On the Sublime
Art, Awe, and Poetry in Translation
On The Sublime is the title of an ancient book about literary grandeur attributed to a relatively unknown author called Longinus. For Longinus, ‘the sublime’ comprised elevated thought or language of a kind that inspires awe, as found in the epics of Homer and in the Bible.
The term ‘sublimity’ took on a new life after Longinus’s book was rediscovered in the 16th century. The notion was explored by Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, among others, and was associated with overwhelming, almost supernatural feelings of awe and even terror tantamount to physical pain, evoked for instance by the sight of a huge mountain, the sound of a marvellous symphony, or the words of a stirring poem.
When a piece of music makes our hair stand on end – Whitney Houston singing ‘I will always love you’, perhaps, or Rachmaninov’s 2nd piano concerto – when a work of art moves us so that we can barely hold back tears or even breathe, that is a sign of sublimity.
These thoughts were prompted when I recently read a mystical poem by the German poet Rilke (1875-1926), which begins
Mach mich zum Wächter deiner Weiten,
mach mich zum Horchenden am Stein,
gib mir die Augen auszubreiten
auf deiner Meere Einsamsein;
lass mich der Flüsse Gang begleiten
aus dem Geschrei zu beiden Seiten
weit in den Klang der Nacht hinein.
The evocation of vast expanses, stone, and sea (in rhyming iambic meter) gives it, for me, an aura of sublimity. Can that come across in translation? To do so one needs, I believe, to retain rhythm and rhyme, which makes it impossible for the translation to be wholly literal.
Make me the watchman of your vastness,
make me a listener to stone;
make it so my eyes are opened
to oceans, boundless and alone.
Let me accompany the river
past the shrill encircling cries,
making its way through sounding spaces
far into night's darkened skies.
I feel a similar sense of sublimity when I read Mavilis's sonnet Kallipateira, about the woman who was spared death after illicitly watching the Olympics when she invoked the athletic heroes of her family recorded in 'immortal Pindar's hymn'. In my translation here I tried to create something of the spine-tingling effect that the poem had on me.