Sublime is a concept associated with awe, vastness, natural magnificence, and strong emotion, which fascinated 18th-century literary critics and aestheticians. Its development marks a movement away from neo-classicism towards Romanticism; it was connected with the idea of original genius which soars powerfully above rules and constraints.
Sublimity was first analyzed in an anonymous Greek work, On the Sublime, attributed to Longinus, which was widely admired in England after Nicholas Boileau’s French translation of 1674. The concept was elaborated by many writers, including Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, John Dennis, David Hume, and Hugh Blair. The most widely read work on the subject was Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), which put a new emphasis on terror as “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’. The discussion was not confined to literature. Longinus had described the immensity of objects the natural world, such as stars, mountains, volcanoes, and the ocean, as a source of the sublime, and this idea was of profound importance to a growing appreciation of the grandeur and violence of nature.
Enthusiasm for wild scenery and cosmic grandeur was already apparent in the writings of Edward Young and James Thomson; the poems of Thomas Gray, the Ossianic writings of James Macpherson, and the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe also promoted sublime landscapes. Many 18th-century writers making the Grand Tour dwelt on the sublimity of the Alps, comparing them with the pictures of Salvator Rosa, whose stormy landscapes provided a pattern for 18th-century depictions of savage nature. From the 1760s travelers began to seek out the exhilarating perils of the remote mountain peak and the gloomy forest; sublimity became a fashion, pandered to by the dramatic storms shown by Philippe de Loutherbourg’s ‘Eidophusikon’ (1781), a mall theatre with lantern slides, and later by John Martin’s vast panoramas of cosmic disaster. The macabre paintings, crowded with monsters and ghosts, of Henry Fuseli, and the landscapes of the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, may in their different ways also be considered as belonging to the sublime tradition. The Romantic poets rejected the categories of the 18th-century theorists, but the works of William Blake, P. B. Shelley, and William Wordsworth in particular reflect the development of sublime aesthetics.
Also read; A short note on Ossianism