<< . .

. 4
( : 30)



. . >>

history was that ˜the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry™. The
·
The eighteenth century
prose works of Wordsworth and Hazlitt display the hairline cracks which
initiate this rift, leading them to challenge the foundations of representa-
tional ˜knowledge™ with a theory of creation, a challenge to epistemology
which ¬nally loops back to the same desideratum of epistemic certainty
from which it seeks to escape. Nor did this division itself spring from
nowhere. Before examining the complex epistemological and counter-
epistemological manoeuvrings of English Romantic Prose, then, it is im-
portant to understand how a discourse of psychological creation which
was long-lived but previously marginal in British philosophy came, by
the late eighteenth century, to be in a position to shake the foundations,
it seemed, of philosophy itself.

© ® °©  © ® ®¤  µ ¬©  ¦   °µ  ®    µ« 
To give a comprehensive account of the development of the idea of artistic
creation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries falls well beyond
the scope of this chapter. However, it is possible to indicate those currents
of thought which encouraged the idea (in either of its forms), and those
whose natural tendency was to sti¬‚e or deny it. The tradition of thought
which was most congenial to the notion of the artist as a creator sprang
initially (though not exclusively, as will be seen) from two main sources,
both classical. The ¬rst was Neoplatonic, and resulted from a fusion of
an analogy of the artist with Plato™s Demiurge, or divine craftsman, with
an amended version of his account of the poet as one ˜possessed™, such
that inspiration was now held to confer upon the artist a divine grace in
execution and composition which was beyond the normal rules of art.
Promoted by Sidney and Puttenham in the late sixteenth century, this
tradition survived, albeit in a muted form, into the eighteenth, despite the
fact that the Platonic philosophy upon which it rested, though it con-
tinued to ¬nd support with Cudworth, More and Shaftesbury, was by
then anachronistic. The second was a theory of the sublime derived from
Longinus, but transformed in such a way as to place ever greater stress
on the spontaneous imaginative response which characterized the expe-
rience of the sublime object. Two of the most signi¬cant names attached
to this trend “ John Dennis, and later, Edmund Burke “ developed it in
different ways. To Dennis, the emotions associated with the sublime rep-
resented a possible bulwark against the kind of dogmatic Aristotelianism
exempli¬ed by the school of criticism associated with Thomas Rymer. To
Burke, however, the passionate quality of the sublime experience linked
it with the non-representational basis of poetry itself.
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
The complex relationship observed in the Introduction between the
Platonic and Hebraic-Christian paradigms of creation begins to unravel
in the literary theory of the Renaissance. Even here, however, it is still
bound up (and often confused) with other questions: to what extent is
the artist inspired by some other force? how can creation, properly so
called, be explained within a mimetic theory of poetry? how far is it
possible and proper to compare the artist™s creativity to God™s? These
issues lie buried like seeds beneath different theoretical agendas, and are
not always addressed directly. When they are, they are often answered in
a manner which might surprise an observer habituated to the oppositions
of post-Romantic theory.
George Puttenham, for example, seeks in The Arte of English Poesie to
establish the credentials of poetry as an art: that is, an activity based
upon ˜a certaine order of rules prescribed by reason, and gathered by
experience™.· Yet his defence of this position is built upon some peculiar
foundations. Initially noting that the Greek root of English term ˜poet™
signi¬es ˜maker™, he proceeds to interpret this classical paradigm along
Christian lines, rejecting the Platonic model of the demiurge, and em-
bracing the divine analogy of artist as creator ex nihilo. As God, ˜without
any trauell of his diuine imagination, made all the world of nought™, so
˜the very Poet makes and contriues out of his owne braine both the verse
and matter of his poeme, and not by any foreine copie or example, as
doth the translator™. Despite this, it is clear that Puttenham holds the view
that poetry, no less than other forms of art, is imitative. But the manner
by which he links this position, together with what has been written al-
ready (while still on the ¬rst page of the essay) with a further thesis of
inspirationism deserves to be quoted at length, insofar as it demonstrates
the tight and complex knot of ideas which it was to be the task of the
eighteenth century to unravel:
And neuerthelesse without any repugnancie at all, a Poet may in some sort be
said a follower or imitator, because he can expresse the true and liuely [image?]
of euery thing [which?] is set before him [. . .] and so in that respect is both a
maker and a counterfaitor: and Poesie an art not only of making, but also of
imitation. And this science in his perfection, can not grow, but by some diuine
instinct, the Platonicks call it furor [. . .].
From this Puttenham draws a conclusion regarding the absolute au-
tonomy of the poet which (in its opposition to his contention that poetry
is an ˜art™, reducible to empirical rule) forms a thorny paradox which is
the direct ancestor of the problem Wordsworth and Hazlitt faced, and
would seek to overcome with epistemological indifference: namely, how

