On the Sublime and Beautiful/Part II/Chapter 20

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A LOW, tremulous, intermitting sound, though it seems in some respects opposite to that just mentioned, is productive of the sublime. It is worth while to examine this a little. The fact itself must be determined by every man’s own experience and reflection. I have already observed, [1] that night increases our terror, more perhaps than anything else; it is our nature, when we do not know what may happen to us, to fear the worst that can happen; and hence it is, that uncertainty is so terrible, that we often seek to be rid of it, at the hazard of certain mischief. Now, some low, confused, uncertain sounds, leave us in the same fearful anxiety concerning their causes, that no light, or an uncertain light, does concerning the objects that surround us. Quale per incertam lunam sub luce maligna Est iter in sylvis.—

—A faint shadow of uncertain light, Like as a lamp, whose life doth fade away; Or as the moon clothed with cloudy night Doth show to him who walks in fear and great affright.


But light now appearing and now leaving us, and so off and on, is even more terrible than total darkness: and a sort of uncertain sounds are, when the necessary dispositions concur, more alarming than a total silence.


  1. Sect. 3.