The enthusiasts and the plain delirious

Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation
January 28, 2005

Jon Mee has devoted his life to the study of enthusiasm. Twelve years ago, he rocketed onto the Romantic scene with his first book, Dangerous Enthusiasm , which turned out to be one of the best Blake books of the decade. A series of articles on Coleridge and other visionary writers continued to fan the flames of his following, and now he has satisfied us with Romanticism, Enthusiasm and Regulation .

You might think that all this enthusiasm would be exhausting, but Mee checks the excesses of his subject in measured academic prose. He aims to demonstrate the historical context of any expression of unchecked excitement in the 18th century and to explain the underlying anxieties provoked by what might seem innocent confessions of ecstatic joy. This is "embedded" criticism, which situates poets in their times, among the ranters and ravers, the prophets and philosophers of radical London.

Mee argues that being enthusiastic in the 18th century was fraught with danger. It could leave you open to the charge of being vulgar, of being mad, of being a religious fanatic, of not being in control of your passions. The enthusiast was considered to be either in a frightening world of his fantasy, disconnected from chastening truth, or liable to whip up mob frenzy and melt into the crowd.

Contrary to previous scholars' assumptions, this fear of unbridled emotion continued throughout the century, well into the Romantic period, and beset such Romantic poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Anna Laetitia Barbauld.

The only answer was to regulate upbeat feelings with licensed expressions of emotion, such as the practice of sensibility or the discourse of the sublime, or to ground one's ardour in sober reflection.

"If literature was a cultural space where enthusiasm gained a relative toleration, it was only because literariness came to be seen as part of the process of regulation," Mee explains. "There was a drive to distinguish authentic affect from mere enthusiasm." But the anxiety remained that the distinction was not always clear, that poetic transport was only one step removed from religious delirium or the ranting of the newly arrived Methodists.

In a series of case studies, Mee focuses on the poets whom we would naturally have expected to have been unashamed enthusiasts, only to find that they distanced themselves from that charge. Wordsworth, for example, announced that poetry was "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", surely a passionate outburst if ever there was one. But his poems, from Peter Bell to the Prelude , reveal the constant urge to ground "feeling" in sober reflection.

It is surprising that Shelley does not merit a mention, since he arguably charged all the usual constraints on passionate feeling - politics, science, logic itself - with erotic desire. It would have been good to learn how his brand of Neoplatonism fitted in. And Mee missed a trick by not considering how 18th-century anxiety about religious enthusiasm is relevant today. As we witness the rise of Christian evangelical fundamentalism, Mee's throwaway comment that the modern meaning of enthusiasm has a "positive valency" becomes questionable. Nevertheless, Mee's book is an important contribution to understanding emotion in the 18th century.

Jennifer Wallace is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Romanticism, Enthusiasm, and Regulation: Poetics and the Policing of Culture in the Romantic Period

Author - Jon Mee
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 320
Price - £53.00
ISBN - 0 19 818757 2

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