Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

The Seventeenth-Century Sublime: Boileau and Poussin

This article summarises the key concerns of Pseudo-Longinus’s On the Sublime, and considers their interest for one of the most influential translators of the treatise, Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711). Boileau’s translation of the ancient Greek text is situated in the context of seventeenth-century French literature, looking particularly at the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns and seeking to explain why modern criticism has taken Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) as the sublime painter par excellence.

The poet Anne Carson has described the sublime as a ‘documentary technique’.1 Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime (Peri hupsous) is defined, she writes, by the way he chooses ‘to loot someone else’s life or sentences’ in a constant process of documentation through quotation:

What is a quote? A quote (cognate with quota) is a cut, a section, a slice
of someone else’s orange. You suck the slice, toss the rind, skate away. Part
of what you enjoy in a documentary technique is the sense of banditry.
To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of
view, which is called ‘objective’ because you can make anything into an
object by treating it in this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who
controls the danger.2

Here I shall consider Longinus’s text, its quotations, their dangers and their significance in the context of French art and literature. My main focus will be on Nicolas Boileau (1636–1711), who makes an appearance in most histories of the sublime as the author of an influential 1674 translation of Peri hupsous, or On the Sublime.

If we are to believe Boileau, the influence of his translation is inversely proportional to the effort he spent on it. He says confidently that he dashed it off in ‘quelques-unes de mes veilles’, or in a few evenings.3 Even if he did not spend much time on his translation, Boileau certainly understood its importance: when he came to publish his collected works, he singled out the treatise for particular attention, giving his work the title Œuvres diverses, avec le Traité du Sublime ou du merveilleux dans le discours, traduit du grec de Longin. Boileau’s preoccupation with Longinus stamps itself upon the volume.

Boileau states in his introduction to the Œuvres diverses, in a further display of self-confidence, that the treatise had been properly understood only by ‘un très petit nombre de savants’ (‘by a very small number of scholars’).4 In fact, Longinus’s treatise had been fairly widely distributed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. From about 1554, the Peri hupsous had been published and paraphrased and commented upon, in various Greek and Latin editions, in the early-modern republic of letters. There had also been an Italian translation in 1575, and an English translation in 1652, brought out by John Hall of Oxford.5 An anonymous manuscript translation was completed in the middle decades of the seventeenth century.6 We know from seventeenth-century catalogues of the most prestigious French libraries that several copies of Longinus were available in each.

What Boileau is getting at with his comment that nobody had really understood Longinus is a confusion of the Longinian sublime with a discussion of ‘sublime style’. In the tradition of Cicero’s or Quintilian’s rhetoric of stylistic gradation, the sublime style is characterised by complex figurative language, and thereby contrasted with the mediocre and the low styles.7 The Longinian sublime is not to be associated with this fancy figurative language; indeed, it is sometimes identified with the simplest of words. Boileau dismisses those who ‘chercheront le Sublime dans le Sublime’ (‘who look for the sublime in the sublime’), meaning by this tautological expression that one should not look for the Longinian kind of sublime in the sublime style.8 So what is this Longinian kind of sublimity? Boileau defines it as ‘cet extraordinaire et ce merveilleux qui frape dans le discours, et qui fait qu’un ouvrage enleve, ravit, transporte’ (‘the extraordinary and the marvellous which can strike us in discourse, making a work lift us up, ravish us, transport us’).9 The sublime is the well communicated. It is a ‘je ne sais quoi qu’on peut beaucoup mieux sentir que dire’ (‘a “je ne sais quoi” that it is easier to feel than speak about’).10 Some of the language we come across, by reading other people or by listening to them, transports us. It can seem to anticipate an intimacy with us or to require a response from us; it occupies us and involves us. So sublimity here is tied to discourse, language. We are dealing with what some later commentators have referred to as the rhetorical sublime.11

Longinus’s overwhelming preoccupation, described beautifully by Boileau in one of his reflections on the sublime, is with ‘la petitesse energique des paroles’ (‘the energetic smallness of words’).12 Energy always carries a sense of transference: it has to be transferred, reassigned as work done to or upon another person or object, or else it is lost as entropy. Longinian sublimity carries this sense of transference too. The ‘sublime’ of the treatise’s title is always an encounter. In Boileau’s reading of Longinus, language is sublime when it gives us, as readers or listeners, such a deep understanding of what its author communicates that the words seem somehow to have come from within ourselves. So, for Boileau, Longinus raises the absorbing matter of self-absorption: how we can be met in a moment of communication, and how this leaves us to view ourselves and the world around us in a new light.

