Italy: the sublime, some comparisons

drawing on the texts in Italy

Morgan, Contemplations

literature sublime inhuman
distrust the promises of books . . . the unworn expectation But nature never disappoints. . . . [we cannot go beyond] the fact she dictates, or the image she presents the imagination feels the real poverty of its resources
  too strong for pleasure, too intense for enjoyment the summit of Mount Cenis, or of the Semplon . . . unimitated and inimitable
"horrible imaginings;" [Macbeth, I.iii.138]a where all is so new, novelty loses its charm  
  danger, painted in the unmastered savagery of remote scenes, creates an ideal and proximate peril  
[denies] thoughts "that wander through eternity." [Paradise Lost II, 148]b the falsity of the trite maxim, that the mind becomes elevated by the contemplation of nature. . . . [the mind] is stricken back upon its own insignificance Engines and agents of the destructive elements that rage around them
unaccommodated natures [King Lear III.iv.107]c all is at variance with his end and being  
where "cold performs the effect of fire" [Paradise Lost II, 595]d    
  to oppose the invading enemies of their country's struggling rights who grappled with obstacles coeval with creation, levelled the pinnacle and blew up the rock
    disputing with nature in all her potency her right to separate man from man

Quotations cited above:
                              Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murther yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.
To be no more; sad cure; for who would loose,
Though full of pain, this intellectual being,
Those thoughts that wander through Eternity,
To perish rather, swallowd up and lost
In the wide womb of uncreated night,
Devoid of sense and motion?
Ha! Here's three on's are sophisticated! Thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. Beyond this flood a frozen Continent . . .
Where Armies whole have sunk: the parching Air
Burns frore, and cold performs th' effect of Fire.


where the lava ran above the ground. Where the stream was broadest, it was twenty-two feet in breadth, and eighteen where narrowest . . . flowing at the rate of eighteen feet in a minute We approached the extremity of one of the rivers of lava; it is about twenty feet in breadth and ten in height; and as the inclined plane was not rapid, its motion was very slow. we turned to the right, towards the side of the hill, to seek a lateral opening, at that time discharging a constant torrent of lava.
But much more forcibly [than by glaciers] was I affected at the sight of this torrent of lava, which resembled a river of fire. It has not the immeasurable greatness, the overpowering magnificence, nor, above all, the radiant beauty of the glaciers  
For thirty or forty paces from its source, it had a red colour, but less ardent than that of the lava which flowed within the cavern I have mentioned above. Through this whole space its surface was filled with tumours which momentarily arose and disappeared. The lava, like the glacier, creeps on perpetually, with a crackling sound as of suppressed fire. . . . We saw the masses of its dark exterior surface detach themselves as it moved, and betray the depth of the liquid flame. chattering over a chasm, which exhibited the lava boiling and bubbling up within a few feet below where they stood . . . It was vain to gaze on the thin and trembling crust which vaulted the crater, and separated the spectator from an abyss of flame!

Spallanzani, on Etna

  Having . . . recovered by degrees my former presence of mind observe the internal part of this stupendous volcano
  how great a pleasure I felt at finding my labours and fatigue at length crowned with such complete success. This pleasure was exalted to a kind of rapture  
  I viewed with astonishment the configuration of the borders, the internal sides, the form of the immense cavern will only be possible to present the reader with a very feeble image, as the sight alone can enable him to form ideas at all adequate to objects so grand and astonishing
  form an oval . . . a kind of enormous steps . . . they form a kind of funnel . . . the muriate of ammoniac . . . several streams of smoke, which arose like thin clouds . . . perceived a liquid ignited matter Etna rises to a prodigious height . . . Nature had placed these noxious fumes as a guard to Etna . . . acknowledge the generous partiality she appeared to manifest towards me . . . the wind favouring my design
  a kind of geometric glance . . . the quantity of snows and ice . . .numerous woods, interrupted in various places a spectacle which, in its kind, and in the present age, is without a parallel in the world . . . The first of the sublime objects which it presents . . . rising perpendicularly; fearful to view and impossible to ascend . . . the wild variety of the scene . . . like a torn garment, to discover the nudity of the mountain . . .the eye contemplates, with admiration
  Reaumur's thermometer stood at the tenth degree above the freezing point I felt an indescribable pleasure from the multiplicity and beauty of the objects I surveyed; and a kind of internal satisfaction and exultation of heart.
  examine objects which might render my journey of greater utility the refined air I breathed, as if it had been entirely vital, communicated a vigour and agility to my limbs, and an activity and life to my ideas, which appeared to be of a celestial nature

For additional descriptions of the ascent of Etna, see Romanticism: The CD-ROM:

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Document created April 3rd 2003