What does a debutante mean when she says, “Simply sublime, dahling”? And what does that have to do with subliminal messages? Why does “sublime” mean “elevated,” while “subliminal” implies “beneath”? “Sub” means “under, below, beneath, down” [AHD]. To “sub lime” should mean “to sit beneath the shade of a citrus tree.” That, of course, would be wrong—unless you’re a punster.

It turns out that sublime and subliminal both have to do with the “lintel,” Latin limen. The lintel is the beam that forms the upper part of a window or door, and supports part of the structure above it [AHD]. This lintel is thus a threshold; we get the word “limen” to mean the “threshold of a physiological or psychological response” [AHD]. “Sub” + “limen” gives us, in various forms, words that mean passing under, through, and over a metaphorical threshold. 1.

Dweller on the Threshold by Arthur Bowen Davies (American 1862-1928). Oil on canvas, 17 x 22 3/4 inches. Avant-garde painting portraying the ethereal "guardian of the threshold" of esoteric traditions.

Dweller on the Threshold by Arthur Bowen Davies (American 1862-1928). Oil on canvas, 17 x 22 3/4 inches. Avant-garde painting portraying the ethereal “guardian of the threshold” of esoteric traditions.

In chemistry, to sublime a chemical is to cause it to sublimate, to pass from gas to solid (or vice versa) without passing through the intermediary, or threshold, state of a liquid [OED, AHD]. Of the words and ideas under consideration here, it is the chemical sense that is the oldest in English. Here’s a line from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1386): “Oure … descensories, Violes, crosletz, and sublymatories, Cucurbites, and Alambikes eek.” [OED, sublimatory]. John Gower, in his Confessio amantis of 1390, wrote “He mot … kepe in his entencion The point of sublimacion” [ibid., sublimation 1]. And Thomas Timme, in his 1605 Practise of chymicall and hermeticall physicke, wrote, “Then shall yee see the sublimated substances clinging to the sides of the glasses” [ibid., sublimated 1]  2.

In philosophy and poetics, something is sublime if it is raised (both by the speaker-poet and by the reader-thinker) “up to” [ibid., sublime] or above the lintel. Around the year 50 A.D., “Longinus” (a pseudopigraphal attribution) made “sublime” his subject in his Greek treatise Peri Hypsous (hypsos, “height, elevation”) [PEP, 819]. Longinus took a rhetorical term that referred to the style of writing or oration, and made it refer to “the general phenomenon of greatness in literature, prose and poetry alike. ‘Longinus’ regards sublimity above all as a thing of the spirit, a spark that leaps from the soul of the writer to the soul of his reader” [ibid.]. “‘Sublimity is the echo of greatness of spirit’” “Longinus” wrote [ibid.].

John Hall first translated Peri Hypsous into English in 1652 [ibid.]. It took a few years, but by the late 17th century sublime was picking up considerable steam in English letters. Sublime came to be used by the Augustans (such as Alexander Pope) as one of the underpinnings of their doctrine of that “Passion is the Principal thing in Poetry” (John Dennis, 1701) [ibid.]. Pope was also one of the last to use the word in the sense that has long since disappeared: “Build the rising ship, Sublime to bear thee o’er the gloomy deep”, with sublime here meaning “raised aloft” [OED, sublime 1]. Soon, “this development [of] the sublime left its beginnings in ‘Longinus’ far behind; it became an independent concept with an intellectual history of its own” [op. cit.].

Burke’s treatise Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790) [ibid.] ensured sublime’s future as a technical term in aesthetics, poetics, and psychology. The simple sublime spark between author and reader became, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others, the bonfire of the Sublime. In 1785, Henry Cowper wrote in a letter, “The sublime of Homer in the hands of Pope becomes bloated and tumid…” [OED, sublime B1].

In the autobiographical Prelude (1805), Wordsworth uses one or another form of “sublime” twenty times, all referring to an “elevated” ontological condition that, even in the over 8,000 lines of the poem, he can never quite articulate. Here are a couple of samples:

Nature by extrinsic passion first

Peopled the mind with forms sublime or fair [The Prelude, Book First: 544-5]

the soul,

Remembering how she felt, but what she felt

Remembering not, retains an obscure sense

Of possible sublimity, whereto

With growing faculties she doth aspire [ibid., Book Second: 315-320]

I think Wordworth’s problem with the Sublime is that he’s trying to apply reason (certainly a sublime goal) to gain the threshold of that which is chthonic, 3  or, as we might say now, subliminal. The word “subliminal” was “coined [around 1824] to represent Herbart’s unter der Schwelle sc. des Brewusstseins under the threshold of consciousness” [OED]. For Wordsworth, the Sublime was Nature’s subliminal message. Although the word had arrived in English in time to make Wordsworth’s final draft of The Prelude (he worked on it all his life, and didn’t publish it until 1850), the subliminal doesn’t figure in the work at all. Indeed, I’m left with the impression that Wordsworth must have been a very airy fellow, constantly looking to higher planes when what he sought was just beneath his feet.

