"Enthusiasm" is a term to which Romantic criticism is blind. Where it is noticed, it is usually assumed that over the course of the eighteenth century it was rehabilitated. Whereas it had been associated with the violence and excess of the sects in the Civil War, it came to be identified with the healing powers of emotion and imagination. This essay argues for a more complicated understanding of the term's trajectory. The prohibition of enthusiasm found, for instance, in Locke comes to be replaced by a more regulatory discourse. From this perspective, its benefits had to be harnessed, but there remained a powerful awareness that poetic or noble enthusiasm could easily degenerate into its vulgar and dangerous avatar. These fears were intensified in the 1790s by Burke's representation of revolutionary transparence as a throwback to seventeenth-century puritanism. Poets such as Coleridge, whose case history provides the final section of this essay, inherited this complex understanding of the term. Coleridge came increasingly to distinguish a healing "enthusiasm" from the "fanaticism" of the mob, but desynonymization could never quite eradicate the fear that the fountains within of the former were deeply linked to the destructive energies of the latter.
Mary Hays believed that "in the intellectual advancement of women […] is to be traced the progress of civilization." This essay traces the trajectory of Hays's own "advancement," focusing on Robert Robinson's tutelage from 1781 to her initial encounters with Wollstonecraft. The rational culture of late-eighteenth-century radical Dissent encouraged Hays to venture into the masculine strongholds of Enlightenment understanding, but here, as in the larger world, the "insuperable barriers" of gender obtained. Despite these obstacles, Hays forged an identity as female autodidact in the 1780s, readying herself to embrace Wollstonecraft's "revolution in female manners." Hays's initial contribution was to urge a new cognitive freedom, the recognition that women, too, may aspire to "the emancipated mind [which] is impatient of imposition, nor can it, in a retrogade [sic] course, unlearn what it has learned, or unknow what it has known." Hays's unfinished transition from sheltered puritan to Nonconformist apprentice to ardent feminist provides the missing link in our appreciation of her collaboration with Wollstonecraft and Godwin in the 1790s. I show how Hays was transformed into the obvious candidate for public denunciation as chief living "unsex'd female" in Wollstonecraft's stead.
Not all apparently religious imagery in Romantic Period writing is in fact religious. Temples—particularly when presided over by a priestess and linked with the ideas of reason or nature—often denote active hostility to Christianity if not to all religion. Examples from the Temple of Reason in revolutionary Paris to Shelley are considered, as well as references to Eleusinian and other Greek Mystery cults, seen as revealing hidden truths to an elite while concealing them from the masses. For Coleridge, these truths were quasi-Christian; for many others, they were materialistic and religiously subversive, but suppressed for political reasons. Hints of the latter position are briefly examined in Godwin, Richard Payne Knight, and Blake, as are some parallels in Freemasonry. Perhaps the fullest poetic use of temple and Mystery imagery is in The Temple of Nature (1803) by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, whose evolutionary theory it anticipates. Despite a brief deistic identification of God as First Cause, its opening uses an exciting technique of imagistic montage to overthrow the story of Adam and Eve as a vulgar myth, to be replaced by an Eleusinian-style initiation of the few into the truths of the materialist self-sufficiency of nature. Its elaboration of these images makes it a crucial reference-point for their use in religiously unorthodox Romantic period literature.
In the late eighteenth century, Swedenborg-inspired mystics transformed the pseudo-science of Animal Magnetism, popularized by Franz Anton Mesmer, into a mystical religion of restoring mankind to spiritual health and preparing the Millennium. The essay progresses chronologically to trace Blake's intellectual companionship with this renegade branch of Magnetism in relation to the development of some central metaphors and narrative structures in his works. Especially prominent with the Swedenborgian magnetizers practicing in London were ideas of "healing" by means of communication with spirits from beyond. This, however, met staunch opposition from the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church—the only religious organization with which we know Blake to have been affiliated. The more conservative clerics here launched a campaign banishing all experimentation with Spiritualism and the occult interpretations of Swedenborg that held sway among the mystical magnetizers. The article examines Blake's well-known support of Spiritualism in relation to this local dispute, as this contributes to solve the long-standing mystery of why Blake suddenly fell out with New Jerusalem Church at this time and launched a virulent attack on Swedenborg in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
De Quincey's conception of the literature of "power" as opposed to that of "knowledge," has proved to be one of the most influential of romantic theories of literature, playing no small part in the canonization of Wordsworth. De Quincey's early acquaintance with the Lyrical Ballads was made through the Evangelical circles of his mother, who was a follower of Hannah More and a member of the Clapham sect. In later years, however, De Quincey repudiated his early Evangelical upbringing and wrote quite scathingly of the literary pretensions of Hannah More. This paper attempts to uncover the revisionary nature of De Quincey's later reminiscences of More and to indicate thereby the covert influence of Evangelical thinking on his literary theorizing. Far from absolving literature of politics, however, colonialist and nationalist imperatives typical of Evangelical thinking may be seen to operate within the spiritualized and aesthetic sphere to which literary power is arrogated by De Quincey.
This essay places Emily Brontë's poetry within a tradition of eighteenth-century discourses on enthusiasm of both a poetical and religious nature. The question of where Brontë's fervent writing style, most often associated with her fiery novel Wuthering Heights, originated has long been debated, and it is suggested here that one available answer is enthusiasm. Two sources of enthusiasm pertinent to Brontë are explored: Methodism, with its dislike of doctrine and pantheistic emphasis on nature; and eighteenth-century poetics, as defined through figures like John Dennis and Edward Young. Religious and poetical enthusiasm are necessarily merged for Brontë, both infused by a kind of spiritual sublimity and dependence on the idea of transport she employed within her verse. Recognizing this allows the reader to historicize this often cryptic poet and thus rescue her from more arguably tenuous claims which deem her a mystic, a Shelleyan heretic, a writer repressed by Christianity, a victim of a tragic romance or simply a very angry woman. By instead locating her within an enthusiastic literary tradition, Brontë may be seen not only as a woman writer aware of her religious environment, but as a Romantic whose poetry accords as much with the sentiment of Night Thoughts as Mont Blanc.