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Versions of the Sublime: Illustrating Paradise Lost

1. Heroism

1. Heroism

Joseph Addison, the early eighteenth century critic, in a discussion in The Spectator (1712) which was frequently republished in editions of Milton’s poetry, wrote of Milton that

As his Genius was wonderfully turned to the Sublime, his Subject is the noblest that could have entered into the Thoughts of Man. Every thing that is truly great and astonishing, has a place in it. The whole System of the intellectual World; the Chaos and the Creation; Heaven and Earth and Hell; enter into the constitution of his Poem.… By Greatness I do not only mean the Bulk of any single Object, but the largeness of a whole View, considered as one entire Piece. Such are the Prospects of an open Champaign Country, a vast uncultivated Desert, huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipices, or a wide Expanse of Waters, where we are not only struck with the Novelty or Beauty of the Sight, but with that rude kind of Magnificence which appears in many of these stupendous works of Nature Our Imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to graspe at any thing that is too big for its Capacity.17

This account, which has the effect of placing the human, whether as a component of the scene or its spectator, in subordinated opposition to the powers of the non-human, is elaborated through the eighteenth century and finds a variety of artistic exemplifications.18 Westall’s and Martin’s illustrations of Milton both demonstrate both two principal lines of development in the art of the sublime and the continuous presence for over a century of Milton as the preeminent poet of the sublime.

Two representations of Satan will serve to locate the first principal contrast I wish to make. They are, respectively, Westall’s illustration of Satan and Beelzebub, from Book 1 (Fig.2), and Martin’s of Satan enthroned in Pandemonium, from Book 2 (Fig.1). Just one glance demonstrates immediately how different in conception the illustrations are - the two features which they have in common are Satan’s upraised arm and an enveloping darkness, with the figure of Satan only strongly lit. The differences can be located analytically through terms used to distinguish two modes of the sublime: the material (or physical or technological) sublime, to which Martin’s picture can be referred, and the psychic or subjective sublime, applicable to Westall’s. In his discussion of these terms, Martin Meisel shows how Charles Lamb’s description of Martin’s paintings as examples of the material sublime was not intended as a compliment but to associate his style of painting with the theatrical, as the creation of sublime effects by spectacular, mechanical means. Meisel affirms that ‘the charge against Martin that he was trapped in the material made no sense to most of his huge nineteenth-century audience, for whom he was an “ideal” painter whose greatest work served precisely to demonstrate the vanity of the material and of all earthly pomp and pride.’19 As with the other strongly contrasted judgments on Martin already quoted, the issue is clearly not whether a painting achieves sublimity but how the spectator’s experience is framed or controlled. The Council of the fallen angels, with Satan enthroned at its centre, is a place evocative of enormous power; as Milton describes it by contrast with the achievements of human magnificence.

Not Babylon,
Nor great Alcairo such magnificence
Equall’d in all their glories, to enshrine
Belus or Serapis their Gods, or seat
Their Kings, when Eqypt with Assyria strove
In wealth and luxury. (1.717-22)

The measure of power in this description, as throughout the last hundred lines of Book 1, is material scale - in architectural mass and volume, speed of construction, and the ‘Throng numberless’ of the attendant angels - and technologically implemented creative and intellectual energy, which includes the invention of artificial light. The image is one of corporate order and focus; while Satan is placed in the position of unchallenged eminence, it is our ability to convert the small space of the page into an imagined space of

Figure 1. John Martin, illustration to Book 2.1, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council.

Figure 1. John Martin, illustration to Book 2.1, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council.

All illustrations in this article are from the Rare English Collection, Special Printed Collections, Alexander Turnbull Library, and are used with permission. Works by John Martin are mezzotints from John Milton, The Paradise Lost (London, 1825).

cosmic proportions which completes the effect of enormous power. Just to focus on the figure of Satan could not produce that effect; to place him and his throne on a globe which itself evokes a world (even an imitation of the earth within the sphere of the fixed stars)20 associates him with power without making him its sole source. Because this scene is not in itself a scene of catastrophe, with the moral framing which that context provides, but one of intellectual and technological achievement, it makes visible and apprehensible the awesomeness of material power as such and its exercise in the pursuit of corporate goals. The constraint on the engraving’s implications is introduced through its title, Satan Presiding at the Infernal Council, and through the moral commentary which is provided by the opening lines of Book 2; but even if the eminence is ‘bad’ and the imagery of wealth and regal power ‘Barbaric’, it is also a scene of exaltation. In contrast to the scenes of the defeat of the rebel angels, which emphasize the dispersal of their force and their attempt to take control in heaven by showing them falling through turbulent and alien space or being tossed by huge waves in an enormous cavern (as Milton describes them, ‘Angel Forms, who lay intranc’d/Thick as Autumnal Leaves/In Vallombrosa, where th’Etrurian shades/High overarch’t embow’r;’ (1.301-304), the entirely constructed space of Pandemonium signifies the successful imposition of intellectual

Figure 2. Richard Westall, illustration to Book 1.315.

