Towards infinity

drylanding

“Sublimity. This attribute of objects of sight seldom occurs on the face of nature, in its natural state, comparatively with most of those which have been enumerated. Mountain scenery, how grand or magnificent it may be, is now, on that account, the more sublime-, an extent of water, though wide as the sea itself, will not admit of the epithet, while it remains in a calm, unagitated state; any more than will an extent of country covered with snow; unless the idea of unbounded space raise it in some degree: but how infinitely more is this idea capable of exciting it, in viewing space itself, — in beholding the universe, — in looking towards infinity!

“The sublime seems to require that the higher degrees of astonishment should be roused, to demonstrate its presence: a degree of terror, if not of horror, is required to produce the more forcible emotions of the mind, which Sublimity is capable of exciting.

“A giant precipice, frowning over its base, whether we view it from beneath, or look downward from its brink, is capable of producing sublime emotions. A river tumbling headlong over such a precipice, especially if it be viewed with difficulty and a degree of danger, real or imaginary, still heightens those emotions. Lightning, thunder, and hurricanes may produce them.

“But, of all natural scenery, the ocean, agitated by a violent storm, attended with thunder and lightning, is perhaps the most capable of filling the mind with sublime emotions, and most especially the mind of a spectator who is himself exposed on its frail surface; and who is not incapable, either from constant habit, or from an excess of apprehension, of contemplating the scenery which surrounds him.

“On the whole, sublimity must rouse some extraordinary emotion in the mind; it cannot be dwelt on with indifference, by an eye unhabituated to its effects, and a mind possessing the least sensibility. Magnificence, grandeur, or simple greatness, may excite some degree of astonishment; but it must be unmixed with awe; the emotions they excite are of the more pleasurable kind. Ugliness disgusts; yet when adorned, it is capable of giving delight; as a contrast to the more rational gratifications of ornamented beauty. All that simple beauty has to bestow is pleasure, heightened, perhaps, by a degree of admiration. Even simplicity, in a state of polished neatness, is capable of giving a degree of pleasure; but, in a state of slovenliness and neglect, it disgust, as ugliness, or deformity, which is simplicity, or beauty, disgustingly defaced.”

Ashfield, Andrew & de Bolla, Peter, eds. The Sublime: A reader in British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1996. William Marshall, from A review of The Landscape, a didactic poem (1795). pp 276-277.

Image: Alexander McKenzie, Day Landing, 2008. Oil on linen. 137 x 197 cm. Martin Browne Fine Art

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