From the Sublime to the Romantic

This week’s video is on “sublime”, a word important to the romantic poets, but that also has deep roots in the ancient world and the middle ages:

It was the surprising etymology of sublime that kicked this one off, though the script is drawn in large part from my classroom teaching explaining the sublime and romanticism, as well as the importance of the medieval tradition to the 19th century. And working through this for the video, it seemed to me that there was a useful metaphorical connection to the idea of looking up, in both the sublime and in the gothic cathedrals of the high middle ages. Another important theme here is the drive to differentiate oneself from what went before. Most cultural movements do this sort of thing one way or another, and again there were various parallels there. Also, the ongoing language peeving today is useful to keep in mind in this context. Language is constantly changing, and current language trends are no different from the transformation from Latin into the romance languages. And finally, since this video was coming out close to Valentine’s Day, it seemed appropriate to look at the later development of the word “romantic” and examine what it also owes to the medieval courtly love tradition. This too involves a kind of “looking up”, with the male lover putting his beloved up on a pedestal and worshipping her in a quasi-religious/feudal way. This is of course profoundly misogynistic as it doesn’t leave her the capacity to be human, but forces a divine status on her which no human can live up to, but perhaps that’s another story. But in any case, this too also owes a debt to the classical world, as this model of love comes not only from the medieval troubadours from the South of France, but also from the Roman poet Ovid, whose works the Ars Amatoria and Amores (themselves, ironically, to a large extent parodying earlier cliches about love!) were very influential to the courtly love tradition. So in a sense, I guess, this counts as my Valentine’s Day video for the year! (You can see last year's Valentine's Day video "Cuckold" here.)

Perhaps the most common way people today hear this word is in the phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous”. The full expression is “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but one step”. The expression seems to derive from The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, the great 18th century English-American thinker and revolutionary (who certainly had an antagonistic relationship with Edmund Burke): “The sublime and the ridiculous are often so nearly related that it is difficult to class them separately. One step above the sublime makes the ridiculous, and one step above the ridiculous makes the sublime again.” Napoleon, one time great hero of the Romantics (until they became disillusioned with him), picked up on Paine and said “Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas” giving us our modern phrase. Again, it’s a question of high and low. 

And in addition to the psychological term subliminal, there are the scientific terms sublimate and sublimation, which are formed from the same Latin sources. Sublimate in chemistry means to change state from a solid directly to a gas, and comes from medieval and early modern alchemical terminology. Sublimation is used in (Freudian) psychological sense to refer to the process of converting an impulse into a more socially acceptable activity. Both of these have the metaphorical sense of raising something up.

In the video I indicated on screen (without going into it in detail) that the word lintel actually has two etymons, limen meaning “threshold, lintel, entrance” and limes meaning “boundary, path” (and also giving us the word “limit”). This is a case of the two similar sounding words coming together to produce the derived word. Interestingly both words seem to come ultimately from the same Latin source, limus “sidelong, askew, askance”, with the idea that limes refers to a cross path bounding two fields. But also interesting is that limen in Latin seems to refer indiscriminately to both the lintel at the top and the sill or threshold at the bottom of a window or door respectively. I already covered the etymology of the word “sill” in the video, but also from a Germanic source is threshold, related to the word thresh and from the Old English verb þrescan “to thresh, beat”, the idea being that a threshold is something you tread on. It comes ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root ‌‌*terə- “to rub, turn”, which has a great many English derivatives.

Jane Austen makes a only brief appearance in this video, but in a lot of ways she touches on a number of the different connections presented in the video. Her novel Northanger Abbey, in addition to satirizing the sentimental and gothic novels, also contains a discussion about aesthetics in which her heroine Catherine Morland learns about the categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque from her love interest Henry Tilney. And the title of Sense and Sensibility makes a pun on the different meanings — sense as in having good sense, and sensibility as in having a strong emotional reaction. And in Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte Lucas agrees to the obsequious Mr Collins, she explains to the surprised Elizabeth Bennet that “I am not romantic, you know; I never was”, though probably in the broader sense of romantic meaning fanciful, sentimental, or idealistic. And it’s important to remember that Jane Austen was writing at the same time as many of those Romantic poets.

