Home > Book of Genesis, Genesis 1 > Ps. Longinus On the sublime, and Genesis 1

Ps. Longinus On the sublime, and Genesis 1

December 21, 2014

“On the Sublime” is a work of literary criticism written in the first century, generally attributed to an author called Pseudo Longinus.

Longinus On the sublime.

Henry Frowde, M.A.
Publisher to the University of Oxford
London, Edinburgh New York and Toronto. 1906.


In the history of the cosmology of scripture, ‘On the sublime’ ranks as one of the most significant resources, as it preserves a true record of the original creation account, as written by Moses. The first elements of the creation account in Genesis 1 are quoted, but not the version found in our Bibles; it preserves the original order of creation: light, then the earth. It omits any reference to the naming of Day and Night, Heaven, Earth, and Sea, that the prophecy of Daniel 8 shows were added as corruptions by Antiochus IV as part of his hellenization policy.

In an Appendix attached to the work, whether the author was Jewish is considered:

Thus we cannot but be aware of a certain non-Greek character in the work; it may have been partly a sense of this which led Mommsen to write: —

‘The dissertation on the Sublime, written in the first period of the Empire by an unknown author, one of the finest aesthetic works preserved to us from antiquity, certainly proceeds, if not from a Jew, at any rate from a man who revered alike Homer and Moses.’

[The Provinces, Bk. viii. ch. il.]
And again ; —

‘The gulf between that treatise On the Sublime, which ventures to place Homer’s Poseidon, shaking land and sea, and Jehovah, who creates the shining sun, side by side, and the beginnings of the Talmud which belong to this epoch, marks the contrast between the Judaism of the first and that of the third century.’ [Ibid.]

Assuming, for there seems to be no special reason to question it, the substantial integrity of the text in the passages to which reference is made, we observe that, if the writer had been himself a Jew, he would not have quoted the opening words of the Law incorrectly. Nor can we speak with any certainty in the absence of the work of Caecilius; many of whose illustrations are repeated in the Treatise, and who was, if we may believe Suidas, a Jew.

Whether Jewish or not, the author of ‘On the Sublime’ compared the words of Scripture with those of authors who exalted pagan deities, as examples of sublime poetry or prose.

p. 14.

After all, however, the first element, great natural genius, covers far more ground than the others: therefore, as to this also, even if it be a gift rather than a thing acquired, yet so far as is possible we must nurture our souls to all that is great, and make them, as it were, teem with noble endowment. How? you will ask. I have myself written in another place to this effect: — ‘Sublimity is the note which rings from a great mind.’ Thus it is that, without any utterance, a notion, unclothed and unsupported, often moves our wonder, because the very thought is great: the silence of Ajax in the book of the Lower World is great, and more sublime than any words. First, then, it is quite necessary to presuppose the principle from which this springs: the true Orator must have no low ungenerous spirit, for it is not possible that they who think small thoughts, fit for slaves, and practise them in all their daily life, should put out anything to deserve wonder and immortality. Great words issue, and it cannot be otherwise, from those whose thoughts are weighty. So it is on the lips of men of the highest spirit that words of rare greatness are found. Take the answer of Alexander to Parmenio, who had said ‘I were content . . . ‘

[Here about eighteen pages have been lost.]

. . . the distance from earth to heaven,
a measure one may call it of the stature as well of
Homer as of Strife.’

Unlike this is the passage of Hesiod about Gloom (if The Shield is really to be assigned to Hesiod),

‘From out her nostrils rheum in streams was poured:’

he has made the picture hateful, not terrible. But how does Homer make great all that belongs to gods?

Far as the region of blank air in sight
Of one who sitting on some beacon height
Views the long wine-dark barrens of the deep,
Such space the horses of the realm of light
Urged by the gods, as on they strain and sweep,
While their hoofs thunder aloft, bound over at one leap’-

He measures their leap by the interval of the boundaries of the world. Who might not justly exclaim, when he marked this extravagance in greatness, that, if the horses of the gods make two leaps, leap after leap, they will no longer find room within the world. Passing great too are the appearances in the Battle of the Gods: —

Heaven sent its clarion forth: Olympus too:
. . .
Trembled too Hades in his gloomy reign.
And leapt up with a scream, lest o’er his head
Poseidon cleave the solid earth in twain,
And open the pale kingdom of the dead
Horrible, foul with blight, which e’en Immortals dread’.

