Monday, September 9, 2013


Henry J. M. Day, Lucan and the Sublime: Power, Representation and Aesthetic Experience. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. x, 262. ISBN 9781107020603. $95.00.

Reviewed by Christopher Chinn, Pomona College (

Version at BMCR home site


In this provocative book Henry Day examines Lucan's Bellum Civile using the concept of the sublime as a critical lens. Day's definition of the sublime is based upon an amalgamation of features taken from writers of antiquity (Longinus, Lucretius), the Enlightenment (Burke, Kant), and post-modernity (Lyotard, Ankersmit). This trans-historical approach, coupled with the use of a somewhat old-fashioned concept (the sublime), constitutes a conscious "aesthetic turn" on the part of the author. Building upon the work of Charles Martindale,1 Day argues that the political and historical embeddedness of literature need not preclude our making rather (if not entirely purely) disinterested judgments of taste upon literature. Day's approach, however, is far from "old-fashioned" or simply reactionary; like Martindale, Day engages critically with much literary theory on the "other side," particularly postmodern theories that tend to collapse "literary" and "ordinary" texts into a single category. Day is taking part in a larger movement in literary studies generally, a movement that may be termed the "revenge of the aesthetic," whereby the critic attempts to appreciate (again) the value of the literary text.2

Day's overall goal with the book is twofold. First, he wants to demonstrate that the Bellum Civile is a sublime poem. Second, he wants to show that the Bellum Civile is an important text in the history of the concept of the sublime (11-12). In order to accomplish the second goal, Day argues that Lucan's poem exhibits many features of the sublime, insofar as the concept has been defined throughout its theoretical history. Most of the book, however, is devoted to the first goal. Day argues that there are two main strands of the sublime in the Bellum Civile, namely the "Caesarian" and the "Pompeian" strands. The Caesarian sublime is based upon our sublime experience of nature, while the Pompeian sublime is based upon our sublime experience of history. The sublime experience of nature was famously described by Kant in his Third Critique, but Day also finds evidence for the sublimity of nature in ancient texts as well. For the sublime experience of history Day relies upon the model of Frank Ankersmit (with whom, according to Day, Longinus shares many affinities) and his theory of trauma in the experience of history.

It will be apparent from the summary above that Day's analysis relies upon large-scale conceptual affinities between a large number of texts written over a long span of time. This rather inclusive conception of intertextuality may be uncomfortable for some readers, especially those who want to see positive conclusions based upon fairly certain lexical correspondences.3 To be sure, Day does engage in this latter sort of specific analysis of deliberate allusions (see for example 81-82). For the most part, however, Day is concerned to place Lucan within the long tradition of the sublime (as he sees it) from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Consequently, Day's normal procedure is to examine a passage in Lucan, and to read that passage against the background of both ancient and modern conceptions of the sublime. Often this procedure takes the form of detecting an intertext between Lucan and Lucretius, who in turn is seen to have conceptual affinities with Longinus. Day will then develop further parallels with later writers, for example Burke and Kant in the case of the Caesarian sublime, Lyotard and Ankersmit in the case of the Pompeian sublime. These large-scale intertextualities are the most provocative aspect of the book, and will prove to be the most controversial to some readers (though not this reader).

In the Introduction, Day lays out his project in general terms by surveying some modern accounts of sublimity (4-11), by hinting at Lucan's participation in the profound ambivalence implied by the concept of sublimity (11-17), and by acknowledging his project's "aesthetic turn" (18-27). A key concept to emerge here is the connection between the sublime on the one hand, and freedom and tyranny on the other. This connection is crucial to Day's understanding of Lucan, who is quite concerned with the issues of freedom and tyranny in the Bellum Civile.

Chapter One provides a selective history of the concept of the sublime, from Longinus through various modern theorists. Day argues that many critics have gone too far in divorcing Longinus from modern conceptions of the sublime (for example by limiting Longinus' text to the analysis of oratorical figures and styles) and claims that Peri hupsous is an extremely important text in the history of sublimity (30-42). Day goes on to argue for the importance of Lucretius' contribution to the ancient conception of the sublime (42-48). This is crucial, since Lucretius plays an important role in Day's subsequent intertextual analyses of the Bellum Civile. Day then surveys the contributions of Burke and Kant to our understanding of the sublime, and how their accounts overlap with those of their ancient predecessors (48-55). Burke is particularly important for Day, since Burke wrote explicitly about both Longinus and Lucretius. Finally, Day looks at various modern and post-modern accounts of the sublime (55-63). Overall Day emphasizes the following qualities in the sublime throughout history: (1) the sublime powerfully moves us; (2) the sublime presents the unpresentable; (3) the sublime derives power from language; (4) the sublime has an aesthetic (or "safe") dimension; (5) the sublime is "double-edged," in that it can be both a positive or a negative experience; (6) as noted above, the sublime may be connected with freedom and tyranny.