Longinus’s paraphrases of sublime experience, as these comments already suggest, show that moment to be related to the intellectual structures of its participants – authors, readers, speakers, listeners – as well as to the language they use. There is a complex relationship between the world described in a sublime text, the words used to describe it by an author, and the minds which receive it. Longinus therefore quotes constantly. He gives many examples of texts which have affected him powerfully, in the interests of analysing what makes them work on him in this way. One important example he gives is a version of the passage near the beginning of Genesis generally known as the Fiat Lux:  ‘God said – what? “let there be light”, and there was light, “let there be earth”, and there was earth.’13 This passage, so Longinus’s theory goes, gives the reader an absolute and immediate understanding of the qualities of the divine being conceived and portrayed by the author. Thus, the utterance is not just great, noble or elevated (although it may be seen to be all of these things too). It is sublime: characterised by ‘hupsous’ or sublimity because of its author’s successful communication. The fact that the Christian God’s power is communicated in the Fiat Lux (or that the communicator is inspired by God) is secondary here (the analogy in Peri hupsous is with Homer’s depiction of Poseidon, Longinus, 9.8). Furthermore, the association of sublimity and divinity can be overstated in discussions of Peri hupsous: Longinus spends a lot more time discussing Sappho’s glimpse of another woman, for instance, than he does on God. We understand with this example, though, that simple, everyday language can produce the revelatory, transformative experiences with which Longinus is concerned.

Another fertile source of Longinus’s examples comes with Homer’s recounting of lives threatened in battle or at sea. In the Iliad Homer himself seems to enter into the fray at Troy: ‘The battle is blown along by the force of Homer’s writing, and he himself [says Longinus, quoting the Iliad] “stormily raves, as the spear-wielding War-god, or Fire, the destroyer”’ (Longinus, 9.11).14   In a further example taken from the Iliad in 10.6, Homer ‘has tortured his language into conformity with the impending disaster, magnificently figured the disaster by the compression of his language, and almost stamped on the diction the precise form of the danger.’ Syntagms (grammatical structures) and synapses (the structures of the brain) spark off each other in Longinus’s analysis of Homer’s text. Both author and reader seem to participate in the storm. Euripides similarly seems to join Phaethon in his chariot (‘Would you not say that the writer’s soul is aboard the car, and takes wing to share the horses’ peril?’ [Longinus, 15.4]). To write sublimely about heroic adventure, then, an author must seem to participate fully in the dangers portrayed in his or her text.

As an aside, we might note that there are intermittent faults which would cause the sublime to short-circuit. Authorial defects which would prevent a sublime moment taking place include the spectre of plenitude that is bombast or tumidity: ‘tumours’, we are told, ‘are bad things whether in books or bodies’ (Longinus, 3.3). They include puerility: ‘the exact opposite of grandeur’, ‘an idea born in the classroom, whose over-elaboration ends in frigid failure’ (Longinus, 3.4). And they include false sentiment (‘what Theodorus used to call the pseudo-bacchanalian’): ‘emotion misplaced and pointless where none is needed’, or ‘unrestrained where restraint is required’ (Iliad, 3.5). The refrain which Longinus modulates with these examples points to sublimity as the experience of encounter: as an interpersonal, transactional moment. The sublime cannot survive indifference catalysed by boredom or confusion.

If the sublime pertains to discourse, one can nonetheless find powerful analogies for the experience of being moved by words. One such analogy might be the way that natural phenomena can affect us; another might be music. In chapter 35, Longinus contrasts ‘small streams, clear and useful as they are’ with ‘the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine and above all the Ocean’, and ‘the little fire we kindle for ourselves’ with ‘the craters of Etna in eruption’ (Longinus, 35.4). But his point here merely concerns the force of the unusual: ‘On all such matters I would say only this, that what is useful or necessary is easily obtained by man; it is always the unusual which wins our wonder’ (my emphases, Longinus, 35.4). Music and powerful natural phenomena are analogies for, rather than examples of, the sublime, which pertains to discourse (discourse can itself make forceful or sublime use of metaphors and analogies sourced from the natural world). These references to grandeur in nature ‘furnish an authority in Longinus’s text itself for later theories that find instances of the sublime in the natural world’.15 They also facilitate a school of criticism that sees Nicolas Poussin’s landscapes, and his depictions of tempests, floods and storms, as sublime, as I shall discuss in more detail later.

