Peri Bathous
the Art of Sinking in Poetry

A short essay published in 1727 under the pseudonym “Martinus Scriblerus”, which arguably was written by Alexander Pope and his fellow member of the Scriblerus Club: Jonathan Swift, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry St. John and Thomas Parnell.

It is a prose parody of Longinus’ Περì Ὕψους (Peri Hupsous – On the Sublime), in that he imitates Longinus’ system for the purpose of ridiculing contemporary poets, mainly Pope’s adversaries, who were nicknamed “dunce”, after another famous parody of Pope – The Dunciad (3 different version were published from 1728 to 1743), a poem celebrates a goddess Dulness and the progress of her chosen agents as they bring decay, imbecility, and tastelessness to the Kingdom of Great Britain.

The title reflects an actual phrase in Longinus’ treatise, εἰ ἔστιν ὕψους τις ἢ βάθους τέχνη, in which “βάθους” (Bathous – depth) is a scribal error for “πάθους” (Pathous – passion).

With the essay, Pope introduced the use of the term “bathos” (Greek βάθος, depth, the antonym to ὕψος (hupsos), height), which he also termed Profound as opposed to Sublime, to mean a failed attempt at sublimity, a ridiculous failure to sustain it, or, more generally, an anticlimax. The nearest model for Pope’s essay is the Treatise of the Sublime by Boileau of 1674. Pope admired Boileau, but one of Pope’s (and Swift’s) literary adversaries, Leonard Welsted, had issued a “translation” of Longinus in 1712 that was merely a translation of Boileau. Because Welsted and Pope’s other foes were championing this “sublime,” Pope commented upon and countered their system with his Peri Bathous in the Swift-Pope-Gay-Arbuthnot Miscellanies (1727-1732). Whereas Boileau had offered a detailed discussion of all the ways in which poetry could ascend or be “awe-inspiring,” Pope offers a lengthy schematic of the ways in which authors might “sink” in poetry, satirizing the very men who were allied with Ambrose Philips. Pope and Philips had been adversaries since the publication of Pope’s Odes, and the rivalry broke down along political lines. [This paragraph’s source+improvements: Wiki]

This early reflection on the preoccupation with the idea of the Sublime that will dominate the literary and the artistic thinking for the next two and a half centuries, and the mocking of what the author considered to be failed attempts to produce it, was published when the first assay ever to deal with this notion has not yet gained popularity in England, as it would thank to the about decade later Smith’s 1739 English translation, and before it was conceptualized 30 years later in Burke’s groundbreaking treatise. More then pinpointing the pitfalls that may hinder one from experiencing this evasive Sublime, in face of those only early experimentation with the new concept, this rivalry dominating the English literary world of the day led to an assay that more then anything demonstrated already back then, whether it meant it or not, that the Sublime would be cherished by only a few, quite anticipating the discourse about High Art and Kitsch of the 20th Century:

“The taste of the Bathos is implanted by Nature itself in the soul of man; till, perverted by custom or example he is taught, or rather compelled, to relish the Sublime.” Scriblerus sardonically observes “how fast the general taste is returning to this first simplicity and innocence,” typical of the “unprejudiced minds of children,” in an effort to cater to the tastes of “the greatest number,” the consequence of which is that the audience for the sublime has been reduced to “very few,” those “men of a nice and foppish gusto, whom, after all, it is almost impossible to please.” [see Peri Bathous chap. 2 and Critelli below]

This is also to testify that history doesn’t progress linearly. As scholarly circles, following Boileau’s French translation and accompanying treatise, or even the Greek or Latin versions that were in circulation, started embracing the old-new concept of Sublime, the growing interest instigated Smith’s annotated translation, that referred to the already bubbly contemporary scene of English Sublime creations. This emerging new sub-genre, with pieces created before and after the Smith translation, including the above mentioned Thomas Parnell’s A Night-Piece On Death, publish way back in 1721 and considered to be the first graveyard poem, in turn also instigated Burke’s work…

The Text:

Scanned text of Peri Bathous, in Alexander Pope Collected Works, on Google Books.

Further Reading:

Steven M. Critelli, “Alexander Pope – Peri Bathous,” Against Interpretation, Oct, 24, 2012 (revised Mar. 8, 2018).