Although Dennis was perhaps the most original theorist of the sublime in the first half of the eighteenth century, Joseph Addison had far more influence upon his contemporaries. In a well known passage in Spectator 412 (1712), Addison defines his notion of greatness, lists the usual sources of natural sublimity, and explains the psychological mechanism of the aesthetic reaction to sublimity:

By greatness I do not only mean the bulk of any single object but the largeness of a whole view considered as one entire piece. Such are the prospects of an open champaign country, a vast uncultivated desert, of huge heaps of mountains, high rocks and precipices, or a wide expanse of waters, where we are not struck with the novelty or beauty of the sight but with that rude kind of magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of nature. Our imagination loves to be filled with an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them.

Addison here makes several points that continued to be important in later writings on the sublime. First, he states that in some way the sublime requires a unified magnificence. Second, he cites the usual mountains, deserts, and seas as the most sublime parts of external nature. And, lastly, he analyzes the sublime reaction or effect in terms of a pleasure caused by attempting to fill the mind by "too big" an object. Johnson, Gerard, and Burke, among others, provide similar though often more detailed examinations of the sublime effect.

Dr. Johnson, for example, remarked in his "Life of Cowley" that the sublime was not within reach of the metaphysical poets, "for they never attempted that comprehension and expanse of thought which at once fills the whole mind, and of which the first effect is sudden astonishment, and the second rational admiration." Neither Johnson nor Addison (who described feelings of "pleasing astonishment") believed, like Dennis, that sublimity created feelings of terror and horror in the observer. Most writers on the sublime before Burke agreed that the pleasant feelings of awe, delight, and admiration were the result of contemplating mountain ranges, vast seas, and the other usual examples of natural sublimity. [Based upon Landow, The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin (Princeton UP, 1971).]

Note: Stephen Miller writes [29/11/02]:

Addison does use the word sublime (or sublimity) twice in the Spectator. In Spectator 417 he says: "Homer fills his Readers with Sublime Ideas." In Spectator 303, he refers to a passage in Paradise Lost: "there is no single Passage in the whole Poem worked up to a greater Sublimity."


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Last modified 30 November 2002