The Romantic Sublime

Two brief essays written by Philip Shaw appear on the British Library website.  These essays address the Romantic conception of the sublime.  Understanding the Romantics’ definition is important as moderns frequently and understandably impose what they know on a definition or text from a previous era.  Setting aside our contemporary uses of sublime, let us briefly look at some lines by Romantic poets and picture the imagery created.  Professor Shaw quotes a passage from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto 3, stanza 72:

I live not in myself, but I become

Portion of that around me; and to me,

High mountains are a feeling, but the hum

Of human cities torture: I can see

Nothing to loathe in nature, save to be

A link reluctant in a fleshly chain,

Class’d among creatures, when the soul can flee,

And with the sky, the peak, the heaving plain

Of ocean, or the stars, mingle, and not in vain.

This passage provides an example (though somewhat extreme) of the emotional response to natural stimuli the Romantics used.  Thus the high mountains, though tangible, become an intangible feeling as they are contrasted with the manmade city, which takes on an intangible torture.  The last two lines mention “the sky, the peak, the heaving plain / Of ocean, or the stars . . .”  Here Byron uses lofty (sky, peak, stars) and intense (heaving) language to communicate deep feeling.

Shaw takes Byron’s wilderness poem and makes a comparison of 18th century landscapes. Here, he says, “where enclosed gardens symbolized notions of aristocratic confinement and control, the wild, untamed landscapes beyond the country house represented freedom and release.”  In this comparison we get a hint at Wordsworth’s conception of the sublime.  In his 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth writes:

A meditation rose on me that night

Upon the lonely mountain when the scene

Had passed away, and it appeared to me

The perfect image of a mighty mind,

Of one that feeds upon infinity,

That is exalted by an under-presence,

The sense of God, or whatso’er is dim

Or vast in its own being… (lines 66-73)

Both Byron’s and Wordsworth’s vivid imagery evoke intense emotion that, unlike the enclosed gardens mentioned above, give way to emotional “freedom and release” through the language of their poetry.

Shaw’s essays on the sublime have largely focused on Romantic literary emotional release.  He has, however, deftly referenced philosopher, Edmund Burke who, in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, addressed the same emotional phenomenon from nature.  Shaw states, “for Burke, the sublime is associated with objects and events that, while threatening, are yet a source of ‘delight’. . . Burke also uses sublime in connection with abstract or obscure ideas, such as infinity, vastness and the divine.”

Rereading the poetic passages Shaw included in his essays allows the reader to not only understand one definition of sublime during the period, but it also affords the opportunity to glimpse the extent to which emotions and nature became one and the same.  Considering the Industrial Revolution, the vulnerable expressed the sublime as extreme, a tool which they used to fight a conceptual battle against the unconscionable Revolution as it was perceived by many literary figures of the time.



http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/landscape-and-the-sublime.  Accessed on 26 April, 2017.

http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/wordsworth-and-the-sublime.  Accessed on 26 April, 2017.


Multipurpose Dwellings

In his book, Early Medieval Architecture As Bearer of Meaning, Gunter Bandmann discusses the original site of divine presence as the home.  Near Eastern prehistoric homes (tent and cave) were said to contain the greatest concentration of divine powers and no “Other World” existed beyond these confines.  He says “the dead were buried in the house, under the door sill or under the hearth; the gods were set up in the house and worshiped there” (137).  Furthermore, “The door. . . the hearth. . . the sleeping area, and the seat of the head of the family are the first places where holiness coalesced” (137).  The home served a single purpose under which life events (birth, eating, sleeping, worship, and burial) occurred.  Thus, one could literally be born in a house of worship, or eat in a place of burial.  The presence of gods in the home would not only have purposed the home as a place of worship, but also integrate a perpetual spiritual presence in individual life.

With permanent settlement the home as the site of divine presence changed.  Cemeteries were set aside for the dead, while churches and temples were erected as places to experience the divine.  A less nomadic life meant the possibility of constructing more elaborate places of interment and worship.  Bandmann observes that “the intention had been to make a house for the dead that would be like that of the living, not different from it” (137).  However, smaller tombs were mere representations of the home but did not realistically depict them.  Gods also dwelt in house-like niches within temples (a house within a house).  Thus, the deceased and gods merely moved from one dwelling to another, though the dwelling was intentional in its purpose.  Daily life could become a separate reality from spiritual life and a separate place for the dead also signaled a separate “Other World”.  Thus, in theory if not practice, it would have become easier to compartmentalize life.

