Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

The Sublime Plurality of Worlds: Lucretius in the Eighteenth Century

Anne Janowitz

This paper discusses Lucretian themes in the idea of a ‘cosmic sublime’ in the context of the discourse of the night sky at the end of the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century

Thomas Wright An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe 1750 Plate XXVII

Fig.1 Thomas Wright
An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe 1750
Lithograph and photographic collage on paper
By permission of the British Library (49 E 15)

This paper addresses the meaning and features of the sublime before Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime of 1757.1 Burke’s treatise codified for at least a century and a half the range of both objects and ideas to which an analysis of the sublime might be directed and the feelings that its apprehension was expected to arouse. The sublime before Burke is a less defined but more capacious and intellectually challenging category than its later history might suggest, and the presence of sublime effects in the discourses of rhetoric, religion, cosmology, astronomy, poetry, neo-Platonism, philosophical abstraction, mathematics and visual arts in the periods before disciplinary divisions were in place meant that the sublime was a concept serving a range of purposes in the most disparate of knowledge-producing domains.

While Burke continues to be the most influential British theorist of the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime, the first century treatise by Longinus, Peri Hypsous (‘Of the Sublime’), has been the classical text that writers discuss and claim for their authority. Nonetheless, recent interest in the connections between science and literature has encouraged scholars to look at aspects of the unmanageable mental experiences of awe, immensity, and mathematical infinity that appear in Lucretius’s earlier De Rerum Natura (c.95–55 BC) as a classical authority on the sublime. David Norbrook’s essay in this issue of Tate Papers investigates the impact of a Lucretian sublimity on writers during the English Revolution, and makes a case for Lucretius’s influence on the Miltonic sublime in Paradise Lost. My essay takes up the topic of the sublime before Burke by discussing Lucretian themes in the formulation of a ‘cosmic sublime’ in the context of the discourse of the night sky at the end of the seventeenth century until the publication and subsequent widespread use of Burke’s treatise.

What draws the modern scholar to view Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura as a sublime text may, in the first instance, be the result of Burke’s own indebtedness to Lucretius, for the Epicurean theme of this philosophical poem on the order of things, is the making and unmaking of worlds which, Lucretius argues, occurs out of the random coalescence and subsequent disintegration of minute particles in the infinite emptiness of the universe – the void. The vastness of the void and the infinitesimal tininess of what Lucretius calls the ‘seeds’ of the world together produce all that is the ceaselessly moving ‘measureless universe’ (omne immensum, I.74).2

Here is the echo in Burke’s Enquiry:

GREATNESS of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime. This is too evident, and the observation too common, to need any illustration … However, it may not be amiss to add to these remarks upon magnitude, that, as the great extreme of dimension is sublime, so the last extreme of littleness is in some measure sublime likewise: when we attend to the infinite divisibility of matter, when we pursue animal life into these excessively small, and yet organised beings, that escape the nicest inquisition of the sense; when we push our discoveries yet downward, and consider those creatures so many degrees yet smaller, and the still diminishing scale of existence, in tracing which the imagination is lost as well as the sense; we become amazed and confounded at the wonders of minuteness; nor can we distinguish in its effects this extreme of littleness from the vast itself.3

The classical scholar James E. Porter has made the case for considering Lucretius and Longinus as writers in a tradition of sublimity that predates both of them. Porter gives examples of images repeated by both classical sources and he conjectures that, given the images of torrents and floods and massiveness and terror that accumulate throughout classical literature, it would be surprising indeed if there had been no prior critical consciousness of the rhetoric of ‘greatness’ as both an elevated style and a collection of commonplaces of natural elevation.4 Even more recently, Philip Hardie has shown beyond doubt that Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura had a profound influence on the sublime images used in poetry by Ovid, Virgil, and Horace.5 

