Poetic Originality and the Whig Sublime

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As I have argued, many Whig writers were convinced that the Revolution of 1688 marked a decisive moment in the establishment of modern political liberty. Not only did they believe that it would produce a rebirth of native literary culture, they also claimed that the Revolution demanded literary modes that would reflect its radical implications. The influential literary critic John Dennis argued for the need for new poetic forms to free English literature from the cultural hegemony of the pagan ancients. He believed that the future of contemporary poetry lay in the Christian sublime. In his critical essay The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704) he argued that, by developing a tradition of religious verse, modern writers could surpass the triumphs and the effects of classical literature. For Dennis and other Whig writers such as Joseph Addison and Richard Blackmore, Milton's Paradise Lost provided an example of just the sort of new freedoms to which poets and critics aspired. Milton's grand style took his verse far beyond the contrived fancy they associated with the Royalist and Tory poets of the seventeenth century such as Cowley or Waller, and the Christian subject matter of the poem provided concrete proof of a sublime accommodated to the culture of early eighteenth-century Britain. For most early eighteenth-century poets, however, the impulse toward the Christian sublime did not result in lengthy biblical epic. As David Morris has described, the extensive body of elevated religious poetry of this period took the form of shorter works: odes and hymns based on biblical paraphrase; eschatological accounts of the Last Judgment; descriptions of the attributes of God; and imaginative devotion (Morris 1972).

Modern religious verse was seen by some as an appropriate reflection of modern political liberty because it freed English poetry from the pagan authority of the ancients. However, it was not necessarily the subject matter of the Bible that Whig poets wanted to emulate. They also wanted to produce poetry that would create in the reader some of the lofty elevation, the overwhelming sensation associated with the poetic sublime. Many Whig poets thought that the particular circumstances of post-Revolution Britain were ideally suited to sublime poetry, not merely because of Longinus' association between liberty and the sublime, but also because, as they saw it, the great victories of the 1690s and 1700s offered examples of awe-inspiring feats that were almost beyond comprehension. The sublime enabled them to express their sense of awe and astonishment at the heroism of contemporary political and military history, as in Joseph Addison's celebrated depiction of the Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim, frequently acclaimed as one of the great moments of sublimity in modern verse:

So when an Angel by divine command With rising tempests shakes a guilty land, Such as of late o'er pale Britannia past, Calm and serene he drives the furious blast; And, pleas'd th' Almighty's orders to perform, Rides in the whirl-wind, and directs the storm.

The sublime offered an aesthetic mode that could be seen as the stylistic embodiment of liberty. With its emphasis on affect, its rejection of formal harmonies in favor of transcendent expression, and its privileging of poetic genius, the sublime seemed to offer a break with the formalism and neoclassical servility that Whig writers associated with traditions of earlier verse.

However, the Whiggish emphasis on the rejection of poetic tradition and formality was complex. The sublime represented aesthetic freedom, and this was often figured in terms of a freedom from the constraints of neoclassical imitation. Yet the literary criticism of Dennis, Addison, and Blackmore drew on the authority of classical ideas and examples of sublimity to explore this concept of poetic freedom. And the Whiggish "rejection" of classical models was also complicated by the pervasive use of classical allusion in the period. Poets might have argued that modern verse could now rival classical epic because of the magnificence of its subject matter and style, but in evoking classical comparison they also established the framework of literary achievement against which readers should measure their verse. Classical and earlier native literature were both sources of authority, yet this authority was thought to be rendered redundant by the events of modern life, and this dualism complicates notions of poetic "originality" in the period.

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