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Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 89

I can now at length see that Sophocles is the most perfect. Yet he never

rises to the sublime simplicity of Ỉschylus—simplicity of design, I

mean—nor diffuses himself in the passionate outpourings of Euripides.

(TT, 244)

The Bible

From the 1811–12 Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton15

When I read the song of Deborah, I never think that she is a poet,

although I think the song itself a sublime poem: it is as simple a

dithyrambic production as exists in any language; but it is the proper

and characteristic effusion of a woman highly elevated by triumph,

by the natural hatred of oppressors, and resulting from a bitter sense

of wrong: it is a song of exultation on deliverance from these evils, a

deliverance accomplished by herself. When she exclaims, “The

inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I,

Deborah, arose, that I arose a mother in Israel,” it is poetry in the

highest sense: we have no reason, however, to suppose that if she

had not been agitated by passion, and animated by victory, she

would have been able so to express herself; or that if she had been

placed in different circumstances, she would have used such

language of truth and passion.

(Ashe, 89–90)

From his marginalia on the Bible, Psalms 50 (c. 1826–29) 16

What can Greece or Rome present, worthy to be compared with the

50th Psalm, either in sublimity of the Imagery or in moral elevation?

(CM, 1: 430)

From the Table Talk May 9 183017

Think of the sublimity, I should rather say the profundity, of that

passage in Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live? And I

answered, O Lord God, thou knowest.” I know nothing like it.

(TT, 66)


Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts


From ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ (1790–1834)18

Thee, Chatterton! these unblest stones protect

From want, and the bleak freezings of neglect.

Too long before the vexing Storm-blast driven

Here hast thou found repose! beneath this sod!

Thou! O vain word! thou dwell’st not with the clod!

Amid the shining Host of the Forgiven

Thou at the throne of mercy and thy God

The triumph of redeeming Love dost hymn

(Believe it, O my Soul!) to harps of Seraphim.

Yet oft, perforce (’tis suffering Nature’s call),

I weep that heaven-born Genius so should fall;

And oft, in Fancy’s saddest hour, my soul

Averted shudders at the poison’d bowl.

Now groans my sickening heart, as still I view

Thy corse of livid hue;

Now Indignation checks the feeble sigh,

Or flashes through the tear that glistens in mine eye!

Is this the land of song-ennobled line?

Is this the land, where Genius ne’er in vain

Pour’d forth his lofty strain?

Ah me! yet Spenser, gentlest bard divine,

Beneath chill Disappointment’s shade,

His weary limbs in lonely anguish lay’d.

And o’er her darling dead

Pity hopeless hung her head,

While ‘mid the pelting of that merciless storm,’

Sunk to the cold earth Otway’s famish’d form!

Sublime of thought, and confident of fame,

From vales where Avon winds the Minstrel came.

Light-hearted youth! aye, as he hastes along,

He meditates the future song,

How dauntless Ỉlla fray’d the Dacyan foe;

And while the numbers flowing strong

In eddies whirl, in surges throng,

Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 91

Exulting in the spirits’ genial throe

In tides of power his life-blood seems to flow . . .

O spirit blest!

Whether the Eternal’s throne around,

Amidst the blaze of Seraphim,

Thou pourest forth the grateful hymn,

Or soaring thro’ the blest domain

Enrapturest Angels with thy strain,—

Grant me, like thee, the lyre to sound,

Like thee with fire divine to glow;—

But ah! when rage the waves of woe,

Grant me with firmer breast to meet their hate,

And soar beyond the storm with upright eye elate!

Ye woods! that wave o’er Avon’s rocky steep,

To Fancy’s ear sweet is your murmuring deep!

For here she loves the cypress wreath to weave;

Watching with wistful eye, the saddening tints of eve.

Here, far from men, amid this pathless grove,

In solemn thought the Minstrel wont to rove,

Like star-beam on the slow sequester’d tide

Lone-glittering, through the high tree branching wide.

And here, in Inspiration’s eager hour,

When most the big soul feels the mastering power,

These wilds, these caverns roaming o’er,

Round which the screaming sea-gulls soar,

With wild unequal steps he pass’d along,

Oft pouring on the winds a broken song:

Anon, upon some rough rock’s fearful brow

Would pause abrupt—and gaze upon the waves below.

Poor Chatterton! he sorrows for thy fate

Who would have prais’d and lov’d thee, ere too late.

Poor Chatterton! farewell! of darkest hues

This chaplet cast I on thy unshaped tomb;

But dare no longer on the sad theme muse,

Lest kindred woes persuade a kindred doom:

For oh! big gall-drops, shook from Folly’s wing,

Have blacken’d the fair promise of my spring;


Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts

And the stern Fate transpierc’d with viewless dart

The last pale Hope that shiver’d at my heart!