The eighteenth century
can genius™s freely produced elements be veri¬ed by lawful experience?
The tension between an ego-grounded knowledge and the ¬gurative,
creative subjectivity expressed in poetry is already present. In this light,
moreover, there would seem to be more than coincidence in the similar-
ity between Puttenham™s attempt at a compromise solution (attributing
to imagination (or ˜phantasie™) a special kind of truth which he compares
to the effect of a refracting mirror on light), and Hazlitt™s attempt, over
two hundred years later, to explain originality by comparing the mind to
a prism, untwisting the rays of truth. But this is to anticipate later
discussion.
Puttenham identi¬es creation with inspiration, but this does not al-
ways happen. Sidney™s An Apologie for Poetrie of ±µµ, despite being more
often cited as a Renaissance manifesto for imaginative artistic freedom,
is in many ways a less ¬ery and more thoughtful attempt to reconcile
Aristotelian and Platonic views of poetry. Though Sidney sees creation
as the God-like part of man ˜which in nothing hee sheweth so much as
in Poetrie: when with the force of a diuine breath, he bringeth things
forth far surpassing her [i.e. Nature™s] dooings™,±° like Puttenham, he
insists that poetry ˜is an arte of imitation, for so Aristotle termeth it in his
word Mimesis, that is to say, a representing, counterfetting, or ¬guring
foorth: to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture: with this end, to
teach and delight [. . .]™.±± He further follows Aristotle in positioning
poetry between history and philosophy according to its ability both to
philosophize history™s ˜bare Was™,± and aid moral instruction insofar as
it ˜coupleth the generall notion with the particular example™, or ˜yeeldeth
to the powers of the minde, an image of that whereof the Philosopher
bestoweth but a woordish description [. . .]™.±
Sidney is aware that he is in danger of collapsing poetry into rhetoric,
and endeavours to escape this outcome by making creativity the distin-
guishing feature of the poet.± As he puts it: ˜onely the Poet, disdayning
to be tied to any [. . .] subiection, lifted vp with the vigor of his owne in-
uention, dooth growe in effect, another nature, in making things either
better than Nature bringeth forth, or quite newe formes such as neuer
were in Nature [. . .]™.±µ This echoes Puttenham™s theory of radical creatio
ex nihilo, but Sidney attempts to side-step Puttenham™s problem over how
the products of this process can be veri¬ed by adding the further require-
ment of learning. New products are valuable because of the operation of
an extra factor (and thus a standard of truth) regulating individual spon-
taneity “ not, as in Plato, the ˜inspiring of a diuine force, farre aboue
mans wit™, but the tutelage of nature and experience.± He concludes:
° Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
˜A Poet, no industrie can make, if his owne Genius bee not carried vnto
it [. . .]. Yet confesse I alwayes, that as the ¬rtilest grounde must bee ma-
nured, so must the highest ¬‚ying wit, haue a Dedalus to guide him™; the
˜three wings™ of which are: ˜Arte, Imitation, and Exercise™. These twin
elements of genius±· and skill cannot be separated in poetry, ˜[f ]or, there
being two principal parts, matter to be expressed by wordes, and words
to expresse the matter, in neyther [alone], wee vse Arte, or Imitation,
rightly™.±
Sidney™s tempered Platonism and optimism about poetry, however, ran
against the contemporary philosophical current. Bacon also accepted the
common distinction between knowledge acquired by ˜words™ and that
gained from ˜matter™, but was far more censorious about the former.
It was ˜the ¬rst distemper of learning, when men study words and not
matter™.± His main target here is scholasticism, which with verbal distinc-
tions ˜brings forth indeed cobwebs of learning, admirable for the ¬neness
of thread and work, but of no substance or pro¬t [. . .]™.° Nonetheless,
poesy remains open to a similar charge:
P is a part of learning in measure of words for the most part restrained, but
in all other points extremely licensed, and doth truly refer to the Imagination;
which, being not tied to the laws of matter, may at pleasure join that which
nature hath severed, and sever that which nature hath joined, and so make
unlawful matches and divorces of things [. . .].±