You see, comrade, how, when earth is torn up from its foundations, and Tartarus itself laid bare, and the Universe suffers overthrow and dissolution, all things at once, heaven and hell, things mortal and immortal, mingle in the war and the peril of that fight. Yet all this is terrible indeed, though, unless taken as allegory, thoroughly impious and out of proportion. For when Homer presents to us woundings of the gods, their factions, revenges, tears, bonds, sufferings, all massed together, it seems to me that, as he has done his uttermost to make the men of the Trojan war gods, so he has made the gods men. Only for us, when we are miserable, a harbour from our ills is reserved in death; the gods, as he draws them, are everlasting, not in their nature, but in their unhappiness. Far better than the ‘Battle of the Gods’ are the passages which show us divinity as something undefiled and truly great, with no admixture; for instance, to take a passage which has been worked out by many before us, the lines on Poseidon:

Tall mountains and wild woods, from height to height,
The city and the vessels by the main . . .
Rocked to the immortal feet that, hurrying, bare
Poseidon in his wrath . . .
. . . the light wheels along the sea-plain rolled;
From cave and lair the creatures of the deep
Flocked to sport round him, and the crystal heap
Of waters in wild joy disparting know
Their lord, and as the fleet pair onward sweep . . .

In the hilighted text in the following paragraph, the author of ‘On the Sublime’ cites the words of Moses in Genesis [an uncorrupted version] as a prime example of sublime writing. He compares it to other examples of sublime expression about Greek gods and heroes by poets such as Homer.

Thus too the lawgiver of the Jews, no common man, when he had duly conceived the power of the Deity, showed it forth as duly. At the very beginning of his Laws, ‘God said,‘ he writes — What? ‘Let there be light, and there was light, let there be earth, and there was earth.’

Perhaps I shall not seem wearisome, comrade, if I quote to you one other passage from the poet, this time on a human theme, that you may learn how he accustoms his readers to enter with him into majesties which are more than human. Gloom and impenetrable night suddenly cover the battle of the Greeks before him: then Ajax, in his helplessness, says: —

Zeus, sire, do thou the veil of darkness rend.
And make clear daylight, that our eyes may see:
Then in the light e’en slay us — ‘.

Here is the very truth of the passion of Ajax: he does not pray to live— such a petition were too humble for the hero— but when in impracticable darkness he could dispose his valour to no good purpose, chafing that he stands idle for the battle, he prays for light at the speediest, sure of finding therein at the worst a burial worthy of his valour, even if Zeus be arrayed against him. Truly the spirit of Homer goes along with every struggle, in full and carrying gale; he feels the very thing himself, he ‘rages; —

Not fire in densest mountain glade,
Nor spear-armed Ares e’er raged dreadfiller:
Foam started from his lips, …’

Yet he shows throughout the Odyssey (for there are many reasons why we must look closely into passages from that poem also), that, when a great genius begins to decline, the love of story-telling is a mark of old age. It is clear from many other indications that this work was the second; but more particularly from the fact that he introduces throughout the Odyssey remnants of the sufferings before Ilium, as so many additional episodes of the Trojan war; aye, and renders to its heroes fresh lamentations and words of pity, as though awarded in some far distant time. Yes, the Odyssey is nothing but an epilogue of the Iliad: —

There the brave Aias and Achilleus lie;
Patroclus there, whose wisdom matched the gods on high;
There too Antilochus my son. . .

From the same cause, I think, writing the Iliad in the heyday of his spirit, he made the whole structure dramatic and combative; that of the Odyssey is in the main narrative, which is the special mark of  age. So it is that in the Odyssey one might liken Homer to a setting sun; the intensity is gone, but there remains the greatness. Here the tone of those great lays of Ilium is no longer maintained — the passages on one level of sublimity with no sinking anywhere, the same stream of passion poured upon passion, the readiness of turn, the closeness to life, the throng of images all drawn from the truth: as when Ocean retires into himself, and is left lonely around his proper bounds, only the ebbings of his greatness are left to our view, and a wandering among the shallows of the fabulous and the incredible. While I say this, I have not forgotten the storms in the Odyssey, nor the story of the Cyclops, nor certain other passages; I am describing an old age, but the old age of Homer, Still in all these, as they follow one another, fable prevails over action. I entered upon this digression, as I said, in order to show how very easily great genius, when the prime is passed, is turned aside to trifling: there are the stories of the wine-skin, of the companions turned by Circe to swine (whom Zolius called ‘porkers in tears’), of Zeus fed by doves like a young bird’, of Ulysses ten days without food on the wreck, there are the incredible details of the slaying of the Suitors. What can we call these but in very truth ‘dreams of Zeus’? A second reason why the incidents of the Odyssey also should be discussed is this; that you may recognize how the decline of passion in great writers and poets passes away into character-drawing: the sketches of the life in the household of Ulysses much resemble a comedy of character.

