Literature, Art, and the Sublime

Module code: EN3154

Module co-ordinator: to be confirmed

This module invites students to consider the ways in which writers, artists, and philosophers respond to the concept of the sublime. From its origins in the classical age to its development as a key theoretical term in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, the sublime has been used to refer to ideas of the great, the awe-inspiring, and the overpowering. Today, in a world beset with massive political, cultural, technological, and environmental challenges, the sublime is back in vogue.


Organised through a series of interdisciplinary seminars, we begin with a reading of pseudo-Longinus's landmark essay On Sublimity (1st century CE), focusing on its influence on Roman, medieval European, and Renaissance literature. We then go on to look at how the sublime is developed in the eighteenth century in the writings of the Irish statesman and theorist Edmund Burke and in the work of the German Idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the second half of the course our attention turns to the Romantic and Victorian periods. We will consider how poets, such as Coleridge and Shelley, and painters, such as Turner and Martin, forged their own, unique visions of the sublime. Turning to the twentieth century, we will examine the work of the American Abstract Expressionist painters Rothko and Barnett. The module concludes with an assessment of the 'postmodern sublime' in writings by Jean-François Lyotard and Slavoj Žižek and in art works by, for example, Walter De Maria, Mariele Neudecker, and James Turrell.


Seminars will provide the opportunity for students to clarify and reflect on the formal, historical, and conceptual forces that inform the concept of the sublime. To this end, students are required to participate in seminar discussion and to present at least one ten-minute oral presentation (non-assessed).

In addition to the set reading for this module, students will be encouraged to make use of the resources available on the Tate's 'Sublime Object' website.

By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  • Read, think, talk, and write about the theory of the sublime with confidence, sophistication and rigour
  • Demonstrate knowledge and understanding of a selection of theoretical writings, literary texts, and artworks from the eighteenth century to the present day
  • Compare and contrast works from different genres
  • Analyse texts and images with independent judgement and with a critical grasp of appropriate secondary material
  • Develop and sustain a complex argument
  • Access, organise, and present information to a satisfactory level in both oral and written contexts


  • A 2,000-word essay, to be submitted before the Easter vacation, and a 3,000-word project
  • One 5,000-word essay