The key word here is ˜unlawful™. The very creativity which Sidney
found to distinguish and privilege poesy is, to Bacon™s embryonic em-
piricism, deeply suspect. If history is recorded fact and the basis of all
knowledge, then poetry ˜is nothing else but Feigned History, which may
be styled as well in prose as in verse™. His attitude to the argument from
inspiration is, in this context, unsurprising: poetry, he notes, ˜was ever
thought to have some participation of divineness, because it doth raise
and erect the mind, by submitting the shews of things to the desires of the
mind; whereas reason doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of
things™.
Bacon views poetry simultaneously with discomfort and tolerance.
Nonetheless, having attributed the production of poetry to imagination,
he seems to encounter dif¬culties when examining the nature of that
faculty itself later in the Advancement. By establishing imagination as a
connective faculty between the senses (including the will and appetite)
on one hand and reason on the other, he comes to acknowledge that faith
itself presumes a certain amount of imaginative freedom. He infers from
±
The eighteenth century
this that ˜reason hath over the imagination that commandment which a magistrate
hath over a free citizen; who may come also to rule in his turn. For we see
that in matters of Faith and Religion we raise our imagination above
our Reason [. . .]™. Still, though Bacon seems to be embarrassed enough
by this episode to reiterate his general position that there can be no
science of imagination, together with his relegation of Poesy to ˜a pleasure
or play of imagination™, there is no reason to interpret it as anything
more than an incidental concession to religion which is super¬‚uous to
his general inductive epistemological argument. This in turn remains
fundamentally incompatible with Sidney™s notion of a distinctly ˜poetic™
truth, inspirational or otherwise.
It is not until the early eighteenth century, in the work of Shaftesbury,
that another concerted attempt is made to develop a theory of artistic
creation on Neoplatonic lines “ and here again, this is done against the
tide of the prevailing philosophy, which by this time had moved into
the channel opened up by Locke. Shaftesbury is a writer about whom
it is notoriously dif¬cult to generalize. Above all, he had no interest
in system-building.µ But certain impulses are evident in his thought:
an opposition to Hobbes and to mechanistic or materialist accounts of
human nature, as well as to the Lockean thesis that the mind has no
knowledge other than what it constructs from simple ideas derived from
sense-experience. Shaftesbury™s positive theory of knowledge is linked
with his Platonic theology: as reality is in¬nite and not atomistic, and
spiritual rather than material, the mind which is the ˜Universal-One™ is
that which gives particular existents their being. Consequently, it follows
from the principle that the mind in general is alone formative (where
matter is passive), that the human mind has its own activity:
I consider, That as there is one general Mass, one Body of the Whole; so to this
Body there is an Order, to this Order, a M© ®¤ : That to this general M© ®¤ each
particular-one must have relation; as being of like Substance [. . .] alike active
upon Body [. . .] and more like still, if it co-operates with It to general Good,
and strives to will according to that best of Wills.·

