Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"What a Rich Fund of Images Is Treasured Up Here": Poetic Commonplaces of the Sublime Universe

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"What a Rich Fund of Images Is Treasured Up Here": Poetic Commonplaces of the Sublime Universe

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY IS ABOUT THE WAYS IN WHICH ENLIGHTENMENT WATCHERS OF the night sky made poetry and aesthetic theory out of their Newtonian inheritance. (1) The discussion looks at eighteenth century celestial poems and at a few of the century's many theories of the sublime, including Adam Smith's essay, The Principles which lead and direct Philosophical Enquiries; illustrated by the History of Astronomy. Smith's discussion was written in the 1750s, around the time that Edmund Burke wrote his Enquiry Concerning Our Ideas of the Beautiful and the Sublime, but unlike Burke, Smith does not offer a psychological argument based on an individual and inward response to the astounding appearances of visible nature. Quite differently, Smith's essay is, in part, a celebration of the Newtonian explanation of the universe with its rational abstractions from the visible, and, in part, a reply to Addison's 1712 formulation of a proto-theory of the sublime. (2) Smith's astronomy essay reproduces and explains the subjective experience of the astronomical universe as a hindrance to rationality and gives a warning about the pernicious effect of the imagination upon natural philosophy. Romanticists often focus their attention on Burke's essay when proposing the impact of theory on the poems in our field, on Kant's theory of the sublime when making sense of the grounds of thought in romantic theory, and on the sublime as an aesthetic of psychological response, but it is, I believe, worth looking at earlier eighteenth-century debates to enrich our discussion of the intentional structure of the commonplaces of sublimity.

While the study of romantic landscape aesthetics and poetics has been a central theme within literary history and criticism, much less attention has been paid to the conventions of the skyscape, or more particularly, to the phenomena of the night sky: the tropes of stars and planets and comets that are ubiquitous in landscape poetry and in its predecessors, the progress poem and the prospect poem. The present essay is part of a larger project on stellar poetics, and one of the themes of that project is the affinity between the astronomical mathematics of the Newtonian synthesis and the belle-lettristic discourse of the sublime, an affinity that suggests its role in the transformations of natural philosophy into the scientific disciplines of the nineteenth century. The discourse of the sublime took on the theological and then psychological work that had earlier been part of the domain of natural philosophers. In particular, early eighteenth century discussions of the celestial sublime offer a set of reflections on the astonishing implications of the calculus, the mathematics of both infinite and infinitesimal series that allowed for the extrapolations required for Newton's mathematic assertions that the laws of the heavens were the same laws that worked on earth. (3) The growing independence of mathematical conceptualization from other forms of knowledge offered a model of autonomous rationalities, or disciplines, while it also helped to develop the discourse of the experience of these mathematical innovations.

If cosmologists and astronomers shared intellectual ground with the theorists of the Sublime, eighteenth-century poets who interpreted the night sky for imaginative ends wondered at its enormity and orderliness and were astonished not only by its sights, but also by the kind of mental abstraction demanded by natural philosophers. Witnessing the celestial sublime, the alert eighteenth century mind had to process the alien immensity of the universe in accordance with the difficulty of the concepts entailed by the new astronomy. The landscape poetry of looking, in both georgic and meditative modes, depended upon and reinforced the poet's ability to totalize and monumentalize the vista, and worked upon the assumption that there was some reciprocity between human cognition and the visual scene. For the poet of the night sky, however, who looks up, not out, the task is to totalize something that cannot be encompassed: the infinitude of the universe itself. …

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