Dennis

Dennis, the most enthusiastic defender of enthusiasm, is only now resurfacing, so effectively was he laughed to scorn by Swift and Pope, and so resolutely stricken from an eighteenth-century canon dominated by Augustanism and neoclassicism. However, Dennis deserves far better than ridicule, even if the truths he tests were anything but Lockean. Dennis concocts a heady alchemy of Plato's productive madness, Longinus' startling sublime, and Milton's claims to the Holy Ghost as personal muse in order to spirit poetry and Milton away from any damning fraternity with Commonwealth politics and the overzealous rule of the saints. The paradise lost in Milton is precisely what Dennis believes poetry inspired by the Holy Spirit can regain: spiritual harmony and calm. Nowhere is the theory of poetry more fully enthusiastic than in Dennis's aptly named Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701) and its sequel, The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704). Good poetry, for Dennis, carries the true voice of a Christian God. It allows readers to be imaginatively restored to Eden and prelapsarian harmony with themselves and the world — if they will only heed God's voice crying out, not in the wilderness, but in all sublime poetry, whether ancient or modern. Enlisting the power of enthusiasm, Dennis shrewdly deploys enthusiastic poetry as an agent of the Protestant Reformation while downplaying its threats to order and propriety. In Dennis, a Low Church Anglican, we first see what might be called a rationalized or Anglicanized enthusiasm. His theory is fraught with fascinating complications born of his deeply divided allegiances to, on the one hand, the mysteries of revealed religion, and, on the other, the conviction of the New Science (Bacon, Newton) and modern philosophers (Descartes, Hobbes, Locke) that plain language is the path to understanding ultimate causes. No pure Anglican rationalist, Dennis thinks critically about religion, poetic language, and inspiration at an early-modern crossroads.

When Dennis redefines enthusiasm as a subset of passion, his enthusiasts become political patients rather than agents, let alone agitators. They are kept in passive, quiet-istic rapture by the voice of the god within. Dennis believes an infinitely powerful yet trustworthy God is literally in control of the hearts and minds of readers of enthusiastic poetry, be it found in the Old or New Testaments, Homer, Virgil, or Milton. Even though he claims that readers are struck by poetic enthusiasm with exactly the epiphanic force of Longinus' lightning bolts in On the Sublime, and that poets conveying these sentiments feel all of Plato's mythopoetic furor brevis, Dennis nonetheless believes that "enthusiastic passions," characteristic of the best verse, ensure that readers are not carried away to ungrounded fancies, tumults, and anarchy, but instead are transported to calm heavenly contemplation and spiritual inner peace:

. . . and as the Reason rouzes and excites the Passions, the Passions, as it were, in a fiery Vehicle, transport the Reason above Mortality, which mounting, soars to the Heaven of Heavens, upon the Wings of those very Affections . . . and he who is entertain'd with an accomplish'd Poem, is, for a Time at least, restored to Paradise. That happy Man converses boldly with Immortal Beings. (Dennis 1943: vol. 1, 261, 264)

Dennis's doubled allusion to Ezekiel's and Plato's chariot metaphors implicitly turns a notably agitating prophet (as Blake recognized) into an emblem of quietism, especially when he shortly thereafter adds that such transported reason "further finds its Account in the exact perpetual Observance of Decorums" (1943: vol. 1, 263). He characteristically Christianizes the classical, blending major currents of biblical and classical enthusiasm from the Old Testament and the Phaedrus, and ending with an equally hybrid version of Virgil's happy man (O fortunatos) who lives not in the country but in a private, mental heaven. Like those who followed his lead closely, including Addison in The Spectator's "Pleasures of Imagination" series and Wordsworth in The Prelude, Dennis rehabilitates enthusiasm as a new universal standard of poetic taste and the exemplary agent of personal and social happiness (Irlam 1999; Morillo 2001).

Dennis's careful reappropriation of enthusiasm for genteel Christian poets and their readers mines the rich veins of poetic value in ecstasy: if readers could be carried out of themselves by gorgeous words, he believes, they could be carried toward truth and God. Although Dennis, like all other theorists of enthusiasm, does not fully succeed in avoiding enthusiasm's leveling ties to radical individualism, he is instrumental in divorcing Milton and an ideal of divine inspiration from Cromwell and the Civil Wars. Unfortunately for Dennis, his prose was no divine voice of power and has gone largely unheard. Most have listened instead to the so-called "Tory satirists" who vehemently and brilliantly applied a favorite antidote to poetic enthusiasm.

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