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Mopping Up Spilt Religion: The Problem of Enthusiasm [1]

  • Jon Mee

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  • Jon Mee
    University College, Oxford

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Shaun Irlam has recently argued that the eighteenth century witnessed a remarkable cultural transformation in which the term "enthusiasm," previously identified primarily with the pathology of popular religious experience, came to be appropriated to elite poetic discourse. What emerges under this new rubric of "enthusiasm," he claims, is an aesthetic in which spirituality and sentiment emerge more generally as "legitimate instruments, vehicles, and objects of knowledge in their own right" (6). Irlam's book is specifically concerned with a poetics of ravishment and what he calls "unworlding" as it appears in the literature of the early to mid-eighteenth century (7). He reads the poetry of James Thomson and Edward Young, for instance, as an anticipation of a Wordsworthian definition of poetry as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling" (239). I am sure he is right to see the continuities in an evolving "poetics of affect" between Wordsworth and these earlier writers (22). My primary problem with Irlam's thesis is that it too easily elides the gap between intention and achievement in the rehabilitation of enthusiasm. Irlam's elision seems predicated in part on his confident sense of "the gradual passing of religious fundamentalism" (52). He recognizes that the presence of a religious culture of enthusiasm represented an impediment to the rehabilitation of the word in poetry (51, 57), but disposes of the problem by declaring that he will take no account of Methodism and other forms of popular religious experience in the eighteenth century because he is concerned with strictly literary matters (37). Religious enthusiasm, it turns out, is dead because he has chosen to ignore it. This privilege was not available to most poets writing even in the Romantic period. For them, the attempt to separate poetic from religious and other forms of popular or pathological enthusiasm was haunted by the fact that these phenomena seemed to have remained very much a part of the social horizon and even to have taken on new, sometimes secularized manifestations. T. E. Hulme once skeptically defined Romanticism as "spilt religion" (62). I would argue, on the contrary, that a distinctive feature of High Romanticism was both a desire to seize on the authenticity of emotional expression identified by Irlam and a countervailing disciplinary urge to separate this movement from vulgar enthusiasm. Enthusiasm in Romantic poetics provided both poison and cure. Mopping up spilt religion in the Romantic period was a process motivated by the fear of becoming what one was meant to be transforming.

Geoffrey Hartman has traced the origins of modern literary criticism in English to a tradition of "civility" designed as a defense against what he calls "enthusiasm, religious or secular, private or collective" (177). Using Addison and Steele's essays for the Spectator as his primary example, he suggests that "literature" came into being at the turn of the eighteenth century as a category defined against the intemperate ranting and preaching of hacks and evangelists. Hartman's primary concern is to defend the literary essay as such against the incursions of latter-day hacks and evangelists among whom, I fear, he would number myself. For what I do in this essay is to treat Hartman's historical claims about the relationship between enthusiasm and literature seriously and examine their significance for a later period as a form of cultural control. By 1735, the Gentleman's Magazine could publish a definition of enthusiasm in terms of "any exorbitant monstrous Appetite of the human Mind" (Grubstreet Journal 203). The secularization with which Irlam is concerned can be witnessed in such definitions, but it is not a transformation that makes the term safe. Rather, the term retains the association with the vulgar passions of the crowd, and the confusions of appetites with profound feeling. Two years later, the same magazine reported a parliamentary speech confirming that "the lowest Class of People [...] have, generally speaking a turn to Enthusiasm, and so strong is the Influence, such is the force of Delusion, that they can work themselves up to a firm Persuasion and thorough belief that any Mischief they are able to do, is not only lawful but laudable" ("An Account" 458). For the Romantic period, whether in its religious or secular forms, enthusiasm remained dangerously intertwined with the idea of the being transported into the amorphous and unstable hyper-sociability of the crowd.

