The locus classicus is Peri Hypsous (first translated as On the Sublime in 1712), long attributed to a Greek writer called Longinus. Longinus defines literary sublimity as "excellence in language," the "expression of a great spirit," and the power to provoke "ecstasy."
Longinus's conception of the sublime had its heyday in English criticism in the late seventeenth through the middle eighteenth century, and over time its meaning exanded to include not only literature, but any aesthetic phenomenon -- even including nature itself, particularly mountains or desolate and striking landscapes -- that produced sensations of awe or even of pain in its audience. John Baillie describes this effect in his Essay on the Sublime (1747), "Vast Objects occasion vast Sensations, and vast Sensations give the Mind a higher Idea of her own Powers."
The most important English work on the sublime is Edmund Burke's Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Burke writes:
Whatever is in any sort terrible ... is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.Critics found examples of the literary sublime in the Bible and in Shakespeare, but for most of the eighteenth century, Milton was the author who best embodied sublimity, especially in Paradise Lost: as Joseph Addison put it in Spectator 279, "Milton's chief Talent, and indeed his distinguishing Excellence, lies in the Sublimity of his Thoughts." Johnson concurs: Milton's power is the product of
an imagination in the highest degree fervid and active, to which materials were supplied by incessant study and unlimited curiosity. The heat of Milton's mind might be said to sublimate his learning, to throw off into his work the spirit of science, unmingled with its grosser parts. ... The characteristick quality of his poem is sublimity.Sublimity became a central concern not only in eighteenth-century criticism, but in eighteenth-century literature, especially in the works of the so-called pre-Romantic poets -- Thomas Gray, William Collins -- and in the works of Gothic novelists -- Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis.
The most important late eighteenth-century work on the sublime is Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), which influenced early nineteenth-century English thought on the subject.