Perhaps Lucretius’s most conceptually overwhelming trope is that of the plurality of worlds. Assuming that he has already proven that, ‘in the universe there is nothing single, nothing born unique and growing unique and alone’ (II, 1077–8), Lucretius goes on to say, ‘You must therefore confess that sky and earth and sun, moon, sea, and all else that exists are not unique, but rather of number numberless (non esse unica, sed numero magis innumerali)’ (II, 1084–6). The universe is wider and deeper and higher than we can imagine, and there must be an infinite number of worlds beyond our own. The plurality of worlds is an image often invoked in subsequent poems of the night sky, a concept that requires the mind to consider multiplicity and vastness, and a metaphorical commonplace that is very often found in conjunction with the poetic imagery of the mind launching itself into space, propelled out beyond the flamantia moenia mundi, the flaming walls of the world (I, 73). This combination of the plurality of worlds and the mind breaking through the boundaries of our world – a repeated topos of English ‘nocturnes’ and ‘philosophic poems’ – became a frequent metaphor in the eighteenth century for the experience of thinking about the vastness, infinitude, and unencompassability of outer space.6 One of the important and pre-disciplinary aspects of this commonplace of the plurality of worlds is that it requires us to consider what it means to have a mental conceptualisation prior to a sensation; in particular, prior to vision.

In the most popular pre-Newtonian book on the subject, the 1686 Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds, Bernard de Fontenelle wittily expresses this relationship: ‘All philosophy … is based on two things only: curiosity and bad eyesight; if you had better eyesight you could see perfectly well whether or not these stars are solar systems, and if you were less curious you wouldn’t care about knowing, which amounts to the same thing. The trouble is, we want to know more than we can see’.7

The question in classical philosophy of whether or not there is a plurality of worlds had been a topic of cosmology since Democritus in the fifth century BC.  Michael Crowe, who has written on what he calls the ‘extraterrestrial life debate’ provides a précis of how atomism entails the idea of an infinity of possible worlds: ‘Other worlds must exist because some of the chance conglomerations of infinite atoms in an infinite universe must form worlds, all things being possible’.8 The atomist/many worlds discussion is continued and expanded by Epicurus in the third century BC, and its early exponent in the first century BC, Lucretius, used his poetic vocation to bring Epicureanism to his contemporary milieu. Henceforth, there is a link between poetry and this cosmological interest. And as twentieth- and twenty-first-century cosmology and physics have come to agree with many of Lucretius’s speculations, a revived research interest in Lucretius has taken off in a number of different disciplines, including classics, history of science, and literary studies. Not only has Philip Hardie demonstrated the impact of De Rerum Natura on Horace’s Odes, but David Sedley has recently argued that atomism was an important ingredient in the early first-century intellectual argument about ‘creationism,’ and that Epicurean atomism was activated as an anti-creationist polemic aimed at Socrates and Plato.9

Atomism and the figure of the plurality of worlds comprise the conceptual centre of De Rerum Natura. The universal particles, which Lucretius variously calls ‘seeds of things’, ‘beginnings of things,’ and ‘primary materials’, are always in movement, colliding, heaping up and wearing down. The universe of worlds is always in movement, always becoming, being and decaying. The universe is built from these roughly uniform ‘seeds’ indivisible in themselves but coalescing into planets, moons, and all the objects in space. And these formations were, Lucretius argued, brought into being as chance events, with the atoms accruing substance by virtue of random occasions and constant motion in which the expected straight downward movement of atoms in a void went a bit awry, producing a slight adjustment in speed and direction – Lucretius calls this the clinamen, or ‘swerve’. The atoms are in constant motion because they are both falling through their own weight and bumping into each other:  sometimes, he says, for no particular reason and in no particular places they ‘push a little from their path; yet only just the tiniest amount’ (II, 219–220). When Lucretius’s work was rediscovered and published in 1473, it served the literate world as a central document of Epicurean cosmology and proto-physics.

The issue of possible worlds becomes a vibrant poetic trope with the dissemination of Newton’s theory of gravity and his grounding of natural philosophy in a universe also made of atoms and void, to which he added the even more mysterious idea of invisible ‘forces’, though such forces are absolutely necessary to Newton’s theory; principally, the force of gravity.

In the Newtonian order of things the idea of the plurality of worlds became a screen on which to show the universal explanatory force of gravitation.  For example, in 1720, the poet John Hughes invites Newton to act as his guide through space, taking him to visit orb after orb of molten gold, while also taking measurements of the speed of comets, as they ‘now descry Light’s Fountain-Head, /And measure its descending Speed.’10 Hughes assures the reader that according to Newton, this immensity can be quantified as well as well as experienced, even though the technical vocabulary clangs on our ears.

