The Scriblerian Sublime

Article excerpt

THE Sublime and the Pathetic are the two chief nerves of all genuine
poesy. What is there transcendently Sublime or Pathetic in POPE?

For WIT and SATIRE are transitory and perishable, but NATURE and PASSION
are eternal.
--Joseph Warton, An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1)

Warton's words, which appear in his 1756 attempt to unseat Alexander Pope as the most influential poet of the era, represent a critical commonplace about the nature of literary history in the mid- to late eighteenth century. As inscribed by William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, this is the key distinction between the Romantics' emphasis on feeling and the artifice of the previous age. (2) The modern reception of English Augustan literature has still not recovered a full value for wit. This essay problematizes the easy categorization of literary modes employed by Warton and others in the eighteenth-century and Romantic periods by turning to the Scriblerians' engagement with the ancient text that authorizes much of the "passion" of the age, Longinus's treatise Peri Hypsous, or On the Sublime.

By defining a "Scriblerian sublime," I am focusing the issues of the broader opposition outlined above, for not all satire is Scriblerian, nor is the sublime of Dionysius Longinus identical with the tradition that has come down to us through Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant. Nevertheless, before offering focused definitions, some general assumptions about the opposition between satire and the sublime should be briefly stated. Given the philosophical bent of much thinking on the sublime, satire has come to be defined, by contrast, as a rather more worldly pursuit. Satire and the sublime are generally considered mutually exclusive discourses, as different as low and high, one ironically distant and the other enthusiastically immediate. Satire is a leveling discourse and the sublime an elevating one. On the one hand, satire is thought to be pointed at the particular: it is aimed (according to John Dryden) at imparting "some one Precept of Moral Virtue" and warning "against some one particular Vice or Folly," (3) or it enumerates the grotesque physical details of a Thomas Shadwell or an Edmund Curll. This is not to confuse satire with lampoon, but to note that, no matter how general the application of the satire, its method is one of particularity. On the other hand, we expect the sublime to transcend toward the general. This is the assumption behind Samuel Johnson's comment on the metaphysical poets' failure to attain sublimity: "Their attempts were always analytick: they broke every image into fragments," he writes: "[g]reat thoughts are always general, and consist in positions not limited by exceptions, and in descriptions not descending to minuteness." (4) A modern critic, Marshall Brown, who has written on the "urbane sublime," summarizes these common assumptions: satire and the sublime are opposed as "the comic and the serious, the clever and the pompous, the critically detached and the uncritically self-involved." (5) The critical function of satire and the rhapsodic function of the sublime would seem to be irreconcilable, and apart from a few exceptions, this idea persists.

Scholarship on the period has often employed a version of the satire-sublime opposition to produce interpretations of its literature. W. K. Wimsatt's definition of "the Augustan Mode" depends upon the opposition, even as the "heightened unreality" that characterizes this mode suggests the sublimity of parody: "Augustan poetry at its best ... was the last stand of a classic mode of laughter against forces that were working for a sublime inflation of ideas and a luxury of sorry feeling." (6) Martin Price's use of the order-energy dichotomy in To the Palace of Wisdom: Studies in Order and Energy from Dryden to Blake is clearer in its articulation of the possibilities of combined opposites. This study inaugurates a tradition of reading the Augustan period against the traditional expectations of decorum, restraint, "balance and moderation," to stress "dialectical excess" and conflict within its literature. …