Poetics

Eighteenth-century treatises on poetry tend to launch into its defense, heralding it as the genre most able to teach us, in Pope's words, "Things unknowncognitive and emotional (Essay on Criticism, l. 575, in Pope 1988). As the most profound of all that is inexplicable, God was considered a tricky subject best approached through a form able to handle mystery gently, releasing the reader from the strictures of reason and into the realms of religious experience. Milton had already stressed the significance of poetry for a thorough, general education and stated that while philosophical rhetoric was perhaps more subtly complex, poetry was "more simple, sensuous and passionate," able to speak to the heart as well as the mind (Milton 1951: 68). As John Sitter argues, poetry was considered a powerful pedagogical tool in the eighteenth century because it was deemed best able to depict sensory things, such as the experiential and the mystical (Sitter 2001: 140). Poetry, it was thought, sweetened the medicinal requirements of morality and virtue so that they could act on the individual without his or her assent, repairing and healing the damaged body and soul. This is what John Dennis meant when he argued for poetry's redemptive potential, and his focus on poetic and religious experience is essential to understanding the fervent works of Smart and Young, both of whom regarded poetry as a hotline to the heavens. As Dennis insisted: "he who is entertained with an acomplish'd Poem, is, for a Time, at least, restored to Paradise. That happy Man converses boldly with Immortal Beings. Transported, he beholds the Gods ascending and descending, and every Passion, in its Turn, is charm'd, while his Reason is supremely satisfied" (Dennis 1939—43: vol. 1, 257, 264).

Eliciting both enthused feeling and balanced reflection, poetry was considered the spark which would ignite in the reader not simply excitement or sensation, but meditation and thoughtfulness, preparing the mind for religious contemplation (Morris 1972: 50). Poetical language is the mirror of nature here, both full of an edenic verve or spirit Dennis calls "joy." While his work paled under the brighter light of Joseph Addison, the two men agreed that God created nature and humankind in such a manner as to allow for "a Satiety of Joy, and an uninterrupted Happiness" (Addison 1965: vol. 3, nos. 387, 454). Addison's very thesis in his essays on cheerfulness for The Spectator exerted that the "transient Gleams of Joy" one might feel walking through a field or a wood grant a "Vernal Delight" which the believer can refine and "improve" into a transcendent Christian experience (Addison 1965: vol. 3, 393: 476). Nature, then, was more than just a witness to the existence of God: also a force able to both humble and uplift the reader of religious poetry into an aestheticized state of worship. James Thomson argued the same in The Seasons (1726—30), claiming in the "Preface" to the second edition of "Winter" that poetry had the power to "unworld" believers, awakening them to reflect upon and deeply feel their natural environment (Irlam 1999). Since Newton had judged the universe a "sensorium of the Godhead," this environment included the heavens and beyond, that which Addison envisioned as a space wherein the planets are God's choir and the stars sparkly minstrels, "For ever singing, as they shine, / 'The hand that made us is Divine' " ("The Spacious Firmament on High," ll. 23—4). Only verse might direct us to apprehend such religious harmonies, paramount as the source of that spiritual training the individual requires for creatively seeing as well as imaginatively interpreting nature in a joyful manner.

Addison claimed to have been educated by the poetry of the Bible, and he wrote paraphrases of the nineteenth and twenty-third Psalms, both of which focus on nature's glory and the pastoral aesthetic. Such paraphrases were, as we shall see, immensely popular in the period, predominantly because they acted as testimonies to the force of the Bible, which had been regarded as the model for all religious poetry since Longinus' On the Sublime. Yet the poetry of the Bible is nowhere more significantly elucidated than in Robert Lowth's De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (1753), delivered in Oxford between 1741 and 1750, and translated as Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews in 1787. Lowth established the sublime as an aesthetic category, and approached the Bible not exegetically but interpretatively, so prefiguring Johnson's "invention" of literary criticism in Lives of the Poets (1779—81). The Lectures were intended to illuminate the unique and inherently sacred nature of Hebrew poetry, a factor linked to the congruity of artistic flair and moral purity within; yet at the same time Lowth wanted to show how flexible neoclassicism was, able to address art, artist, work, and audience together. In turn, this allowed Lowth to break down Hebrew poetry into the elegiac, didactic, lyric, idyllic, dramatic, and prophetic modes, whereas Addison, Dennis, and Isaac Watts had been content to compare it only to classicism. Lowth was pioneering in other ways too: predating Burke, he absorbed Longinus and Boileau to expound the nature of the sublime; he recognized before Kant that both the body and imagination were affected by emotional and passionate experiences provoked by religion and sublimity; he reconsidered the relationship between poetry and music in public worship to provide a foundation for the development of the hymn; and, looking forward to Wordsworth, he valued Hebrew poetry for its modest and uncultivated aptitude for articulating the meditative, spontaneous, and expressive role of the poet. As Erich Auerbach reminds us, Lowth crushed an aristocratic preference for style and functionality in poetry with a dynamic Judeo-Christian view in which the weakest of men and lowliest of objects were infused with sublime importance (Auerbach 1953). The example of a powerless carpenter rising to enact the most fundamental event of history — the Crucifixion — was illustration enough for contemporary believers.

