In my last post I mentioned that Bodmer and Breitinger, in their defense of John Milton's Paradise Lost, made a case for "irregular" beauties, as against the symmetry and proportion demanded by neoclassical poetics. What could be more irregular than the Alps, with which both men were surrounded their entire lives long. And, indeed, those mountains are often invoked in discussions of the sublime in the 18th century. Joseph Addison, in Pleasures of the Imagination, writes of the delight occasioned by great objects: "the Prospects of an open Champian Country, a vast uncultivated Desart, of huge Heaps of Mountains, high Rocks and Precipicies, or a wide Expanse of Waters." He goes on to say that our "imagination loves to be filled with an Object, or to grasp at any thing that is too big for its Capacity." Immanuel Kant, in his pre-Critical Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764), mentioned mountains with peaks above clouds, raging storms, and Milton's portrayal of hell as arousing "enjoyment but with horror."
What surprised me about Bodmer and Breitinger, however, is that neither mountain beauties nor mountain horrors play a role in their thoughts on the sublime. Still, I think that their advocacy of "irregularity" in poetry may owe something to accounts of travelers concerning the effect on the imagination of the Swiss Alps. A major account of the mixed feeling of delight and dread was written by an English cleric, Thomas Burnet. In Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681 in Latin; 1684 in English), he wrote of seeing in the Alps "vast Bodies thrown together in Confusion. ... Rocks standing naked round about him; and the hollow Valleys gaping under him." He found himself appalled at the "incredible Confusion" that broke down all his ideals of symmetry and proportion. "They are the greatest examples of Confusion that we know in Nature; no Tempest nor Earthquake puts things into more Disorder."
At the same time, Burnet also conceded that the majesty of the mountains produced awe in him. Though the mountains are "ruins," they also "shew a certain Magnificence in Nature."
As I said, neither beauty nor dread in Bodmer or Breitinger, but in their advocacy of art that grips the imagination they may have been influenced by such accounts.
Yesterday, when I was looking for images to illustrate the post, I came across this painting by Salomon Gessner, whose pastoral tales Goethe criticized for their tameness. The scene shows nymphs, to be sure, but what struck me was the setting. It definitely does not look like a tame landscape. For Gessner and for Bodmer, the sublime was not so much a pyschological category as it was a tool of artists or poets to stimulate the imagination of viewer or reader. Here, Gessner introduces some "irregular" natural forms, while Bodmer defended Milton's irregular diction and striking metaphors.