But in my enthusiasm, I am getting ahead of myself. I need to begin with the seventeenth-century origins of the word in English. The term enthusiasm became important as a means of describing and thereby controlling excessive zeal. It was a way, in effect, of prescribing limits to the Reformation, limits which eighteenth-century historians such as David Hume described the Puritan revolution of the 1640s and 1650s as fatally transgressing. After the Restoration, the fear of a recurrence of the events of the Civil War meant that a great deal of thought was given to enthusiasm and the best means of controlling it. I should also acknowledge that from early on, earlier than Irlam suggests, the term was allowed a relatively privileged role in poetry. John Dryden, in 1693, is usually credited with being the first person to use the word in the sense of a strictly poetic fervor necessary to the creative act, but what also needs to be acknowledged about such examples is that this privilege was not unconditional (Tucker 88-89). The sensitivity surrounding the larger religious discourse on enthusiasm meant that the tolerance shown to poetic enthusiasm depended on a text properly conforming to the category of literariness, a category that was far from being stable in itself. Suffice it to say for now that when Dryden's near-contemporary, John Dennis, put forward an ideal of poetry based on the religious sublime, he was immediately regarded in some quarters as blurring this distinction in an alarming way. Dennis admired the "enthusiasm" of Milton's prophetic poetry above all other modern writing. Although he distinguished the "Enthuiastick passion" proper to poetry from the "Vulgar" passions—foregrounding the regulated nature of the former—the vehemence of his language suggested to contemporaries the ease with which the former might degenerate into the latter. Dennis's critical taste and style transgressed what Brean Hammond has called "the polite campaign to regulate conduct, to police the boundaries of the self" (177). More specifically, it threatened to blur the distinction between poetic and prophetic enthusiasm, a distinction which Joseph Addison worked hard to reinforce in his own essays on the greatness of Milton in The Spectator. At around the same time, Pope was beginning to fix Dennis as the archetypal hack whose enthusiasm and lack of restraint led him to dissolve his proper self in print. The identification between enthusiasm and print was a strong and abiding one, as we shall see, based in part on a historical association between the Reformation and the printing press, but also on a more conceptual fear of the anonymity of printed discourse into which the properly grounded self could be dissolved. Certainly, a "copious fluency of words," as the 1708 pamphlet, A Dissuasive Against Enthusiasm, put it (45) was long taken as a sign of the lack of self-discipline associated with enthusiasm. When these words were circulated in print, they were often seen as even further distanced from a controlling authorial identity, open to misappropriation, and likely to merge with and further infect the uncertain and oceanic passions of the anonymous crowd.

The discourse that circulated around enthusiasm from the middle of the seventeenth century developed a pathology to explain its harmful and ubiquitous presence in the body politic. Medical metaphors of infection and disease abounded to account for the transmission of an effect that seemed to owe nothing to reasoned discussion. Henry More had claimed as early as the 1650s that enthusiasm was a form of mental illness in which the fancy swamped the power of Reason (Heyd 92-108). Enthusiasm was violent and disruptive, it was the product of diseased minds, and as a disease of reason, it was regarded as readily transmitted by and to the irrational mob. The mob was believed to lack the mental defenses to ward off infection; the very idea of the mob suggested a propensity to be distracted by whatever caught its attention, and its ecstasies were to be contrasted with a reasonableness which was increasingly used to define a politeness appropriate to the public sphere. This mention of politeness brings me to Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury, a key player, rather overlooked by Irlam, in the process of transforming the meaning of enthusiasm. The rehabilitation of enthusiasm, I suggest, can be usefully conceived of in terms of a regulative attitude displacing a prohibitive one. The former regarded enthusiasm as providing a health-giving inoculation, that is, by inducing a milder form of the disease the more destructive aspects of the ailment could be warded off. Shaftesbury's work provides us with a detailed example of this process at work within the process of creating a polite and reasonable idea of sociability. Although he did not abandon the older sense of enthusiasm identified with the excesses of the crowd, he also developed a different trajectory for the word traced back to its classical origins: "So far is he from degrading enthusiasm, or disclaiming it in himself, that he looks on this passion, simply considered, as the most natural, and its object as the justest in the world" (2: 176).

Shaftesbury had been tutored by Locke, for whom enthusiasm was the irredeemable "laying by [of] Reason" and substituting "the ungrounded Fancies of a Man's own Brain" (Essay 698). He differed from his tutor in that he wished to bring the social affections back to the center of philosophical endeavor. For Shaftesbury, enthusiasm named the desire to get beyond one's self. Defined by "transport" above all else, as it had been for earlier writers, it could be restorative or pathological. What Shaftesbury considered "natural" or "nobler" enthusiasm had to be brought under control if it was to work in a positive way. Where Locke prohibited enthusiasm, Shaftesbury wished to "regulate" it. Indeed, the properly sociable self was the product of a process of division which brought enthusiasm into a natural harmony. Shaftesbury claimed that the ancient injunction "Recognize thyself" should in fact be rendered "divide your-self" (1: 113). For Shaftesbury, enthusiasm was a necessary but not sufficient condition for being fully human, but its force required supervision. In his "Advice to Authors," Shaftesbury recommends soliloquy as the best form of such regulation, testing the passion to communicate against one's own understanding before it is brought before the public. He suggests that authors ought to retire to solitary places, "Woods and Riverbanks," to test their work against themselves so that the "fancy" may evaporate and the "vehemence" of the "Spirit and Voice" may be reduced (1: 107-08). Already, I would suggest, we can see the outlines of a Wordsworthian definition of poetry as "emotion, recollected in tranquility" (266). There are parallels here with John Dennis's near-contemporary treatment of poetic enthusiasm mentioned earlier, but Shaftesbury provided more detail on the method of regulation and his style (and aristocratic status) more readily won credit for the possibility of its success. The difference illustrates the extent to which writers up to and including those contemporary with Wordsworth had to continually demonstrate the regulated nature of their enthusiasm. The unregulated alternative of such self-command for Shaftesbury is an exorbitant enthusiasm, a kind of hyper-sociability, which threatens to blow apart the autonomy of the self: "Thus popular fury may be called panic when the rage of the people, as we have sometimes known, has put them beyond themselves; especially where religion has had to do" (1: 13). Where enthusiasm of this sort occurs, Shaftesbury recommends not persecution and repression but what he calls "raillery" (1: 15-16) as an appropriate means of control. Indeed, persecution, he claims, is itself a form of enthusiasm as it refuses to respect the autonomy of other selves and the reciprocal or conversational nature (to use one of his favorite tropes) of true sociability.

