Milton and the Sublime, Part One: Preparing for ‘Paradise Lost’

By James Sale
James Sale
James Sale
June 30, 2021 Updated: July 17, 2021

Sublimity is a word rather like “mystical” in that it is difficult to define exactly what it is, but most of us have had some experience of it. Indeed, when we do experience it, and if we are not emotionally dead, it leaves an indelible impression, for it is an experience, like love, that once we have had, we crave again and again.

However, as with the word “mystical,” we now find in our contemporary society that the concept of sublimity is confined to arcane backwaters—perhaps scholars writing some academic paper may refer to it, but it is certainly not a concept current in popular culture.

Does anyone nowadays read—or write—poetry for its sublime content or form? (I am focusing on poetry here, but it can arise in other art forms, writings, and nature itself.) In a previous article for The Epoch Times, I talked about sublimity emerging when goodness, truth, and beauty all simultaneously arise within a work, with more or less equal strength. When that happens, we experience sublimity not so much consciously—at least while it is happening—because the conscious faculty is overwhelmed; we are in a state of astonishment or awe.

Longinus, in the famous essay conventionally attributed to him, “On the Sublime,” put it this way (in H.L. Havell’s translation): “The Sublime lifts him [the reader or observer] near to the great spirit of the Deity” and “adding word to word, until it has raised a majestic and harmonious structure—can we wonder if all this enchants us, wherever we meet with it, and filling us with the sense of pomp and dignity and sublimity, and whatever else it embraces, gains a complete mastery over our minds?”

On the Sublime
The title page of an edition of “On the Sublime,” attributed to Longinus and translated by  William Smith, A.M. (PD-US)

A “complete mastery over our minds”: We enter a state of total absorption, and for a while—for the duration of the reading or performance—we are lost to ourselves.

In fact, Longinus goes even further when he says: “When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being. … To sum the whole: Whatever is useful or needful lies easily within man’s reach; but he keeps his homage for what is astounding.”

Yes, we admire goodness when we see it, we prefer truth when we detect it, and the beautiful is always welcome. These are useful and needful things for humanity to have. Society depends on them. But our homage, our reverence, the deep interests of our hearts—of our souls—is for the sublime when we are “astounded.”

Thus it is that we should and must treasure all works of sublimity because they are the highest forms of art that we can experience. They are the greatest forms of expression, in fact. So we need to discuss sublimity and point out why certain works or passages are genuinely sublime, and seek to understand the underlying ideas that make them so—for they are worthy of emulation.

Of course, if works are worthy of emulation, we can revisit what their values are and begin to understand what we might be able to aspire to, as people and as a society.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog
Peering into the seeming vastness of the universe induces a wondrous awe. “Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, circa 1817, by Caspar David Friedrich. Hamburger Kunsthalle. (Public Domain)

Keats Meets the Sublime

Before discussing Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” the most sublime poem in the English language barring none, I’d like to point out categorically that sublimity can occur in small passages, and even in one line where the context supports it. But I must introduce one small caveat first.

milton_paradise lost
“Paradise Lost: A Poem, in Twelve Books,” first published in 1667, by John Milton. The first American edition, 1777, with the life of Milton by Thomas Newton, D.D. Morgan Library. (Public Domain)

Longinus provides five criteria for establishing the sublime, but he prefaces them with this: “assuming, of course, the preliminary gift on which all these five sources depend, namely, command of language.” The command of language is critical, as we will see with Milton and other poets who rise to this level.

If we now come to “Paradise Lost,” which I’d like to because it is the supreme example of sublimity in the poetry of the English language, we need to keep in mind a couple of comments that the great critic Dr. Samuel Johnson made about the poem. First, in his estimation, Milton’s “work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first.” In other words, this poem stands just a notch below Homer.

John Keats (Public Domain)
A portrait of John Keats (1822) by William Hilton, after Joseph Severn. (Public Domain)

Secondly, “what other author ever soared so high or sustained his flight so long?” And here we have the essence of sublimity: the soaring so high and for so long. It’s the sustained performance that is so impressive, and this of course depends on the elevation of language.

Chapman-Homer
Artwork for George Chapman’s translation of Homer, which captivated poet John Keats. (Public Domain)

Let us look at a much briefer example of the sublime in action. Consider Keats’s famous sonnet:

On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

In particular here, the last line of Keats’s poem is sublime. The experience of reading a translation of Homer by Chapman becomes—as the poet imaginatively searches for “the astonishing image—like Cortez and his men first seeing the Pacific Ocean: “Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

As one reaches that last line, no matter how many times one reads it, one is continually amazed by it: The juxtaposition of reading a book and seeing a whole new ocean for the first time? Incongruous? No, sublime; the silence of sublimity where the conscious mind is subdued—quieted—and only the scale and magnitude of the unconscious becomes apparent in a living ocean that the eyes of the soul scrutinize in awe! But it’s only one line, and 13 lines (14 if we include the title) to build it up. Notice, though, that the poem begins with reading a book and then progresses to standing on a “peak,” before contemplating the vast ocean in front of it.

And what is a “book”? It is a compilation of words, lots of words, and in this case—Homer’s—words of genius. Yet the effect is to transport us to a place of almost infinite wonder and total silence. Note here, too, that the ocean viewed is the Pacific: “pacifying,” in other words.

In a way, it is like a beatific vision: Words fade and a deeper reality permeates the consciousness. This is one aspect of the sublime in action.

We can represent Keats’s structure toward sublimity diagrammatically.

diagram of Keat's sublime
(Courtesy of James Sale)

We start with the very small, seemingly inconsequential (a book), and the ego or intellect climbs to understand and embrace it. But the furthest reach of the intellect can only achieve the height of the mountain peak of Darien. At that point, comprehension fails as the limitless ocean floods the vision and one is overwhelmed.

The intellect seems high and seems big, but compared with the oceanic vision, it is entirely inconsequential. But note here that what overwhelms the mind, the ego, is the created order that the Pacific Ocean symbolizes. In other words, it is something good (because of its benefits), true (because of its reality), and beautiful (because of its scale).

Keats, being a truly great poet, is able to create the sublime in a sonnet by ordering his words and images in this way. But we can see exactly this same pattern reproduced on a massive scale in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and this will be the topic of Part 2 of this series.

James Sale has had over 50 books published, most recently, “Mapping Motivation for Top Performing Teams” (Routledge, 2021). He won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets 2017 annual competition, performing in New York in 2019. His most recent poetry collection is “HellWard.” For more information about the author, and about his Dante project, visit TheWiderCircle.webs.com

James Sale
James Sale