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Evaluation of Burke’s Aesthetic Theory

2407 words (10 pages) Essay in Literature

08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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Edmund Burke theorized the experience of the sublime and the beautiful in relation to power. Discuss the implications of Burke’s aesthetic theory in relation to one or more course texts.

Edmund Burke’s theory on the sublime and beautiful is a rhythmic and clever way of introducing the way power interprets a text. For this essay, there will be two texts that will be utilised to expand on Burke’s theory. William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ and also Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’. Edmund Burke’s theory first arrived on the scene when ‘he was only 19 when he composed one of his most influential and important books, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), which explores the nature of ‘negative pleasures’- the mixed experience of pleasure and pain, attraction and terror’(Wu 8). According to Burke sublime is ‘productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling… astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect’ (Philips 1). In oxford referencing it says that, ‘aesthetic category associated with ideas of awe, intensity ruggedness, terror, and vastness emphasizing Man’s relative insignificance in the face of Nature, arousing emotions, and stimulating the imagination…and was of profound importance in relation to an appreciation of the grandeur and violence of natural phenomena’. It is clear to say then that sublime and beautiful, the aesthetic theory has a connection to how our senses experience and respond to things outside of a person. Continuing on, Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s poem have immediate similarities as they both focus on the astonishment of nature. Analysis of this essay will discuss aesthetic theory in two parts; Objective dimension: examination of the aesthetic object and its inherent qualities, and Subjective dimension: examination of how the aesthetic object is experienced by the viewer/reader/audience. This is to show the implications and create reverence for nature in its immensity against the smallness of man in relation to the aesthetic theory.

Objective dimension is these poems are important to investigate as it highlights the initial emotion of power through the astonishment of nature. Importantly, the ‘aesthetic component of [Burke’s] theory, the sublime accomplishes interaction through the subject’s imagination with which subjects seek to comprehend the limits of the magnitude, but ultimately cannot because it is too great’ (Lorand 5).Wordsworth’s visit to wye in in 1793 (Wu 415) inspired him to write ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’. The poem is reminiscent of his travel experience at wye when he says with the repetition of ‘five’ to empathise the time passing, ‘five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a soft inland murmur.…’ (415) Wordsworth still being deeply fond and explicitly remembering his visit shows the emotional power over his experience with water flowing. Nature influences the mind. In the next lines, ‘Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion’ (Wu, 416), the quality of the cliffs arising out of a secluded area evoke thoughts for the poet, loneliness. In aesthetic theory, pain is an idea that directly connects to the poets feeling of loneliness as although seemingly minor it evokes negative spirits. In this poem, Wordsworth ‘meets himself in his memory, meets himself as both constructed and constructing. He proclaims his awe for and tests his faith in the architecture of memory’ (Weele 20). In comparison, Percy Bysshe Shelley writes ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’ in a similar fashion in that the astonishment of nature evokes strong feelings however chooses to personify the objects that has mesmerized him. In this poem, ‘Shelley’s attempt to negotiate a meaningful space for human consciousness in a universe that may or may not remain fundamentally indifferent’… (Mccarthy 356) is what makes this poem astonishing as it describes the mountain and the scenery being witnessed. ‘Bursting through these dark mountains like the flame… Thou art pervaded with that ceaseless motion, Thou art the path of that unresting sound— Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee I seem as in a trance sublime and strange To muse on my own separate fantasy, My own, my human mind, which passively Now renders and receives fast influencings,…’ (Wu, 1104); like in Wordsworth’s poem, Shelley writes how nature affects or influences the human mind. In ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’, the second stanza emphasises the notion of nature having a profound effect on the mind; ‘These forms of beauty, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind With tranquil restoration:…’ (Wu 416) particularly when it says, ‘these beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:’ the object a beautiful form, is difficult to forget and completes the idea of sublime as described by Burke. This is a sense of magnificence Wordsworth is describing and completes the idea of sublime. Sublime has dark connotations and the astonishment of viewing such a large landscape as it creates reverence for the expansiveness of nature and the inferiority of man in size. Further on, in Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’ poem, the second stanza highlights the majesty and the sublime of the object (mountain). Upon viewing the vastness of the scenery and the majestic mountain Shelley says, ‘Dizzy Ravine! and when I gaze on thee I seem as in a trance sublime and strange To muse on my own separate fantasy, My own, my human mind, which passively Now renders and receives fast influencings, Holding an unremitting interchange With the clear universe of things around; (Wu 1105)’ this shows the power of the sublime being that nature is so majestic that it evokes dizziness as the extent of nature and the fragility of humans. Moving on, in ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ Wordsworth says, ‘ Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,  Thy memory be as a dwelling-place  For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,  If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,  Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts  Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,’ (Wu 419). Once again, Wordsworth reiterates the idea of memory and comfort during his reminiscing once he revisits wye, the sublime, the beautiful, and most of all the power of nature as it has aided him in his time of sadness or grief. The poem utilises striking imagery to describe the objects; ‘lofty cliffs’ (Wu 416), ‘deep power of joy’ (Wu 417), ‘pleasing thoughts’ (Wu 417), ‘deep rivers’ (Wu 417), ‘lonely streams’ (Wu 417), this is in an effort to emphasise the idea of astonishment and awe that nature creates. In Shelley’s poem, ‘Driven like a homeless cloud from steep to steep That vanishes among the viewless gales! Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky, Mont Blanc appears—still, snowy, and serene; Its subject mountains their unearthly forms Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps, Blue as the overhanging heaven, (Wu 1105)’ the aesthetic theory is emphasised here as the object is described in a way that suggests it is majestic, calm and imposing; ‘Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky’. This is the poet’s overarching point that the power of nature through it being majestic, big, and vast in its scenery. Imagery in the text furthers the idea of aesthetic theory; utilised in the second stanza, ‘Thus thou’ (Wu 1105), ‘Thy’ (Wu 1105), ‘thee’ (Wu 1105), ‘aethereal waterfall’(Wu 1105), all this reemphasises the grandeur of the nature (object)  Shelley is describing, therefore has power because it is a reminder of the fragility of humans. In all this, both poems use imagery to highlight the object dimension in the scenery and what makes it aesthetic.

