Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-century Britain

Front Cover
Stanford University Press, Jan 1, 1999 - Literary Criticism - 284 pages
Elations rewrites the history of early-eighteenth-century English literature around the politics and poetics of "Enthusiasm." It examines the aesthetic theory of the period and reassesses the poetry of two poets seldom read today but very popular in their time: James Thomson and Edward Young. The book also explores the genesis and construction of moral authority through a variety of competing discourses appropriated by poetry, and it traces the rehabilitation of languages of sentiment and Enthusiasm between the English Civil War and the American Revolution.

Today, most readers still associate poetry with the expression of emotion; indeed, Wordsworth's phrase "spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" resounds in contemporary conceptions of poetry. But the position of sentiment in poetry was not always so secure, as attested by the largely forgotten intellectual struggles that produced Romanticism. To understand the etymology of sentiment in eighteenth-century English poetry, the author argues, we must begin by studying religious enthusiasm in the seventeenth century.

The literary fortunes of Enthusiasm provide a central clue to the changing terms in which moral subjectivity and political agency were fashioned during that period. Enthusiasm was consistently associated with religious fanaticism and was the butt of much satire and ridicule. Early in the eighteenth century, however, its definition became more unstable and complex. Elations traces the evolution and differentiation of a poetic enthusiasm from religious enthusiasm as the feeling modulated into a discourse in which poets confronted the limits of form and experimented with new modes of subjectivity. This rehabilitated enthusiasm is exemplified in detailed new readings of Thomson's The Seasons and Young's Night-Thoughts.

Experiments with affect entailed the unmaking and remaking of poetic vocabularies. The overhauling of poetic discourse coincided with the refurbishing of affective and moral subjects. In an era without the concept of the unconscious, Enthusiasm provided a framework within which self-estrangement could be conceived and managed, and it regulated the synthesis of the moral subject. Interludes of elation effected an alienation of self from world that claimed to usher in an authoritative hermeneutic and moral subjectivity. The recovery of a discourse of Enthusiasm in eighteenth-century poetry and aesthetics became a means of reformulating the affective and nonrationalistic bases of a moral subjectivity that was regarded as a necessary foundation for any kind of civil society.

What people are saying - Write a review

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

Mr. Iriam, evidently an excellent scalp-ist and/or critic, seems unaware of a rather vast populists, particularly Americans, of James Thomson poetry devotees. For example, lines from "Autumn" are common place from Middle School onward..."to woo lone silence in our quiet walks" etc. as sheer beauty and reminders of strength and creativity to be experienced in solitude... Would it be rude to suggest to Mr. Iriam that whilst he audits and politicizes Thomson's work, he may want to consider that poetry, akin to music in characteristic, evokes an awareness and understanding in man that no other medium can. Iriam plays a verbal game of hopscotch, dissecting, comparing, categorizing, and so on. Yet, as a psychiatrist, I draw the line when he brings in the embarrassment of reference to the "pathological" aspects. Unfortunately for Iriam, Thomson's works are alive, breathing, and coursing through our psyches, allowing us to renew our "Rambles" in Autumn on a sunny beach in California...very near his scholar's closet at Stanford, perhaps. 

About the author (1999)

Shaun Irlam is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Bibliographic information