The image of the plurality of worlds exemplified what Joseph Addison would have recognised as the cosmic sublime, a concept that shared, as yet not quite distinctly, the languages of both aesthetics and Christian providentialism. In his journal The Spectator, which was read by much of the educated public, Addison presents this concept in one long sublime passage:

When we survey the whole Earth at once, and the several Planets that lie within its Neighbourhood, we are filled with a pleasing Astonishment, to see so many Worlds hanging one above another, and sliding round their Axles in such an amazing Pomp and Solemnity. If, after this, we contemplate those wide Fields of Ether, that reach in height as far as from Saturn to the fixt Stars, and run abroad almost to an Infinitude, our Imagination finds its Capacity filled with so immense a Prospect, and puts itself upon the stretch to comprehend it.  But if we rise yet higher, and consider the fixt Stars as so many vast Oceans of Flame, that are each of them attended with a different Sett of Planets, and still discover new Firmaments and new lights, that are sunk farther in those unfathomable Depths of Ether, so as not to be seen by the strongest of our Telescopes, we are lost in such a labyrinth of Suns and Worlds, and are confounded with the Immensity and Magnificence of Nature.
(No. 420, 2 July 1712)

Eye, telescope, and imagination can just about totalise the sweep from our solar system to the expanse of stars outside it, but when the mind considers the immensity of the universe, it becomes unmoored, so that ‘we are lost’ and ‘confounded’. The progress from sight to imagination to being ‘halted’ in the attempt to comprehend the infinity of worlds is a common feature of the trope.  Here, for example, Edward Young in Night Thoughts (1745) reformulates the Addisonian sublime of infinite worlds:

what swarms / Of worlds that laugh at earth! Immensely great! / Immensely distant from each other’s spheres! / What, then, the wondrous space through which they roll? / At once it quite engulfs all human thought; / ’Tis comprehension’s absolute defeat.11


The excitement of the Addisonian sublime was that it invited the reader or watcher of skies to experience a deep pleasure in probing the limits of reason rather than its foundations. And, at least as far as the polite reader of the eighteenth century was concerned the founding moment of this commonplace had been Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura. There was much to engage the interest of a reader of Lucretius in the age of Newton: the six book poem was by turns applauded for its presentation of a mode of classical thought, and reprehended for its promotion of ‘atheism’ – honoured for its rhetoric and reviled for its refusal of any providential theory of the universe.  For Lucretius argued that the gods were busy enjoying themselves on their clouds, and were not in the least interested in doing anything but staying put, and that fear of the gods was really just human ignorance about the truth of the state of the universe. Adam Smith will later make a very similar claim in his essay on astronomy, but in his case it will be to argue that the ‘cosmic sublime’ is itself a matter of ignorance, and he surprisingly asserts that natural philosophy exists to cure the diseases of the imagination.12 Lucretius’s many worlds argument not only addressed itself to space but to time as well, something crucial to Newton and adumbrating the space-time dimension of early twentieth-century physics.

At the same time, the Lucretian theory of atoms and void underwrote another critical aspect of Newton’s theory; that is, universality itself. Although we may need reminding of this, Newton’s theory demonstrated that the same forces are at work in the heavens as are at work on the earth. This meant, in the first place, that the idea that there were two levels of the system of the world (the sphere beneath the moon – the sublunary – and those spheres above it –  and the heavens) was now no longer tenable, and in effect, the Aristotelian version of spheres lost the last of its purchase on natural philosophy. This universality of the forces at work also meant Newton’s formulation itself invited the mind to conceive of other worlds, other universes. Not only did Newtonianism teach that what you see is not what you get – what looks like the sun orbiting the earth is a misapprehension – but that to assimilate or totalise the immensity of what Lucretius calls the ‘the universal whole’ we need to keep a mental concept in play that will totalise what we cannot see. This is, in effect, the claim for the working of the ‘mathematical sublime’ announced by Immanuel Kant later in the eighteenth century. Our mind, Kant argues, while not being able to take all the cosmic information in, nonetheless can produce an idea of what it would be like to comprehend completely. This meta-thought, he argues, demonstrates the superiority of abstract conceptualization to sensation-derived image-making.13

