The Epistolary Moment

The Epistolary Moment: The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle

William C. Dowling
Copyright Date: 1991
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    The Epistolary Moment
    Book Description:

    The eighteenth-century verse epistle, argues William Dowling, was an attempt to solve in literary terms the dilemma of solipsism as raised by Locke and Hume. The focus of The Epistolary Moment is on internal audience in poetry--the audience "inside" the poem, created by its discourse and belonging to its world--as this divides in epistolary poetry into a double or simultaneous register of address: the audience directly addressed by the letter-writer, and an epistolary audience listening in on the exchange from a point external to the discourse of the speaker but internal to the discourse of the poem. Epistolary audience lies, contends The Epistolary Moment, at the heart of an Augustan theory of poetry as ideological intervention, poems as symbolic acts with enormous consequences in the domain of the real. The emergence of the verse epistle as the dominant form in eighteenth-century poetry thus takes as its ultimate context the origins of eighteenth-century solipsism in a degraded modernity symbolized by Sir Robert Walpole and his Robinocracy, the demonic representatives of a new money or market society arising from the ruins of organic or traditional community.

    Originally published in 1991.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6220-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-2)
    (pp. 3-20)

    THIS IS, as its title promises, a study of the verse epistle as the dominant form in eighteenth-century English poetry, my argument being that epistolary verse during that period was an attempt to solve in literary terms the philosophical problem of solipsism as it arose between Locke’sEssay Concerning Human Understandingand Beattie’s attack on Humean skepticism. Yet my interest in the verse epistle originated in a concern with the theory of internal audience in poetry: the listener or listening presence—in epistolary verse, the imaginary reader of the letter—“inside” the poem, created and sustained by its discourse and...

    (pp. 21-52)

    EVEN TO GLANCE through the standard literary histories of England is to gain some sense of the eighteenth century as a literary moment dominated by epistolarity, for even the simplest of inductive surveys is compelled to look pastPamelaandClarissaandHumphry Clinkerto the hundreds of minor epistolary novels produced during the period, past Locke’sLetters Concerning Tolerationor Hurd’sLetters on Chivalry and Romanceor Chesterfield’sLetters to his Sonto the hundreds of works of philosophy, theology, aesthetics, political theory, controversy, conduct, and travel whose titles give no hint that they, too, are written in the...

    (pp. 53-82)

    AYMOND WILLIAMS’SThe Country and the Cityhas nowhere more conclusively demonstrated its influence, perhaps, than in having restored to sudden respectability an idea of literary Augustanism otherwise long disregarded in eighteenth-century studies. This is the notion of Augustan England as gazing continuously backward across the abyss of the interregnum to a traditional English society presumed to have lingered on intact until the civil war. In the literary histories written thirty or forty years ago this was a gaze thought to involve little more than simple nostalgia, and yet its object was the same society brought into view in Williams’s...

    (pp. 83-111)

    THE IMAGINARY Republic held out by Augustan poetry as a moral alternative to the corruptions of Walpole’s England has its remote origins, as Maynard Mack suggested inThe Garden and the City, in the ideal polis of Plato’s political philosophy: “‘But the City whose foundation we have been describing,’ protests Glaucon in the ninth book of theRepublic, ‘has its being only in words; there is no spot on earth where it exists.’ To which Socrates replies: ‘No; but it is laid up in heaven as a pattern for him who wills to see, and seeing, to found the City...

    (pp. 112-143)

    EPISTOLARY VERSE after the death of Pope is a body of poetry sustained by the memory of an Augustanism it knows to have collapsed, a commonwealth of letters in the sense that epistolarity has become in verse the last sanctuary of those scattered souls who persist in gazing backward toward an otherwise vanished world of Augustan values. The verse epistle in this way survives the implosion of Augustan satire, which by the later eighteenth century is already understood to have fallen victim to an internal paradox, the impossibility of the claim that satire exists to reform society. At the beginning...

    (pp. 144-176)

    AS IT CONCERNS the poetics of the eighteenth-century verse epistle, the empire of chaos is not simply the cultural apocalypse imagined in the last thunderous and gloomy lines of the 1743Dunciadbut a fall into solipsism as Pope and the Augustan poets had always feared it, a world of solitary souls operating in isolation from one another and cut off from any ground of transcendent reality. This is Augustine’s humanity-in-God when God has disappeared, the universal darkness of an age when, metaphysics having called for aid on sense, as Pope puts it, the mind is left to decipher its...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 177-192)
    (pp. 193-200)
    (pp. 201-210)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 211-220)