From this last perspective, Shaftesbury's ideas seem to participate in an influential and continuing latitudinarian Whig tradition which stressed regulation and tolerance as opposed to persecution and repression in its attitude to enthusiasm as it worked its poison in society. The discourse of regulation I've been advancing, of course, calls to mind Michel Foucault's account of the internalization of disciplinary power in the eighteenth century. Foucault argues that modern power is the product not of repression but of the production of knowledge. Shaftesbury and his followers seem like harbingers of this modernity in that enthusiasm is moved from its liminal position in Locke's psychology into a central position in which regulatory work can be done on it. Clifford Siskin has made a similar claim for Romantic psychology (which I argue derives in part from Shaftesbury) for which he claims "a self-made mind, full of newly constructed depths, is an object of the new knowledge of those depths and therefore subject to professional power" (13). In Shaftesbury's writing, the psyche is relatively undeveloped. The new depths Siskin describes were to be the product of the insights of Shaftesbury and others into various disciplines, including medical knowledge of the nervous system and the psychology developed through Hartley's theories of association. I have been implying that the aesthetic also became a professional site (fiercely hostile to the unqualified) in which such regulatory work was done, but I should here like to enter a caveat against rushing too uncritically into the arms of Foucault. Clifford Siskin says disciplinary power "always opens deeper depths to surveillance and invites more and more specialized intervention" (13). What this implicitly acknowledges but doesn't quite admit is that disciplinary power in fact chases an ever-receding shadow. The transformation of enthusiasm was never able to rest easy (as the response to Dennis's criticism shows) in the idea that it was complete. It had to continually labor to distance itself from its pathological other.

Part of the reason for this disquiet is that enthusiasm was not simply a discursive effect operating as an anxiety within the writing of the educated elite. Writers looked up from their desks and seemed to see unregulated enthusiasm all around them. Large sections of the population continued to believe, to quote Locke's definition of enthusiasm, that "strength of Perswasion be the Light, which must guide us" (703). Enthusiasm was not just present in eighteenth-century discourse as a means of exorcising the memory of the Civil War. The repressed of Shaftesbury's idea of politeness seemed to be continually returning and proclaiming its right to a place in the public sphere on the basis of the inner light. Moreover, as the century went on, print culture, supposedly the ally of Enlightenment, itself seemed to be a virulent form of the infection. Methodism and its commitment to print culture are an obvious case in point, but I think in terms of a broader cultural formation with its own institutions and distinctive practices. Habermas's notion of the bourgeois public sphere can be construed, as Laurence Klein has construed it, as a playing out of Shaftesbury's ideal of politeness, with its newspapers and pamphlets being discussed by gentlemen in coffee houses and clubs, but it had a counterpart in chapels, field meetings and the huge circulation of popular religious pamphlets. Especially where it produced mass open-air meetings, physical and other kinds of bodily displays of divine ecstasy, or violent and inflammatory language, this culture looked like the grotesque other of the enlightened public sphere to many eighteenth-century observers, but it seems equally clear to me that the appeal to the authority of the inner light remained powerfully attractive to sections of the population excluded by what those invisible barriers of class and education that were used the police the boundaries of "Enlightenment." I'd suggest, with my tongue partially in my cheek, that we might think of a public sphere of enthusiasm in the eighteenth century. Contemporaries saw this distorted public sphere in both religious and secular manifestations. The phenomenon of the unlettered poet, derided in journals such as the Edinburgh Review, was the cousin of the hundreds of anonymous hymn writers whose effusions flooded religious magazines who opened their pages to the public, and, perhaps most notoriously, the mechanic field preachers who according to some accounts waylaid travellers on nearly every road to London all in their different ways were bringing themselves before the public on the authority of their inner light.

"The copious fluency of words" identified with enthusiasm was seen by contemporaries to have an analogue in the unregulated "dissemination" of print discussed by Jon Klancher and more recently under the rubric of "bibliomania" by Paul Keen. Both Klancher and Keen point to the 1790s as a time when the fear that the proliferation of print was itself becoming a new species of enthusiasm grew particularly acute. Critics such as J. J. McGann and Judith Pascoe have suggested that the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads precisely orientates itself against the spectacle of a poetic culture which, in Pascoe's words, seemed to be predicated on the idea "that there is nothing to stop anyone who can feel from springing into verse" (79). Yet even in that nervous decade, where the peasant poet knew his or her place, he or she was an acceptably regulated manifestation of enthusiasm and could be shown off to the public by polite patrons. Indeed, in such instances the idea of literariness in itself, I would suggest, seems to function or at least seems to have been intended sometimes to function to reassure the polite public that popular enthusiasm was capable of regulation. Mechanic preachers, on the other hand, whose enthusiasm never got near the regulatory chamber of the aesthetic sphere, continued to be a deeper source of anxiety for the polite world. Within the Evangelical movement, various efforts were made to regulate this popular enthusiasm without dampening the inclination towards a revival of spirituality. One mechanism of self-regulation was the Evangelical Magazine, launched in 1793 by a group of Dissenting and Anglican preachers of a Calvinist orientation. It was produced in a style "level to every one's capacity, and suited to every one's time and circumstances," designed to protect "true believers exposed to the wiles of erroneous teachers," that is, the peddlers of enthusiasm, "who endeavour to perplex their minds and subvert their faith" (Preface 2).