To some extent, homes from Medieval times on have retained a semblance of early practices of retaining the divine spirit within.  Perhaps that is one reason why symbols of the divine presence such as crucifixes, icons, prayers, and urns containing the ashes of the deceased appear, aiding in the integrative process of life with religion.  Shrines as specific locations within the home serve to provide a seat for the divine while the Christian practice of individual or family worship invite the presence of the Holy Spirit into the home and hearts of the occupants.  While the architecture of the home may no longer contain the remains of the deceased and gods as in ancient times, there appears to be, amongst religious households, a need to interact with the divine presence at some level of daily life.  Thus, the heart becomes a metaphorical temple and the space of domestic worship becomes a temporary temple during moments of worship.


Who is ‘Himself’?

Lillian Beckwith’s A Shine of Rainbows provides some interesting insights into the character of Sandy MacDonald.  A quiet and reserved man, Sandy lives with his wife Mairi on the island of Corrie in the Hebrides.  In time, he and Mairi adopt a timorous and inhibited boy from the city — a boy Sandy finds difficult to accept because he does not appear strong or healthy.

Beckwith’s decision to call Sandy ‘himself’ is unusual.  This appellation is always uttered in the presence of Thomas.  At their first meeting Sandy is introduced to Thomas as ‘himself’ and even Mairi refers to Sandy in the third person when speaking with Thomas.  Orphaned characters in literature frequently use proper names for their guardians as William Beach does in Good Night, Mr. Tom, or Oliver in Oliver Twist.  Thomas does not have this luxury.  For Thomas, Sandy is a stranger he lives with but cannot come close to and so the general pronoun of ‘himself’ is appropriate.

Domestic distance is held in tension throughout the story because Thomas refers to Mairi as ‘mum’ while Sandy is only referred to as ‘himself’.  The distance of personal references could not be greater.  Where mum implies a close and intimate relationship between a parent and child, reference to a guardian-figure in the third person implies distance and estrangement.  Tension also exists for Sandy who builds a wall between Thomas and himself while remaining a loving and open husband with his wife.  So while Sandy is close with one he is far from the other.  Thomas is also close with one and far from the other.  Only Mairi’s intimate relationship with both brings some semblance of emotional domestic comfort.

After Mairi’s death, Sandy retreats further into himself while Thomas determines to live life the way Mairi would have wanted it.  With Mairi’s absence, the gulf between Sandy and Thomas is increased and Thomas’ fears that he will be sent back to the orphanage are not allayed by Sandy.  Throughout the book Thomas constantly strives to gain acceptance from Sandy by being indispensable thereby hoping to remain on Corrie.  But it is not Thomas’ indispensability at home that finally brings Thomas and Sandy together.  Thomas cannot save himself.  Sandy must be the one to reach out to Thomas.  Nevertheless, Thomas’ frequent thoughts that Sandy needs him seem to reflect a reversal of roles.  Where Thomas tries to make himself indispensable, he also does it in the spirit of providing for Sandy’s needs.  Thomas’ care for Sandy places Sandy in the position of orphan, an interesting situation for Sandy considering he has a home, a place to call his own.  Both are orphans and both need a place to belong in their own ways — for Thomas, it is a home with a caring family.  For Sandy, it is a home where he can learn to express himself to a son.  Both can provide what the other needs.

It is only at the end when Thomas discovers that he will not be returned to the orphanage that he calls ‘himself’, dad.  The effect on Sandy is worth noting.  Sandy gives Thomas the opportunity to decide what he should call him.  Thomas says “‘I wish I c-could c-call you D-Dad'” (121).  Beckwith writes, “Sandy stood stiffly.  He had been expecting that some day such a plea might be made and he had resolved in loyalty to Mairi that when it came he would not reject it, but despite that, his stern nature made him resist the sentimentality of the moment.  It was several second before he could bring himself to speak.  ‘That sounds all right . . . son'” (122).  This reference is what saves Thomas from the continued life of an orphan, and brings both into a parent-child relationship they both need.