Hence, gloomy thoughts! no more my soul shall dwell

On joys that were! no more endure to weigh

The shame and anguish of the evil day,

Wisely forgetful! O’er the ocean swell

Sublime of Hope I seek the cottag’d dell

Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray;

And, dancing to the moon-light roundelay,

The wizard Passions weave an holy spell!

O Chatterton! that thou wert yet alive!

Sure thou would’st spread the canvass to the gale,

And love with us the tinkling team to drive

O’er peaceful Freedom’s undivided dale;

And we, at sober eve, would round thee throng,

Would hang, enraptur’d, on thy stately song,

And greet with smiles the young-eyed Poesy

All deftly mask’d as hoar Antiquity.

Alas, vain Phantasies! the fleeting brood

Of Woe self-solac’d in her dreamy mood!

Yet will I love to follow the sweet dream,

Where Susquehannah pours his untamed stream;

And on some hill, whose forest-frowning side

Waves o’er the murmurs of his calmer tide,

Will raise a solemn Cenotaph to thee,

Sweet Harper of time-shrouded Minstrelsy!

And there, sooth’d sadly by the dirgeful wind,

Muse on the sore ills I had left behind.

(CPW, 1: 125–31)

On his own poetry

From a letter to an unknown correspondent, November 181919

In a copy of verses entitled “A Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale

of Chamouny” I described myself under the influence of strong

devotional feelings gazing on the Mountain till as if it had been a

Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 93

Shape emanating from and sensibly representing her own essence

my soul had become diffused thro’ “the mighty Vision,” and there

As in her natural Form, swelled vast to Heaven.

Mr. Wordsworth, I remember, censured the passage as strained and

unnatural, and condemned the Hymn in toto (which nevertheless I

ventured to publish in the “Sibylline Leaves”) as a specimen of the

Mock Sublime. It may be so for others; but it is impossible that I

should find it myself unnatural, being conscious that it was the

image and utterance of Thoughts and Emotions in which there was

no Mockery. Yet on the other hand I could readily believe that the

mood and Habit of mind out of which the Hymn rose, that differs

from Milton’s and Thomson’s and from the Psalms, the source of all

three, in the Author’s addressing himself to individual objects actually present to his Senses, while his great Predecessors apostrophize

classes of things, presented by the memory and generalized by the

Understanding—I can readily believe, I say, that in this there may be

too much of what the learned Med’ciners call the Idiosyncratic for

true Poetry. For from my very childhood I have been accustomed to

abstract and as it were unrealize whatever of more than common

interest my eyes dwelt on; and then by a sort of transference and

transmission of my consciousness to identify myself with the

Object—and I have often thought, within the last five or six years,

that if ever I should feel once again the genial warmth and stir of the

poetic impulse, and referred to my own experiences, I should venture on a yet stranger and wilder Allegory than of yore—that I should

allegorize myself, as a rock with it’s summit just raised above the surface of some Bay or Strait in the Arctic Sea “while yet the stern and

solitary Night Brook’d no alternate Sway”—all around me fixed and

firm me-thought as my own Substance, and near me lofty Masses,

that might have seemed to “hold the moon and stars in fee,” and

often in such wild play with meteoric lights, or with the Shine from

above which they made rebound in sparkles or disband in off-shoots

and splinters and iridescent needleshafts of keenest Glitter, that it

was a pride and a place of Healing to lie, as in an Apostle’s Shadow,

within the Eclipse and deep substance-seeming Gloom of “these

dread Ambassadors from Earth to Heaven, Great Hierarchs” and tho’

obscured yet to think myself obscured by consubstantial Forms,

based in the same Foundation as my own. I grieved not to serve


Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts

them—yea, lovingly and with gladsomeness I abased myself in their

presence: for they are, my Brothers, I said, and the Mastery is their’s

by right of elder birth and by right of the mightier strivings of the

hidden Fire that uplifted them above me—

(CLE, 1: 261–2)


From a School Exercise, 179020

To the Greek Poets Milton owed his boundless harmony, and from

them he learnt to equal or excell his great instructors: nor did his

sublime genius boast less originality, because he had been early

taught “to read and to admire the Chian Bard”. And equal excellencies might have been attained in different walks of Genius from the

variety of literature lost—from those ample sources, which Virgil and

Horace so largely and so happily used, Boileau and Pope might have

soared yet more high, and this age have boasted its illustrious imitators of Authors now unknown.

(SWF, 1: 8–9)

From the 1811–12 Lectures on Shakespeare and Milton21


This gentleman, on Monday last, drew the attention of his little

intellectual audience to M ILTON, whom he called the first poet of

Christianity. . . . He described the SUBLIME in Milton, and read some

beautiful passages, accompanied by strictures on what was indispensable to the true sublime; and these qualities he illustrated by placing

in contrast some striking instances of the false sublime. . . . He selected

an instance of what was called the sublime, in DARWIN, who imagined

the creation of the universe to have taken place in a moment, by

the explosion of a mass of matter in the womb, or centre of space.