A series of religious poems appeared in the first two volumes of the Magazine under the pseudonym "Ebeneezer." At this point, I am going to pursue "Ebeneezer" a little more closely as a way into reflecting on the role of enthusiasm in the 1790s, when the word became strongly associated with positive responses, religious or secular, to the French Revolution and, especially, the emergence of a popular radical movement. Where popular preachers were regarded as putting their faith in an illusory Inner Light so the radical movement was often represented as deluded by its own utopian fantasies. Burke's Reflections played an important role in revivifying the Swiftian identification between dissenting preachers and progressive reform under the rubric of "enthusiasm," although he also employed the Swiftian idea of a form of enthusiasm that originated from an uncritical faith in human Reason, but I shall be suggesting that there were plenty of people within the radical movement as well who regarded the unregulated passion of their fellows as a serious threat to an ideal of enlightened reform (Pocock 7-28). For now, however, I return to Ebeneezer who published his poems in a single volume under the title Flowers from Sharon at the beginning of 1794 and revealed himself on the title page to be really called Richard Lee. Lee's collection is prefaced with what may seem the kind of deferential apology routinely expected from the "peasant poet" of the eighteenth century:

It is not from a vain Supposition of their Poetical Merit that the ensuing sheets are offered to the public; but from a Conviction of the Divine Truths they contain - Truths which, I own, fallen and depraved Reason will always stumble at, and which the unregenerate Heart will never cordially receive; but which the CHRISTIAN embraces, and holds fast as his chief treasure.


I hesitate in calling the preface deferential because its privileging of "conviction" over "fallen and depraved reason" is in many ways typical of the self-assertiveness of popular enthusiasm, even though the Evangelical Magazine discovered nothing very threatening in the collection. Indeed, the Magazine extended its patronage to a brief notice, although not one entirely willing to forgive Lee's vulgar errors: "This is perhaps more than a writer is entitled to expect, when he claims the public attention; especially as defects in grammar, accent, rhyme, might have been removed by the previous corrections of some judicious friend" ("Flowers" 82). The reservations expressed here may betray a feeling on the reviewer's part that Lee was showing signs of rather too much independence from his patrons. Yet the signs were not sufficiently strong for the accusation of enthusiasm to be levelled. Indeed, the reviewer was willing to grant that many of the poems "are superior, even in correctness, to what is naturally looked for in the production of so young a person, who has received little assistance from education, and whose occupation to be that of a laborious mechanic" (82-83).

The relative complacency of the Evangelical Magazine on such matters was a source of concern among commentators who wished for a more rationally regulated version of the enlightened public sphere. Only a decade later, Leigh Hunt, for instance, was to condemn the Magazine for providing a showcase for precisely this kind of intense religiosity. Hunt was alarmed at the idea of a religious culture for which intensity of feeling was privileged over classical education and rational inquiry: “Every man who writes and preaches without any knowledge of common English is evidently an inspired preacher, for what but inspiration could induce him to speak?” (9). A decade earlier, Lee's defense of his ungrammatical poetry took exactly the position Hunt parodies here, asserting the authority of his inner light over the claims of reason and grammar. Within Lee's volume, there is exactly the kind of faith in the immediate apprehension of divine salvation which Hunt went on to define in his pamphlet as one of the most dangerous follies of Methodism. Writing at about the same time as Hunt and attempting to construct a polite genealogy for non-conformity, the Unitarian dissenters David Bogue and James Bennett described the attractions of this kind of Calvinism as "the popular poison, a bastard zeal for the doctrine of salvation by grace" (4: 392). These comments suggest that Lee is only one example of what was a thriving metropolitan culture of enthusiasm. Excoriated by conservatives like Burke as proof of the reprobate nature of popular culture, for polite Dissenters such as Bennett and Bogue metropolitan enthusiasm was alarming precisely because it undermined their sense of the possibilities of rational and regulated reform in both religion and politics.

