Enthusiastic Poetry and Rationalized Christianity: The Poetic Theory of John Dennis

By Donnelly, Phillip J. | Christianity and Literature, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Enthusiastic Poetry and Rationalized Christianity: The Poetic Theory of John Dennis


Donnelly, Phillip J., Christianity and Literature


The critical writing of John Dennis (1657-1734) participates in the long-standing attempt to appropriate classical aesthetic and philosophical categories in an explicitly Christian framework. His critical project also aims, however, to unite poetry and religion for political ends. His account of poetry is exceptional, in part, because of the ways in which he attempts to base his arguments on a presumed sense of broad political appeal. In offering a poetic theory that purports to unite the aims of Christian religion, imaginative literature, and national politics, Dennis also thus provides a window on what he takes to be the shared assumptions among his English reading public in the early 1700s. In his two main critical works, The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701) and The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), Dennis argues that the key to English national success is to cultivate an affective poetic synthesis of religious belief that would reform the moral and civic virtue of the nation. Dennis's argument is surprising, however, in its attempt to rehabilitate the term "enthusiasm" by shifting its meaning from a widely used term of abuse toward a positive suggestion of poetic inspiration. (1) At the same time, his broader emphasis upon "passion" as a positive good would make him, through his Romantic readers, one of the most deeply abiding influences upon English culture. The argument here begins by considering the multiple historical contexts upon which Dennis's writings impinge, especially the horizon of expectations that he engages through the term "enthusiasm" and the mixed critical reception of his work. The argument then traces how his appropriation of classical aesthetics, most notably that of Longinus, is shaped by a reductive rationalism whose very effects Dennis aims to overcome. Ultimately, I contend that such a view of reason also determines Dennis's "anti-philosophical" defense of the Christianity. In this way, his quixotic attempt to rehabilitate "enthusiasm" also suggests the extent to which publicly available assumptions at the turn of the eighteenth century could subsume Christianity within an account of modern instrumental rationality.

Dennis's poetic theory thus illuminates the changes in early modern English assumptions about human reason. Understanding the character of such shifts is particularly important for the study of Christianity and imaginative literature. Until there is wider acknowledgement that critical theories, no less than poetic analyses, depend upon presumed historical narratives for their intelligibility, the practice of literary criticism will scarcely move beyond a mere recognition that the deployment of some kind of critical approach is unavoidable. Among the competing master narratives that inform even the least ambitious of postmodern critical theories there is a shared and recurrent two-fold motif regarding Christian faith: the characterization of Christianity as a kind of popular Platonism, and the accompanying reduction of both (Christianity and Platonism) to a species of proto-Enlightenment rationalism in which the use of reason is necessarily a form of coercion. (2) Despite the discrediting of such historical assumptions, they often continue to inform literary analysis and theorizing. (3) The discourse of intersection between Christianity and literature cannot become truly postmodern without the articulation of alternative historical narratives that investigate the rhetorical strategies by which such caricatures came to be presumed. Dennis's writing offers insight into just such an alternative history.

Although the term "enthusiasm" would come to identify, in some respects, the very opposition by which modern Enlightenment reason defined itself, there also appeared very early the accompanying idea that enthusiasm could be the result of such rationalism. (4) The initial pejorative sense of the term derives from the Socratic use of enthousiasmos, most notably in Plato's Ion, to describe the Homeric rhapsode's singular ability to perform poetic texts without really understanding them (from the root entheos, "possession by a god"). …

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