Chapter Two turns to Lucan. Here the author argues that the Bellum Civile is a kind of study in the double-edged nature of the sublime. This argument anticipates the following two chapters in which Day reads Caesar and Pompey as representing, respectively, the negative and positive aspects of sublime experience. Here we get a good example of Day's normal critical procedure (73-82). Day argues that Lucan consciously presents civil war as a sublime theme. Day shows that Lucan's comparison of the civil war to the collapse of the universe alludes to a passage in Lucretius. The Lucretian passage is in turn connected with Longinus via a somewhat convoluted pathway: Longinus commends a series of Homeric images as sublime; Burke picks up on this Longinian passage and connects the Homeric passages with Lucretius and Vergil; Philip Hardie demonstrates an allusive connection between the Lucretian and Vergilian passages and a passage in Ennius; there is a direct allusion in Lucan's description of the murder of Marius Gratidianus in Bellum Civile 2 to this Ennian description of Discordia; the Gratidianus episode is taken as paradigmatic of the civil war generally, and hence of the poem itself. From this constellation of intertextual connections, Day concludes that Lucan is presenting his subject, civil war, as something sublime, and that he is doing so within the recognizable limits of the discourse of the sublime through history. Similar connections between Lucan on the one hand, and Longinus, Burke, and Kant on the other, round out the chapter.

Chapter Three turns to the "Caesarian sublime," and the various ways in which Lucan characterizes his Caesar as sublime. Day examines several sets of passages in which Caesar is equated (primarily) with sublime natural phenomena: the various comparisons of Caesar to a thunderbolt throughout the poem (107-16); the comparisons of Caesar to Hannibal and the Alps during his initial foray into Italy in (116-136); Caesar's assertion of mastery over nature in the Massilian grove scene (136-143); the comparison of the Adriatic storm's power with Caesar's power (143-156); the comparisons of Caesar with Ocean, Aetna, and the Nile (156-164). From all this Day concludes first that Lucan characterizes Caesar in terms that anticipate the discourse of the sublime in Longinus, Burke, Kant, and others. Day also concludes that Caesar's outsized character is sublimely destructive and ultimately negative. Day relates all this to the themes of freedom and tyranny in the Bellum Civile, themes that have exercised scholars for many a year.4 According to Day, many of the thematic tensions in the poem may be explained according to the double-edged logic of the sublime: sublimity may involve the experience of both grandeur and dread.

Chapter Four addresses the "Pompeian sublime" by using the conception of the historical sublime. Day employs a mash-up of Longinus and Frank Ankersmit to formulate a theory of the sublime based upon the potential for collective trauma that intense moments of rupture in the historical timeline can create (179-189). Examples of this kind of rupture include the U.S. Civil War, the two twentieth-century revolutions in Russia (189), and 9/11 (66-69). According to this reading Lucan's choice of civil war as a theme represents history as having two halves, a before and after. The civil war is the pivotal point of rupture in this scheme, and the alienation of the present from the past that stems from this rupture constitutes the sublime experience. For Day, Lucan's portrayal of Pompey embodies this experience. Pompey's fall from greatness mirrors the fall of the Republic, and sublimity is achieved in both instances through the well-known paradoxes of Lucan's narrative: Pompey, like the Republic, attains to sublime grandeur only through his fall. As Day puts it, "[t]his is the ultimate vision of sublime restitution, Pompey's true grandeur arising from his final negation" (228).

The book's epilogue contains several examples of the reception of the Bellum Civile that tend to correspond to Day's understanding of the poem. The account here is generally effective at demonstrating the utility of Day's trans-historical approach to Lucan, and helps to bring into relief Day's conception of the double-edged nature of the sublime.

This book makes two principal contributions to the scholarly conversation. First, it provides a highly theorized reading of Lucan in terms of the sublime, and second it contributes to the "return to the aesthetic" movement in the study of Latin poetry. Moreover, Day's book also provides a satisfactory resolution to many of the contradictions scholars have found in Lucan's poem. From the argument that Lucan is consciously presenting his poem as something sublime, it follows that the inherent ambiguity of the sublime would leave its mark on the poem, and that the apparent contradictions in the poem are therefore an effect of the sublime. On the whole, the book is intriguing and raised several further questions in this reviewer. Is Lucan peculiarly sublime, or are other writers in the Roman epic tradition like Vergil and Statius equally sublime? If Lucan's ambiguities are largely aesthetic in nature, does it follow that the poem is non-political? Does the version of the sublime in Lucan enable us to make aesthetic judgments on other Latin poets? Are capacious conceptions of intertextuality and trans-historical concepts useful tools in the reading of Latin poetry? These are some of the larger issues provoked by Day's book, which will constitute a useful contribution to Lucan studies.5


1.   For a summary of his work see Charles Martindale, "Reception – a new humanism? Receptivity, pedagogy, and the transhistorical." Classical Receptions Journal 5.2 (2013) 169-183.
2.   See e.g. Michael Clark (ed.) Revenge of the aesthetic: the place of literature in theory today. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2000 and Jonathan Loesberg, A return to the aesthetic. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.
3.   On the issue of the limits of intertextualism and Roman poetry see Stephen Hinds, Allusion and intertext: dynamics of appropriation in Roman poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998 and Lowell Edmunds, Intertextuality and the reading of Roman poetry. Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
4.   Day cites (28 n. 86) Shadi Bartsch, Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan's Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997 and Susanna Braund's introduction to Charles Tesoriero (ed.) Lucan. Oxford readings in classical studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
5.   I could find only one minor typographical error: "turn-off head" on p. 228 should be "torn-off head."

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