Romanticism's Sublime Style in Rip Van Winkle, Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Billy Budd
"Sublime refers to an aesthetic value in which the primary factor is the presence or suggestion of transcendent vastness or greatness, as of power, heroism, extent in space or time"(Internet Encyclopedia). This essay will explore different levels of Romanticism's sublime style in Washington Irving's Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The essay will particularly focus on how the writers incorporate the spiritual and the terror aspects of the sublime into their work.
American romanticism requires the wilds of nature to be the setting for the sublime. It is in this setting that the protagonist senses a conflict of good and evil. Even though the beautiful surroundings would suggests a pure serenity, the shadows in the beautiful setting reminds one that there is a dark side to nature. In each story there is an antagonist lurking about requiring the protagonist to choose his thinking - and ultimately his destiny. The antagonist in Billy Budd is Claggart, in The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, Brom Bones, and in Rip Van Winkle it could be a toss up between his nagging wife or the "company of odd-looking personages" he meets in the mountains.
Essentially it is Longinus, a first century philosopher, who is first credited with introducing the idea of the sublime into the arts (Weiskel 8). Longinus suggests five sources of sublimity in literature: "(1) the ability to conceive great thoughts, (2) intense emotion, (3) powerful figures of speech, (4) the choice of noble words, and (5) harmonious composition of sentences" (Kennedy, vol. 12). Each of Longinus? foundational sources for sublimity suggests an experience that transcends beyond the normal. Moreover, each of these sources result in the reader?s own sublime experience. Longinus writes in his Peri Hypsous. "For as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard" (qtd in Weiskel 3).
Friedrich von Schiller, a German poet and philosopher from the 18th century, suggests there is more to the sublime than a feeling of transcendence. "?The beautiful, says Schiller, is valuable only with reference to the human being, but the sublime with reference to the pure daemon in man, the statutes of pure spirit?" (qtd. in Weiskel 3). Daemon is translated from the German language÷demon. Schiller is suggesting that the sublime is more than physical beauty. For the sublime to be meaningful it needs to include the goblins lurking about inside the human.
Like Schiller, Edmund Burke a British philosopher from the 18th century, also suggests the sublime is more than a transcending feeling; it includes an intense feeling of terror. In his Section VII Of the Sublime Burke writes:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that...