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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 131-134
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Britannia Waives the Rules: Recent Studies of English Poetry in Principle and Practice
Shaun Irlam. Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). Pp. viii + 284. $49.50 cloth.
Suvir Kaul. Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000). Pp. vii + 337. $55.00 cloth, $19.50 paper.
Blanford Parker. The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Pp. ix + 262. $64.95 cloth.
The points of contact and divergence of these three books on eighteenth- century poetry appear most readily in how they approach James Thomson and Edward Young. For Blanford Parker, The Seasons represents the apotheosis of "the literal," the endpoint in a sad decline from the analogic world of Baroque religious poetry, and Night Thoughts is a fideist exception to the dominant "empirical poetics" of the Augustan period. For Shaun Irlam, who devotes roughly two-thirds of his book to them, The Seasons and Night Thoughts are the strongest achievements of an emergent "poetics of enthusiasm." Suvir Kaul devotes a good (indeed, very good) 20 pages to The Seasons but has more to say about the directly political works of Thomson, such as "Rule, Britannia!" (1740), Britannia: A Poem (1729), and Liberty (1735); his Young is neither the religious ruminator nor Horatian satirist but the author of Ocean: An Ode (1728) and Imperium Pelagi (1729).
Parker's contention that a Renaissance and arguably medieval world of analogy and correspondences gave way in the late seventeenth century to a more secular, materialist, and "prosaic" order of things will be familiar, as Parker acknowledges, to readers of Earl Wasserman, Mario Praz, W.J. Bate, M. H. Abrams, even Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot. One might add the Foucault of Les Mots et les Choses. But he asserts that his book goes an important step further by arguing that the shift did not just happen; it was engineered. The engineers were the winners of the Civil War, particularly anti-Puritan authors such as Butler (chapter one is "Samuel Butler and the End of Analogy"), Hume, and Swift, whose leveling irony and "general satire" extended in effect far beyond the ostensible targets of superstition and evangelical enthusiasm to undermine any seriously religious view of experience. For Parker, Wasserman, and others have not "recognized the connection between satire, the leveling of all previous modes of theology and psychology, and the subsequent literalism and 'descriptionism' of the eighteenth century" (14). The satirists are behind the "de-analogizing of nature" and play a key role in "the aggressive literalizing program of the Restoration culture" (19-20).
I see three immediate problems with this argument: it casts a major historical shift as an elite coup; it cannot explain the similar developments on the Continent in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century; and it relies on selective examples. Oddly, in what began as a "study of English religious writing from 1660 to the middle of the eighteenth century" (10) and which now stretches [End Page 131] to Johnson's Lives of the Poets, there is scarcely any mention of Christopher Smart or of various writers who found fervor more trustworthy than satire, notably Finch, Collins, the Wartons, Gray, Elizabeth Rowe, or Charles Wesley. A fourth problem, not as immediately apparent, is that this narrative oversimplifies and then must unduly complicate. Once a monolithic, triumphant ethos of worldliness has been posited, then religious works are seen as oppositional or paradoxical. Young writes Night Thoughts only when he has "become the perfect Protestant reactionary and archaist" (226). Prior wrote his religiously somber Solomon at "the moment when Augustan wit collided with the flickering fire of Lutheranism" (215). And Johnson, part humanist and fideist, "was not a man of his time" (248). Any history unable to locate a writer as active, popular, and sociable as Johnson in his period is overly exclusive...