Lucretian poetics and English poetic traditions

Having outlined some of the thematic issues of the plurality of worlds concepts, I want now to turn to some of the poetic features of the Lucretian poem. In the ‘Proem’ to book one of De Rerum Natura Lucretius gathers up his poetic strength by praising his own classical authority, Epicurus (341–270 BC) the ‘first among the Greeks’ writes Lucretius, to bring comprehensive knowledge of the universe to man. (I.66) And Epicurus, we are told, was the first to make a stand again the reign of religious superstition. Epicurus ‘raises his mortal eyes to withstand’ the thunderbolts and roaring noises and fables that superstition throws at him, but the force of these physical torments and the anti-knowledge disseminated through the fantasies of the gullible, only goad Epicurus’ courage. His physical effort to break through the barriers of nature becomes a courageous mental journey, in which he goes beyond the flaming walls of the world and traverses the immeasurable universe – the universal ALL – with the power of his mind. It is a marvelous moment, when the language of place becomes that of intellectual achievement. It is the lively force of his mind (vivida vis animi pervicit) (I,72) that allows him to press on past the fiery walls of this world (flammantia moenia mundi) (I,74). A literary metaphor thus becomes a Möbius strip, two separate planes, yet only one surface.

The classicist David Furley has shown that this passage also conveys Lucretius’s sense of belonging to a tradition of such ‘first humans’, and that it echoes Empedocles’ claim that Pythagoras was ten generations ahead of the rest of humanity in knowledge, as well as Aristotle’s claim that Thales was the first man to understand the cosmos.14 So the convention of the man who initiates the knowledge of the secrets of nature was itself a topic in play and would have been recognizable by Lucretius’s audience in the first century BC

These ancient philosophers, Pythagoras, Empedocles, and Thales were also of great interest to Newton. In the past fifty years, as Newton’s vast accumulation of manuscript pages have begun to be examined with scholarly rigour, a manuscript that Newton had intended as interpretive explanations for some of the central propositions of the third book of the Philospohiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (‘The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’) has come to light. These are the propositions that Newton calls, ‘The System of the World’ and they present the results of his investigations as a universal theory of gravitation. In Book I of the Principia, Newton considers the movements of bodies in an abstract space, without any resistance, and demonstrates them to be a set of mathematical expressions. In Book II, he discusses motions of bodies that encounter resistance, such as objects moving through water, or other fluids. And in Book III, Newton speculatively extrapolates from his mathematical physics by drawing on the archive of astronomical observations made by mariners, travelers, astrologers and astronomers such as the Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, and theorises ‘The System of the World’. Newton brings the reader to the point of the project by presenting gravity as the principle of universal coherence, and in a brilliant closing flourish, he offers an explanation for what are apparently the most mysterious of cosmic phenomena: the movements and meaning of comets.

The discovery of the excluded manuscript scholia show that Newton considered Lucretius a worthy shoulder to stand on. This was not entirely news, since Newton’s young acolyte, David Gregory, had written a redaction of these materials in the preface to his 1702 presentation of Newtonianism, translated in 1715 into English, in which he drew on the excluded scholia: ‘He [Newton] will spread himself in exhibiting the agreement of this philosophy with that of the ancients. The philosophy of Epicurus and Lucretius is true and old, but was wrongly interpreted by the ancients as atheism’.15 Paolo Casini’s 1984 publication of the scholia themselves movingly reveals the depth of Newton’s sense of debt to the ancients.16 Newton quotes passages from De Rerum Natura that to him demonstrate that Lucretius had in fact already formulated the theory of gravity, and that Newton was merely re-stating it. In his appeal to classical authority he cites Lucretius ex mente (‘out of the mind of’) Epicurus, Epicurus out of the mind of Democritus and the other ancients. One can feel the strength of his desire that the theory of gravitation should always already have been discovered earlier, by the ancients, as if that makes the case stronger and that gravity has always been the universal salve. Newton elevates himself by delivering himself as the agent of Lucretius for the mental cosmonauts of the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.17 Newton doesn’t see the earlier text as being out of date, but of a piece with knowledge which has been known for centuries. There is something startling and important about this way of seeing discovery and innovation: for Newton it is not predicated on chronological priority.18

