The Sublime in the Poetry of Keats and Coleridge
The philosophical concept of The Sublime, though typically hard to define due to its complex nature, is most often described as an object or a surrounding which evokes a feeling of profound awe when viewed. The key difference between the concept of The Sublime and the more straightforward one of ‘beauty’ is that The Sublime, though awe-evoking, usually comes with a sense of uneasiness and often even fear, rather than evoking the sole response of delight in the way an object of beauty does. Sublime entities include mountains, oceans, caves and cathedrals, which all can simultaneously evoke both joy and terror when one finds itself in its present.
Coleridge, who had a continuous fascination with The Sublime – apparent in both his works of poetry and in his autobiographical writing – differentiated between The Sublime and the beautiful by use of a metaphoric circle. In his Biographia Literaria he suggests; ‘The circle is a beautiful figure in itself; it becomes Sublime, when I contemplate eternity under that figure’. This analogy indicates a need for further exploration and contemplation when faced with The Sublime’.  As Coleridge conveys, there is no simple definition or understanding of The Sublime, and that is because the feeling it provokes is so profound that putting it into mere words is not a simple task. So why then is the concept of The Sublime so heavily present in Romantic literature, a movement based solely of the written word? The answer is just as Coleridge suggests; The Sublime calls for exploration and introspection, which Romantic poetry serves as the perfect medium for. Literature of the Romantic period most often finds The Sublime in nature. As Romantic poetry is often an expression of the Self it can serve as a form of written introspection, and Romantic poets are able to use Sublime surroundings as a tool for deeper thought and understanding of the Self, then turning to the written word to exercise this. The analysis of nature is synonymous with the analysis of the Self and so, when left solely to nature one is essentially left to themselves, and any thoughts about ones surrounding are also thoughts from deep within the psyche. So when approached with Sublime objects in nature, which often represent a void or something dwarfing to man, one’s introspection turns transcendent and one is able to introspect on a more profound level, making further expression and discovery through the medium of poetry ideal.
In ‘Kubla Khan’ Coleridge uses effective linguistic styles to convey the overwhelming uneasiness of The Sublime. With the use of lines such as; ‘Enfolding sunny spots of greenery’  and ‘Through caverns measureless to man/Down to a sunless sea’,  Coleridge creates dwarfing imagery and highlights the contradictory nature of The Sublime. By implementing both beautiful and ugly adjectives in the same line to describe the same Sublime surrounding, such as ‘savage’ and ‘enchanted’  , he successfully reflects how The Sublime makes one feel both terror and joy simultaneously. The line ‘As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing’  is an example of personification of nature, which is evidence to the connection between man and Sublime nature.
When exploring The Sublime it is common for one to find an absence rather than something tangible. The Sublime itself is a limitation  , the limitation of sense and the absence of a full understanding; a feeling of longing with no end objective available. Beyond the sensory excitement and confusion of The Sublime is ultimately a void, representative of death, mortality and human futility; death itself being intangible as it cannot be experienced with awareness. The fact that the Sublime in nature is boundless in comparison to human life, whilst simultaneously often being threatening to it, adds perspective. Coleridge describes a Sublime experience in his 1818 lecture on ‘European Literature’ by recalling: ‘my whole being expands into the infinite; earth and air, nature and art, all swell up into eternity, and the only sensible expression left is, ‘that I am nothing!’, which concludes that his ultimate realisation of The Sublime was of his own human insignificance.
When reading Romantic poetry we can also observe the different ways that various poets from the period define and understand the implications behind The Sublime, by viewing their respective works alongside each other. Whilst Coleridge approaches The Sublime with wonder, whilst articulating the encompassing discomfort of it as presented in ‘Kubla Khan’, Keats tends delve further behind the veil of The Sublime and closer to the truthful core of it; the perpetual void which is representative of mortality. In ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles’ Keats immediately addresses his awareness of his mortality and compares it to a ‘pinnacle and steep of godlike hardship tells me I must die/Like a sick eagle looking at the sky’.  Here we see Keats place himself into the powerful yet ultimately mortal and waning creature of an Eagle looking up at an infinite and Sublime sky and paling in comparison.
Despite these differing representations of The Sublime presented in Romantic period literature, it is evident that the Romantic writers who indulge in the subject have that in common that they recognize The Sublime as a metaphor for part of themselves rooted deep in the subconscious to be identified and explored, a part that has an awareness of the profound truths of actuality. The various personal relationships each writer has with this truth is the differentiating factor, making each respective work that focuses on The Sublime in the Romantic period unique in content and style.
1. Philip Shaw, The Sublime (Oxford: Routledge, 1996), p. 95.
2. Shaw, The Sublime, p. 95.
3. Coleridge, Sam Taylor, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
4. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
5. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
6. Coleridge, ‘Kubla Khan’, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan [accessed 19 January 2015]
7. Shaw, The Sublime, p 10.
8. Keats, John, ‘On Seeing the Elgin Marbles‘, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52305/on-seeing-the-elgin-marbles [accessed 27 January 2015]
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