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The Religious Sublime

The Religious Sublime: Christian Poetry and Critical Tradition in 18th-Century England

David B. Morris
Copyright Date: 1972
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    The Religious Sublime
    Book Description:

    This perceptive, carefully documented study challenges the traditional assumption that the supernatural virtually disappeared from eighteenth-century poetry as a result of the growing rationalistic temper of the late seventeenth century. Mr. Morris shows that the religious poetry of eighteenth-century England, while not equaling the brilliant work of seventeenth-century and Romantic writers, does reveal a vital and serious effort to create a new kind of sacred poetry which would rival the sublimity of Milton and of the Bible itself.

    Tracing the major varieties of religious poetry written throughout the century -- by major figures and by their now vanished contemporaries -- the author explains how later poets and critics made significant departures from the established norms. These changes in religious poetry thus become a valuable means of understanding the shift from a neoclassical to a Romantic theory of literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6379-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-13)

    The discovery of the sublime was one of the great adventures of eighteenth-century England: accompanying the establishment of a commercial empire, the growth of industrialism, the invention of the common reader, and the rise of the waltz, a taste developed among almost all classes of society for the qualities of wildness, grandeur, and overwhelming power which, in a flash of intensity, could ravish the soul with a sudden transport of thought or feeling. In an age conscious of man's limited middle state, sublimity lifted men above the daily world of prudence; in an age of reason, it temporarily teased men...

  5. Chapter One The Literary Origins of Religious Sublimity
    (pp. 14-46)

    Developing the argument of his Grounds of Criticism in Poetry, John Dennis announced in 1704, “I now come to the Precepts of Longinus, and pretend to shew from them, that the greatest Sublimity is to be deriv’d from Religious Ideas.”¹ This particular step in his argument required some ingenuity because Longinus had discovered no explicit relationship between sublimity and religious ideas. Denni’s strained effort to explain the silence of Longinus on this crucial point suggests that Longinus is not the direct source of English theories of the religious sublime. The origin, rather, is to be found in an accumulating body...

  6. Chapter Two John Dennis and the Religious Sublime
    (pp. 47-78)

    Writing with a clear understanding of the tortuous crosscurrents of Restoration criticism, John Dennis provided England, at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, with a thorough and articulate theory of the religious sublime. He was adept in both ancient and modern literary tradition, and he possessed in addition a pugnacious originality which allowed him to combine the old with the new in refreshing ways. His list of distinguished enemies, which at times included Addison, Steele, and Pope, inclines some modern readers to dismiss him as a crank. If he was at times grumpy and irascible, Dennis’s contemporaries did not...

  7. Chapter Three The Critical Argument: Consistent Aspects
    (pp. 79-103)

    The disparity between form and content in the criticism of Dennis, who recommended a poetry of passion in a prose relentlessly argumentative and rational, ought to alert us to the subtleties and contradictions inherent in a complex period. A number of established assumptions need to be rigorously questioned. For example, in beginning what I believe remains the best introductory book on eighteenth-century poetry, James Sutherland asserts that “one result of the growing rationalism of the last decades of the seventeenth century was the disappearance from poetry of all that may be comprehensively labelled the spernatural.”¹ It is, of course, the...

  8. Chapter Four Poetic Practice: Varieties of the Religious Sublime
    (pp. 104-154)

    Religious poetry which did not meet the formal requirements of existing genres was often shuffled into the catchall classification of the “divine poem.” Subject and treatment, not form, are the distinguishing characteristics of eighteenth-century religious poetry. These characteristics may seem so general, however, as merely to separate poems that obviously are religious from those that obviously are not. Yet, attention to certain basic subjects and treatments also provides a means for distinguishing among different kinds of eighteenth-century religious verse. This is especially true of divine poems written with an eye to the sublime. Throughout the century, a few basic kinds...

  9. Chapter Five Change in Poetry and Criticism
    (pp. 155-196)

    In the second half of the eighteenth century, declining interest in most forms of explicitly religious poetry hastened the demise of the religious sublime. Its eventual failure, however, was implicit in its association with a set of conventional subjects, forms, and techniques. Sublimity, like novelty, dulls through repetition; and one’s tenth Pindaric ode concerning the Last Day may not strike the mind with wonder. The idea of the religious sublime did not die in the last half of the century, but it was doomed largely to survive at the hands of unimaginative poets and critics who simply repeated the labors...

  10. Chapter Six Literature and Religion: A Speculative Conclusion
    (pp. 197-232)

    To turn from the description of change to an analysis of its possible causes requires a willingness to answer large questions with appropriately large generalizations, and in any operation so roomy there is wide area for disagreement. Indeed, where definitive proof would be a phantom of the designer’s brain, the best procedure is to consider a limited range of representative evidence and to speculate about its meaning. The tedium of reading anything written entirely in the conditional or subjunctive will necessitate the use of declarative statements in the following pages, but the spirit of the inquiry is always tentative and...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 233-254)
  12. Index
    (pp. 255-260)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-261)