Longinus, though, writes about words. He cites and he writes about citing. This is significant in the context of the intellectual output of the French seventeenth century, which came to be characterised by what was called a ‘nouvelle methode de raisonner’16 – a new way of reasoning – according to which each individual should come to self-evident conclusions about the world around them, by starting with clear and distinct ideas that they have deduced for themselves. We are moving in the area here of Descartes and his theory of mind, and the emergence of ideas of the individual conscious subject. To subordinate oneself to the thoughts of others is to devalue the reasoning self which should be conscious of its own functioning. Quotation should be rejected as a mode of utterance. Cartesian thought stands for critical independence; the whole notion of quoting other people is an outmoded way of thinking. Longinus stands for everything bad about Ancient thinking: his treatise is unruly, fragmentary, contradictory, complex.

One of the most important ways in which Longinus’s treatise relates to seventeenth-century thought is in its contribution to the episode in literary history known as the Quarrel of the Ancients and Moderns. The two chief participants in the quarrel were Boileau and his contemporary Charles Perrault. The latter set things off with a reading of his poem, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (The Century of Louis the Great), at the Académie française. Charles Perrault, unlike Boileau, was a ‘Modern’. He contended that Moderns were superior to Ancients in most respects because they had the benefit of standing on the shoulders of their predecessors. He espoused a ‘Modern’ model of a progressively linear development culminating in the seventeenth century of ‘Louis le Grand’. The ‘Ancients’ are seen by the ‘Moderns’ as demanding a return to the classics, and as tracing out a trajectory, in their reading and thinking, which is more or less cyclical: a continuous movement from the present to the past and back again. Homer in particular – the source of many of Longinus’s examples of the sublime, as we have seen – could not simply be venerated without criticism because he contained many defects and had been improved upon in subsequent French literature. The quarrel was played out in writing, too, with the publication of Perrault’s Parallel of the Ancients and the Moderns and of Boileau’s Critical Reflections on Some Passages from Longinus.17

One of Charles Perrault’s chief criticisms contains Homer’s use of metaphor, as we see from Boileau’s seventh ‘critical reflection’. Homer’s metaphors are too stretched, the distance between the two points of the comparison too great. Think of Homer’s comparison as a dress, says Perrault: the train of the dress is too long. But then he modifies the terms of his criticism. It is not the length of the train that is the problem (a princess, he admits, would have a very long train on her dress); it is that the train of the dress is made from a different fabric from that of the dress itself. The two points of Homer’s comparison are made of entirely different material. Perrault is comparing metaphors to dresses. ‘Quel rapport’, asks Boileau in response, ‘ont les comparaisons à des princesses’?18 What have comparisons got to do with princesses, and what does metaphor have to do with fashion design? Perrault is doing exactly what he accuses Homer of doing: he is making extravagant comparisons. In any case, says Boileau (who is wondering why he is having the conversation in the first place), fashions are so fickle that one could certainly imagine a day when it might be highly desirable to have a dress with a train made from a different fabric from that of the body. Boileau succeeds impatiently in making Perrault look ridiculous; and he succeeds in turning Perrault’s own accusations (a lack of understanding of rhetoric in Homer) against him. The point is that Perrault aims to circumscribe the domain of rhetoric, to bring to bear rules and regulations. But successful, powerful, moving rhetoric goes beyond rhetorical rules and regulations, as Longinus tells us. One cannot fix metaphor, just as one cannot fix the sublime, within a single frame of reference or regulation. Longinus’s documentary technique does not just tell us about the sublime; he shows us with his examples. Boileau’s criticism of Perrault is not just that the latter fails at classical scholarship, but that his pedantic discourse makes him incapable of understanding the sublime. His censorious, rule-bound attitude cannot cope with the ineffability of the sublime.

Accompanying a discourse of clear and distinct ideas, explanation, and rationalism, we find in the French seventeenth century a discourse of ineffability, of affect, of the sublime. This has been of interest to those literary and historical critics who have sought to redefine a ‘classicism’ which had been associated only with Aristotelian method and the paradigms of axiomatic thinking, as it was for example in René Bray’s La Formation de la doctrine classique of 1927. Classicism comprises exaltation as well as explanation, transcendance as well as rationalism. It embraces a preoccupation with what can be felt as well as a preoccupation with the paradigms of axiomatic thinking. Emotive effort and the entire related semantic field of the inexpressible, the ineffable, the intuitive, the affective and so on can be integrated into critical accounts of classical literature.19