Richard Lee's career subsequent to Flowers from Sharon provides an example of the kind of phenomenon within popular culture that was so troubling to the reform movement's sense of itself (Mee, "Strange Career"). Lee seems to have become associated with the London Corresponding Society (LCS) through his efforts to raise subscriptions on behalf of Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, and other radical leaders arrested for High Treason in May 1794. He was soon to transform himself from simply being a "friend to the distressed patriots" as he signed his sentimental poem on the death of Hardy's wife, into Citizen Lee, the purveyor of the most flagrantly seditious literature in London (On the Death 4). Lee's career must have seemed to the government a frightening fulfillment of the fear, at least a century old, that print offered a medium for the kind of flagrant self-transformations associated with popular enthusiasm. Unregulated by Shaftesburian politeness, the denizens of Grub Street seemed to dissolve their proper selves in print and invent others according to the urgings of their inner light: decades before Pope had execrated John Dennis and numerous other hacks in the Dunciad for precisely this kind of instability. Certainly, the anonymous and protean nature of the radical press alarmed and confused the government in the 1790s. During 1795, political tracts and handbills were produced at an incredible rate from Lee's shop, The Tree of Liberty. He also brought out another collection of his own poetry, sold by various luminaries of the radical movement, called Songs from the Rock. These poems show that Lee remained a religious as well as a political enthusiast. Most of them are characterized by violent language, unequivocal statements of the imminence of divine intervention, and the ability to directly see and feel that power operating in the world. I would argue that it is the confidence of the poetry in its ability to see and comprehend the divine spirit which distances Lee's enthusiasm from the more familiar Romantic millenarianism of the period. I've discussed this matter elsewhere in relation to Blake, arguing that his work seemed scandalous to the emergent aesthetics of Romanticism precisely where it seemed to disregard the idea of the ineffable or unrepresentable nature of the sublime ("As Portentous"). It was this kind of confidence in the ability of the fleshly senses to directly apprehend matters of the spirit which most appalled Leigh Hunt when he attacked the excesses of popular religious feeling a decade later.

Lee himself attracted the government's attention as the most convenient example of the incendiary nature of contemporary radicalism. Consequently, this "laborious mechanic" found himself at the very center of the debate over the proposed legislation against the radical society that took place in Parliament over the closing months of 1795. By the end of the year, he had been arrested on a charge of seditious libel. Seeking to distance the radical movement as a whole from Lee's perceived excesses, Whig speakers in Parliament made much of the fact that Lee had already been thrown out of the LCS. Corroboration can be found for these claims of a sort that suggests Lee's religious enthusiasm had caused problems in the LCS. W. H. Reid later claimed that "Bone and Lee, two seceding members, and booksellers by profession, were proscribed for refusing to sell Volney's Ruins, and Paine's Age of Reason" (Reid 6). The spy Powell reported that hundreds of members left the LCS in protest at an executive decision which effectively adopted the deism of Paine and Volney as the movement's official view of religion. Other recent historical work on popular radicalism confirms that such enthusiasm remained a live and contentious issue within radical circles well into the nineteenth century, never entirely to be displaced by the faith of John Thelwall and other leading figures in "Reason and the pure spirit of philosophy" (Political Lectures 12). [2] For the government, religious enthusiasm always retained a social threat which helps explain the legislation the government introduced to parliament to check field preaching in 1811. Although their political perspectives could hardly have been more different, leaders of the LCS such as Thelwall, who may have been one of those who sought to have Lee thrown out of the movement, and a Tory government to some extent agreed on the dangerous social effects of enthusiasm. One did not have to be a conservative in politics to believe that popular enthusiasm could overturn the social hierarchy and throw off the self-restraint desirable in a culture of politeness. Thelwall and those like him in the radical movement may have had a democratic vision, but it was one in which the masses, as we shall see, had to make themselves the subjects of enlightenment by the exercise of regulatory reason. In fact, Thelwall, who was deeply influenced by Shaftesbury, went further than many other radical intellectuals certainly further than, say, Godwin, who attacked him for speaking to popular assemblies, in his faith that the "enthusiastic ardor" of the people, the transcendence of self through sympathetic identification, was a necessary part of political radicalism, and even further in his faith that the lower classes could be trusted to regulate such enthusiasm back into a reasonable form of opinion ("Second Political Lecture" 105). To most polite observers, including Godwin, this faith in the self-sufficiency of his audience was itself an abandonment of regulation, but even Thelwall was wary of the passions of the crowd.

Thelwall's politics were heavily dependent on an appeal to the universality of reason. Outbursts of popular enthusiasm were used by conservative commentators such as Burke as proof that the crowd were incapable of the kind of self-regulation that was necessary to their involvement in the political process, but perhaps even more difficult was the position of those Christian dissenters who, while seeking to avoid the stigma of enthusiasm, wished to retain the notion that the Bible and its prophetic tradition had a relevance to contemporary politics. Politics uttered in a Dissenting pulpit made it very easy for Edmund Burke to conjure Richard Price of all people as a throwback to the 1640s. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the 1790s, of course, was struggling with precisely this kind of dilemma, and I spend the final section of this essay using this context to talk about the role of the regulatory discourse of enthusiasm in the development of his poetry. In the process, I shall be suggesting that Romanticism can be understood to be just as involved in the literary disciplining of enthusiasm as the early-eighteenth-century examples mentioned by Geoffrey Hartman. Indeed, the discourse of enthusiasm provided a paradigm for fears about an expanding print culture in which, ignoring or proving incapable of managing the regulatory machinery laid down in Shaftesbury's "Advice to Authors," the prompting of the inner light, the movement of the spirit, seemed sufficient authority for the proliferation of a dizzyingly expanding world of all kinds of print. Romanticism, I am going to argue, affiliated itself with the idea of literature as a bastion against this kind of unauthorized and anonymous inspiration even as it exploited the idea of literary as an expression of what Coleridge called the fountains that are within.

