Dryden and Locke

John Dryden's poetic dramatic allegory in Absalom and Achitophel (1681) concerns the first Earl of Shaftesbury's role in the Exclusion Crisis of 1678—81, when Shaftesbury backed those who believed that Catholic monarchs must be excluded from the English throne. Dryden casts that crisis as a repetition of the graver religious crises of the English Civil Wars. The poem is rhetorically representative of its Restoration times, for it weaves together enthusiasm, faction, radical Protestantism, demagoguery, and threats to property and government. This passage is typical of that knot of concerns about any who "justified their spoils by inspiration" (l. 524):

For who so fit for reign as Aaron's race, If once dominion they could found in grace? These led the pack; though not of surest scent, Yet deepest-mouthed against the government. A numerous host of dreaming saints succeed, Of the true old enthusiastic breed: 'Gainst form and order they their power employ, Nothing to build, and all things to destroy.

The actions of these agents of chaos involve arts by which, Dryden warns, "the springs of property were bent, / And wound so high, they cracked the government" (ll. 499-500). Like the Leveler and Ranter actions they echo, Dryden's metaphors for demagogue enthusiasts ingeniously show how an invisible danger located by definition within individuals ("god within") was feared as a class threat to property, privilege, and even to language itself. Poetic enthusiasm always involved battles over interpretation and figurative language, as philosophers, clerics, and critics including Thomas Hobbes, Robert Lowth, John Locke, and Samuel Johnson all realized, and modern critics emphasize (Heyd 1995; Irlam 1999).

Dryden's own oscillation between supporting enthusiasm and decrying it demonstrates how one great poet of the long eighteenth century was shaped by varying beliefs about enthusiasm in his first and his best works alike. His first poem, "To John Hoddesdon on his Divine Epigrams" (1650), is marked by the turmoil of the interregnum. Young Dryden pays tribute to his early poetic mentor and Westminster schoolfriend by praising his religious verses on the Old and New Testaments. Here something very different from faction and demagoguery merges with

Hoddesdon's admirable enthusiasm. Admiring his "Mingling diviner streams with Helicon" (l. 20), his mixing theological with poetic inspiration, Dryden casts Hoddesdon as poetic prodigy and adds: "What may we hope, if thou goest on thus fast? / Scriptures at first, enthusiasms at last!" This unironic line, from the poet who openly praised Cromwell in 1659, makes this obscure poem matter in our account, because it shows that many eighteenth-century poets hold multiple and changing opinions about enthusiasm, often divided between its religious and aesthetic voices. They typically need one species of it as a myth of artistic inspiration as much as they despise another as a threat to order and truth.

In Dryden's later return to enthusiasm as a positive force in his verse, he again distinguishes an artistic, aestheticized (though not entirely depoliticized) enthusiasm from other ranting forms of zeal. In Alexander's Feast (1697), the patron saint of music, Cecilia, is honored as a "sweet enthusiast" who invents the pipe organ and enlarges the mind and culture by merging the virtues of music and poetry. She, like Dryden's own work with English, "added length to solemn sounds, / With nature's mother-wit, and arts unknown before" (ll. 165—6). That such pipe organs were the privilege of established churches least likely to house other, more dangerous enthusiasts echoes Dryden's politics in Absalom. A transubstantiation of a religious enthusiasm into a poetic one, seen in Dryden's career, shapes the story of enthusiasm's lasting importance to eighteenth-century poets.

The voice coach of bad enthusiasms in Dryden's Absalom, Shaftesbury, was also the patron of John Locke, who famously criticized enthusiasm in the later seventeenth century. Locke's magisterial work of empiricism, the Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), waits until quite late to make explicit the intellectual enemy of and impetus to his new philosophy. In the "Of Enthusiasm" chapter of the Essay (bk. 4, ch. 19) Locke assails enthusiasm in ways that promote nonpartisanship and secularism, but also have lasting implications for any poets who claim truth can ever come from poetry. In this chapter, Locke cautions that enthusiasm "takes away both Reason and Revelation, and substitutes in the room of it, the ungrounded Fancies of a Man's own Brain, and assumes them for a Foundation both of Opinion and Conduct" (Locke 1975: 698). Instead of leaving those it visits demigods, enthusiasm renders people less than suitable for civil society. Moreover, Locke adds, like Hobbes before him, we can spot enthusiasts by their peculiar language: "Similes so impose on them, that they serve them for certainty in themselves, and demonstration to others" (p. 700). Before Keats could claim beauty and truth for poetry, eighteenth-century poets had to reimagine the virtues of purely imaginative works of language and of the tropes and figures at the heart of them. Imagination had to be purified from any malignant associations with sectarian enthusiasm. No one worked harder to do so than playwright and critic John Dennis.

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