On the Sublime and Beautiful/Part II/Chapter 22

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On the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke
Chapter 22

Smells and Tastes have some share too in ideas of greatness; but it is a small one, weak in its nature, and confined in its operations. I shall only observe, that no smells or tastes can produce a grand sensation, except excessive bitters, and intolerable stenches. It is true, that these affections of the smell and taste, when they are in their full force, and lean directly upon the sensory, are simply painful, and accompanied with no sort of delight; but when they are moderated, as in a description or narrative, they become sources of the sublime, as genuine as any other, and upon the very same principle of a moderated pain. “A cup of bitterness;” “to drain the bitter cup of fortune;” “the bitter apples of Sodom;” these are all ideas suitable to a sublime description. Nor is this passage of Virgil without sublimity, where the stench of the vapour in Albunea conspires so happily with the sacred horror and gloominess of that prophetic forest: At rex sollicitus monstris oracula Fauni Fatidici genitoris adit, lucosque sub alta Consulit Albunea, nemorum quæ maxima sacro Fonte sonat; sævamque exhalat opaca Mephitim. In the sixth book, and in a very sublime description, the poisonous exhalation of Acheron is not forgotten, nor does it all disagree with the other images amongst which it is introduced: Spelunca alta fuit, vastoque immanis hiatu, Scrupea, tuta lacu nigro, nemorumque tenebris; Quam super haud ullæ poterant impune volantes Tendere iter pennis: talis sese halitus atris Faucibus effundens supera ad convexa ferebat. I have added these examples, because some friends, for whose judgment I have great deference, were of opinion that if the sentiment stood nakedly by itself, it would be subject, at first view, to burlesque and ridicule; but this I imagine would principally arise from considering the bitterness and stench in company with mean and contemptible ideas, with which it must be owned they are often united; such an union degrades the sublime in all other instances as well as in those. But it is one of the tests by which the sublimity of an image is to be tried, not whether it becomes mean when associated with mean ideas; but whether, when united with images of an allowed grandeur, the whole composition is supported with dignity. Things which are terrible are always great; but when things possess disagreeable qualities, or such as have indeed some degree of danger, but of a danger easily overcome, they are merely odious; as toads and spiders.