Like many Oxford lectures given in Latin, Lowth's were summarized and excerpted in English in the periodical press (the Monthly Review) soon after their publication, a process which served to disseminate their main points more widely. Essentially, Lowth argued that poetry instructs and gives pleasure to the reader because it proceeds from divine inspiration; with its origin in religion, its purpose is "to form the human mind to the constant habit of true virtue and piety" (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, i. 37—8, ii. 45). Lowth considered poetry able to achieve such ends because of its meter, style, and form, and structured the Lectures around these qualities accordingly. The meter of Hebrew poetry is addressed in Lecture III, its "true rhythm, modulation, metre" so strong that even when translated it retains its "native dignity, and a faint appearance of versification" (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, iii. 65, 71). Easily learned by rote, poetry preserves religious truths in measure and rhythm, rather than augmenting or corrupting them; it is able to "captivate the ear and the passions, which assists the memory," and infuse them "in the mind and heart" (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, iv. 88). Stylistically, such poetry resembles the parable to which it is etymologically tied, borrowing both familiar and domestic imagery from common life and also sacred themes from religious history to metaphorically communicate God's word. Even where the latter is obscure and ambiguous, it is still able to reveal the sometimes terrifying and overwhelming grandeur of God's dominion by exciting the passions within. Lowth admits that much poetry is on the side of the "language of the Passions," thus allowing the most "vehement" conceptions to "burst out in a turbid stream" on the page; the "language of Reason," on the other hand, "is cool, temperate, rather humble than elevated," taking care to calm the believer beset by God's sublimity (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, xiv. 308—9). The triumph of Hebrew poetry, however, is that it finds a way between the two extremes, at once "plain, correct, chaste and temperate" while hurrying along "the free spirit" of the reader as it lays bare "all the affections and emotions" of the speaker. As Lowth declares:

The language of poetry [is] the effect of mental emotion. . . . the passions and affections are the elements and principles of human action; they are all in themselves good, useful, and virtuous; and, when fairly and naturally employed, not only lead to useful ends and purposes, but actually prompt and stimulate to virtue. It is the office of poetry to incite, to direct, to temper the passions, and not to extinguish them. (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, xvii. 366-70)

Lowth echoes Aristotle's assertion that good poetry prunes the passions and keeps them in check: whether gentle, elegiac, and lyrical, or prophetic, sublime, and violent, the poem must balance reason and emotion in the reader (Lowth 1969: vol. 2, xviii. 10, 17-18). One technique for achieving this is Lowth's notion of parallelism, a term related to biblical typology but more specifically signifying the correspondence of one verse, or line, with another (Lowth 1969: vol. 1, xix. 32, n. 10). Sometimes parallelism worked to repeat a sentiment in the same way: "The sea saw, and fled; / Jordan turned back: / . . . What ailed thee, O Sea, that thou fleddest; Jordan that thou turnedst back"? (Psalms 114: 5). Yet it also worked antithetically, where sentiments are set against sentiments: "Jehovah killeth and maketh alive; / He casteth down to hell, and lifteth up" (1 Sam. 2: 6-7; Lowth 1969: vol. 1, xix. 35ff.). We might think about parallelism in terms of sung praise, Christianity inheriting the Jewish custom of singing in alternate chorus, or by way of a series of antiphonal responses, to which the Psalms were ideally suited. The practice of singing psalms laid the foundation for the development of the hymn, itself a form in which religious truths, phrases, and ideas are repeated and shared in slightly altered states. Like Lowth's Lectures, the hymn in this period served to reinvent Hebrew poetry for a newly philosophical and scientific age, while at the same time retaining an emphasis on Christian virtues.

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