Introduction: The Christian imagination vs. the critical history

Welcome to the collaborative reading of Blanford Parker’s The Triumph of Augustan Poetics: English Literary Culture from Butler to Johnson! We look forward to a great conversation over the next week as we move through this text, with responses to Parker, Parker’s responses to us, and our dialogue with one another. Please feel free to jump in at any point in the comments and/or with posts on the front page. Keep in mind that comments over 10,000 characters will be truncated, so if you have something very lengthy to say, consider posting it to the front page (if you are already on our contributors’ roster) or emailing it to me and I’ll put it up for you. I will begin with a short response to the introduction, and we’ll proceed roughly sequentially from there.

Parker’s introduction begins with a reframing of the discourse surrounding Augustan aesthetics as a process of rejecting the Baroque, which he describes as a set of aesthetic responses to four traditions of Christian theology, the mystical, logist, fideist, and analogical. The Augustan, for Parker, is not, as has been assumed by most critics, a return to classical, or even the creation of a “neoclassical,” aesthetic, but a slow conceptual divorce of art from the traditional Christian imagination.

This divorce begins with the leveling satires of Boileau, Butler, Rochester, Dryden, and Swift, which mock not Christianity itself, but the imaginative excesses of Christian thought, “the ‘acrostic land’ of the logist; the maddened, inward ‘aeolist’ imagination of the fideist; the self-lacerating obsessions of the mystic; and most of all the empty conceits of the analogists” (2). While the critical history of the Augustan period has always marked the move away from metaphor, flights of imaginative fancy, “superstition” and “enthusiasm,” and the shift toward a commitment to empiricism and mimetic description, Parker specifically notes that this shift comes, first, as a total rejection of the aesthetics of traditional Christianity, not necessarily, as the writers of the age would style it, as a “return” to classical values. The only way to get to the aesthetic values of Addison, Pope, and Johnson is by first actively destroying the dominant modes of representation.

This move is, of course, never separate from the historical relationship of the seventeenth century succession to the rise of religious faction. No aesthetic movement is ahistorical. “Augustan literature,” Parker writes, “was the first great victory over the culture of analogy, memorial authority, and traditional theology, and their classicism is no more backward-looking or authentic than that of Shelley or even Joyce” (7). Parker argues against the twentieth century critical history that has compressed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aesthetics so that “Leavis […] and Brooks […] began to see the same virtues of figural compression and even conceit in Pope and Gray that Eliot had discovered in Donne” (9). That is, the distinctions that were so self-consciously made across a hundred and fifty years of poetry, that moved from the theological and aesthetic excesses of the “metaphysicals” to the empirically descriptive poets of the high Augustan, have been minimized from the great distance of the New Critical era, and that compression has, to some extent, not been remedied in the intervening years.

The poverty of criticism in the period is partially to blame. Parker notes that the poetry between the late Renaissance and the Romantic eras are not well read even in primary texts, much less in critical ones. He also faults the “too rigorous distinction between the prose and poetic genres of the period” (12) for the lack of criticism on Augustan aesthetics. It has been easy for criticism like T.S. Eliot’s to become ascendant and remain, always, on the table when so few have offered to correct it. Parker’s extended criticism of Eliot’s misrepresentation of the Augustan as a “revolt against the ‘descriptive'” (18) demonstrates the intrusion of Eliot’s own aesthetic commitments into his treatment of the era.

But while Parker faults Eliot for compressing the Augustan into a modern fantasy of historicized poetic difference, he criticizes Foucault for the opposite—removing the Augustan from its Baroque roots and setting it alongside the undeniably modern. That is, Parker feels Foucault is guilty of being duped by the rhetoric of the Augustan, which self-consciously attempts to erase its own history for the sake of innovation, while, as Parker shows in the first chapters of the Triumph, tendrils of surviving Baroque “excesses” still spring up everywhere in transitional Augustan poetry.

This seems to me to be a book that has the potential to radically reconfigure our understanding of the Augustan era, and to allow both for historical attention to the origins of eighteenth-century aesthetics and for the innovations of the era. I look forward to seeing how you feel this approach could be applied to criticsm and even pedagogy, and I will respond further in the comments.

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