As we have seen, Whig writers emphasized the need for new, "original," sublime poetry to reflect the changed circumstances of public life. The rejection of the constraints of neoclassicism was seen as a blow for literary liberty. Such ideas appear in some contrast with the emphasis on order and authority in Tory poetry and literary criticism of this period. Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711), a poetic treatise on the art of writing good literary criticism and good poetry, has long been seen as an influential example of the importance of poetic decorum in this period. Pope's Essay surveys the art of criticism, relating his discussion of matters of form, tone, and content back to the prescriptions and examples of classical authors. In advising his readers to "Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them" (ll. 139-40), he reminds his readers that even the author of the immortal Aeneid learnt that the best way to tap "Nature's Fountains" was through the example of the great master, Homer. Poetic power is thus attained not through an independent exercise of the imagination, but through an assimilation and imitation of the literary values of ancient Greece and Rome. The emphasis here and elsewhere in the Essay suggests the political connotations of this argument: as Pope sees it, it is the "rules" and order and rationality of the classical world that provide the most appropriate model for modern poetry. At the centre of this neoclassical aesthetic are matters of inheritance, order, and restoration.
Elsewhere we find more explicitly politicized criticism of the excesses of inspired verse. In "Concerning Unnatural Flights in Poetry" (1702), the Tory and Jacobite writer George Granville exposes the perceived political implications of the sublime. He attacks the writers
Who, driven with ungovernable fire,
Or void of Art, beyond these bounds aspire,
Gygantick forms, and monstrous Births alone Produce, which Nature shockt, disdains to own.
Such frantick flights, are like a Mad-mans dream, And nature suffers, in the wild extream.
Granville's suggestion here of unnatural aspiration betrays the social dimensions of poetic ambition, and the "monstrous," "ungovernable" quality of elevated poetry suggests the transgression of an established political order that shocks Nature herself. The sublime was a concept that clearly bore a range of ideological resonances: while some saw it as a form of poetic superlative, capable of encapsulating the wonder of divine creation or the magnitude of heroic achievement, it could also, as here, suggest social transgression and the collapse of political order.
The elegant reason and order privileged by Tory critics such as George Granville and Pope certainly seems to run counter to the emphasis on irregularity, on excess, and on the transgression of the known boundaries of poetic experience that was central to Whig definitions of the sublime. It is not hard to see why some critics have argued that the distinctions between the "irregularity" of Whig poetry and the "regularity" of Tory poetry form the basis of party political aesthetics in the eighteenth century (Kliger 1952: 3-6). However, just as Whig poetry reflects a complex approach to notions of poetic freedom and originality, there is also substantial evidence of interest in sublime or elevated poetry in early eighteenth-century Tory writing. [See ch. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm."] Although in his neoclassical Essay on Translated Verse the Earl of Roscommon praises a "strict harmonious Symetry of Parts" and cautions poets to "Avoids Extreams," he also aspires to poetic elevation:
Hail, mighty Maro! may that Sacred Name,
Kindle my Breast with thy caelestial Flame;
Sublime Ideas, and apt Words infuse.
The Muse instruct my Voice, and Thou inspire the Muse!
The references here to celestial flames, sublime ideas, and inspiration suggest Roscommon's attraction not to a poetry of order and reason but to one of grandeur and elevated flight. As he argues, the classical inheritance does not preclude fire and sublimity in modern verse - rather, it is through the inspiration of Virgil that contemporary poets can strive to create their own lofty works. Such interest in the sublime can also be found in Pope's Essay on Criticism. Alongside the attraction to Horatian conversation and visions of Aristotelian order, we can also see Pope's enthusiasm for the rapturous mode of the Longinian sublime. This is most clearly encapsulated in his famous praise of the critic who can "From vulgar Bounds with brave Disorder part, / And snatch a Grace beyond the Reach of Art" (ll. 155-6).