Beckwith, Lillian.  A Shine of Rainbows.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984.  Print.

Anne and The Lady of Shalott

The basic structure of Anne of Green Gables is important in understanding Anne’s development.  First there is Anne the orphan, followed by Anne’s integration into the Cuthbert household and Avonlea life.  Last there is Anne as mature contributor to life at Green Gables and Avonlea.  These three sections, though distinct, are relatively fluid in the book.  The theme of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” is integrated within these sections and is significant to Anne’s development.

Prior to her arrival at Green Gables Anne’s life has been spent in a children’s home and with various large families attending the younger children.  Under these difficult circumstances she has cultivated a friendship with two imaginary friends, Katie Maurice and Violetta mentioned sixteen times in the book.  They first appear in chapter 8 after Marilla decides Anne will stay at Green Gables.  It is then that Anne, referring to her past, reveals their existence.  Their absence in the first six chapters helps heighten the reader’s sympathy for Anne.  These imaginary friends have become a part of her life of loneliness and solitude.  Upon arrival at Green Gables, Anne must adjust to her new life where she experiences familial acceptance and friendship.  Here her imaginary friends provide the needed stability as she transitions to relating to real people who have the capacity to disappoint as well as comfort her.

It is not difficult to connect the relationship between Tennyson’s poem, “The Lady of Shalott”, and Anne’s life.  The poem is very much grounded on a variety of distant relationships between the Lady and those who are reflected in her mirror, while Anne also experiences a range of imaginary and real relationships.  The Lady’s enclosure in the tower reflects Anne’s isolation in a dreary and uncaring world revealed in the first six chapters.  The Lady’s mirror reflects the world outside her only window limiting the extent of the scope of her life.  Joseph Chadwick observes that “the absence of her own reflection in the mirror . . . is a sign that she has no independent existence, even if she has a separate one” (87).  Though dependent, Anne displays an independent initiative.  This independence is revealed, for example, when she acts quickly to save the life of Diana Barry’s little sister in chapter 18.  Unlike the Lady, Anne gazes on her own reflection in the glassed-in bookshelf, where she escapes from the dreary world around her interacting with Katie or Violetta’s echo, representatives of an ideal world.  Only “Katie’s reflection” in the glass or Violetta’s echo reveal a fragment of what relationships are like but which she has no opportunity to develop.  Her connection to these friends becomes strong and she relies on them as she navigates a new life at Green Gables.

But at a certain point, her reflections began to crack like the mirror in the Lady’s chamber.  Her private and personal world of her own reflection begins to disintegrate and she begins to grow and accept a new life around her characterized by meaningful relationships, especially with Diana Barry.  She realizes she no longer needs her imaginary friends and she goes through a process of formally bidding them good-bye.  The world around her is so much more meaningful.  In one way, Anne’s growth can be viewed as a departure from childhood imaginings.  In another, she begins to discover herself as a young woman.  This is most significant when at one crucial point in the story, she acts out “The Lady of Shalott”, with a group of friends.  Appropriately, Anne plays the part of the deceased and lies on the boat and floats downstream.  Her play-acting is interrupted by a leak and she must escape her sinking platform.  Finding refuge on one of the pilings of the bridge she clings waiting for help.  Her rescuer is Gilbert and she reluctantly and necessarily accepts his assistance.

In the course of events related, her experience in this play-act is crucial.  The death of the Lady serves to represent Anne’s death to her previous life.  Katie and Violetta are no longer her friends, her life as a child has passed and she begins to slowly emerge as a young lady and woman taking on more responsibility and fully embracing life at Green Gables, Avonlea, and Queen’s.  Her interrupted reenactment is not only typical of her accidents, but is also symbolic of her entrance into a world that requires not just imagination, but also forethought, the ability to forgive, and navigate complex social interaction.


Chadwick, Joseph.  “A Blessing and a Curse: The Poetics of Privacy in Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott.'”  Critical Essays on Alfred Lord Tennyson.  Ed.  Herbert F. Tucker.  New York: Macmillan, 1993.  83-99.  Print.

