- Inspiration in the Age of Enlightenment by Sarah Eron
While scholarly interest in secularism has undergone a bit of a revival in recent years, this concept (as Sarah Eron reminds us) has long been fundamental to our understanding of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In her recently published book, Eron offers her own ambitious reinterpretation of Enlightenment and Romanticism in their positioning vis-à-vis secularization. Essentially, she sees efforts to reform enthusiasm, a term she employs synonymously with “inspiration” (based on the once familiar understanding of enthusiasm as a supernatural form of inspiration), as a key project of Enlightenment secularization. At the same time, she challenges scholars who (following M.H. Abrams) identify Romanticism with secularization in encouraging “natural supernaturalism.” Eron insists that the fundamental tendency of Romanticism is to “unworlding,” as it encourages a “slipping back into a private realm of transport that idealizes metaphysical transcendence” (218), a tendency that in her view continues to operate today in tension with Enlightenment “worlding.”
Eron’s argument regarding enthusiasm and secularization in the period is grounded, in turn, upon a reading of select works by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, and Anna Letitia (or Laetitia) Barbauld. Eron identifies these writers as sharing a common purpose in producing different literary experiments that “allow the figure of the muse to survive,” albeit “as a [End Page 381] worldly figure, an apostrophe to a friend or judging spectator, or … an allusion to the mental faculties or aesthetic power of the author and his genius” (27). As illustrated in their use of apostrophe (including the traditional invocation of the muse), Eron sees eighteenth-century writers rejecting a model of literary inspiration where these writers are passive recipients of divine inspiration. Instead, they claim an independent title to authority and inspiration, although “self-authorization” remains “circumscribed, attenuated, and mediated by the laws of the eighteenth-century public sphere” (xi).
As a whole, Inspiration in the Age of Enlightenment is an impressive piece of scholarship. At first glance, the choice of writers appears eclectic, but they come together effectively as part of Eron’s overarching argument. Shaftesbury opens the discussion because of his conception “of enthusiasm as a natural phenomenon related to the psychology of the human condition” (24). Pope advances the argument further in “redefin[ing] enthusiasm’s relationship to the formal dimensions of poetry” (25), Fielding in creating a pattern for “a realist-modern form of [prose] writing” through reworking and bringing together “the power of a theatrical scenario and an ancient reliance on enthusiasm” (26). Barbauld provides a fitting conclusion for Eron as “a transitional figure in the divide between eighteenth-century and Romantic models of enthusiasm” (26). Eron thus demonstrates the gains to be had in overstepping generic boundaries, not only for illuminating the history of ideas but also for generating new insights into how genre functions in the period, beyond the familiar consideration of hierarchy of genre.
Another strength of the monograph is the attention paid to the scholarship on individual writers, with Eron drawing judiciously on the work of others and clearly differentiating her own readings of writers and particular texts from those who have come before.
The general argument might have benefited from a slightly fuller discussion of the apostrophe within ancient classical literature (which includes examples of the invocation of the muse in the context of the lyric, inviting potentially interesting connections to the Romantic lyric, a genre crucial to Eron’s analysis here). It might have equally benefited from further discussion of early modern instances of apostrophe. The monograph includes a detailed discussion of the invocation of the muse in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1st ed. 1667; 2nd ed. 1674), which Eron regards as establishing a pattern for later writers, not in Christianizing a pagan literary trope but in conceiving a muse with a directing and restraining function. Yet there is little contextualization of Milton or mention of the Renaissance lyric, which scholars including Paul Alpers have fruitfully compared with...