July 13, 2019

The Sublime

Rilke's poem has remained in my memory for a long time. It's one of my favorites. This is from Orchards by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

The sublime is a departure.
Instead of following,
something in us starts to go its own way
and getting used to heavens.  
Is not art’s extreme encounter
the sweetest farewell?
And music: that last glance
that we ourselves throw back at us! 

The Latin word sublimis means "looking up from."  Edmund Burke, in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, defines the sublime as a quality of art or experience that "excites the ideas of pain and danger" that produces "the strongest emotion that the mind is capable of feeling" (302) and that causes "astonishment...horror, terror;...the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect." The Romantic poets tried to create this emotion.  Kant defined sublime as "that is beyond all comparison (that is absolutely) great, either mathematically in terms of limitless magnitude, or dynamically in terms of limitless power."

I rather like Rilke's definition. In my thinking, as a poet and writer, the sublime occurs when one lets go of the material and allows it to develop on its own. The art leads the artist.  Because of pure attention and deep listening,  the artist is able to break away from the usual and achieve new ground.  He says, "be attentive to that which rises up in you and set it above everything that you observe about you. What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love..."  (Letters to a Young Poet)

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