We might also think of Newton’s embracing of Lucretius and his exclusion of the scholia as an important moment for the differentiation of texts and the production of disciplines. As one of Newton’s most scrupulous interpreters, I.B. Cohen, has argued convincingly, Newton’s decision to leave those issues that enthralled him – the nature of Christianity and its corruptions; the tradition of ancients; the providence of God – enabled him to invent a method without history or religion. This was to become the model of modern method, however invisibly secured by those changing discourses of religion, natural philosophy, and history.19

But in the 1720s, the commonplace of the philosopher-enlightener voyaging into the unknown (figured as the plurality of worlds) would have been recognisable, and it is not surprising that both Edmond Halley and James Thomson in their own  philosophic poetic homages to Newton borrowed Lucretius’s topos. Halley’s Latin hexameters which preface Newton’s Principia may borrow directly from the Proem to De Rerum Natura, but Halley disarms the notion of Lucretius’ insouciant gods by shifting the tone from a polemical attack against religion to the benignity of the methods of natural philosophy: ‘No longer does error oppress doubtful mankind with its darkness: the / keenness of a sublime Intellect has allowed us to penetrate the dwellings of the Gods and to scale the heights of Heaven’.20 Halley smoothes over Epicurus’ defeat of the gods by having Newton, rather, visit and survey the heavens. Halley, like Lucretius in his evocation of Epicurus, points to the features of the sublime – literally rising up to the boundaries, but then moving further outward through Newton’s mental power. Newton replaces Epicurus who replaces Pythagoras. Eighteenth-century space – now permanently freed of any barriers in space – is increasingly populated with a host of mental travellers, whose origins owe much to this Lucretian formulation of breaking through the walls of world as an ambiguously physical and mental journey. James Thompson’s poem on Newton, for example, also uses the trope:

[Newton] took his ardent Flight
Thro’ the blue infinite; and every Star… at his approach
Blazed into Suns, the living Centre each
Of an harmonious System: all combined,
And rul’d unerring by that single Power,
Which draws the Stone projected to the ground.21

In this example, we come dangerously close to freethinking: not only does Newton activate a plurality of worlds, but Thomson comes very near to claiming that Gravity and God are the same ‘single Power’.

In fact, the version of Lucretius that the polite reader in Britain would have had to hand was the translation by Thomas Creech, which went through three editions between 1682–3. But in the later editions, beginning in 1714, Creech’s translation was made to serve a growing consensus ideology of Newtonian providentialism, and so the text was augmented by voluminous notes, thick with explanations and annotations (lately attributed to the scholar John Digby), and arguments attempting to reward Lucretius’ atomism and his poetic skill, and undermine his dismissive view of the gods, either by disproving his atheism or when there was no choice, disapproving of it.22 Creech’s translation of Epicurus’s break through into outer space is, in fact, rather humanist, turning Epicurus’  ‘shattering’ of the privileges of the gods into ‘asserting the nat’ral Liberty of Man’.23

It was not just the mental breakthrough figure that carried Newton as Epicurus into the realm of the cosmic sublime. For the Lucretian poetic form, through Creech’s editions, shaped the genre of the eighteenth-century ‘philosophic poem’, which as often as not was a criticism of Lucretius’s atheism. So, for example, Richard Blackmore’s The Creation uses the new convention of a ‘philosophic poem’ to write an Intelligent Design sermon. David Mallet, in his The Excursion of 1728, considering an infinite cosmic space, first expands into the exhilarating infinite: ‘Ten thousand Suns blaze forth; each with his Train /Of peopled Worlds’ and then immediately contracts [repeat lines from ‘Ten thousand’] ‘Beneath the Eye, / And sovereign Rule of one eternal Lord’.24 Thirty years later, the commonplace is still repeated in the same form in poems sent in to the Gentleman’s Magazine: ‘Worlds beyond worlds, beyond where thought can trace, Stupendious! Fill th’immensity of space / Beyond all worlds, past stretch of seraph’s mind /God reigns supreme, immortal, unconfin’d’.25

The English nocturne

To conclude this discussion of Lucretius’s plurality of worlds in the eighteenth century, I want to consider a second kind of poem from the period, the nocturne. This is a distinct tradition from what will become the romantic meditative lyric, for it is based in the work of the mind deprived of sensory stimulation.