As a result of the way that the inexplicable and affective clash with the attempt to explain and rationalise these, the seventeenth-century work I have been discussing can be integrated into a long line of criticism on the sublime. This conceptual clash, so important in the seventeenth century and in the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns, might be seen to be of interest in relation to Kant’s work, when he looks at the aesthetic consequences of the interplay between our sensory reception of formless and limitless phenomena in the natural world and our rational comprehension of these.20 It might similarly be juxtaposed with the thinking of the modern philosopher Lyotard, who, in his writing on the avant-garde, makes the sublime a ‘sentiment’, a sensation of shock upon being confronted with an art object (such as the paintings of the American artist Barnett Newman) that neither bends itself to models nor testifies to reality.21 In thinking about the sublime, sentiment clashes with the adequacy of discourse to that sentiment, which makes the subject particularly attractive to the poststructural discourse of representation and semiology. The term ‘sublime’ itself, in as much as it refers to an affective moment, is a citation of impossibility, reminding us of the shortfalls and rootless repetitions of a language which aims to evaluate or symbolise: ‘The Longinian sublime is […] an event, a force of enunciation as coming to act, which, as such, can never be represented, was never present, because of the blinding force of its effect, which acts as a dissimulation or a withdrawal.’22 Paul de Man, writing on Kant, succinctly has the sublime ‘determined by linguistic structures which are not within the author’s control’.23 This clash between experience, vision, choice on the one hand and the constrictions of language and society on the other haunts poststructural concerns with representation. 24

For the key poststructuralist critic Louis Marin, what is of interest in Boileau’s reference, cited earlier, to a ‘je ne scay quoy qu’on peut beaucoup mieux sentir que dire’ (a “je ne sais quoi” that it is easier to feel than speak about’)25 is precisely the writer’s inability to describe sublime affect in terms other than the irretrievably periphrastic.26 The ‘je ne sais quoi’, emblematic of sublime experience, can only therefore be read in its literal sense: that which cannot be known. Sublimity can never transcend, but only repeat and sustain, scepticism. Sublimity as sublimity is a ‘je ne sais quoi’; sublimity as scepticism is an ‘I don’t know’. Boileau’s interest in sublimity reveals a knowing kind of alienation, an awareness of the inadequacy of discourse.

For Marin, the sublime painter ‘par excellence’ is Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665). There are two reasons for this. The first is the subject matter of his work: Poussin is particularly talented at portraying the storms and the tempests which provide Longinus with an analogy for sublime experience and which become, in later theories of sublimity, the catalyst for that experience.27 The second reason for Marin’s interest in Poussin is that the latter is a philosopher-artist whose writing about painting, says Marin, successfully questions the limits of representation. As Poussin writes in a 1651 letter, ‘J’ai essayé de représenter une tempête sur terre, imitant le mieux que j’ai pu l’effet d’un vent impetueux, d’un air rempli d’obscurité, de pluie, d’eclairs et de foudres qui tombent en plusieurs endroits’ (‘I tried to portray a tempest, and I imitated the best I could the effects of a sudden, headlong wind, a darkened sky, rain, lightning and thunder striking the earth’).28   Poussin’s obsession is with representing the unrepresentable. Take his Les Bergers d’Arcadie, a painting which Marin analyses extensively. The shepherds of the title gather around a simple tombstone inscribed with the words ‘Et in Arcadia ego’ (‘Even in Arcadia, I exist’). The tombstone represents death and utopia – which are, of course, never available to lived human experience in any form other than symbolic representations.29 Poussin’s display of the tomb and its inscription draws attention to the way that death and utopia are only perceptible to us in the form of the signs that represent them. He paints the process of representation itself. Thus, Poussin’s paintings are sublime, according to Marin, but his writing about them further ‘sublimes’ his paintings by theorising in ways which chime with the concerns of Longinus.

The critical focus on death and utopia in this poststructural discourse of the ‘representation of unrepresentability’ omits a sense, crucial in Longinus, that the sublime has its origin and source in the myriad details of everyday life. For Longinus, the Odyssey is less sublime than the Iliad, because, in this later text, no longer ‘does [Homer] preserve the sustained energy of the great Iliad lays, the consistent sublimity which never sinks into flatness, the flood of moving incidents in quick succession, the versatile rapidity and actuality, dense with images drawn from real life’ (Longinus, 9.13). Longinus’s treatise, as Anne Carson points out with her reference to its ‘documentary technique’, is ‘dense with images drawn from real life.’ The dangers at sea are fairly banal for a sailor; Sappho’s subject is just a woman in conversation with a man. Poussin’s floods and storms are populated: these too deal not just in the ineffability of the storm or the landscape but also in the lives lived within them. (‘What are these miniature figures in Poussin about?’ asks T.J. Clark in The Sight of Death. ‘Why do they come and go in perception? Why, once seen, do they matter so much?’30 ). Poussin tackles ‘versatile rapidity and actuality’. We might in some senses be taken out of our world in the ineffability of the sublime moment, but we are also forced to grapple with action and interaction. As Longinus, Poussin and Boileau all teach us, the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of the sublime makes us view the world afresh.

See also