I will now ask you to consider with me whether we may possibly arrive at anything further, which has power to make our writings sublime. Since with all things are associated certain elements, constituents which are essentially inherent in the substance of each, one factor of sublimity must necessarily be the power “of choosing the most vital of the included elements, and of making these, by mutual superposition, form as it were a single body. On one side the hearer is attracted by the choice of ideas, on another by the accumulation of those which have been chosen.—Thus Sappho, in all cases, takes the emotions incident to the frenzy of love from the attendant symptoms and from actual truth. But wherein does she show her great excellence? In her power of first selecting and then closely combining those which are conspicuous and intense: —

Blest as the immortal gods is he
The youth whose eyes may look on thee,
Whose ears thy tongue’s sweet melody
May still devour.

Thou smilest too! — sweet smile, whose charm
Has struck my soul with wild alarm.
And, when I see thee, bids disarm
Each vital power.

Speechless I gaze: the flame within
Runs swift o’er all my quivering skin;
My eyeballs swim; with dizzy din
My brain reels round;

And cold drops fall; and tremblings frail
Seize every limb; and grassy pale
I grow; and then — together fail
Both sight and sound.’

Do you not marvel how she seeks to gather soul and body into one, hearing and tongue, eyes and complexion; all dispersed and strangers before: now, by a series of contradictions, she is cold at once and burns, is irrational, is sensible (for she is either in terror or at the point of death), so that it may not appear to be a single passion which is upon her, but an assemblage of passions? All the symptoms are found severally in lovers; to the choice of those which are conspicuous, and to their concentration into one, is due the pre-eminent merit here. So it is, I think, with the Poet and his storms; he picks out the grimmest of the attendant circumstances. The author of the Arimaspia thinks these lines terrible: —

Here too is mighty marvel for our thought:
Mid seas men dwell, on water, far from land:
Wretches they are, for sorry toil is theirs;
Eyes on the stars, heart on the deep they fix.
Oft to the gods, I ween, their hands are raised.
Their inward parts in evil case upheaved.’

Any one, I think, will see that there is more embroidery than terror in it all. Now for Homer; take one instance out of many: —

As when a wave swoln by the wild wind’s blore
Down from the clouds upon a ship doth light,
And the whole hulk with scattering foam is white,
And through the sails all tattered and forlorn
Roars the fell blast: the seamen with affright
Shake, out from death a hand-breadth they are borne.’

Aratus has attempted to transfer this very notion: —

‘Tiny the plank which thrusts grim death away’.

Only the result is petty and smooth, not terrible. Moreover, he makes the danger limited, by the words ‘the plank thrusts death away’: and so it does! Again our Poet does not limit the terror to one occurrence; he gives us the picture of men meeting destruction continually, well nigh in every wave. Yet again, by forcing together prepositions naturally inconsistent, and compelling them to combine (I refer to the words ‘out from death’), he has so strained the verse as to match the trouble which fell upon them; has so pressed it together as to give the very presentment of that trouble; has stamped, I had almost said, upon the language the form and features of the peril: ‘out from death a hand- breadth they are borne.’ Just so Archilochus in describing the shipwreck, and Demosthenes, when the news of Elateia comes: ‘For it was evening,’ he says. They chose the expressions of real eminence, looking only to merit (if one may use the word), took them out clean, and placed them one upon another, introducing between them nothing trivial, or undignified, or low. For such things mar the whole effect, much as, in building, massive blocks, intended to cohere and hold together in one, are spoilt by stop-gaps and rubble.’

A footnote on p. 21 notes:

‘Aristotle claims for Homer that he ‘shows how lies should be told’; in other words, that he so manages the irrational, a potent element in the marvellous (Poet. c. xxiv), that the reader accepts it, feeling that if such things happened at all they would happen as they are described, and content to ask no questions. Horace, a warm and also a very discriminating admirer of Homer, after noticing the modest opening of the Odyssey, goes on to speak of these marvels: —

Not smoke from fire his object is to bring.
But fire from smoke, a very different thing;
Yet has he dazzling miracles in store,
Cyclops, and Laestrygon, and fifty more . . .
And all this glamour, all this glorious dream.
Truth blent with fiction in one motley scheme.
He so contrives, that, when ’tis o’er, you see
Beginning, middle, end alike agree.’