Irlam, Shawn. Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000
Shawn Irlam’s book, Elations: The Poetics of Enthusiasm in Eighteenth-Century Britain, suggests the fruitfulness of a rigorous and patient attempt to understand the literary tastes of the past precisely when they cut against, rather than confirm, our contemporary tastes and obsessions. Professor Irlam’s study of a long neglected tradition of poetic “enthusiasm” might in fact realize the sort of “archaeo-historicism” Robert Hume favors. Shawn Irlam traces a fascinating story, by which enthusiasm in rhetoric is anathametized during the religious and political wars of the seventeenth century (by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the clergyman Robert South, and the poet John Dryden), then rehabilitated for its valuable moral rhetoric for the improvement of readers by early eighteenth century writers: Sir Richard Blackmore, John Dennis, and, most famously, Joseph Addison in his “Essays on the Pleasures of the Imagination.” According to Irlam, enthusiasm becomes a species of “secular, literary affect,” a form of sublime “aesthetic transport,” and its most influential poetic expression is the poetry of James Thomson and Edward Young (236). The last four chapters offer readings of these two poets, focusing on their major works, Thomson’s The Seasons and Young’s Night Thoughts. Irlam argues that the first poem stages moments of elation in poetic retirement, in relation to nature, so as to ground a moral subject: “…the thaumaturgy of epiphany presented in The Seasons is a theory about, and a contribution toward regrounding the social order and social equilibrium through the private purification of the ‘Passions’ or ‘moral sense’ (Shaftesbury) of each individual” (170). Young, according to Irlam, “participates in a Sensibility cult of poetic enthusiasm and otherworldliness. I suggest he moves the concept of Enthusiasm beyond the ‘logic of sacrifice’ with which it tends to stop in Thomson’s poem, to articulate a subject of self-alienation and ‘the stranger within’” (172). What is affected by this extremely intelligent and sustained analysis of a lost and unfamiliar form? It not only retrieves a lost way of writing and reading poetry, one that was central to the eighteenth century. Irlam offers a good deal of evidence for his central claim: that the poetry of enthusiasm lies behind the more historically successful poetic forms for expressing emotion developed by the “pre-Romantic” and Romantic poets. The intellectual finesse of this fine book, and the subtlety with which Irlam develops a new vocabulary with which to read Thomson and Young, may make these long unreadable poems readable in the twenty-first century.