Baby we’re the new romantics

Eimear Feeney discusses how you can live by the British Romantic principle of the sublime as a Trinity student

Wordsworth famously stated that poetry was a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion”. Taylor Swift famously stated, “Heartbreak is the national anthem / we sing it proudly.” Whether you love or hate the Romantic poets and Swift, you cannot deny that they are both influential. Maybe the tortured poets department was onto something. 

Living in a busy capital city like Dublin, I find that it is very easy to get lost in the routine struggle of university life. Expectations weigh heavy as what we expect to be the best years of our life do not fly by so much as limp with trepidation towards the finish line … The mundane can be exhausting and the Romantic sublime was an idea that was grounded in the purpose of rediscovering the wonder of the world. Who doesn’t want to experience something that sends you into an exalted status of awe and wonder? Would you like to be entranced by an object of intense emotional energy? I wish to identify places in Dublin where I have found the sublime and promote understanding.

“Where can we harness the power of the sublime today? Dublin may be lacking in sunlight but rest assured it is overflowing with sublime rays”

The sublime is a response to art or nature that is overwhelming and sends you into a state of bewilderment. The sublime transcends a normal sensory experience and the limits of normal life. In the Romantic tradition, poets like Percy Shelly explored the sublime through Mont Blanc. Such visual interpretations of the sublime appear as cataclysmic natural wonders, emphasising formidable power. A variety of emotions are triggered with the sublime: amazement, overstimulation, awe, and terror. Representing the relationship between the self and the world, the sublime evokes emotional reactions where the body takes over from the mind.  To Edmund Burke, astonishment meant: “the state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended with some degree of horror.” Where can we harness the power of the sublime today? Dublin may be lacking in sunlight but rest assured it is overflowing with sublime rays. Despite the concentration on nature for the sublime, cities nursed the development of art, culture, and profound horror as anyone who has experienced train delays can attest. In “Composed on Westminster Bridge, Wordsworth wrote: “the City now doth like a garment wear/ the beauty of the morning, silent bare.” Highlighting the beauty of London when it embraces the glow of the sun and natural elements, Wordsworth expressed the beauty and purity of London before the daily industrialised life began. 

Having grown up in the rural Irish countryside, I have been blessed with the surrounding landscapes of mountains and lakes and the expansive space. Since moving to Dublin, I have realised that I need a balance between the peacefulness of home and the hyper-charged excitement that Dublin brings. Both locations in their beauty are compelling and render me attempting to collect those memories like photos in an album. How do you soak up the sublime? Remove all other traces of stimuli and allow yourself to be fully immersed in the moment. Take the headphones out! Trust me, I love having my own soundtrack in my ear, sometimes it’s helpful, other times distracting. The first destination for the sublime is our beautiful campus. One of the reasons why I aspired to come to College was because of the emotional reaction our campus could bestow onto me. I remember the first time I visited College as a child and the lasting reaction was awe and quiet contemplation. I personally love and am drawn to locations that have historical meaning and are animated with that energy. Of course, it’s the Neoclassical architecture and the perfect symmetry of the Campanile but, for me, it’s the spirit that can be sensed that automatically summons appreciation. No matter how stressed I am feeling during a college day, taking a glimpse at College campus fills me with that same serenity that I experienced at first glance years ago. Especially when there’s a stunning sunset.  Achieving the sublime means letting your immediate surroundings elicit bewilderment or serenity rather than taking them for granted. 

“My Roman Empire, so to speak, is reflecting upon what Wordsworth would think of the Spire”

Other locations are the Iveagh Gardens close to St Stephens Green. Another example of my personal experience with the sublime was visiting the Hell Fire club on Halloween. The mythology surrounding the location and the gloomy atmosphere create an ominous appearance. The ruins were once the location of cult satanic worship and most believe it to be haunted to this day.  I remember feeling that same bewilderment and even slight terror over the thunderous wind that accompanied us. I imagine a prime place to also experience the sublime would be the Dublin/Wicklow mountains, which I am definitely putting on my calendar. Even the Spire constantly causes me confusion over why it is there and despite seeing it numerous times, I never become desensitised to it. Not the aesthetic bewilderment, but complete bafflement! My Roman Empire, so to speak, is reflecting upon what Wordsworth would think of the Spire. Would he be horrified or marvel at the height? This question may be baffling, but it sparks joy much more than most similar questions Trinity students ask upon browsing through apps.  

Central aesthetics of the sublime associate it to feelings of astonishment and the awareness of vulnerability to nature. I think the diversity of the sublime and the emotions it provokes, from inferiority to astonishment,  is what makes the sublime eternally relevant. Ultimately encountering something that causes bewilderment or captivates your senses can be considered sublime and prompts us to consider our mortality in a more peaceful light than most of us panicked about finals, tend to do. I think the poets would agree, although who knows about the Swifties.