The Pindaric the Sublime and Milton

Several other factors coincided with Cowley's revolution to ensure the longevity of the Pindaric ode in the eighteenth century. One was the simultaneous introduction into English poetry and criticism of the sublime [see ch. 37, "The Sublime"]. In 1652 appeared the first English translation of Longinus' powerfully influential treatise, Peri Hupsous ("On the Sublime"). Longinus, a Greek philosopher of the first century ce, explored the rhetorical effects of sublime style: a grand and lofty mode of writing whose explicit purpose is to move its audience to heightened emotion. The Pindaric shared with the sublime an insistence on emotional transport and elevation. The critical precept and the poetic form corresponded remarkably. Rounding out this cluster of reciprocal influences was a poet: Milton, a writer of the seventeenth century who for the eighteenth century embodied poetry's potential to attain celestial heights — a native talent who had equaled or even surpassed ancient achievements.

Unlike the immediately sensational Pindaric ode, the phenomena of Milton and the sublime, though available in the Restoration, exerted slightly delayed influences. By the turn of the century poets and critics were ready for Milton and his conduit to sublime transport. In his 1706 ode, "The Adventurous Muse," Isaac Watts employs the genre for just such purposes:

Give me the Chariot whose diviner Wheels,

Mark their own Rout, and unconfin'd

Bound o'er the everlasting Hills,

And lose the Clouds below, and leave the Stars behind.

Give me the Muse whose generous Force

Impatient of the Reins

Pursues an unattempted Course,

Breaks all the Criticks Iron Chains,

And bears to Paradise the raptur'd Mind.

Watts's adventurous muse makes an interesting generic leap from the epic to the Pindaric ode. The "unattempted" course and the elevation to "Paradise" are references not to Milton's odes but to his epic Paradise Lost (1667). The destination to which Watts aspires is explicitly that occupied by his epic predecessor: "There Milton dwells: The Mortal sung / Themes not presum'd by mortal Tongue" (ll. 35-6). Not just Milton's sublimity but also his blank verse form inspire Watts, who sees in Milton's blank verse and Watts's own irregular Pindaric lines a shared disparagement of rhyme: "The noble Hater of degenerate Rhyme / Shook off the Chains, and built his Verse sublime, / A Monument too high for coupled sound to climb" (ll. 48-50). A crucial model for Watts's Pindarics is the Hebrew Bible, particularly the Psalms of David. For Watts and other eighteenth-century ode writers, David is another ancient exemplar. Decades later, the poet Christopher Smart composes one of the period's most amazing odes, A Song to David (1763).

A more influential contemporary of Watts was elaborating these same connections between Milton, the sublime, and the Pindaric ode, and pondering the relationship between poetry and religion. The critic, poet, and playwright John Dennis addresses vital questions about the nature and potential of poetry in two important critical treatises: The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701) and The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704) [see ch. 5, "Poetic Enthusiasm"]. He lays out several influential propositions: that poetry is the noblest and most beneficial art; that contemporary poetry suffers from a fallen state; that the ancient poets excel the moderns not inherently but because ancient poetry concerns sacred rather than worldly subjects; that poetry works by raising passion in readers; that religious subjects provide the most effective way for poetry to induce that passion. Milton is for Dennis the poet who has most gloriously fulfilled the criteria for great poetry; and so, with Milton as his paradigm, Dennis sets himself the task to "restore Poetry to all its Greatness, and to all its Innocence" (The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry, l. 328). The ode, although one of the three branches of "greater poetry" along with the epic and tragedy, is for Dennis currently the most degenerate form because it has abandoned religious subjects. And so Dennis, like

Watts, envisions the ode among the loftiest forms of poetry, a heady junction of sublimity, religion, and Miltonic influence.

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