For the present purpose, the real signi¬cance of Shaftesbury™s epis-
temology, however, is in the role it accords to beauty, which, rather
than being a supervenient quality, is seen as operative; as identical with
truth. It resides not in an object, but in the act of creation. ˜Will it not
be found™, Shaftesbury asks rhetorically, ˜[t]hat what is B µ  © ¦ µ¬ is
Harmonious and Proportionable: What is Harmonious and Proportionable,
is Tµ  ; and what is at once both Beautiful and True, is, of consequence,
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Agreeable and G¤ ?™ It follows from this that in Shaftesbury the sense
of beauty has gained unprecedented epistemological importance: ˜Who,
then, can possibly have  T   of this kind, without being beholden to
P© ¬ ° ?™° The postulation of the identity of beauty and truth in
an original, uni¬ed and creative being (whether divine or human) thus
enables Shaftesbury to pass freely between questions of aesthetics, psy-
chology, epistemology and moral philosophy, as when he declares that
˜the most natural Beauty in the World is Honesty, and Moral Truth. For
all Beauty is Tµ  [. . .]. In Poetry, which is all Fable, Truth still is the
Perfection.™±
From this dynamic, aestheticized Platonism emerges Shaftesbury™s
idea of artistic genius as a power which, in the manner of the God
of which it is itself a re¬‚ection, harmonizes, uni¬es, and creates anew:
But for the Man, who truly and in a just sense deserves the Name of Poet [. . .].
Such a Poet is indeed a second Maker: a just P   µ, under J . Like
that Sovereign Artist or universal Plastick Nature, he forms a Whole, coherent
and proportion™d in it-self, with due Subjection and Subordinacy of constituent
Parts.

Yet Shaftesbury™s hypostasizing of beauty and truth in the sovereign
form of God does little to solve the riddle of the nature of human creation.
And as far as his own position on the matter is concerned, Shaftesbury is,
in most respects, distinctly Neoclassical. For example, though he distin-
guishes ˜[t]he mere Face-Painter™, who ˜copies what he sees, and minutely
traces every Feature™, from ˜the Men of Invention and Design™, he de-
¬nes the latter only according to their capacity to generalize, and execute
works which conform to ˜those natural Rules of Proportion, and Truth™.
There is no implication that the artist is a creator ex nihilo, or that he might
produce the very rules by which his work is to be judged, and still less, as
yet, to suggest the Romantics™ troubled surmisal that he makes, rather
than ¬nds truth.
The concept of inspiration, moreover, seems to have had its day.
Shaftesbury is highly critical of ˜those ¬rst Poets who began this Pretence
to Inspiration™, and insists that ˜the inspiring D© © ® ©   or Mµ   having
[. . .] submitted her Wit and Sense to the Mechanick Rules of human
arbitrary Composition; she must [. . .] submit herself to human Arbitration
[. . .]™. Nor does he reserve any great esteem for imagination, which is
invariably subordinated to reason. Continuing on the subject of inspi-
ration, he claims that anyone who believes that they can ˜recognize the
Divine Spirit, and receive it in themselves, un-subject (as they imagine)

The eighteenth century
to any Rule [. . .] is building Castles in the Air [. . .] as the exercise of an
aerial Fancy, or heated Imagination™.µ
In a sense, Shaftesbury is acknowledging a point made earlier in this
chapter: that the presumption of divine intervention in classical notions
of poetic ˜inspiration™ sits uneasily with the premise of epistemic freedom
necessary for a more subject-based notion of human creativity. But if,
aside from this, the supernatural and un-Christian implications of the
concept of inspiration made it simply distasteful even to such Platonically
minded thinkers as Sidney and Shaftesbury, another ancient idea “ that
of the sublime “ was to enjoy a far less troubled inception into the theory
of the eighteenth century.
The concept of the sublime was a relative latecomer to English literary
theory. Its germination can be dated to Nicolas Boileau™s ±· translation
of Longinus, but it did not become an established part of the critical lex-
icon until the early mid-eighteenth century. In the work of John Dennis,
the sublime is brought into close contact with a developed theory of
artistic creation and genius. Dennis was already aware of the work of
Longinus when, while crossing the Alps in ±, in a curious precursor
of Wordsworth™s own experience, he felt at ¬rst hand emotions reminis-
cent of the Greek writer™s account of the sublime. Moved to examine
the concept further, it was natural that he should do so in terms of the
philosophies of Hobbes and Locke. The result was an empirical and
psychological theory of the poetic passions.
Dennis™s early work bears this out. ˜Poetical Genius™, he argues in the
± Remarks on a Book Entituled, Prince Arthur, ˜is it self a Passion. A Poet
then is oblig™d always to speak to the Heart. And it is for this reason, that
Point and Conceit, and all that they call Wit, is to be for ever banish™d
from true Poetry; because he who uses it, speaks to the Head alone.™
In The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (±·°±) he re¬nes this
into a de¬nition which further distinguishes poetic enthusiasm from the
more vulgar passions, and links it to the sublime:

But one Thing we have omitted, That as Thoughts produce the Spirit, the
Spirit produces and makes the Expression; which is known by Experience to all
who are Poets: for never any one, while he was rapt with Enthusiasm, wanted
either Words or Harmony [. . .] So from what we have said, we may venture to
lay down this De¬nition of Poetical Genius: Poetical Genius, in a Poem, is the
true Expression of Ordinary or Enthusiastick Passions proceeding from Ideas
to which it naturally belongs; and Poetical Genius, in a Poet, is the Power of
expressing such Passion worthily: And the Sublime is a great Thought, express™d
with the Enthusiasm that belongs to it [. . .].·
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
Here, the language of inspiration is articulated by the new philosophy
of ideas. While Dennis retains some of the old sense of the infallibility of
the ˜inspired™ poetic genius, in his hands it is translated into an idea of
the harmonious relationship between the enthusiastic passions and the
ideas to which they ˜naturally™ belong. The sublime, in turn, becomes
the loftiest utterance of poetic genius.
Dennis™s emphasis on genius, enthusiasm and the emotions of the
sublime may seem to foreshadow Romanticism; not least when later in
the same essay he claims that, of the ˜Three Things which contribute to
the Perfection of Poetry™, ˜The First is Nature, which is the Foundation
and Basis of all. For Nature is the same Thing with Genius, and Genius
and Passion are all one.™ But this is not the whole picture, as the other two
elements, no less essential, are ˜Art, by which I mean, those Rules, and
that Method, which capacitate us to manage every thing with the utmost
Dexterity, that may contribute to the Raising of Passion™, and third, ˜The
Instrument by which the Poet makes his Imitation, or the Language
in which he writes.™ Though he would have had no truck with the
concept of the artist as creator ex nihilo, the tensions in Dennis™s theory
are comparable to Puttenham™s: the tendency of any assertion of free
artistic genius is towards some kind of conception of aesthetic autonomy;
of a writer or a painter or a musician who spontaneously generates new
but nonetheless exemplary rules of composition. But the philosophical
apparatus capable of sustaining such a conception was still a long way
from being assembled. It is, perhaps, a paradoxical consequence of the
advanced nature of Dennis™s version of genius as both a sensitivity to,
and an ability to express passionate thoughts, that more than critics
like Addison, he felt the need for a secure foothold for poetry in the
rules of art. There seems little reason, then, to dissent from Hooker™s
opinion that Dennis should be viewed more as ˜a sensitive and intelligent
classicist™ than a precursor of Romanticism.° He was not the ¬rst to face
dif¬culty in attempting to encompass an increasingly liberal theory of
creative genius with an empiricist epistemology, and he was not to be
the last.
By the time Burke came to add the ˜Introduction on taste™ to the
second edition of his Philosophical Enquiry, however, the implications of
an empirical point of view for aesthetic discussion were much more
clearly de¬ned. For instance, Burke notes that though ˜the mind of man
possesses a sort of creative power of its own™, this consists ˜either in
representing at pleasure the images of [. . .] the senses, or in combining
those images in a new manner, and according to a different order™.
µ
The eighteenth century
Creativity of the ex nihilo order is impossible, as ˜it must be observed,
that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing
absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it
has received from the senses™.± Burke™s ambivalent attitude to epistemic
creation is not unusual of the mid-eighteenth century, but his persistent
and unyielding commitment to empirical method, and his refusal to
concede any territory whatsoever to the operation of formal or ¬nal
causes, certainly is. As a result, the Enquiry becomes of immense interest,
in that it effectively takes the empiricist defence of Neoclassical aesthetics
to its limits; to the point indeed where the tension between the two,
particularly regarding the complex emotions of the sublime, and the
nature of poetic imitation, becomes so pronounced as to question many
of the assumptions of Neoclassicism itself.