The figurative substitution of day for night is a frequent opening in the nocturne, the lyric genre of night-time contemplation. The mental journey from night to day-in-night is the vehicle for the assertion of the superiority of abstract thought when it is unburdened by the eye. We might consider the eighteenth-century corpus of nocturnes as the particular instance of this replacement with respect to the longing for knowledge of other worlds. The recurring figure of the mind in meditation under the night sky became a conventional trope for poetry that embraced the aesthetics of the sublime as an attempt to find an appropriate language for meditation on the invisible universe. Unlike libertine anacreontic night poems of pleasures and drink, the nocturne invites the philosophic mind to consider what Henry Vaughan had called God’s ‘deep, but dazzling darkness’.26 Anne Finch’s 1713 A Nocturnal Reverie puts a wanderer in motion in the dark. There is always some landscape that grounds the stellar nocturne, but it is the loss of light that calls into being the ‘calm’ that inspires the Mind to aim towards some high thought that cannot be spoken, only conceived, ‘When a sedate Content the Spirit feels,/And no fierce Light disturbs, whilst it reveals’.

Anna Barbauld’s Summer Evening’s Meditation, which has been taught over the last fifteen years primarily in its relation to its place within Romantic Studies, but which is a significant example of the ‘cosmic journey’ poem, draws on the nocturne convention: the speaker again faces the night as a noon.27 The day’s storm past, the speaker meditates in a darkening landscape, which opens her intellectual imagination: ‘This dead of midnight is the noon of thought, / And wisdom mounts her zenith with the stars’ (ll. 51–52). Once out into the void beyond the solar system, the speaker is accompanied by a reflection in which the mind is capable of asymptotically, as it were, approaching the limits of knowing. Yes, again, the trope is that of the mind launching itself into territories the body cannot know.

A Summer Evening’s Meditation is a nocturne that draws together the sense sublime of the glorious heavens, as well as the stuff of a negative sublime – for at each stretch further into outer space, the speaker is beset by doubts about this expanse – ‘Seiz’d in thought,/ On fancy’s wild and roving wing I sail,/ From the green borders of the peopled earth / And the pale moon, her duteous fair attendant / To the dim verge, the suburbs of the system, / Where cheerless Saturn ‘midst his wat’ry moons / Girt with a lucid zone, in gloomy pomp, / Sits like an exil’d monarch’. But the power of her own curiosity propels the speaker forward:

Here must I stop,
Or is there aught beyond? What hand unseen
Impels me onward thro’ the glowing orbs
Of inhabitable nature; far remote,
To the dread confines of eternal night,
To solitudes of vast unpeopled space,
The desarts of creation, wide and wild;
Where embryo systems and unkindled suns
Sleep in the womb of chaos; fancy droops,
And thought astonish’d halts her bold career.

But ultimately, as in so many philosophic poems, the brave advance of knowledge is followed by a fearful recoil. Providentialism is finally in control:

Let me here
Content and grateful, wait th’ appointed time
And ripen for the skies: the hour will come
When all these splendours bursting on my sight
Shall stand unveil’d, and to my ravish’d sense
Unlock the glories of the world unknown.28 

The courage the speaker has mustered during her contemplation collapses, at the demand of her pious deferral to revelation. Earlier in the poem she claimed that in the presence of the nocturnal heavens she feels the presence within – ‘a spark of fire divine/which must burn on for ages,’ even after the present sun – fair transitory creature of a day – has dissolved, just as Lucretius had theorised. So even though she surrenders to providentialism, the poem hints at the transformation of Lucretian sublimity into romantic Prometheanism in which the bringer of knowledge to mankind is martyred for that access, and self-knowledge takes over the sublime skyscape.