Romanticism has often been defined in terms of a retreat from a radical political commitment to the principles of the French Revolution. An influential restatement of this narrative by M. H. Abrams in the 1970s, of course, represented the process in terms of the transformation of one kind of prophetic millenarianism into another, "faith in an apocalypse by revolution [...] gave way to faith in apocalypse by imagination or cognition" (334). For some New Historicist critics, Abrams is culpable in his willingness to perpetuate the self-image promoted by the poets, this process involves an evasion of history, the displacement of public events by narratives of private revelation. From this perspective, prophecy operates to displace politics in Romantic poetry. What this criticism overlooks is that no such simple binary opposition existed in the 1790s. Prophecy did not necessarily operate in opposition to history and politics in the 1790s, as I've tried to show, but where it did lay claim to a public role, as with Lee and numerous others, who claimed an authority to enter into print and publish poetry on the basis of the promptings of their own inner light, it was readily identified with a transgressive enthusiasm by Anglicans, Dissenters, and Deists alike. What Abrams called an "apocalypse of the imagination" was easily construed in elite culture as a delusion of enthusiasm, such charges were regularly made against Coleridge and Wordsworth in fact, but I suggest that from early on in their careers both poets were doing careful disciplinary work to try to establish their literariness as quite separate from the exorbitant claims of popular enthusiasm. Contrary to Irlam's view of the development of a Romantic aesthetic, the work of distinguishing a safely poetic enthusiasm from what were regarded as its pathological variants was and could never be taken for granted.

The general outline of what I have to state below can be adapted and applied to Wordsworth and other poets in greater or lesser degrees, but Coleridge's difficulties in dealing with enthusiasm were exacerbated by the fact that in the 1790s he was in dialogue with a Dissenting tradition which wanted to maintain some kind of public space for prophecy as an active form of social criticism. The scientist and Dissenting minister Joseph Priestley, for instance, understood the French Revolution to be the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, but he was careful to emphasize that he had reached his conclusions by reason and research and certainly not by the direct illumination of the spirit. Priestley is observing a basic distinction in Christian versions of the discourse of regulation. As one clergyman wrote in 1799, "every good Christian is indeed inspired" (A Treatise 3), but true spirituality in both the Anglican and mainstream Dissenting traditions was distinguished from the spiritual ecstasies of enthusiasm in so far as the former was of a more private nature. To briefly develop this point further, we need to recognize that great store was set in quietist ideas about stages of spiritual growth. This regulatory tradition is maintained in features of Romantic poems identified in the observation made by M. H. Abrams that The Prelude transforms "the Christian paradigm of right-angled change into something radically new" (113). Abrams believes that Wordsworth's poem substitutes for these right-angled irruptions of futurity from within the present "a pattern [...] in which development consists of a gradual curve back to an earlier stage, but on a higher level incorporating that which has intervened" (114). In fact, eighteenth-century commentators were more likely to identify what Abrams calls "right-angled irruptions" as enthusiasm. Distancing oneself from such sudden irruptions of the unworldly was essential to most definitions of true piety at the time in both Anglican and Dissenting traditions. What was perceived as the chaos caused by the millenarian enthusiasm of the Civil War helped cement this preference for "an independently existing God, who made himself known by the wonders of his works, seldom by direct revelation, and never by his immanence or inherence, which he had made the human mind incapable of grasping" (Pocock 17). Wordsworth's process of folding spots of time into a continuous sense of self-identity is part of a long English tradition of making sure that the transports of the sublime come with a return ticket back to a coherent subjectivity. His ultimate truths are usually rooted in natural causes.