Figure 2. Richard Westall, illustration to Book 1.315.

Works credited to Richard Westall are engravings designed by Richard Westall, from John Milton, The Poetical Works (London, 1794-97).

and societal order on inorganic nature. Martin follows his source here just as he does in his portrayal of heaven, bringing together the description in Book 3 of angelic joy – ‘where the river of Bliss through midst of Heav’n/Rolls o’er Elysian Flow’rs her amber stream’ (3.358-59) - with the naming of heaven’s architect, who falls to become the architect of Pandemonium – ‘his hand was known/In Heav’n by many a Tow’red structure high .... Men call’d him Mulciber’ (1.732-740) - and the description at the end of Book 2 of heaven’s ‘Opal Tow’rs and Battlements adorned/Of living Sapphire’(2.1049-50). When Milton thinks of society, he thinks architecturally, just as Martin does; Addison’s grandeur, manifested in the largeness of the whole view’, is achieved not only by the ‘rude kind of magnificence’ of natural objects but by built environments, mathematically ordered and technologically constructed.

By linking Martin’s pictures to the theatre pejoratively through the term ‘material sublime’, Lamb was adopting a position on representation which was central to much of the literary painting and book illustration which took its subject from plays and is exemplified by Richard Westall’s approach to painting a scene from Shakespeare, which is described in a report quoted by Altick: Westall ‘told Farington in 1806 that “he had never seen the Character of Falstaff exhibited on the stage, and should not be induced to it unless tempted by a very extraordinary account given of someone who may attempt it. At present”, noted Farington, “he has in His imagination the Character personified & is not willing to interrupt that idea by an imperfect representation very different from it”’.21

Meisel defines the subjective sublime by reference to Shelley and Byron; the former ‘carried the impulse furthest, into verbal and affective textures’ whereas the latter was ‘the poet of ... an inner drama set among scenes of glaring material sublimity and intermingled sordidness’. His argument derives from the fact that stage versions of Byron’s works drew heavily on Martin for their settings; in the context of Westall’s illustration, the subjective sublime is articulated through the embodiment of an inner drama in a figure the action of which is powerfully rhetorical. Addison’s ‘largeness of the whole view’ is not achieved by ‘prospects’ but by an intense focus on a figure or figures of heroic proportions, caught in a posture expressive of a state of mind. In such an image, sublimity as the effect of the manifestation of awesome power is achieved by placing the spectator into close proximity with the figure utterly absorbed in the mental action which the posture of the body signifies. There is no context of ‘rude nature’ to disperse attention from the figure; in this instance, Beelzebub echoes the heroic assertion made by Satan. The lighting of the picture and the swirl of drapery dramatically distinguishes the energetic heroic angelic/human form from the inchoate darkness which fills the frame. In contrast to Martin’s picture, Satan is unequivocally the source of power as well as being at the centre, and that source is psychic or spiritual, not material. In this emphasis, Westall is also reading what is there in the poem; not only the immediate reference to Book 1.315 (‘He call’d so loud, that all the hollow deep/Of Hell resounded’), but also the later close-up description of Satan’s reviewing his reorganised army:

he above the rest
In shape and gesture proudly eminent
Stood like a Tow’r; his form had not yet lost
All her Original brightness ... his face
Deep scars of Thunder had intrencht, and care
Sat on his faded cheek, but under Brows
Of dauntless courage, and considerate Pride
Waiting revenge. (1.589-604)

Such an image locates power in the individual, the sense of awe and grandeur being produced in the spectator/reader by the absolute dominance of the angelic/human form over the space which barely contains it. It is as though there is no middle ground between nothingness and transcendence; in the rhetorical conception of the body, which renders it the means by which the mind impresses itself on material reality and reveals its moral character, the shape taken by the body itself is in conformity with a moral concept, that of heroism, and not nature.