The clearest evidence of Pope's own attempts to achieve such poetic affect are found in his "Messiah" (1712), a "sacred eclogue." In "Messiah" Pope fuses Virgil's fourth eclogue with the Book of Isaiah, offering a Christianized reading of Virgil's enigmatic prophecy of the birth of a child. The poem begins with the lofty invocation: "Ye Nymphs of Solyma! Begin the Song: / To heavn'ly Themes sublimer Strains belong" (ll. 1—2). In invoking the nymphs of Jerusalem rather than the conventional maidens of pastoral, Pope announces his emphasis on sublimity rather than mere delight, arousing an expectation of poetic flight supported by his declared rejection of "Mossie Fountains and the Sylvan Shades" (l. 3). The poet is here no urbane man of the world, but a visionary bard, "rapt into Future Times" (l. 7). But we might also identify Pope's use of the sublime in a more unlikely genre — the mock-epic of The Dunciad (1728—43). In Peri Bathous (1728) Pope had compiled a prose satire that took the form of a series of witty assaults on all those aspiring and failing to attain the poetic sublime. We can read The Dunciad — whose genesis lies in Peri Bathous, and which is also a satire on failed, predominantly Whig, writers — as an alternative sublime. In The Dunciad Pope uses images of chaos and darkness to conjure some of the negative associations of social and artistic disorder that, as we have seen, were also part of the contemporary conceptualization of the sublime. The famous final lines of the poem present a vision of cultural apocalypse:
Lo! thy dread Empire, Chaos is restor'd;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.
They are lines that bear many of the hallmarks of the poetic sublime — the vision that cannot easily be visualized; the sense of a universal, incomprehensible power; and the failure of language, with "the uncreating word." As we have seen, the evocation of chaos had been central to earlier constructions of the sublime, whether in the form of eschatological verse or in the barely controlled violence of Addison's depiction of the Duke of Marlborough in battle. In those earlier poems, this disorder is offset by the controlling figure of God or a military leader; but in The Dunciad, which prophesies and laments a total cultural apocalypse, the controlling figure behind the chaos is Dulness herself. Pope has transvalued the sublime: in exploiting its potential to evoke visions of destruction, he offers a powerful inversion of his contemporaries' use of the sublime to affirm and celebrate the achievements of modern Britain.
Once again, we can see that the literary criticism of the period is marked by competing claims for the appropriation of a particular poetic mode. Rereading eighteenth-century poetry and literary criticism in this way, as part of the politico-cultural discourse of the period, reveals how far political difference shaped contemporary thinking about the literary past; about the relationship between political context and literary achievement; and about poetic innovation and authority. In gaining such a historical awareness of the rules and values through which poetry was read and judged, we can start to see that political and aesthetic concerns were inextricably linked in both the positive and the negative evaluation of poetry in this period.
See also chs. 1, "Poetry, Politics, and the Rise of Party"; 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"; 17, "Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of Imagination"; 25, "Rhyming Couplets and Blank Verse"; 33, "The Classical Inheritance"; 37, "The Sublime."
References and Further Reading
Blackmore, Richard (1700). Preface to The Book of Job. London.
Bredvold, Louis M. (1959). "The Gloom of the Tory Satirists." In J. L. Clifford (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Literature: Modern Essays in Criticism, 3—20. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gerrard, Christine (1994). The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Poetry, Politics, and National Myth, 1725-1742. Oxford: Clarendon.
Kliger, Samuel (1952). The Goths in England: A Study in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Korshin, Paul J. (1968). "The Evolution of NeoClassical Poetics: Cleveland, Denham, and Waller as Poetic Theorists." Eighteenth-Century Studies 2 (1968-9), 102-37.
Mee, Jon (2003). Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meehan, Michael (1986). Liberty and Poetics in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Croom Helm.
Montagu, Charles, Earl of Halifax (1690). An Epistle to the Right Honourable Charles, Earl of Dorset and Middlesex. London.
Morillo, John D. (2001). Uneasy Feelings: Literature, the Passions and Class from Neoclassicism to Romanticism. New York: AMS.
Morris, David B. (1972). The Religious Sublime:
Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in Eighteenth-Century England. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Noggle, James (2001). The Skeptical Sublime: Aesthetic Ideology in Pope and the Tory Satirists. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Norbrook, David (1999). Writing the English Republic: Poetry, Rhetoric and Politics, 1627—1660. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Pellicer, Juan (2001). "Introduction." In John Philips, Cyder: A Poem in Two Books, ed. John Goodridge. Cheltenham: Cyder Press.
Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of (1992). Shaftesbury to Jean Le Clerc, 6 March 1706. In Benjamin Rand (ed.), The Life, unpublished Letters and Philosophical Regimen of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury, 353. London: Routledge/Thoemmes.
Simonsuuri, Kirsti (1989). Homer's Original Genius: Eighteenth-Century Notions of the Early Greek Epic, 1688-1798. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Spadafora, David (1990). The Idea of Progress in Eighteenth-Century Britain. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Williams, Abigail (2005). Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture, 1681-1714. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Womersley, David, ed. (1997). Augustan Critical Writing. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
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