Maintaining that one could regulate the "unworlding" of visionary experience without making oneself vulnerable to the charge of enthusiasm was no easy matter. For Wordsworth in the early 1800s, the process was complicated by the need to fold into the picture a youthful revolutionary commitment that Burke had already established in the public mind as a mutation of traditional forms of enthusiasm. Yet as known religious Dissenters, Coleridge and Priestley were perhaps even more vulnerable. For many high-churchmen throughout the century, as for Burke in the 1790s, religious non-conformity simply was enthusiasm in so far it was seen to privilege the independent mind of the believer over traditional structures of church government. To refuse to be regulated by the Church was by definition to throw oneself onto the uncertain promptings of one's Inner Light. Given the need of Rational Dissent to distance itself from the specter of popular fanaticism raised by Burke and to some extent fulfilled by latter-day prophets such as Lee, no wonder then that the Analytical Review, perhaps the chief organ of rational Dissenting opinion in the 1790s, missed no opportunity to pour scorn on the pretensions of Swedenborgians, Muggletonians, and every manifestation of popular zeal. Coleridge's career as a poet was forged in the midst of this very struggle to differentiate rational self-sufficiency both political and spiritual from its pathological alter egos. I have argued elsewhere that even a poem as full of millenarian fervor as "Religious Musings," written in 1796 when he still had very strong contacts with Rational Dissent, seeks to define its prophetic language as properly regulated ("Anxieties" 179-203). While in part "Religious Musings" was written to defend the possibility of a radical Christianity against the skeptical incursions of writers such as Godwin and Thelwall, that is, as an assertion of the validity of the active life of the spirit, I argue that it also seeks to regulate itself against the danger of enthusiasm. In contrast to the unrestrained violence of Richard Lee's language, for instance, Coleridge's apocalypticism is ringed with caution. Coleridge reassures the "Children of wretchedness" (line 321) that "Yet is the day of Retribution nigh" (323), but he also takes care to counsel them that "More groans must rise / More blood must stream, or ere your wrongs be full" (321; Complete Poetical Works 1: 298). Coleridge's care can be contrasted with the unashamed enthusiasm of Richard Lee's claim to have direct access to "divine Truths [...] which [...] depraved Reason will always stumble at."

Coleridge's writing in this period is concerned to respect a distinction between poetry and prophecy established early in the century, but disavowed in the poetry of enthusiasm represented by Lee. The urgency of the need to make precisely this kind of distinction was highlighted by a discussion of the sudden flaring of metropolitan enthusiasm in 1794 published in the Analytical Review. The anonymous reviewer, still puzzled at the eruption of vulgar enthusiasm in a sophisticated, modern metropolis, commented:

Prophecy and poetry are so nearly allied, that in most nations they have been more or less confounded. In some languages, the same term denotes both a prophet and a poet [...]. Both use a bold metaphorical style; both utter their oracles in verse, or in a sort of prose resembling verse; both claim the gift of inspiration; and both are, or at least were once, believed to be inspired.

"A Revealed Knowledge" 213

On a first reading, it might seem that the reviewer is making the kind of identification between poetry and prophecy essential to the view of Romanticism associated with M. H. Abrams and others (not to mention T. E. Hulme), but the word "confounded" should serve to warn us that eighteenth century association of poetry with prophecy was subject to certain qualifications. The Biblical prophets may have been the poets of the Hebrews, but to continue to believe that the poet and the prophet are identical, the reviewer suggests, is to be guilty of a primitivism misguided in its literalism. The Analytical Review implies that two quite different kinds of inspiration are at stake, a distinction related to Shaftesbury's contrast between classical and vulgar enthusiasm. To claim quite literally to be a prophet, to claim that one's own visions had the status of divine revelation, was to be guilty of a dangerous enthusiasm which ignored the difference between poet and prophet and effectively abrogated the conventions of the enlightened public sphere. Towards the close of "Religious Musings," Coleridge swerves away from laying claim to the power of prophecy. A recognition of Coleridge's attempt to "discipline" his inspiration helps explain the generally positive reviews the poem received at a time when millenarian expectancy was a particularly sensitive subject. John Aikin, who wrote for the Monthly, showed that he was only too well aware of the dangers surrounding Coleridge's poem, but confirmed that it was saved from enthusiasm:

Often obscure, uncouth, and verging to extravagance, but generally striking and impressive to a supreme degree, it exhibits that ungoverned career of fancy and feeling which equally belongs to the poet and the enthusiast. The book of Revelations may be a dangerous fount of prophecy, but it is no mean Helicon of poetic inspiration. Who will deny genius to such conceptions as the following.

Aikin 197-98

A Dissenter himself, whose father had been taught at the Warrington Academy for Dissenters with Priestley, Aikin could well sympathize with Coleridge's attempt to articulate a variety of Christian politics that distinguished itself from vulgar enthusiasm.

A rather less sympathetic response to Coleridge's poem came from John Thelwall who as a Deist, unlike Aikin, was inclined to conflate any kind of Christian millenarianism with vulgar enthusiasm. As I have already noted, Thelwall's radicalism laid claim to an Enlightenment pedigree. In lectures given in 1795, he carefully distinguished the "spirit" of the French Revolution from the English Revolution of the 1640s. Ranting enthusiasm was the last thing with which the Jacobin orator, proclaiming his vision of an enlightened public sphere open to the scrutiny of individual reason, wanted to be identified, but it was precisely what Thelwall saw in "Religious Musings" and he was quick condemn it in a letter to Coleridge. What praise he could muster for the poem "belongs almost exclusively to those parts that are not at all religious. As for the generality of those passages which are most so, they are certainly anything in the world rather than poetry [...] they are the very acme of abstruse, metaphysical, mistical [sic] rant, & all ranting abstractions, metaphysic & mysticism are wider from true poetry than the equator from the poles" (qtd. in Gibbs 87). Thelwall's distinction between "rant" and "poetry" accepts Aikin is right to draw a line between poetry and enthusiasm, but draws it in a different place.