As for the Romantics themselves, they weren’t exactly a unified group. Though Goethe and Herder kicked it all off with their Sturm und Drang poetry, they wouldn’t really have thought of themselves as part of the Romantic movement, and in fact later on pulled back from some of their proto-Romantic ideas to what’s referred to as the Weimar classical school, a kind of compromise between Neoclassicism and Romanticism. And as for the English Romantic poets, the second generation (Shelley, Byron, Keats, etc.) though initially being inspired by the earlier (Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge), didn’t always look up to them (see what I did there?). Byron found Wordsworth’s use of everyday language and style to be facile and unsophisticated. That everyday language, by the way was part of Wordsworth’s definition of the ideal poet. He wanted to use the “plainer and more emphatic language” of the common man, but “purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust” (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads). So though the ideal poet is “a man speaking to men”, he qualifies this as “a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind”. Coleridge, who collaborated with Wordsworth on the Lyrical Ballads but had no hand in the Preface, which was added later, called Wordsworth out in his Biographia Literaria for these and other contradictions and inconsistencies, so they didn’t always see eye to eye either. And of course Romanticism doesn’t really end with the Romantic period. In British literature, we’re accustomed to think of the later part of the 19th century as the Victorian period, but many of the elements of Romanticism continue into the later period, such as drawing inspiration from the medieval (think Tennyson, William Morris, and the Pre-Raphaelites), and the distinction isn’t really made anyway in continental Europe.

Another of the elements of Romanticism that’s worth further discussion is their sense of history and time. In addition to the discovery and interest in ruins, as I mentioned in the video, there was an important literary component here. Macpherson began his Ossian forgery by collecting folktales from the Scottish Highlands, much as the Brothers Grimm would do in Germany some years later. And there was also a kind of cult of Shakespeare, a great reverence of the playwright, with such proponents as Johann Herder and August Schlegel (who translated Shakespeare into German), and the notion that one should go out into the English countryside to really read the Bard properly. Related to the Ossian poem, by the way, is the poetry of Thomas Chatterton — I used a painting of him in the video to  suggest the idea of emotion.

Though he wasn’t himself a Romantic — he was from the middle of the 18th century and committed suicide at the age of 17 — he was quite influential on the English Romantic poets. He is perhaps most remembered now for forging “medieval” romances under the pseudonym of Thomas Rowley, much like Macpherson did with the Ossian epic. No wonder then that Romantics liked him so much! Coleridge does something similar with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (perhaps his most famous contribution to the Lyrical Ballads), though he never claimed it was a genuine medieval poem, he just wrote it in that style.

As for medieval architecture, I emphasized the elongated proportions and verticality of the gothic architecture, but the other effect of this is on the light in gothic cathedrals. The advent of the flying buttress, which transferred the outward force of a wall downward to the ground, allowed for the gothic arches to be made very large, which meant they could put in large elongated stained-glass windows, and the gothic cathedrals would be constructed so that the high altar would be the brightest part of the church, while the nave, where the church-goers would sit, would be relatively dark. The symbolic implication of this is fairly obvious. Perhaps the most striking example of this sort of thing (though not actually a cathedral) is Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

I mentioned gothic revival architecture, and used the example of the British Houses of Parliament, the Palace of Westminster, as an iconic example. Pugin by the way, was technically the assistant architect to chief architect Charles Barry, though there’s some controversy as to how much of the work was Barry’s and how much was Pugin’s — Pugin was known as a pioneer of gothic revival, whereas Barry was more known for neoclassical architecture, for what it’s worth. (Oh and for extra connection fans, Barry was assisted in the quarrying of the stone for the building by geologist William “Strata” Smith, who you may remember from my previous video “Fossil”). But it’s significant that gothic revival style was chosen for the rebuild after the earlier building was destroyed by fire in 1834,  as it could be seen as a reaffirmation of the monarchy, which traces its origins back to the middle ages. This was then a rejection of the neoclassical republicanism associated with, for instance, the United States of America, whose government buildings like the Capitol are built in the neoclassical style.

The US specifically modelled themselves in that respect on the Roman Republic, with their Latinate terms like Senate and Congress. Canada too built its parliament in the gothic revival style as an explicit alignment with medieval monarchy and their British rulers.

The original Canadian Parliament Buildings were built in the mid 18th century in a highly ornate gothic style. After the original Centre Block burned down in 1916 (one hundred years ago to the day as I write this), it was replaced with a slightly less ornate but still gothic revival style building.

And finally, as for the period preceding Romanticism, I was playing a bit fast and loose, consistently using the term Neoclassical for simplicity’s sake, but in fact the 18th century is co-occurrence of a number of interconnected trends. Other terms used to refer to the period include the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. I suppose at their heart what they all have in common was an appeal to reason and rationality over pure emotion, a rejection of medieval religiosity in favour of human centred concerns, and an alignment with ancient Greece and Rome which were thought to embody these notions. In the video I used the images of Denis Diderot and his Encyclopédie to represent the rationality of the Enlightenment, a good iconic example. Diderot himself argued, as many at the time did, that reason was necessary to keep emotion in check, but of course there are many other figures and works reflective of Enlightenment thinking. I could no more cover this complex topic than I could give anything more than the cursory thumbnail sketch of Romanticism that I did through the lens of etymology, but hopefully this gives a new perspective (looking up or otherwise), to these complex periods.