In one and the same instant of time, suns and planets shot into

systems in every direction, and filled and spangled the illimitable

void! He asserted this to be an intolerable degradation—referring, as

it were, all the beauty and harmony of nature to something like the

Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 95

bursting of a barrel of gunpowder! that spit its combustible materials

into a pock-freckled creation! He described the sublime as contradistinguished from the beautiful. Beauty consisted in the relation of

parts to the whole. The sublime was an image of which you neither

see the wholeness, nor the parts. Here the lecturer read Milton’s

description of the form of Satan, floating in the sea, as an instance of

the true sublime; and described the image impressed on the mind, in

language and figure so fugitive and evanescent, that he became the

poet he described—hurrying his thoughts over our minds so as only

just to enable us to see that they were, ere they were not. We had

glimpses of them, but could not, and would not grasp them.

(Lects 1808–19, 1: 401–2)

From his notes on Paradise Lost (c. 1818)22

Sublimity is the pre-eminent characteristic of the Paradise Lost. It is

not an arithmetical sublime like Klopstock’s, whose rule always is to

treat what we might think large as contemptibly small. Klopstock

mistakes bigness for greatness. There is a greatness arising from

images of effort and daring, and also from those of moral endurance;

in Milton both are united. The fallen angels are human passions,

invested with a dramatic reality.

The apostrophe to light at the commencement of the third book is

particularly beautiful as an intermediate link between Hell and

Heaven; and observe, how the second and third book support the

subjective character of the poem. In all modern poetry in Christendom there is an under consciousness of a sinful nature, a fleeting

away of external things, the mind or subject greater than the object,

the reflective character predominant. In the Paradise Lost the sublimest

parts are the revelations of Milton’s own mind, producing itself and

evolving its own greatness; and this is so truly so, that when that

which is merely entertaining for its objective beauty is introduced, it

at first seems a discord. . . .

Milton is not a picturesque, but a musical, poet; although he has

this merit, that the object chosen by him for any particular foreground always remains prominent to the end, enriched, but not

encumbered, by the opulence of descriptive details furnished by an


Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts

exhaustless imagination. I wish the Paradise Lost were more carefully

read and studied than I can see any ground for believing it is, especially those parts which, from the habit of always looking for a story

in poetry, are scarcely read at all,—as for example, Adam’s vision of

future events in the 11th and 12th books. No one can rise from the

perusal of this immortal poem without a deep sense of the grandeur

and the purity of Milton’s soul, or without feeling how susceptible of

domestic enjoyments he really was, notwithstanding the discomforts

which actually resulted from an apparently unhappy choice in marriage. He was, as every truly great poet has ever been, a good man;

but finding it impossible to realize his own aspirations, either in

religion or politics, or society, he gave up his heart to the living spirit

and light within him, and avenged himself on the world by enriching

it with this record of his own transcendent ideal.

(C17thC, 577–9)


From a letter to Robert Southey, November 179423

’Tis past one o’clock in the morning. I sat down at twelve o’clock to

read the “Robbers” of Schiller. I had read, chill and trembling, when

I came to the part where the Moor fixes a pistol over the robbers who

are asleep. I could read no more. My God, Southey, who is this

Schiller, this convulser of the heart? Did he write his tragedy amid

the yelling of fiends? I should not like to be able to describe such

characters. I tremble like an aspen leaf. Upon my soul, I write to you

because I am frightened. I had better go to bed. Why have we ever

called Milton sublime? that Count de Moor horrible wielder of heartwithering virtues? Satan is scarcely qualified to attend his execution

as gallows chaplain.

(CLE, 1: 96–7)

‘To the Author of “The Robbers”’ (?1794)24

SCHILLER! that hour I would have wish’d to die.

If thro’ the shuddering midnight I had sent

From the dark dungeon of the Tower time-rent

That fearful voice, a famish’d Father’s cry—

Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 97

Lest in some after moment aught more mean

Might stamp me mortal! A triumphant shout

Black Horror scream’d, and all her goblin rout

Diminish’d shrunk from the more withering scene!

Ah! Bard tremendous in sublimity!

Could I behold thee in thy loftier mood

Wandering at eve with finely-frenzied eye

Beneath some vast old tempest-swinging wood!

Awhile with mute awe gazing I would brood:

Then weep aloud in a wild ecstasy!

