he discussion of the sublime (or the aesthetic of "greatness") was perhaps the single most important concern of eighteenth-century British aesthetics; but despite the frequency —or possibly because of it—with which the term appears in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century critical and creative literature, it had no one meaning that would have satisfied its many uses. According to Samuel Holt Monk, whose study of the eighteenth-century sublime is a landmark in modern recognition of the importance of this aesthetic idea, "No single definition of the term would serve in any single decade for all writers . . .; but the word naturally expressed high admiration, and usually implied a strong emotional effect, which, in the latter years of the century, frequently turned on terror" [Monk, The Sublime, 233].
The origins and functions of the sublime explain why it meant so many things to so many critics. Critics used the sublime as a category in which they could place aesthetic pleasures excluded from neoclassical ideas of beauty. Furthermore, the sublime itself had arisen in sources as different as a new notion of moral psychology, the rediscovery of a Greek rhetorician, and a theological controversy over whether or not the earth was a ruin which recorded man's fall from grace. Sublimity, which is an aesthetic of power, always seems intimately related to questions of gender and power.
Last modified 1988