In Awe of Art: Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime


In 1757 Irish writer Edmund Burke published his treaty ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’. It would become a foundational philosophy for Romantic writers such as Coleridge and Woodsworth.

Burke believed that it was our emotions (passions) that formed our ideas of the world around us and influencing our actions.

He concluded that the sublime—which inspires awe and a little bit of terror at our own insignificance—is our strongest emotion. For example, a storm that causes destruction or the agelessness of a towering mountain reinforce that human lives are short and at the mercy of nature.

However, it wasn’t just in nature that the sublime can be found. Burke argued that we can also access the sublime through poetry and prose that seem grand in comparisons to our ordinary lives. In fact, this mix of fear and wonder can also be seen in the Gothic literature that became popular in the late eighteenth century. For example, it’s why we see poetry *and* detailed nature descriptions in Ann Radcliffe’s work.

What art or landscapes make you feel a sense of the sublime?

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