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  You are in: Home > Literary Criticism & Linguistics > Reinventing the Sublime  

Reinventing the Sublime
Post-Romantic Literature and Theory

Steven Vine

Steven Vine is Senior Lecturer in English at Swansea University, and among many articles is the author of Blake’s Poetry: Spectral Visions (1993), Emily Brontë (1998) and William Blake (2007). He is the editor of the Penguin edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod (1995), and of Literature in Psychoanalysis: a Reader (2005).


Reinventing the Sublime looks at the return of the sublime in postmodernity, and at intimations of a ‘post-Romantic’ sublime in Romanticism itself. The sublime is explored as a discourse of ‘invention’ – taking the Latin meaning of to ‘come upon’, ‘find’, ‘discover’ – that involves an encounter with the new, the unregulated and the surprising. Lyotard and Žižek, among others, have reconfigured the sublime for postmodernity by exceeding the subject-centred discourse of Romantic aesthetics, and promoting not a sublime of the subject, but of the unpresentable, the ‘Real’, the unknown, the other.

Reinventing the Sublime looks at 18th-century, Romantic, modernist and postmodern ‘inventions’ of the sublime alongside contemporary critical accounts of the relationship of sublimity to subjectivity, aesthetics, politics and history, including ‘9/11’. It reads Burke and Kant alongside postmodern discourses on the sublime, and Wordsworth, De Quincey and Mary Shelley in relation to temporality and materiality in Romanticism, and considers ‘modernist’ inflections of the sublime in T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes in relation to the themes of disjunction and excess in modernity. The author examines the postmodern revisiting of the sublime in Thomas Pynchon, D.M Thomas and Toni Morrison, and draws on Lyotard’s reading of the sublime as an aesthetic of the avant-garde and as a singular and disruptive ‘event’, to argue that the sublime in its postmodern and contemporary forms encodes an anxious but affirmative relationship to the ironies of temporality and history.

Reinventing the Sublime focuses on the endurance of the sublime in contemporary thinking, and on the way that the sublime can be read as a figure of the relationship of representation to temporality itself.


1 Introduction: Reinventing the Sublime

2 William Blake’s Materialities
3 Mary Shelley’s Bodies
4 Thomas De Quincey’s Identifications

5 T.S. Eliot’s Intensities: The Waste Land
6 Virginia Woolf’s Disjunctions: Mrs Dalloway
7 Djuna Barnes’s Night Life: Nightwood

8 Thomas Pynchon’s Entropy: The Crying of Lot 49
9 D.M. Thomas’s Anamnesis: The White Hotel
10 Toni Morrison’s Belatedness: Beloved


“By drawing attention to the variety of ways in which ideas of identity have been challenged by encounters with the ineffable, the terrifying and the boundless, Vine’s elegant and persuasive study advances our understanding of the concept of the sublime considerably. In addition to presenting challenging new accounts of the sublime in the English Romantic period, an especially valuable aspect of Reinventing the Sublime is its focus on the reinvention of the concept as ‘queer’ or ‘traumatic’ in modernist and postmodernist writings.” Philip Shaw, Professor of English, University of Leicester

This is an important and thought-provoking book. Steven Vine provides a stimulating, ambitious and exceptionally clearly written account of the ways in which the sublime has functioned as a central figure in theory and literature from the eighteenth century to the present. Through lucid expositions of contemporary theoretical ideas and insightful readings of key literary texts, Reinventing the Sublime develops a series of original, sometimes provocative and always compelling arguments about the continuing importance of sublime aesthetics for discussions of identity, history, ethics and politics. The precision of the writing and depth of scholarship makes this book essential reading for any scholar of post-Romantic literature and theory. Dr Simon Malpas, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh

Shifting critical focus from Romantic authors to the postmodern in an always carefully crafted, lucid prose, Vine brings to bear on his subjects a critical voice at the top of its game. Demonstrating why theoretical discourse matters, how it is not the antagonist to a sensitive materialist criticism, and why close reading still remains the hallmark of intellectual endeavour in the humanities, Revinventing the Sublime is, itself, a powerfully performative work. Not simply a first rate critical study, Steven Vine's book is an event. Julian Wolfreys, Professor of Modern Literature and Culture, Loughborough University

Reviewed in:

Studies of the aesthetic category of the sublime," as embodied in post-Romantic literature, commonly bristle with jargon, do not engage in sustained literary interpretation, and fail to convince. Vine (Swansea Univ., UK) does not stint on theory: Burke and Kant appear here of course, alongside heady doses of Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Jean-François Lyotard. But here the commonalities end. Vine writes with admirable, even astonishing, clarity. More important, all the theory actually pays off, perhaps most brilliantly in a chapter on T. S. Eliot (in which Vine argues that though Eliot eschews the kind of transcendence – the vision of order – characteristic of the Romantic sublime, he makes up for the loss with a sublime of intensity), but also in deeply persuasive chapters on Mary Shelley's obsession with the body and on Virginia Woolf's notion of a social system fatally compromised by WW I. One may not be convinced that Vine’s various examples deserve to be classed under the single label sublime," but that does not detract from the value of his thoughtful, persuasive readings. CHOICE, D. L. Patey, Smith College



Publication Details

Hardback ISBN:
Paperback ISBN
Page Extent / Format:
272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Release Date:
Hardback, March 2013; Paperback, August 2014
  Illustrated:   No
Hardback Price:
£55.00 / $67.50
Paperback Price:
£25.00 / $34.95

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