Decorative Initial 'S'ublimity, an aesthetic of power, always seems intimately related to questions of real political and societal power. Longinus, the late-classical writer who invented the term in the context of rhetoric, made greatness a matter of rhetorical and artistic power. Burnett, who saw the world as a sublime ruin, created the aesthetic category in order to describe our reactions to divine power. Many eighteenth-century authors, including Addison, Burke, and Johnson, made the sublime a matter of relative size and hence power, for the spectator of natural sublimity always experiences a situation of being overpowered by the size or energy of the sublime phenomenon, an endless desert, majestic mountain, raging ocean, or thundering waterfall:

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, August 1997, during the dry season. When the rains come, the separate falls become a single continuous mass of falling water. Photographs George P. Landow may be used without written permission for any educational purpose. Any commercial or other use requires prior written permisison from george at; replace "at" by "@."

In the terms of descriptions of proper gender relations of the period, the enjoyer of the sublime, who is often described as being "ravished" by the experience, takes an essentially feminine role. Under the influence of Edmund Burke who contrasted the bracing sublimity of masculine power to the relaxing effects of feminine beauty, sublimity became an explicitly gendered aesthetic category. Nonetheles, both men and women experienced it in the same way.

What relations do you think might exist between the idea of sublimity and the Industrial Revolution?

Last modified December 2001