Discussion of Subjective dimension is important to analyse to tease out how Shelley writes about the aesthetic object and how it is experienced by the reader. Ruth Lorand in her book writes, ‘subjectivity…denotes a state that is entirely dependent on the observer; it signifies the observers apprehension of an object’ (21).  In the first paragraph, examination of what the object was and also the emphasis of its qualities was discussed this provides something solid to discuss its effects on readers. In Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ the reminiscing of wye evokes a calm and nostalgic response from the reader. Evidence of this is shown by the use of grammatical emphasis; ‘With a soft inland murmur. Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs’(Wu, 416), the enjambment forces readers to also position themselves to ponder the scenery in their imagination to think about the ‘murmur’ of the inland. Here noticed as well; ‘is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, — Until, the breath of this corporeal frame’ (Wu 417). The imagery utilised without serves the same purpose ‘soul Of all my moral being’ (Wu 419), encompassing the idea of how nature completes a person, and therefore the audience can visualise and be influenced to allow nature to calm your mind. Similarly, Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’, ‘is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood, in which the affections gently lead us on, — Until, the breath of this corporeal frame’ (Wu 1105), also with enjambment follows the same format. Utilising grammar and punctuation is a useful technique as it communicates with the reader to stop and think. The use of imagery in this text encourages the reader to visualise the vastness of the scenery and think to an experience of their own that would be considered sublime, perhaps if they went on a hike etc; ‘calm darkness of the moonless nights (Wu 1107), ‘torrents’ restless gleam’(Wu 1107). Through the use of grammar and imagery, both poets are able to encourage readers to experience the poem, the nostalgia and also to envision an experience they may have had and feel the sublime the poets are describing.

In all these things, the poems by William Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a few miles above Tintern Abbey’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley: ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’ display the aesthetic theory clearly through different techniques. In the first paragraph the notion of objective dimension is important to investigate as the aesthetic theory directly relates to it. Wordsworth’s and Shelley’s poem both hedge on the argument that the power of sublime is that it influences your mind. The power in these poems is that the vastness of nature emphasised the fragility of it through astonishment. The second paragraph discussed on subjective dimension. Subjective dimension in the texts encouraged readers to ponder the experience of the poet by visualising the scene in the detail provided. Ultimately, the aesthetic theory and its implications is clearly shown through Shelley and Wordsworth use of imagery, grammar, and two dimensions to display power by the repeated use of astonishment at the vastness of nature and the fragility of man.


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