Encountering Anne in L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables comes with certain amusement and anticipation.  What will Anne do with herself and the world she lives in?

Anne’s world is special.  It appears idyllic and innocent while at the same time fraught with misadventures and conflicts.  We like her world because we can read how it ends and we would also like a good conclusion to each event sprinkled with the innocent imaginings of youth.  And yet there is a certain comfort that readers can draw from the story.  Perhaps one of the most poignant lines appears toward the end of the book in chapter 38 where Anne faces an unknown future.  “When I left Queen’s my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road.  I thought I could see along it for many a milestone.  Now there is a bend in it.  I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does” (302).  The world does not have to be a perfect place for healthy human relationships and natural beauty to inspire, and Anne does not live a perfect life in a perfect world.  What is to be done with the “ideal world” found in these pages?  Anne’s experiences in her world at Green Gables and Avonlea become models to imitate and adopt.

Instead of dismissing Anne’s effusive imagination, descriptions, and names she gives places, it might be well to reconsider the reality of life.  Anne lives in a world where conflict and pain are not separate realities from joy and contentment.  Both co-exist often following on the heels of the other.  This single reality that Anne lives in allows her to confront difficulty, persevere, enjoy life, and mature.  This single reality is what makes Anne’s world real.  Second, she not only lives, but thrives in a real world of ups and downs, joys and disappointments.  It is easy to relate to her anger and humiliation after Gilbert makes fun of her hair color or when she and Diana race into the guestroom in the Barry house only to discover that Diana’s prim and proper aunt is sound asleep.  Likewise, it is easy to understand Anne’s joy in anticipation of the Sunday School picnic, when Matthew surprises Anne with a longed-after dress with puffed sleeves, or feel the satisfaction when Anne spends a pleasant summer with Diana before going to Queen’s.  The ease in which we involve ourselves in her story provides the opportunity to imitate her.  The world that Anne inhabits is the world we inhabit.

Anne’s imaginative world is also connected to reality.  Montgomery describes Anne’s thorough exploration of the environs surrounding Green Gables in chapter 9.  For example:

She had made friends with the spring down in the hollow—that wonderful deep, clear icy-cold spring; it was set about with smooth red sandstones and rimmed in by great palm-like clumps of water fern; and beyond it was a log bridge over the brook [she later named the spring the Dryad’s Bubble].  That bridge led Anne’s dancing feet up over a wooded hill beyond, where perpetual twilight reigned under the straight, thick-growing firs and spruces . . . All these raptured voyages of exploration were made in the odd half hours which she was allowed for play, and Anne talked Matthew and Marilla half-deaf over her discoveries (68-69).

These examples provide realistic models of thought and behavior which share certain qualities.  They acknowledge reality as both pleasant and unpleasant, that beauty and goodness are worth spending energy and focus on, and finding comfort in the belief that what is good will prevail.  It is this reality which Jennifer Lee Carrell refers to in her afterword relating how World War II Polish troops were issued copies of the book to instill vivid images of home and families.


Montgomery, L. M.  Anne of Green Gables.  New York: Signet Classic, 2003.  Print.

While reading Psalm 51 I noticed an interesting connection between the last two verses (vs. 18 and 19) and the preceding seventeen verses.  The Psalm was written after the prophet Nathan came to David when he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband Uriah murdered.

Reading the chapter reveals what takes place in David’s life.  Briefly, David acknowledges his sin and asks for a thorough cleansing (vs. 1 and 2).  He experiences the horror of his sin continually, but acknowledges the legitimacy of God’s justice (vs. 3 -5).  He requests wisdom, cleansing, a joyful spirit, and a restored relationship with God (vs. 6 – 9).  He makes a repeated request for cleansing, restoration of God’s presence in his life and the joy of salvation (vs. 10 – 12).  He states that he will teach what he has learned so that others may experience salvation, and deliverance from guilt (vs. 13 and 14).  At the conclusion he asks that he be given the ability to praise God, while recognizing that a contrite heart is a pleasing sacrifice to God (vs. 15 – 17).

This catalog of events can also be expressed in a chiasm that reveals the rebuilding of David’s life.

