John D Morillo

Between the neglected poetic theory of John Dennis in 1701 and the celebrated poetic theory and practice of Wordsworth and Coleridge in 1798, the paths of enthusiasm and poetry often intersect. Enthusiasm has recently become critically significant to our understanding of the relationship of Romantic to eighteenth-century literature, Augustan to midcentury poetry, and to many puzzles of how subjectivity, society, emotion, divinity, and language all function (Hawes 1996; Irlam 1999; Morillo 2001). In short, enthusiasm — literally "the god within," from the Greek en-theos — stood for a belief that people could be immediately connected to the divine, and could use this connection as a source of inspiration and power in speaking, writing, and acting. As the concept of enthusiasm enters the eighteenth century, however, it trails inglorious clouds of religious fanaticism and schism that are never wholly dispelled. Enthusiasm works as a discourse, a language through which any culture articulates fears and desires about itself and the world. As such, enthusiasm within and without poetry is best understood through its always vexed, often productive relations with other discourses, including religion, class, gender, medicine, and philosophy. Enthusiasm frequently engenders more modern kinds of social and political, often class, conflict, and is marked by ideology in its contradictions, by being alternately, sometimes simultaneously, reviled and celebrated.

By the end of the century, when Wordsworth memorably looks down on the clouds from his Pisgah perch on Mount Snowdon to see a "fabric more divine" in his own mind (Prelude, xiv. 456), his poetic journey parallels what the historian J. G. A. Pocock sees as the picaresque plot of enthusiasm over the eighteenth century: "the term enthusiasm begins its journey toward applicability to any system that presents the mind as of the same substance, spiritual and material, as the universe that it interprets, so that the mind becomes the universe thinking and obtains an authority derived from its identity with its subject matter" (Pocock 1998: 14). Wordsworth's rise from his own early enthusiastic forays into John Dennis's theories to his crowning example of the poetic sublime also epitomizes other recent cultural-historical accounts of a movement throughout the long eighteenth century. Enthusiasm slowly shifts from being an ecclesiastical problem for priests and kings to alliance with aesthetic theory and the sublime (Morillo 2001; Irlam 1999). And whereas Wordsworth may have viewed his escape to such sublime enthusiasm as a staunchly English antidote to his youthful Francophile follies, a recent study suggests that in the eighteenth century those most likely to single out poetic enthusiasm as the only kind worth praise were not the English, but instead the French, who felt that the eighteenth-century English had clipped the very wings of the muse in their overzealous eradication of all enthusiasms, including poetic ones first made sacrosanct by Plato (Goldstein 1998: 48).

Well before Wordsworth's epiphany, and enthusiasm's boisterous eighteenth-century career as a virulent fighting word and conveniently elastic term of abuse, enthusiasm was identified as coextensive with poetic creation itself, and this overlap motivates later philosophical replies from Hobbes, Locke, Shaftesbury, and Addison on imagination. In Phaedrus, Plato's enthusiasmos was almost synonymous with poein, the ability to create a world with words. Poetic enthusiasm was for Plato a liminally divine force and a species of madness. By the eighteenth century, Shaftesbury's Letter Concerning Enthusiasm (1708) remarks of the ancients that "some Sects, such as the Pythagorean and latter Platonick, join'd in with the Superstition and Enthusiasm of the Times" (Shaftesbury 2001: 12). Enthusiasms ancient and modern were seen as both glorious and dangerous, political and poetic. Enthusiasm's powerful "god within," always capable of inspiring subjects and rattling governments, had established its characteristic Janus face.

Although disputes over enthusiasm heat up throughout Enlightenment Europe, its legacy in Britain is especially contested thanks to its historical relationship to the English Civil Wars (1641—60) and Protestant sectarianism. Consequently, modern studies of the importance of enthusiasm's simultaneously religious and political ideals to the artistic craft of writing verse in Britain typically begin in that period of unprecedented civil turmoil, when radical Protestants were transformed into architects of the first modern European state. Enthusiasm, whether seen as hero or villain, helped England to do the astonishing: to abolish both its hereditary monarchy and its state church.

Writing of the turbulent interregnum of the 1650s, Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London, warned in A Caution against Enthusiasm (7th edn., 1755) with the certainty of historical hindsight that

This Nation, in the Time of our Forefathers, had sufficient Experience of the Mischief and Contempt that may be brought upon Religion, by inspired Tongues and itching Ears . . . When the Bounds of Order and Discipline were broken down, and the settled Ministers and Offices of the Church depreciated and brought into Contempt, as Dispensations of a low and less spiritual Nature. (1755: 21-2)

Those who believed that such "inspired Tongues" could speak directly of and for God — no matter what their education or class — might have little need for priests or kings.

The god within easily became proof of what a new radical theocracy might do without. The particular threat to English episcopacy and Church authority was exacerbated by enthusiasm's perceived threat not only to monarchy, but also to property and class, as seen in one of the century's best-known poets.

0 0

Post a comment