Blake's Material Sublime

By Vine, Steve | Studies in Romanticism, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Blake's Material Sublime


Vine, Steve, Studies in Romanticism


1. Kantian Blake

IN AN ESSAY OF 1833, ENTITLED THE "BARRENNESS OF THE IMAGINATIVE faculty in the productions of Modern Art," Charles Lamb lambasts what he calls the "material sublime" (1) of John Martin's paintings. In an argument that passionately privileges spirituality over materiality and imagination over visual presentation, Lamb criticizes Martin's panoramic canvas "Belshazzar's Feast" (1820) for being too material. Although Lamb considers the "towered structures" of Martin's art as belonging to the "highest order" (Elia 259) of the material sublime, the term itself--invented, it seems, by Coleridge--is not an honorific. In Table Talk, Coleridge uses the term to describe the furious images of Schiller's dramas, the sheer sensual tumult of Schillerian theatricality: its excess of material effect over spiritual meaning. "Schiller has the material sublime," he remarks; "to produce an effect, he sets a whole town on fire, and throws infants with their mothers into the flames.... Shakspear drops a handkerchief, and the same or greater effects follow." (2) For Coleridge, the sublime of Schiller's drama is mired in materiality and sensation; Shakespeare's, however, rises effortlessly into the region of mind. For Lamb, too, the material sublime designates a privative attachment to materiality, a fixation on sense that in Martin's case discloses a "defect of [the] imaginative faculty" (Elia 262). Wedded to matter over mind, material sublimity seeks to present in a pictorial, corporeal form ideas that should properly, according to Lamb, have a "poetic" (Elia 264), supernatural or imaginative denotation. In the case of "Belshazzar's Feast," the fearful judgment of God upon the self-regarding King Belshazzar at his table in his stupendous palace is too "material" because Martin presents the written judgement of God in a blaze of flight on an immense wall: a brilliant blaze that is seen both by the crowds at the feast and by the spectators of the canvas. Lamb insists, however, that this divine writing is seen only by the King in the Biblical account, and not by the spectators. For this reason, the sublimity of the scene resides in the immateriality of the King's terrified, phantasmal reception of God's sentence, and not in any gaudy materiality of blazing light on a panoramic, architecturally immense structure.

In the way Lamb sets it up, Martin's painting sustains only a perilous hold on the sublime. For this kind of art is, he says, the product of a "[d]eeply corporealized" mind, "enchained hopelessly in the grovelling fetters of externality." Against this, the sublime for Lamb belongs to the "intellectual" (Elia 264), not the material eye. The material sublime is, in this sense, well on the way to being engulfed in--and identified with--a kind of debased spectacle: specifically, with crude theatricality and sensationalism. Effecting an erasure of mind and of the imaginative faculty, material sublimity becomes a vitiating, privative and expropriatory simulacrum of the sublime.

Lamb's formulation of the sublime belongs, of course, to that broad shift in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries that saw the displacement of sublimity away from the materiality of the external object, and its relocation in the self-conscious interiority of the subject. If the eighteenth-century sublime variously staged a crisis in the subject's relation to an overwhelming externality--whether figured as nature or God--the romantic sublime, which received its privileged philosophical formulation in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement (1790), installed the scene of that sublime in and as an agon of the subject's mental faculties. The empirical, physiological emphases of Burke's sublime in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) were themselves, indeed, part of this resituating of the sublime in the passions of the subject rather than the qualities of the object: part of what Thomas Weiskel calls the eighteenth century's "nascent psychological aesthetics.

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