In The Dunciad (1742 edn.) Pope predictably includes Dennis, whom he, Swift, and Gay had already lambasted in Three Hours After Marriage as "Sir Tremendous Longi-nus," in the court of fools. Pope also continues Swift's assault on corrupt spirits. Enthusiasts in this poem are literally asses, and where Pope's mentor Dryden had imagined the patron saint of music as a good enthusiast, Pope's epic about language gone wrong uses music deformed into noise to inveigh against enthusiasm's Swiftian corruption of language:
Ass intones to Ass, Harmonic twang! of leather, horn, and brass; Such as from lab'ring lungs th' Enthusiast blows, High Sound, attemp'red to the vocal nose Or such as bellow from the deep Divine.
Unlike Swift's unrelenting, career-long attack, however, Pope's treatment of enthusiasm is gradually modulated. In The Dunciads note to his earlier unprovoked attack on Dennis in the Essay on Criticism (1711), Pope glosses his jibe that "all the Mighty Mad in Dennis rage" with tongue firmly in cheek:
This is by no means to be understood literally, as if Mr. Dennis were really mad . . . No -it is spoken of that Excellent and Divine Madness, so often mention'd by Plato; that poetical rage and enthusiasm, with which Mr. D. hath, in his time, been highly possessed; and of those extraordinary hints and motions whereof he himself so feelingly treats. (i. 106n.)
That Pope may have indicted only Dennis's cheap brand of furor brevis rather than all enthusiasms first becomes clear in his translations of Homer. Even though Pope's verse here and elsewhere rarely features the term "enthusiasm," in his prose notes to his Iliad and Odyssey translations it appears more prominently, and increasingly positively, quietly offering a significant aesthetic counterpoint. From the ruins of the wall of Troy this positive poetic enthusiasm first cautiously emerges in Pope's nod to Homer's genius: "This whole Episode of the Destruction of the Wall is spoken as a kind of Prophecy, where Homer in a poetical Enthusiasm relates what was to happen in future Ages" (Iliad, xii. 15n.). Although Pope's tone here remains circumspect, his further notes continue to carefully nudge poetic enthusiasm away from religious fanaticism and toward admirable poetic genius. Most surprisingly, in so doing Pope even starts to sound a good deal like Dennis:
But Homer . . . has gone into the Marvellous, given a prodigious and supernatural Prospect, and brought down Jupiter himself, array'd in all his Terrors, to discharge his Lightnings and Thunders on Typhous. The Poet breaks out into this Description with an Air of Enthusiasm, which greatly heightens the Image in general, while it seems to transport him beyond the Limits of an exact Comparison. And this daring manner is particular to our Author above all the Ancients, and to Milton above all the Moderns. (Iliad, ii. 950n.)
Nor is this the only time Pope echoes both Dennis and Addison in recognizing a poetic genius in Milton inseparable from some notion of enthusiasm. Comparing Milton's war in Heaven in Paradise Lost (bk. 6) favorably with Homer's and Hesiod's battles of gods - no small compliment - Pope attributes Milton's success to a kind of enthusiasm, but with a careful neoclassical twist to realign Milton with the classical canon: "The Elevation, and Enthusiasm of our great Countryman seems owing to this Original [Hesiod]" (Iliad, xx. 75n.). Pope deftly implies that whatever we call enthusiasm in Milton's poetry was as likely the result of his reading Hesiod and other ancient Greeks as any direct conversation with the Holy Ghost. Saving Milton from Cromwell and for poetry became a central gambit in the rehabilitation of enthusiasm as a poetic value (Griffin 1986). If Pope here seeks to re-evaluate the cause of poetic enthusiasm in order to preserve its effects, he elsewhere remained engaged in a philosophical debate over causes central to Dennis's poetic theory of enthusiastic passion's divine source. In notes to the Odyssey on whether Minerva controlled Odysseus, Pope offers this measured appraisal of enthusiasm, causation, and agency:
But then is it not a derogation to Ulysses, to think nothing but what the Goddess dictates? and a restraint of human liberty, to act solely by the impulse of a Deity?
. . . these influences do not make the action involuntary, but only give a beginning to spontaneous operations; for we must either remove God from all manner of causality, or confess that he invisibly assists us by a secret co-operation. . . . in actions unaccountably daring, of a transcendent nature, there they are said to be carry'd away by a divine impulse or enthusiasm, and it is no longer human reason, but a God that influences the soul. (vii. 433n.)
Pope draws equally on modern philosophy and ancient texts to revisit one of Milton's and Dennis's central problems, to realign enthusiasm with free will.
Pope's attitude toward enthusiasm, more like Dryden's than Swift's, continues to waver as his own deeper allegiance to Locke rather than Longinus casts skeptical doubts over the Oracle of Delphi as any historical proof of enthusiastic powers: "I look upon the whole Business as of human Contrivance; an egregious Imposture founded upon Superstition, and carry'd on by Policy and Interest, till the brighter Oracles of the holy Scriptures dispell'd these Mists of Error and Enthusiasm" (Iliad, xvi. 285n.). As Pope returns to his usual intellectual center of gravity, enthusiasm reverts to a synonym for all blinding clouds of error in The Dunciad, and the Bible becomes an antidote to, not proof of, enthusiasm. This latter point was no mere quibble: the century produced many pamphlets — like Richard Graves's An Essay on the Character of the Apostles (1798) — insisting that the Apostles, though indeed directly inspired by God, were yet no enthusiasts. Though appearing only as if against Pope's better judgment, his acknowledgment of a positive, poetic enthusiasm seen as daring genius effloresced into the enthusiastic-poetic style of midcentury poets like James Thomson, Mark Akenside, and Edward Young, whose taste for the enthusiastic sublime would owe no small debt to Dennis, and culminated in a critically important Romantic rejection of Augustan tastes (Irlam 1999). These poets would discover how close the sublime powers of imagination in poetic enthusiasm can come to a hubristic challenge to God's creation. They struggled, well before Blake, with the dangers of relying on an unintelligible and isolating private language between poet and God, and braved a descent into just the kinds of verbal—mental madness Swift and Pope had decried.
Was this article helpful?