FUTURES OF ENLIGHTENMENT POETRY by Dustin D. Stewart, Reviewed by Henry Weinfield
 


FUTURES OF ENLIGHTENMENT POETRY
By Dustin D. Stewart
(Oxford, 2020) xv + 300 pp.
Reviewed by Henry Weinfield on 2021-05-31.

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This is a valuable study, but its title is seriously misleading. While "Futures" wittily refers both to the "afterlife" of Enlightenment poetry--that is, to the way in which the concerns of the poetry written during the Enlightenment stretch beyond the period itself--and to its concern with the afterlife of human beings, "Enlightenment" is ambiguous in a way that never really gets addressed. As a period, the Enlightenment spans the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but first and foremost, it is a movement in European thought and culture that pits reason and science against superstition and religious dogma.

I thought I was reviewing a book about Enlightenment poetry in both senses. As it turns out, however, though the book is focused on poetry written during the Enlightenment period, its center of gravity is poetry written in opposition to and as a reaction against the Enlightenment as a movement. As Stewart acknowledges in his introduction, Edward Young "stands as the central figure of this study, and his flawed masterpiece Night Thoughts (1742-6) as its pivotal text" (9). Whatever one thinks of Young--and Stewart has certainly enhanced our understanding of his poetry--Young unquestionably epitomizes a Counter-Enlightenment stance or tendency. The Enlightenment, at least in principle (and, of course, not always honestly), was committed to the search for truth. But in lines that Stewart quotes from Book 7 of Night Thoughts, Young openly declares that belief in the immortality of the soul and its continued existence after the death of the body is "dearer far / Than all Things else most certain," and "were it false, / What Truth on Earth so precious as the Lye?" (29).

Stewart's real subject, then, is not the poetry of the Enlightenment (Pope scarcely figures into his study) but the split between mortalists and dualists in Protestant poetry, starting with Milton. While the mortalists believed that the soul either dies with the body or sleeps until resurrected with the body at the Last Judgment, the dualists preserved the traditional belief that the soul is immortal and becomes independent of the body immediately after death. This is a perfectly reasonable starting-point for a literary study, and the book strongly illuminates not only individual poets, some of whom have been insufficiently studied, but also the connections among them. In examining these poets, Stewart displays considerable erudition and sensitivity to literary theory and literary history as well as to the historical context framing the poetry he studies.

Nevertheless, the book has a number of weaknesses. It is overly schematic and sometimes unable to tolerate ambiguity or even to distinguish between a literal and a metaphorical conception. In the few pages toward the end that Stewart devotes to Emily Dickinson, for example, he does again what he so often does with other poets, especially major ones: tries to fit her poetry into a religious pigeonhole. Anyone who has read more than a few poems by Dickinson knows that she continually takes up different religious positions for the sake of the poetic possibilities they afford. Yet on the basis of very little evidence, Stewart asserts that Dickinson is essentially a spiritualist. As a position "basic to her poetry," he writes, she adopts a "spiritualist orientation," according to which "[at] her death her soul will break out of its straitened materiality and rise to a heaven defined in stark contrast to earth" (261). What Stewart is repressing in the case of Dickinson is her skepticism, a kind of skepticism that emanates from the Enlightenment and is skeptical not only of religious truth but also of theological categories.

Stewart is much stronger on Milton. The opening chapter, on Paradise Regained, is one of the best in the book and represents a solid contribution to our understanding and appreciation of a poem which, coming after the sublimities of Paradise Lost, strikes many readers (myself included) as bland by comparison. As the author of De Doctrina Christiana, Milton was himself a precise theologian, and Stewart's nuanced analysis of the theological vectors that went into Paradise Regained helps us grapple with the poem's strangeness--a strangeness that seems to stem, ironically, from its embrace of the ordinary. Stewart argues that while Milton is a mortalist, and his Christology, as previous scholars have suggested, is consistent with Arianism (the heretical belief that the Son, having been created by the Father, is not coeternal with Him), "Milton's Arian conception of the Son doesn't line up very neatly with his mortalist picture of the afterlife" because "Christ was created in heaven and lived as a heavenly being before becoming incarnate as a human on earth" (47). One could argue, of course, that, even for Arians, Christ is not an ordinary human being; but for Stewart (as he tells us some eighteenth-century readers had already concluded), "in moving from Paradise Lost to Paradise Regain'd Milton had shifted in his anti-Trinitarian outlook from Arianism to Socinianism," which, in emphasizing Christ's humanity, was committed to the mortalist heresy (47, 45). By raising the question of how far Milton was willing to go in the direction of Socinianism, Stewart attunes us to a problem that is actually broached in the opening lines of Paradise Regained:

I Who e're while the happy Garden sung,

By one mans disobedience lost, now sing

Recover'd Paradise to all mankind,

By one mans firm obedience . . . (PR 1:1-4; 51)

The interesting question is not whether Milton came to see himself as a Socinian (a matter for Milton specialists) but whether viewing Milton in the light of Socinianism helps us to read Paradise Regained. I think that it does and that in this case (as opposed to the one involving Emily Dickinson), Stewart's approach pays dividends.

