All entries for January 2012

January 30, 2012

Edmund Burke, 'Reflections on the Revolution in France'

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Charlotte Smith's Desmond is, amongst many things, a response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, written in 1790. In this, he argued for gradual reform, rather than revolution. He believed that the French Revolution would end catastrophically, because it was underpinned by something that was abstract and therefore insecure-- the Enlightenment.

As outlined by Vincent B. Leitch et al., Burke inveighed against unfettered democracy and dangerous appeals to the universal "rights of man" as he defended tradition, monarchy, and a hereditary aristocracy: 'He resisted abstract speculation and (as he defined then) systems and schemes for social and political change that ignored the long history and organic interrelatedness of sociopolitical life, culture and institutions. Society, for Burke, means a "partnership" between "those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born." It is dangerously wrong to interfere with this partnership, however alluring the ideals invoked as justification.'

Against Burke, the French Revolution was defended by several important British radicals, besides Smith. Most notable of these was Thomas Paine, who, in 1791, published The Rights of Man, and also Mary Wollstonecraft, who reacted quickly and aggressively in 1790 with her Vindication of the Rights of Man, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France. Both attacked hereditary privilege and Wollstonecraft went further, attacking the very rhetoric that Burke employed.


Leitch, Vincent B. (gen. ed.), The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (New York; London: W.W Norton Company, 2001), p.537

January 16, 2012

Edmund Burke's 'A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful'

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Edmund Burke's 'Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful' (1757), suggests that 'terror is in all cases [...] the ruling principle of the sublime', an emotional and violent sensation. 'The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature', he argues, 'is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.' His philosophy developed, but differed, from John Dennis (1657-1734) and Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), who had employed the sublime to express an appreciation of the awe of nature;a contrast of horror and harmony.

Professor George P. Landlow goes on to explain that: 'In addition to the emphasis which he places on terror, Burke is important because he explained the opposition of beauty and sublimity by a physiological theory. He made the opposition of pleasure and pain the source of the two aesthetic categories, deriving beauty from pleasure and sublimity from pain. According to Burke, the pleasure of beauty has a relaxing effect on the fibers of the body, whereas sublimity, in contrast, tightens these fibers. Thus, by using the authority of his ingenious theory, he could oppose the beautiful and sublime: "The ideas of the sublime and the beautiful stand on foundations so different, that it is hard, I had almost said impossible, to think of reconciling them in the same subject, without considerably lessening the effect of the one or the other upon the passions'' [113-114]. Burke's use of this physiological theory of beauty and sublimity makes him the first English writer to offer a purely aesthetic explanation of these effects; that is, Burke was the first to explain beauty and sublimity purely in terms of the process of perception and its effect upon the perceiver.'

January 09, 2012

Ann Radcliffe 'On the Supernatural in Poetry'

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Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823), one of the pioneers of the Gothic genre, was the first to distinguish between "terror" and "horror", in her essay On the Supernatural in Poetry. In her view "terror and Horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life [leading to the sublime]; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them [...] neither Shakespeare nor Milton by their fictions, nor Mr Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil".

The full article, which will be of great use this term, can be viewed by clicking on the link above.

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