(CPW, 1: 72–3)

From the Table Talk, February 16, 1833

The young men in Germany and England who admire Lord Byron,

prefer Goethe to Schiller; but you may depend upon it, Goethe does

not, nor ever will, command the common mind of the people of Germany as Schiller does. Schiller had two legitimate phases in his intellectual character:—the first as author of the Robbers—a piece which

must not be considered with reference to Shakspeare, but as a work of

the mere material sublime, and in that line it is undoubtedly very

powerful indeed. It is quite genuine, and deeply imbued with Schiller’s

own soul. After this he outgrew the composition of such plays as the

Robbers, and at once took his true and only rightful stand in the grand

historical drama—the Wallenstein;—not the intense drama of passion,—he was not master of that—but the diffused drama of history,

in which alone he had ample scope for his varied powers. The Wallenstein is the greatest of his works; it is not unlike Shakspeare’s historical

plays—a species by itself. You may take up any scene, and it will please

you by itself; just as you may in Don Quixote, which you read through

once or twice only, but which you read in repeatedly.

(TT, 197–8)


From his notebook, 1808–11 25

There are men who can write most eloquently, and passages of deepest

pathos & even Sublimity, on circumstances personal & deeply exciting


Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts

their own passions; but not therefore poets—Mothers—Deborah’s

Song—Nature is the Poet here—but to become by power of Imagination another Thing—Proteus, a river, a lion, yet still the God felt to

be there/—Then his thinking faculty & thereby perfect abstraction

from himself—he writes exactly as if of an other planet, or as describing the movement of two Butterflies—

(BL Add. MS 47, 523 f5v–6)

* * *

Merciful Wonder-making Heaven! What a man was this Shakespear!

I know no better epithet than that given by a Greek Monk of the

lower Empire to some other Monk—µυριΟνΟυς, myriad-minded.—

(BL Add. MS 47, 512 f123v)

* * *

In the preceding Lecture we have examined with what armour

cloathed & with what titles authorized Shakespere came forward, as a

poet, to demand the throne of Fame, as the dramatic poet of

England; we have now to observe . . . and retrace the excellencies

which compelled even his Contemporaries to seat him on that

Throne, altho’ there were Giants in those days, contending for the

same honor—hereafter we shall endeavor to make out the title of the

English Drama, as created by & existing in Shakespere, & its right to

the Supremacy of Dramatic Excellence, in general.— . . . I have

endeavored to prove that he had shewn himself a poet, previously to

his appearance, . . . a dramatic poet—& that had no Lear, No Othello,

no Henry the Fourth, no Twelfth Night, appeared, we must have

admitted that Shakespere possessed the chief if not all the requisites

of a Poet—namely, deep Feeling & exquisite sense of Beauty, both as

exhibited to the eye in combinations of form, & to the ear in sweet

and appropriate melody (with the except: of Spenser, he is &c)—.

That these feelings were under the command of his own Will—that in

his very first productions he projected his mind out of his own

particular being, & felt and made others feel, on subjects no way

connected with himself, except by force of Contemplation—& that

sublime faculty, by which a great mind becomes that which it

Transcendence in Literature and the Visual Arts 99

meditates on.—To this we are to add the affectionate Love of Nature

& Natural Objects, without which no man could have observed so

steadily, or painted so truly & passionately the 〈very〉 minutiæest

beauties of the external world—

Next, we have shewn that he possessed Fancy, considered as the

faculty of bringing together & c & c.—“Full gently now she” & c/Still

mounting, we find undoubted proof in his mind of . . . Imagination

or the power by whyich one image or feeling is made to modify many

others, & by a sort of fusion to force many into one—that which after

shewed itself in such might & energy in Lear, where the deep

anguish of a Father spreads the feeling of Ingratitude & Cruelty over

the very Elements of Heaven—. Various are the workings of this

greatest faculty of the human mind—both passionate & tranquil—in

its tranquil & purely pleasurable operation it acts chiefly by

producing . . . out of many things, as it would have appeared in the

description of an ordinary mind, described slowly & in . .. unimpassioned succession, a oneness/even as Nature, the greatest of Poets,

acts upon us when we open our eyes upon an extended prospect—

Thus the flight of the Adonis from the enamoured Goddess in the

dusk of the Evening—

Look! how a bright star shooteth from the Sky,

So glides he in the night from Venus’ Eye—.

How many Images & feelings are here brought together without

effort & without discord—the beauty of Adonis—the rapidity of his

flight—the yearning yet hopelessness of the enamoured gazer—and a

shadowy ideal character thrown over the whole—/or it acts

by . . . impressing the stamp of humanity, of human feeling, over

inanimate Objects—The Pines shorn by the 〈Sea〉 wind & seen in



Lo! here the gentle Lark—

and lastly, which belongs only to a great poet, the power of so carrying on the Eye of the Reader as to make him almost lose the consciousness of words—to make him see every thing—& this without

exciting any painful or laborious attention, without any anatomy of

description, (a fault not uncommon in descriptive poetry) but with

the sweetness & easy movement of nature—

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