On the Sublime and Beautiful

For my Romantic Tradition class, we recently read Edmund Burke’s “On the Sublime and Beautiful”. It’s a fascinating work; it distinguishes between the sublime, which is composed of what is terrible, obscure, powerful, vast, infinite, uniform, difficult, magnificent, painful, from the beautiful, which is composed of the small, smooth, delicate.

Given that these are the words used to describe the sublime and beautiful, it surprised me that Burke did not distill these descriptors down to their essence – the beautiful is what is proportionate, moderate, while the sublime is what is extreme, excessive. But this does seem like the basic point of the distinction between sublime and beautiful – extremes versus proportions. So I’ll go with that.

Now, before I read this, I did not distinguish between the sublime and beautiful because I did not have the word “sublime” in my critical vocabulary (I knew the word, but not its literary meaning). I considered what was sublime to be beautiful, just in a different way – is there not beauty in the raging of a storm or a vast expanse of snow? But in Burke’s terminology, these are only sublime, not beautiful. I’m not sure I’d agree with this. Part of me wants to say that both extremes and proportions types of beauty, calling the former sublime and the latter something else. Burke instead classifies both the sublime and beautiful as different, but both pleasureful for us.

I suppose the difference is mostly just semantic. But which way is better? Do we want to say that beauty is everything that gives us aesthetic pleasure, or do we want to say that beauty is proportion, and that the sublime is not beautiful, but also gives us aesthetic pleasure?

(And yes, I wrote this post because I have a paper due tomorrow about the sublime that I don’t want to write yet.)


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