Unsurprisingly, Coleridge rejected Thelwall's analysis. Christ needed to be included in the trinity of the Enlightenment, he told Thelwall (along with, incidentally, Shaftesbury and Rousseau). Nevertheless, the anxiety already evident in the poem about going too far towards enthusiasm was only likely to have been confirmed by the tussle with Thelwall and Coleridge wrote in February, 1797 to reassure him that the poem had been "altered monstrously, since I read them to you, and received your criticisms" (Collected Letters 1: 213). A widely noted feature of the poetry Coleridge wrote soon after this exchange is a withdrawal into a domestic world (Paley 26). I suggest this withdrawal can be made sense of as an attempt to regulate its own millenarian enthusiasm precisely through the domestic, a kind of worlding of the unworldly if you like. No less than Wordsworth's definition of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility," Coleridge's millennium in microcosm is close to the kind of regulation which Shaftesbury had recommended in his "Advice to Authors." Whereas enthusiasm threatens to splinter disciplined subjectivity through a violent eruption of revelation into the public world, Coleridge's poetic revelation seeks to affirm something like the Habermassian notion of the modern public as a communion of autonomous readers. Perhaps it is easier to perceive this regulatory process in the conversation poems than in supernatural poems such as "The Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." Yet, even in these poems, continuities of the self must be protected from the right-angled turn of revelation. Where the prophetic figure who threatens to bring his own vision of the divine immediately before the public does appear in Coleridge's poetry of this period, it is as a figure of dangerously unstable subjectivity:

Beware! beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise

"Kubla Khan" 49-54

This famous image may express a desire within Coleridge's poetry for the transformative power of the sublime, but the desire is insulated by a countervailing rhetoric which disavows the poet's own prophetic power. "Could I revive within me" and the other verbal equivocations at the close introduce a conditional element that echoes the deferral at the close of "Religious Musings." When the poem was finally published in 1816, it was further insulated by a preface which suggested that it might not even qualify as poetry. As "a psychological curiosity," the poem attests to the associative power of enthusiasm, but introduced by the story of the man from Porlock, revelation is always already the fading memory towards which the poem gestures, but which it never claims to encompass. A scandalous confidence in its ability to embrace the divine was what defined enthusiasm for commentators such as Leigh Hunt:

People of exuberant fancies and uncultivated minds cannot think too highly of themselves, when they hear the refuse of society claiming familiarity with all the persons in the Trinity and talking of going to heaven as they would of the one-shilling gallery: they are led on therefore from familiarity to confidence, and from confidence to a sense of equality, and thus become gods themselves.


I would argue that far from privileging prophecy over history, Coleridge's poetry polices a boundary between poetry and prophecy, cutting unregulated prophecy as such off from a public voice as effectively as the government cut Lee off from his, and effectively effacing the existence of the culture of enthusiasm outlined earlier.

Coleridge's defection from Unitarianism is often narrated as a straightforwardly political or philosophical development, but it can also be viewed as part of a lifelong struggle to distinguish his sense of the purer fountains within from mere enthusiasm. Coleridge dismissed the associationism he identified with Priestley for reducing consciousness to "delirium" (Riede 187). Effectively, Coleridge was agreeing with Burke's view that the materialism of the Unitarians was no better than the effusions of the tub preacher. Both were overcome by the delusion of self-sufficiency. Increasingly, Coleridge came to agree with Burke that only the institutions of the Anglican church could provide a safe regulatory context for the transports of enthusiasm. Yet, he never quite abandoned the idea that the poet might regulate himself into self-identity. In The Friend, Coleridge tried to distinguish a pure form of "enthusiasm" from its pathological other in the form of "fanaticism." A parallel process of desynonimization can also be glimpsed in the famous distinction between "Imagination" and "fancy." The latter seems to have all the distracted features commonly associated with enthusiasm in the period.

Critics have sometimes understood Coleridge's fear of the expanding reading public of the early nineteenth century in terms of his anxiety that the relationship between writers and readers might become merely unspiritual consumerism. No doubt Coleridge did yearn for a relationship with his audience constituted as a Shaftesburian conversation which reaffirms the stability of his own identity, but it is the inflationary excess of spirituality that is as alarming to him as the unspiritual (in fact I believe he fears they are trapped in a kind of terrible dialectic): "Idly talk they who speak of Poets as mere Indulgers of Fancy, Imagination, Superstition, &c-they are the Bridlers by Delight, the Purifiers, they that combine them with reason & order, the true Protoplast, Gods of Love who tame the Chaos." (Notebooks 2: 2355). Poetry from this point of view corresponds to Hartman's view of literariness as a sphere in which enthusiasm might be regulated into proportion. Without its harmonizing influence on the poet and his society the fountains within might well swamp the subjectivity they were meant to authenticate. Against the frightening specter of an unregulated public of readers and writers, Romanticism attempted to present itself as a magical circle of authentic literariness, that is, as a properly regulated species of enthusiasm.

Parties annexes