The idea of “looking in the wrong place” belongs to the psychoanalytical term sublimation. Originally one of the chemical words used for the process of making something sublime, the hermetic idea of transformation to a higher plane in the early 17th century. In his Creed of 1615, Jackson writes: “By assistance of that grace whose infusion alone must worke the sublimation” [OED, sublimation 5]. It was Freud (or his English translators) 4  who gave sublimation the sense I mean in regards to Wordsworth.

In his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud wrote “Among the instinctual forces which are put to this [civilizing] use the sexual impulses play an important part; in this process they are sublimated…” [Lectures, 27]. This “process” “consists in the sexual trend abandoning its aim of obtaining a sexual component or a reproductive pleasure and taking on another which is related genetically 5  to the abandoned one but is itself no longer sexual and must be described as social. We call this process ‘sublimation’, in accordance with the general estimate that places social aims higher than the sexual ones, which are at bottom self-interested” [ibid., 429]. And to zero in on poor Wordsworth: “Professional activity is a source of special satisfaction if it is a freely chosen one—if, that is to say, by means of sublimation, it makes possible the use of existing inclinations, of persisting or constitutionally reinforced instinctual impulses” [Civilization, 27].

My purpose here is not to psychoanalyze Wordsworth, but to illustrate a scene—The Prelude—in which the sublime, the subliminal, and the process of sublimation can be seen interacting. Wordsworth confuses a sublime feeling—exaltation, ecstasy even—with a source, Nature, which is chthonic and subliminal and not “sublime” (placed loftily, of the higher mind) at all. The reason for that confusion, as I argue elsewhere, is that Wordsworth (only in part subliminally) sublimatedhis experience of the chthonic in order to “civilize” himself.  6

Civilize? No. The Prelude, as autobiography, is really a reinvention of The Poet, a self-redeeming act that sublimated a tragic and possibly traitorous youth. Wordsworth was selling himself. If he knew the word “subliminal,” Wordsworth may well have chosen not to use it. Ad man Vance Packard can have the final word on this Wordsworthian subtext of sublimation, as Packard knew all about such “hidden persuaders.” “Subthreshold effects” Packard wrote in 1957, can be used “to insinuate sales messages to people past their conscious guard” [Packard, 42].


AHD = American Heritage Dictionary.

Civilization = Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: 1961.

Code = Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code: IN Search of Character and Calling. New York: 1996.

Dreams = Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. New York: 1979.

Kerenyi = Kerenyi, Karl. Hermes: Guide of Souls. Dallas, Texas: 1976. (Translation of Hermes der Seelenfubrer. Zurich: 1944.)

Lectures = Freud, Sigmund. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis. Translated by James Strachey. New York: 1966.

OED = Oxford English Dictionary

Packard = Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. New York: 1957.

PEP = Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Edited by Alex Preminger. Princeton: 1974.


1. The threshold metaphor is, clearly, I think, part of a much more encompassing metaphor that views “knowledge as a structure,” which lends support to the idea that human “ways of knowing” can be described as an architectonics of epistemology. Architecture and architectonic both stem from the Proto Indo-European root *tek [AHD], from which we also get “text” and “textile.” As I’ve begun to show elsewhere, there is a metaphorical relationship between writing and weaving at the level of “to do work.” I’ve also been investigating the role of mimesis in the formation of these Lakof-Johnsonian metaphors. In the wake of reading Ruhlen, I’m beginning to wonder if there might not be some proto-metaphor “to make like” or “to do as” that early humans employed to mark off their activities as somehow “above the threshold” of the non-human world. Back

2. Strictly as conjecture, I have to wonder if there is a relationship between the lintel and the herm, the “ithyphallic stones” of ancient Greece [Kerenyi, 4]. Hermes Psychopompos is the “guide of souls” whose “sphere of activity lies outside of this world in which death forms the … polar opposite of life” [ibid., 7] That is, Hermes can pass in and out of the worlds of life and death just as we might walk through a door. The alchemists practiced a kind of hermetic transformation in order to sublime the soul. Back

3. The AHD gives “chthonic” as “Pertaining to the gods and spirits of the underworld.” Hillman writes, “Chthon and ge(‘underworld’ and ‘underground’) do not necessarily refer to the same region or evoke identical feelings. ‘Chthon with its derivatives refers in origin to the cold, dead depths and has nothing to do with fertility.’ This kind of deep ground is not the same as the dark earth; and the Great Lady (potnia chthon) … cannot simply be merged into the single figure of the Great Earth Mother” [Dreams, 35. Hillman is quoting Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Der Glaube, as cited by W. K. C. Gurthrie in The Greeks and Their Gods (1968, 218]. Wordsworth consistently refers to (his) mind, (his) soul, Nature, and the Earth as “she.” Back

4. In the English to German section of Cassell’s German Dictionary, sublimation is given as “das Sublimat.” Back

5. I think Freud uses “genetically” in the sense of “metaphorically” here. “Metaphor” and “symptom” have common Greek origins, a connection that did not escape the founders of psychoanalysis. I can’t find the exact reference, but this one in Hillman (Code, 53) at least conveys the sense of this idea: “Every symptom is a compromise, Freud saw. Symptoms attempt the right aim but accomplish it in the wrong way. The heights seek the depths…” Back

6. See my essay “Wordsworth on the Threshold.” Back

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