By the midcentury, then, enthusiasm could be more openly acknowledged as a praiseworthy force. Having been thoroughly and pejoratively associated with radical Protestantism in the 1650s, by the 1750s it boasted some more interesting defenders who were now either Catholic or allied with Catholic causes. John Byrom, better known as a composer of hymns than a poet, was a friend of the Wesleys but also a suspected Jacobite, one sympathetic to the Catholic House of Stuart's continuing claim to the crown. He makes especially clear enthusiasm's place in the changing tastes of midcentury poets. In Enthusiasm; A Poetical Essay. In a Letter to a Friend in Town (1751), Byrom banks on his readers associating the witty, Augustan style of satiric epistles in heroic verse with staunch anti-enthusiasm, as in Swift. However, in high Augustan ironic—satiric style Byrom instead ridicules those who habitually ridiculed enthusiasm:
Fly from Enthusiasm! It is the Pest, Bane, Poison, Frenzy, Fury, — and the rest. This is the Cry that oft, when Truth appears, Forbids Attention to our list'ning Ears.
Enthusiasm is philosophically rehabilitated in Byrom as an indispensable force of the will; it names our strongest desires. As "Thought enkindled to a high Degree" (l. 76) it not only should not but cannot be eradicated without destroying mind and soul alike. Further, by associating it with "high Degree" Byrom recognizes the continuing need to allay fears that enthusiasm can disrupt class stratifications. He also explicitly claims what is left implicit in much writing about enthusiasm of the later eighteenth century, that it is never solely a religious issue: "When to Religion we confine the Word, / What Use of Language can be more absurd?" (ll. 81-2). Returning to Swift's and Pope's great theme of abuse of language and threat to meaning, Byrom turns against Augustan aesthetic foundations. He also anticipates a great issue about the French Revolution's effect on the object of enthusiasm (Pocock 1989). Byrom notes before Edmund Burke that a most dangerous enthusiasm can be seen in any overzealous embrace of reason: "To his own Reason loudly he appeals, - / No Saint more zealous for what God reveals!" (ll. 223-4).
Whereas enthusiasm's fire was perhaps watered down by Byrom into faculty psychology, it was stoked and celebrated as a political force in the same year that the Augustanism of its staunch enemies met its greatest poetic challenge. Nine years before Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads, Edward Jerningham wrote his own coda to a century of poetic enthusiasm by showing that, several generations after Cromwell, enthusiasm had evolved by gradual mutations into something a Catholic poet no longer feared as an inherently Protestant, radical spirit of religious, civil, and class warfare. Jerningham instead championed it as the voice of freedom and empire alike. Enthusiasm: a Poem, in Two Parts (1789) reveals in its style and structure how writers still drew from Milton and Pope the most important, and most polarized, attitudes toward enthusiasm in English poetry. In his often bizarre coupling of Ariel's speeches to the sylphs in Pope's Rape of the Lock with Milton's Satanic debate in Paradise Lost, Jerningham's heroic couplets rehearse two centuries of debate over enthusiasm. By 1789 the god within has become a "Daughter of Energy" (l. 25) presiding in a strangely polytheistic heaven over a debate about whether her rule has been vicious or virtuous. As alternate seraphs attack or defend her, the poem plays out all of the important issues over enthusiasm and poetry. Queen enthusiasm's energy and fiery force of rhetoric reveal Longinus' energeia and the theory of sublime language that Dennis had most directly and influentially connected to enthusiasm. When we learn that her inveterate enemy is "the blast of satire" (l. 41) we see the noted antipathy between Augustan and more enthusiastic, sublime aesthetics. In Jerningham's odd Miltonic-Popean style we can now recognize the century's great desire to shift an enthusiasm too close to Cromwell toward one so purified of radical Protestantism that even Catholics championing religious toleration can be its new allies. So pronounced is this latter move that Jerningham includes a lengthy, sympathetic portrait of the exiled French Protestant Huguenots, the very group ridiculed by Shaftesbury; and he includes other historical and political effects of enthusiasm, both good and ill. Enthusiasm, acting much like Byrom's view of it as force of will, is by turns a Swiftian spirit of language-killing power that inspired the Muslim Omar to burn the library at Alexandria, then also the energy that resists all tyrants, inspires Martin Luther to reform religion, and even urges Columbus to explore new worlds. It overtly sides both with empire, becoming what inspires the British to take Gibraltar from Spain, and with the greatest challenge mounted to that empire: for the youngest and greatest son of the goddess enthusiasm is America, that great radical Protestant political experiment. In Jerningham's claim that "Americanus" was "at the font of Energy baptized"
(ll. 260—2) we see how poetic enthusiasm retained its political charge while altering its position on the political spectrum quite remarkably.
Was this article helpful?