Burke™s dogged genetic and sensationist approach to his subject leads
him quickly to the conclusion, not only that the sublime originates from
objects ˜¬tted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain™, and that these
˜ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the
part of pleasure™, but further, that ˜at certain distances, and with certain
modi¬cations, they may be, and they are delightful [. . .]™. This disrupts
the traditional correlation of taste and pleasure by describing an aesthetic
experience which is not so easily quanti¬able due to the in¬nity connoted
by its objects and the inscrutibility of its emotional content. There is,
then, in the Enquiry™s discussion of the sublime, the suggestion of an
aesthetic of freedom.
The sublime is not alone in its association with the in¬nite. Burke™s
sensationism draws his investigation to a certain feature of language:
˜words [. . .] seem to me to affect us in a manner very different from that
in which we are affected by natural objects, or by painting or architecture
[. . .]™.µ The reason for this, he surmises, is that the most general effect
of words ˜does not arise from their forming pictures of the several things
they would represent in the imagination [. . .]™. If it is possible, as Burke
believes, for words to affect us before a clear idea or meaning can be
assigned to them, the implications for poetry are radical: ˜we may observe
that poetry, taken in its most general sense, cannot with strict propriety
be called an art of imitation™.· And yet the fact that words can operate
in the absence of clear ideas (and therefore knowledge), lends poetry a
peculiar af¬nity with the sublime in the context what might be called
Burke™s aesthetics of privation. Just as the feeling of a lack of power is a
condition of the sublime, so the want of a clear image of a thing is a feature
of poetry. This privation, however, is effectively a release from the burden
 Knowledge and Indifference in English Romantic Prose
of verisimilitude. It gives poetry scope not only to give expression to those
elements of existence which are beyond pictorial representation, such as
human sympathy and passion, but also to explore or even create new
elements. In Burke™s own words, ˜by words we have it in our power to
make such combinations as we cannot possibly do otherwise™, and thereby
˜to give a new life and force to the simple object™.
Yet despite the innovation behind Burke™s theory of poetic creativity,
it remained in tension with his epistemology. To that extent he is very
much a product of his age. The Lockean epistemology, though modi¬ed,
is still in place, together with its insistence upon the necessity of an
empirical principle for verifying truth, and for a corresponding clarity,
exactness, and even austerity in language. Notions of poetic inspiration
or expressions of feelings of sublimity could not be woven into this “ at
least, not seamlessly. Poetry might be tolerated for a number of reasons “
it might even, as with Addison, Dennis and Burke, be granted a certain
creative licence “ but it was not to be permitted to impeach knowledge.
Inspiration in particular, in its classical form at least, had a bleak future
in this context, as not only was it impossible to explain empirically, but,
unlike the notions of the sublime and genius, it had only a slight relation
to the issues of subjectivity which would grow out of the discourse of late
eighteenth-century psychology in Britain.
The problem for theories of artistic creation after Locke was funda-
mentally bound up with their epistemological implications: unsettling
˜knowledge™ yet seeming all the while to be complicit with knowing. In
other words, the question was one of how to allow the products of genius
and the experience of the sublime a non-trivial, cognitive role in human
life without reducing them to any other mode of knowledge; of how
simultaneously to maintain poetry™s seriousness and distinctness from
science in the face of the erosion of a Neoclassical con¬dence in poetry™s
access to reason. It was empiricism that was responsible for this ero-
sion, but empiricism was slow, painfully slow, at producing an alternative
theory of literary value which satis¬ed both the requirements of aesthetic
freedom and epistemology. In fact, empiricism was itself the stumbling
block. Such a theory, as Francis Ferguson has indicated, would require a

<< . .

. 4
( : 30)



. . >>