Bri Colorful

Beyond Comprehension

Posted on: October 7, 2010

My experience with the Sublime

We’ve been studying William Wordsworth’s poetry in a couple of my classes. Wordsworth is one of the prime romantic poets. By romantic poet, we’re not talking about someone who wrote a bunch of sappy sonnets. Romanticism was born as a reaction to the revolutionary (political and technological) milieu of the late 18th century and is an artistic genre (sometimes described more as a pervasive feeling) in which artists questioned the epistemology of everything and limitations of reason and imagination. Romantic artists focused on the sublime, intuition, nature and imagination as legitimate, even superior, ways of thinking about the world.

In Digital Civilizations we were asked to read some articles that connected his poem Tintern Abbey* to the sublime. Romantic Poets had a preoccupation with the sublime power of  nature and Wordsworth was no exception.  His Lyrical Ballads seek to answer the questions of epistemology (where does our knowledge come from) and universal human suffering. Tintern Abbey, the last minute insertion at the end of Lyrical Ballads does just that.

Tintern Abbey has a push and pull feel to it. The speaker goes back and forth between the power of his childhood memories of nature and the fear that he will loose those memories and no longer have this connection to nature. His fear is legitimate because to Wordsworth nature and the sublime is the beginning and the end of knowledge and the answer to suffering. Nature leads us “from joy to joy: for she can so inform/ the mind that is within us, so impress/ with quietness and beauty, and so feed/ with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,/ rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men/ . . . shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb/ our cheerful faith that all which we behold is full of blessings.” This is his description of the sublime, the effect that nature has upon us. Nature is the foundation of both joy and knowledge; it can remind us of our infinite blessings and fill us with faith.

Katherine Hales has compared the sublimity of nature in Tintern Abbey to that felt in awe of the internet on her blog. I cannot say that I fully agree with her argument that the internet can be the sublime for us in the same way that nature was sublime for Wordsworth. She writes “In [the internet] we can find this same kind of power to influence our thoughts and actions that Wordsworth experiences in nature, if only we make the effort to see it. The internet is incredibly grand and powerful, uncontrollable, and both intimately connected with and utterly separate from ourselves. It is a perfect example of the sublime.”

This slot canyon filled me with awe for the sublimity of nature.

We create meta data and organizational tools to try to organize and tame the internet. By doing so we destroy nothing about the internet: it was created by man, for man. But as much as we try to tame the wild, we cannot. We can shape and farm and create highways through and cities over but we cannot truly tame Nature.  When we do, we destroy the inherent wildness and beauty of nature. We have not yet mastered the ocean. We can do many things to get around and over it; we have mapped much of it; but we cannot organize and tag its components and I believe therein lies the difference. The sublimity of nature is incomprehensible. The internet is still within the scope and boundaries of man to understand.

*The full name of the poem is “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798.

6 Responses to "Beyond Comprehension"

Bri, this is beautifully written. I know this is not spot on topic, but this piece reminded me of our days studying biology in the grass at Clark. As the daughter of a forester, I was taught a reverence and respect for nature early in my life. I really loved this poem in its entirety. My favorite part was the second stanza, where tells us what gifts he has received from Nature.

Thanks for sharing this poem and your thoughts.
Love you!

Amanda I LOVE you!! That’s exactly how I feel about our days at Clark. I’m so glad you read (and experienced) the poem!

Interesting argument. I agree. The Internet is far from sublime. I don’t think she can have truly understood what Wordsworth was trying to say

I appreciate the reference, and the criticism! I agree that there are many differences between a natural and technological sublime, and that any connection between the two can be difficult to see. I don’t think that the sublime found in the Internet is equal to or can replace a natural sublime (as a very romantic nature-lover myself), but I do think that certain aspects of the sublime that Wordsworth describes in Tintern Abbey can be found in the Internet, particularly the feeling of mental (as well as physical) seclusion that I focused on in my analysis of the poem. To reiterate what I said before (sorry to quote my own words):

“The immediate assumption would be that such a feeling of seclusion [that Wordsworth describes in Tintern Abbey] would be unreachable in something as intimately connected to ourselves as technology, which is created by and for mankind. And yet we can see how the internet draws us away from the physical world and the familiar into a new and very complicated universe. Though created by us, the number of contributors and complexity of the information has morphed the internet into something far greater than ourselves, so great and all-encompassing that it really is incomprehensible. And this can bring a paradoxical sense of seclusion, of separateness from the familiar and manageable, despite the supreme connectedness that the internet represents. The internet becomes an object as much larger than ourselves as Wordsworth’s “lofty cliffs,” and just as outside of our control” (

So I hold by my argument that the Internet is sublime, but I love to hear other thoughts on it!

I agree with Amanda, this was a beautifully written post. As for the content, I think that both you and Katherine make excellent points and I am inclined to agree with aspects of both of your arguments. that being said, I would like to add this perspective to the dialogue:
What are your feelings towards Google Earth, Google Street View etc.? Though I am fascinated by these and other programs, they almost create within me a deep sense of disappointment—as if my sense of exploration, discovery, mystery, and the unknown (all of these encompassed by the sublime) have been deflated and stamped out of me. Being able to view the entire earth from my computer screen, to me, is almost the epitome of anti-sublime. Technology has made the world smaller (and in many ways this is a good thing), that is for certain, but in doing so has it in some sense destroyed that from which “the sublime arises: from those things much greater than ourselves?”

[…] Babbage’s Difference Machine. I also wrote about theme of romanticism in two posts (Beyond Comprehension and A Response to Lyrical Ballads) and tried to give examples of principles from this historical […]

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