Edmund Burke, from A Philosophical Enquiry (1759)
Demaria, pp. 797-802
Recommended: "On Taste"
DUE: Weekly Post 14 Scotland and Ireland groups
As we begin our final section of the course, I would like to introduce some ideas on
the aesthetic of eighteenth-century British literature
through the writings of Edmund Burke. Through this
selection we will begin to synthesize some of the ways
in which literary ideals interact with social constructs --
particularly of gender and class. Moreover we will see the
ways in which writers like Milton attain their status.
In the interest of time and consistency, I have dropped the Leapor poem from
our discussion. If you decide to read it on your own, I'd be happy to discuss
it with you outside of class. It is a delightful poem that revises the generic
manor house poem (i.e. To Penshurst by Ben Jonson or Upon Appleton House by Andrew
Marvel) from the servant's perspective.
Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:
A Philosophical Enquiry
Part 2 Section 1 -- Of the Passion caused by the Sublime
What is the effect of the natural sublime -- i.e.
the ocean? What is the impact on the reason of the viewing individual?
Section 2 -- Terror
"Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever,
either more openly or latently the ruling principle
of the sublime" (798). What are the implications of
this effect when caused by nature? What is the implication
when caused by literature?
Section 3 -- Obscurity
In this section, note Burke's method of assuming
empirical consensus: "Everyone will be sensible
of this, who considers how greatly night adds to
our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the
notion of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form
clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the
popular tales concerning such sorts of being" (798).
Who is he talking to?
Note also his references to North American natives:
"Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at
this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the
hut, which is consecrated to his worship" (798).
What are the implications of this example?
In this section we also see that Burke holds Milton
up as the supreme example of sublimity. How does
Burke's definition of the principles of sublime
characterize Milton? do you agree?
Section 4 -- of the difference between clearness
and obscurity with regard to the passions
What does Burke contend regarding the relative power
of the visual arts over the passions?
If visual depictions are clearer and hence less potent
in their effect on emotion, then what might Burke see
as the potential and purpose for visual arts? for
literary arts? What might he see as the potential
for political discourse?
Section  -- the same subject continued
Here Burke makes an extended argument on the inferiority
of visual arts to verbal arts given the power of "affecting
pieces of poetry or rhetoric" (799). Compare Burke's
attitude toward rhetoric with Sprat's, who claimed that
"eloquence ought to be banished out of all civil Societies,
as a thing fatal to Peace and good Manners."
Note Burke's reference to the "common sort of people"
and how the best sorts of poetry and painting are not
understood by them. What does he mean by this? What
are the implications of this judgment?
He continues by claiming that the lower classes are
nonetheless strongly affected by the words of a preacher
or a popular lyric. Compare his attitude toward the
working class with the writings of Duck, Collier, Leapor or Yearsley.
Burke reiterates the fact that ignorance leads to
admiration -- "knowledge and acquaintance make the most
striking causes affect but little" (800). To what
extent do you agree with this? Compare Pope's advice
in The Essay on Criticism : "A little learning
is a dang'rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the
Pierian spring" (215-216).
Note again the example from Milton. Burke writes:
"The mind is hurried out of itself, by a crowd of
great and confused images; which affect because they
are crowded and confused" (800). Explain how
Milton exemplifies the sublime. How does this
compare with the example from Job?
How does Burke use language to support his claims
regarding beauty? Compare this with his use in section two.
To what extent do you agree with Burke's assessment
regarding smallness being a cause of beauty?
"There is a wide difference between admiration and
love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former,
always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the
latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what
we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case
we are forced, in the other we are flattered into compliance" (801).
What is the underlying power dynamic that Burke describes
here? What are the implications of this power dynamic
in terms of authority? In terms of dependence? How
might this translate into gendered categories?
Section 14 -- Smoothness
Note Burke's list of smooth objects: trees, flowers,
leaves, gardens, streams, coats of birds and beasts,
skins of women, ornamental furniture. What does this
list suggest about beautiful objects? What does the
list suggest about women? What does this list suggest
about the person who is judging beauty?
Section 15 -- Gradual Variation
Why is it important for smoothness not to continue
Note again Burke's illustrations for his theory.
In particular analyze the values conveyed by his
description of "a beautiful woman, where she is
perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts"
(802). What do phrases like "deceitful maze" and
the "unsteady eye slides gidily" suggest?
Note also his rhetorical question: "Is not this a
demonstration of that change of surface continual
and yet hardly perceptible at any point which forms
one of the great constituents of beauty?" To whom
is he speaking? What does this assumed consensus
suggest about the right to judge beauty? To what
extent is aesthetic authority gendered in Burke's text?
Section 16 -- Delicacy
In this section, Burke asserts that "an air of
robustness and strength is very prejudicial to
beauty" (802). How does this contrast with the
qualities of the sublime? What are the implications
for beautiful poetry? Why are there no examples of
the beautiful in poetry? What does it mean that
women are consistently invoked as examples of Burke's
"I need here say little of the fair sex, where I
believe the point will be easily allowed me. The
beauty of women is considerably owing to their
weakness, or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their
timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it" (802).
To what extent do you agree with Burke? What
examples of this attitude or assumption can you
find in today's society? What does this suggest
about the literary values of his age? Which is
more important to Burke, beauty or the sublime?
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