Longinus in his work, On the Sublime, calls for both an elevation of thought and simplicity. In this work, he presents to the reader “an art of the sublime or lofty” (1). The Oxford Color Dictionary defines sublime: “1. Of great beauty or excellence. 2. Extreme or unparalleled.” Longinus states that sublimity “is a certain distinction and excellence in expression” (1). The effect of sublimity on the audience is “transport,” not persuasion. He thinks the reader can resists persuasion, “but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over very hearer” (1). Longinus seems to be saying that the sublime creates in us an aesthetic experience where we meet the author in elevated thought. It is a work of imagination more than a work of reason. This is accomplished by “skill in invention and due order and arrangement of matter, emerging as the hard one result not of one thing or two, but of the whole texture of the composition, whereas Sublimity flashing forth at the right moment scatters everything before it like a thunderbolt, and at once displays the power of the orator in all its plentitude” (1). The order and arrangement of the composition is one of the principles of the sublime. Longinus essay on the sublime seems to demonstrate some of the things he is arguing. For example, his epistle is organized around his five principles of elevated language: 1. Power of forming great conceptions; 2. Passion; 3. Formation of figures; 4. Noble diction; 5. Dignified and elevated composition. How might sublimity inform a Christian poetic? This essay discusses how these five principles of the sublime could inform a Christian poetic.
The most important principle, according to Longinus, is the “elevation of the mind” (6). Our souls must be nurtured on noble thoughts. It must be free of “low and ignoble thoughts” (6). This great soul is a person of moral character who has deep thoughts. This person has intelligence and wisdom from moral teaching and long years of practice. Noble thoughts will be demonstrated in the language used by the writer. Longinus surprisingly refers to Moses, “Similarly, the legislator of the Jews, no ordinary man, having formed and expressed a worthy conception of the might of the Godhead, writes at the very beginning of his laws, ‘God said’--what? ‘Let there be light, and there was light; let there be land, and there was land” (7). The author indicates great souls by mentioning people like Moses, Homer, Plato, and Sophocles. These are people above the ordinary. These are people that had great thoughts and wrote great words. These are authors that people continue to read thousands of years later. Longinus states, “When a thing is heard repeatedly by a man of intelligence, who is well versed in literature, and its effect is not to dispose the soul to high thoughts, and it does not leave in the mind more food for reflection than the words seem to convey, but falls, if examined carefully through and through, into disesteem, it cannot rank as true sublimity because it does not survive a first hearing. For that is really great which bears a repeated examination, and which it is difficult or rather impossible to withstand, and the memory of which is strong and hard to efface. In general, consider those examples of sublimity, to be fine and genuine which please all and always” (5). Are their Christian works that meets this high standard? There are many Christian works that demonstrate these characteristics: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and others. Examples of Modern Christian Art would be the writings of Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, and William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Saul Bellows, and Wendell Berry. The author does not have to be Christian nor does the work need to address Christian themes directly to be considered Christian art. A Christian poetic will seek to emulate noble thoughts and lives, and it will transport the reader beyond their own world.
Two good models that demonstrate principles of a Christian poetic are C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It seems to fulfill all five principles of the Sublime. First, it forms conceptions of great power. Tolkien and Lewis creates uniques worlds which transports the reader to another time and place. They are works that call for repeated readings. They illustrate noble actions and noble character. Second, they illustrate “vehement and inspired passion” (5). For example, you have betrayal and the death of Aslan in The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe. You have Frodo helped in fulfilling his mission by Golem’s biting off the ring and his finger. These works demonstrate the due formation of figures. For example, in The Silver Chair, Lewis gives us picture of the existence of truth, goodness, and beauty. It alludes to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. Longinus states that authors should imitate and emulate “previous great poets and writers” (12). A fourth characteristic of the sublime described by Longinus is “the choice of proper and striking words [that] attracts and enthralls the hearer” (24). Both Lewis and Tolkien through their language, diction, metaphors lift the reader out of their current context to a different world which ennobles them, delights them, and makes them wiser. The last principle of the sublime is “the arrangement of the words in a certain order” (30). This is seen by all the parts working together to produce a work of great power. The reader thinks about all the different parts of The Lord of the Rings and how they are different, but they all work together to depict a work of excellence. Longinus, On the Sublime, provides the Christian writer with five principles to help them create works of grandeur. In addition, we have Christians like Lewis and Tolkien to lead the way.