The question of who would be able to equal or surpass the Lucretian poem continued throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Not surprisingly, Samuel Taylor Coleridge takes a last and romantic look at this poetico-philosophical genre. In May 1815, Coleridge writes to Wordsworth, ‘Whatever in Lucretius is Poetry is not philosophical, whatever is philosophical is not Poetry’, and adds with comic and infuriating Coleridgean bombast that he had expected that Wordsworth’s Recluse would be ‘the first and only true Phil. Poem in existence’, but that would remain to be seen.29

Finally, I want to look at two views of the sublime starry night. The first comes from the Cambridge Neo-Platonist, Henry More, from his 1646 philosophical poem, Democritus Platonissans, or, An Essay upon the Infinity of Worlds out of Platonick Principles, in which the poet lays claim to a philosophical genealogy in Democritean atomism and in the immaterials of Neo-Platonism:

Tell me therefore
When you behold with your admiring eyes
Heavens canopie all to be spangled o’re
With sprinkled starres, what can you well devize
Which causen may such carelesse order in the skies?
A peck of peasen rudely poured out
On plaister flore, from hasty heedlesse hond
Which lie all carelesse scattered abot,
To sight do in as seemly order stond,
As those fair glittering lights in heaven are found.
If onely for this world they were intended,
Nature would have adorn’d this azure round
With better art, and easily have mended
This harsh disord’red order, and more beauty lend.
But though these lights do seem so rudely thrown
And scattered throughout the spacious skie,
Yet each most seemly fits in his own Throne
In distance due and comely Majesty;
And round their lordly feats their servants hie
Keeping a well-proportioned space
One from another, doing cheerfully
Their dayly task.30

Henry More, in a procedure that is ubiquitous in later seventeenth-century poems of the night sky, invites us to press beyond a visual image to a mental conceptualisation. What looks like a mess of spilt peas to us from our place somewhere in space is actually an infinite set of organised worlds, in a universe of an infinity of worlds. The second quotation is from Edmund Burke’s 1757 Enquiry into our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime, and occurs as part of his taxonomy of how we feel when we are in the presence of sublime sights. Surprisingly, Burke uses the example of the night sky only once in relation to the sublime and as an example of what he calls the magnificent: ‘A great profusion of things which are splendid or valuable in themselves, is magnificent. The starry heaven, though it occurs so very frequently to our view, never fails to excite an idea of grandeur, for the appearance of care is highly contrary to our ideas of magnificence.’31

More distinguishes between seeing and knowing and suggests that our response to cosmic untidiness is the fault of the ‘despotism of the eye’. The spilt peas image dryly proposes that human vision produces trivial analyses. Moreover, More’s framework of universal coherence – the neo-Platonist’s revision of the Lucretian turbulences of wayward atoms – has been trivialised in Burke’s version into an aristocratic identity between ‘grandeur’ and chic nonchalance.

Burke’s benign sublimity is closer to the rhetorical sublime as an elevation in tone, than to those qualities of  ‘emptiness’, ‘vastness’, ‘darkness’, ‘obscurity’, and ‘infinity’ which are Burke’s central categories  and that can all be marshalled as the subjective experience of the sky at night. And at the same time, the night sky might have seemed to Burke to be a particularly bad place to represent the excessive, untoward, and concurrently scary and exhilarating action of the cosmic sublime. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the night sky may have seemed too obviously the emblem and the instance of modern systematic, Newtonian knowledge, and hence no place for terror. So instead, he addresses himself to earth bound objects, and claims sublimity for sensationalist psychology, rather than for the more sublime idea of reason facing the terrors of the universe through mental fight. He is not as brave as either Epicurus or Anna Barbauld, nor is his sublimity as astounding as Lucretius’s.

Thomas Wright An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe 1750 Plate XXXI

Fig.2 Thomas Wright
An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe 1750
Lithograph and photographic collage on paper
By permission of the British Library (49 E 15)

See also

Tate Papers

Milton, Lucy Hutchinson, and the Lucretian Sublime: The Sublime Object

David Norbrook

Lucretius’s De rerum natura is a neglected source for the emergence of the theory and practice of the sublime ...


The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language

A research project investigating the concept and cultural practice of the sublime in nature, art and language.