Stewart divides his book into three "movements" ("Waiting in Matter," "Rising to Spirit," and "Returning to Matter"), with "interludes" ("Animating Nature" and "Buried Alive") after the first and second. In the first interlude Stewart argues that "[for] poets in Enlightenment England the troubling question was less often whether there's an afterlife than what kind" (73). His strategy in framing the question in this way is to delimit it in terms of Christian belief, but the attempt to banish a darker skepticism from his purview is not entirely successful; even if the poets he treats do not openly question whether Christian belief is itself true, this remains in the background and impinges itself upon them in one way or another. After the excellent chapter on Paradise Regained, Stewart is most persuasive when examining the work of poets who are content to carve out particular religious positions without probing very deeply into them; he is least persuasive when examining the work of poets who cannot be theologically categorized.

The "Rising to Spirit" movement contains three well-formulated chapters: "Gender after Sex," on Elizabeth Singer Rowe; "Commerce after Money," on Edward Young; and "Creation after Reproduction," on Mark Akenside. In the first of these, Stewart explains in intricate detail how Rowe defines the independent soul as feminine and, in the process, contests the male libertine line of poets that take their impetus from the materialism of Lucretius.

In the chapter on Young, Stewart shows how a fine scholar can make a poet who I would have said deserves to be forgotten interesting. Mantling himself in an obviously bogus enthusiasm, Young has the bad taste to develop analogies between gold and the soul in bliss. According to Stewart, Young's "basic assumption seems to be that in abstracting themselves from matter spirits can rightfully claim ownership of it" (132). This helps us to see (if we needed an additional lesson) that religious hypocrisy can coexist with a defense of exploitation and even of slavery. It certainly does so in Young's poetry.

Stewart's discussion of Young is remarkably even-handed, but it contains a few false notes. Analyzing a typically inflated and bombastic passage from Night Thoughts--"Where Conflict past redoubles present Joy; / And present Joy looks forward on Increase; / And that, on more; no Period! Every Step / A double Boon! A Promise, and a Bliss"--Stewart remarks: "The figure known as anadiplosis lets Young repeat the end of the first quoted line . . . at the beginning of the second" (146). This puts the cart before the horse and makes it seem as though its susceptibility to formal analysis can turn bad poetry into good.

In the chapter on Akenside, for me the most difficult and challenging in the book, theological concerns intersect with the poet's interest in embryology. Akenside was a physician and wrote his MD thesis in the same year (1744) as The Pleasures of the Imagination, his best known poem. In analyzing Akenside's version of "preformationism" (the preexistence of souls), Stewart lucidly shows how the poet's cosmic vision leads to a conception of human creativity that makes it analogous to divine creation.

In the "Returning to Matter" section toward the end of the book, Stewart considers Anna Letitia Barbauld's struggle to maintain a sense of cheerfulness against impending gloom. Barbauld is a poet of genius and is increasingly being recognized as such by scholars of Romanticism, but she is not yet a household name. By showing how, in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, she turns her vision of "bodies bereft, or nearly bereft, of spirit" into a gloomy vision of the "body politic," I hope that Stewart will turn readers in the direction of a magnificent poem that is deserving of serious study but still relatively unknown.

Stewart's brief discussions of Gray's Elegy (188-91) and "Tintern Abbey" (238-45) are marred by his penchant for taking metaphors literally in order to fit them into the Procrustean bed of his argument. Gray's "rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep," in my opinion, not because Gray is entertaining a mortalist position but simply because he is employing a time-honored euphemism. And when Wordsworth speaks of being "laid asleep / In body" and becoming "a living soul," he too is writing metaphorically rather than taking a particular theological stance. In both of these instances, if Stewart wants his interpretation to be persuasive, he has to do more than make assertions: he has to frame arguments that take opposing points of view into account. With respect to "Tintern Abbey," the larger problem is that Stewart is missing the forest for the trees: he is not seeing that Wordsworth's point of departure is not that of Christian belief at all but rather of a much darker skepticism, and that confronted with "all this unintelligible world," he is asking how we can nevertheless live full, happy, and creative lives.

Henry Weinfield is Professor Emeritus of Liberal Studies and English at the University of Notre Dame.


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