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[Longinus],   On the Sublime

-   Introduction

   

From the translation by W.H. Fyfe (1927), pp. xvi-xx.   


Dionysius of Halicarnassus certainly raised the tone (of literary criticism) in the last century B.C. He inherits Aristotle's common sense and adds to it an appreciation of beauty in phrase and rhythm, dealing freely, as the earlier critics seldom dealt, with prose as well as poetry. But he was a propagandist and a schoolmaster. His aims were to advocate the merits of the plain classical style against wanton Asiatics innovations and to teach his pupils how to avoid faults in composition. The former aim limits his sympathy almost to the point of absurdity and in pursuing the latter aim he failed to notice that all rules for writing are rules for writing badly. He can justly appreciate what he likes and give reasons for his liking, but he lacks the supreme critical quality of responding to all excellence in literature and infecting his audience with enthusiasm.    

This supreme quality Longinus possesses.    

"Till now," says Gibbon in his Journal, "I was acquainted only with two ways of criticising a beautiful passage, the one to show by an exact anatomy of it the distinct beauties of it and whence they sprung ; the other an idle exclamation or a general encomium, which leaves nothing behind it. Longinus has shown me that there is a third. He tells me his own feelings upon reading it, and tells them with such energy that he communicates them." When Gibbon wrote that, he believed the author of the treatise On the Sublime to be Longinus of Palmyra, the friend and counsellor of Queen Zenobia, and acknowledged by his contemporaries of the third century A.D. to be one of the greatest of literary critics. Gibbon liked to think that he had "in the Court of a Syrian Queen preserved the spirit of ancient Athens." Later students have found reason to doubt the ascription. The manuscripts of chief authority give the author, some as "Dionysius Longinus", others as "Dionysius or Longinus." Zenobia's counsellor was Cassius Longinus. But perhaps he had the name of Dionysius as well ? Or if not that, then "Dionysius or Longinus" may be taken to express a doubt whether the author is Dionysius of Halicarnassus or Cassius Longinus of Palmyra ; and no one who has read the former can hesitate for a moment between the horns of that dilemma. Whoever is the author of this admirable treatise, it is not Dionysius of Halicarnassus. But there is certainly reason to doubt that the treatise was written as late as the third century A.D. It has no affinity to the age of Aurelian. It sets out to controvert a work written in the reign of Augustus. It mentions no author later than the first century A.D. The description of the Roman world in the last chapter suits the first century better than the third, and suggests an obvious comparison with Tacitus's Dialogue on Oratory. Certainly the arguments for Cassius Longinus as the author of this treatise are not more conclusive than those against. All we can safely say of the author is that we do not know who he was or where he lived or when he wrote. His excellence and his influence are matters of far greater importance.   

Strangely enough the records of antiquity contain no reference to this treatise, and its existence was unknown until Robortello published it at Basle in 1554. It was republished and translated in Italy, Switzerland, and England during the following hundred years but remained a close preserve for scholars until in 1674 Boileau published his translation, which was re-issued more than twenty times in the next hundred years. From that moment "Longinus on the Sublime" won fame commensurate with his merits, and the list of his students and admirers includes such names as those of Fé:nelon, Dryden, Addison, Pope, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Hurd, Fielding, Sterne, Gibbon, Fox, and Grattan. And whereas Aristotle's Poetics won for a time the position of a Bible and was most adulated by those who understood it least, the eulogists of Longinus clearly speak from warmth of personal acquaintance, inspired by his enthusiasm and grateful for the stimulus to their appreciation of literature. As one of his modern admirers says : "What Swift observed of books generally, that they give the same tone to our mind as good company gives to our air and manners, is particularly applicable to this treatise. It is essentially noble ; it is inspiring, it is elevating, it is illumining ; it taught criticism a new language, it breathed into it a new soul." (Churton Collins, Studies in Poetry and Criticism)   The history of literature is full of adventure, but it records no fate more romantic than this of our unknown author, who came into his own twelve or fifteen hundred years after his death, and enjoys to-day a fame his dreams could never have foretold.   

The merit of this brief and mutilated treatise is that for the first time in human history, a critic here faces the consequences of Aristotle's admission that the end of literature is pleasure, the kind of pleasure which it alone can give ; and that this is valuable not as a means towards guiding conduct or cajoling a jury but as an end in itself. The criterion of excellence in literature is the absorption or illusion {ekstasis} of the audience or reader and that effect comes not from the mechanical application of rules or the rigid avoidance of mistakes but from the expression of a forceful human character. Just as fine glass or well cast iron rings true to the stroke, so grandeur or sublimity in art gives the unmistakable "ring" of a great soul. "Style is the shadow of a personality."   

The chief means by which personality can thus be expressed are beautiful words, but to their proper use sincerity is essential, a mind full of meaning. There is nothing more nauseating than their empty and frivolous use. And since there is need also of technical skill before personality can be adequately expressed in words, "Longinus" employs the terms and categories which the philological anatomists invented. He speaks of tropes and figures. But throughout he insists that these are only means of analysis. The one essential is genuine feeling. Without that no skill in writing is of value and its presence covers a multitude of faults.    

 Sensitive, acute, enthusiastic, here is a critic who makes it clear at last beyond all doubt that literature is a function of life and that those who, having something to say, have learnt how to say it create a revelation as sweet to the world as the making of it is to them, and work one of the many miracles that make life worth living.  

First part of translation



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