A.     Personal request for mercy (vs. 1-2)

B.     Acknowledgement of God’s correct judgment (vs. 3-5)

C.     Requests the teaching of wisdom (vs. 6)

D.     Request for cleanliness and joy (vs. 7-8)

E.     Request for sin to be blotted out. (vs. 9)

D’     Request for a clean heart and joy (vs. 10-12)

C’     Desire to teach what he has learned (vs. 13)

B’     Acknowledges acceptable sacrifice to God (vs. 14-17)

A’     Requests mercy for Israel (vs. 18-19)

There is a clear progression of personal growth in David’s life culminating in the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  This is no accident.  The state of the king’s life is reflected in the state of his subjects — the nation of Israel.  Once the king has rebuilt his life and restored his relationship with Yahweh, the nation of Israel can be lead through the rebuilding process of their relationship with Yahweh.  This is reflected in verse 13 when David states:

Then I will teach transgressors thy ways, and sinners will return to thee.

Though the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem was a literal event that followed the restoration of David’s and Israel’s relationship with Yahweh, the rebuilding of the wall also serves as a metaphor for the rebuilt life of David and Israel.  As a result of this restoration, there is joy and gladness at the salvation of the Lord.  Verses 18 and 19 read:

Do good to Zion in thy good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on thy altar.

Clearly, God is interested in rebuilding the lives of those who seek after Him and acknowledge what is acceptable to Him.  The result, then as now, is joy and gladness.

The Slovenian folksong “Srne” addresses the themes of remembrance and loneliness. Though a folksong, its message has a pensive and peaceful appeal that embraces the experience of the sophisticated and simple. Perhaps this can be attributed to the juxtaposition of two realities, the grim reality that the beauty of the past cannot be captured and re-experienced at will, and second, by its ability to immortalize the beauty of the moment through vivid memory capable of being recalled.

Deer, deer in forests
In the shadowy groves on the green quiet meadows
Deer, you that are happily dancing, you who play
and worries you do not know anymore.
As for me — alone, always
I walk in the forest in the memories that are abandoned.
Old, past memories
When we together went to the forest.

Deer, exuberant and light
who run away as I try silently to come close.
Deer, stay for a moment
Because my loneliness has overwhelmed my heart.
Alone, lonely always.
I walk through the forest, little deer have dispersed.
Old, past memories
When we together went to the forest.

In the literal sense, the writer observes deer enjoying themselves in the forest, oblivious to any cares. The writer then becomes aware of their reality when their memory is triggered by events of a past companionship in a similar setting — the forest. In the second verse, the writer continues to observe the playfulness of the deer and tries to approach them in hopes that they will stay and provide companionship as well. The writer goes on to lament their loneliness more acutely as they stand in the forest completely alone with only their memories of the past.

Simultaneously, the song provides some very interesting imagery. The deer and forest are constants in the literal and metaphorical settings. The literal act of the deer frolicking in the meadow and groves seems straight out of a fairy tale or myth. The deer serve to represent the writer’s companion. In the second verse the writer reaffirms their loss of companionship and innocence when the deer disperse at their approach. As the writer sought to make contact in this beautiful setting they realized that like the disappearance of the deer, their past experience that was so perfect and ideal, had also dispersed. The inability to approach the deer up close is to realize that one cannot likewise approach their companionship of the past as if it were something they could remake for the present. The deer and the writers past companion are essentially equal.

Ironically, remembering can also provide hope. The song is gentle and understands the deep longing for pure and innocent companionship conveyed by the graceful deer, while calming the spirit with the reminder that beauty in life is not completely elusive. The happy moments of the past cannot return, but the memories can inspire us to create innocence and freedom for the present. It is the link to the past by which the writer, though lonely now, can derive comfort in the knowledge that something special, something beautiful was experienced with all the attendant emotions and senses. It is the beauty of this good that sustains. Loneliness thus becomes more bearable because life was not completely devoid of good. The ability to remember is one of the greatest gifts bestowed on humanity.

The instrumentation in the following video clip features the zither which figures prominently in much of Slovenian folk music. Its sound is characteristic and provides a beautiful balance of pensiveness and peaceful longing, coupled with the same effect the lyrics convey. It is performed by Ivanka Kraševec, Vokalni Kvintet Gorenjci, and Miha Dovžan.