability to renew itself, yet he also articulates his fear of the corruption of nature.
The most astonishing aspect of Bryant’s work though is that despite the “constructedness” of the presented scenery the poems still have an almost spontaneous energy and do not seem to be overly artificial. That is because the poet does not simply deploy nature as a metaphorical substitute for more abstract concepts (e.g. love, death, God, eternity, transience etc.) but that through Bryant's poetical construction of a landscape the aforesaid concepts manifest within the scenery.
A very important compositional device for establishing the landscapes of North America as national monuments and celebrating their grandeur was the use of the concepts of sublimity and beauty as the English philosopher Edmund Burke has defined them in his influential essay A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, first published in England in 1756. Both American landscape painters and writers relied on Burke’s ideas and consciously integrated them into their works.
In the first section of this paper I will introduce Edmund Burke’s definitions of the sublime and the beautiful based on the text of the Enquiry, and point out the binary relationship of these concepts. Then I will apply the results to three selected poems by Bryant in the main part of this paper: “A Forest Hymn” will serve as an example for the aspect of sublimity in Bryant’s poetry. The analysis will be concluded with a short comparison to the flower poem “The Yellow Violet”. I have decided against dedicating a separate section of this paper to the discussion of beauty in Bryant’s works, since I believe the actual contrast between beauty and sublimity to be the literary more interesting topic. Once I have demonstrated how Bryant has realized Burke’s idea of sublimity in his poetry, the discussion of beauty can be done very briefly, due to the binary juxtaposition of these concepts. Consequently I hope to show how the poet undermines this juxtaposition in “The Prairies”, and finally manages to overcome the artistic limitations implied in Edmund Burke’s definition.
I also want to emphasize that the analysis will almost exclusively be devoted to the aspects of beauty and sublimity in Bryant’s work and is not meant to be a detailed interpretation of the respective poem, although I will attempt to point out its major themes and motifs.
2. The Sublime and the Beautiful according to Edmund Burke
Edmund Burke’s political career as the leader of the liberal Whigs in Great Britain and his counter-revolutionary writings (esp. the Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790) have often obscured his early work in esthetics. Nevertheless the Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which he drafted approximately at the age of eighteen, had an immense impact on the esthetical understanding of the 18th and 19th century society, not only in Europe but in the United States of America as well.
In the Enquiry Burke defines sublimity and beauty as two concepts which stand in a binary opposition. It is therefore almost “impossible to think of reconciling them in the same object.” According to his definition “sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small; beauty should be smooth, and polished; the great rugged and negligent; beauty should shun the right line, yet deviate from it insensibly; the great in many cases loves the right line, and when it deviates, it often makes a strong deviation; beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.”
This contrasting “either-or” relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is also reflected in our emotional reactions to these concepts, and how we are affected by them. Whereas beauty is “the quality or those qualities in bodies by which they cause love”, the “passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.” The notion that sublimity causes fear in us is very essential to Burke’s thesis, for whatever “is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime, too” and “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime.”
In contrast to a more traditional understanding of the sublime, which often relates the sublimity of an object to its dimensions (following a linear “the vaster, the more sublime” gradation), Burke broadens the concept by including small animals such as poisonous snakes and spiders in this category, because “they are considered as objects of terror.” Vastness is not the sole factor of the sublime, since when one is confronted with two great objects identical in size the one which has an annex of terror “becomes without comparison greater.” Burke then uses the example of an ocean and a vast plain to explain this connection:
A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean; but can it ever fill the mind with any thing so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes, but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. [ The Enquiry, p. 53]
The fact that an ocean is “an object of no small terror” ties in with another important aspect of Burke’s definition, namely the idea that “to make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.” Whereas the level plain does not hold any hidden terrors for the observer, the ocean is a region of perpetual darkness and impenetrable depths in which an extensive number of potential dangers might dwell. It is that which we cannot fully experience with our senses and comprehend with our mind that causes terror. Therefore we often find the sublime in darkness, during nighttime or in a deliberately vague description of an object (what Burke calls “expressive uncertainty” ), for “it is one thing to make an idea clear, and another to make it affecting to the imagination”, since “in reality a great clearness helps but little towards affecting our passions.” Clearness is one of the governing principles of beauty (see below) but with regard to the sublime Burke writes that “a clear idea is [...] a little idea.”
As a perfect example of how this principle of “sublimity through obscurity” might be realized in the arts Burke quotes a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which the poet describes the personification of Death with dark, uncertain and confused images, hurrying the mind “out of itself, by a croud [ sic ] of great and confused images”, and thus increasing the emotional impact on the reader. The quote also forms the basis for Burke’s argumentation that poetry in general is the most adequate medium for conveying aspects of the sublime:
If I make a drawing of a palace, or a temple, or a landscape, I present a very clear idea of those objects; but then [...] my picture can at most affect only as the palace, temple, or landscape would have affected in reality. On the other hand, the most lively and spirited verbal description I can give, raises a very obscure and imperfect idea of such objects; but then it is in my power to raise a stronger emotion by the description than I could do by the best painting.
 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (Oxford University Press, 1990)
 The Enquiry, p. 56
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 p. 83
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 p. 58
 „The other shape,/If shape it might be called that shape had none/ Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;/ Or substance might be called that shadow seemed,/ For each seem either; black he stood as night;/ Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;/ And he shock a deadly dart. What seemed his head/ The likeness of a kingly crown had.” John Milton, Paradise Lost (quote taken from Burke’s Enquiry).
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- ISBN (eBook)
- 453 KB
- Institution / Hochschule
- Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf – American Studies Institute
- 2003 (August)
- 1.0 (A)
- Sublime Beautiful Poems William Cullen Bryant Hauptseminar American Nature Poetry Painting