English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3     

 

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Lessons

1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam

 

 

 

** 27. New appearances of God **

 


READINGS FOR THIS LESSON

Creationists, Intelligent Designers?
Vol. 1C pages 2664-2673 & 2793-2825 from
Longman 3rd ed

Pope's "Essay on Man"
and "Perspectives: Mind and God"

ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON

The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

Journal

Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings or make notes you will find useful on the final essay. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

What are the various rhetorical merits of the letter, the essay, the dialogue, the hymn, the psalm, the poem? Why have these genres been selected by the authors represented in this lesson?

The audience may be important to consider in several of the "Mind and God" selections: Berkeley’s religious dialogue; Watts’s hymns, addressed to God or to a congregation; Locke and Hume's philosophical treatises addressing rational and skeptical thinkers; Smart speaking to and with Jeoffrey as he chants to and with God; Cowper in an imagined broken dialogue with the castaway’s comrades, with the world, and with God. How does the audience influence the text in one or more of these selections?

Are creationism or intelligent design or deism still plausible? Have changes in understanding and belief since the 18th century made all of this literary history obsolete?

With the advance of science and reason, is the poet now blocked from enlightening us?

NOTES AND COMMENTARY
Adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003)

The readings for this lesson raise questions parallel to those we asked earlier in connection with “The Royal Society and the New Science” (Lesson 21). The interest in observation and speculation begun at the Restoration led to Newtonian physics and Lockean psychology, charting the outer world of nature and inner universe of human experience. What spirituality and other traditional ideology did the new science and rationalism of the Enlightenment displace? The answer seems to be: as little displacement as possible occurred.

The church had fractured into many parts; few people wanted to continue the religious wars that had torn the Tudor-Stuart era. Yet religious beliefs and dogmas remained and flourished alongside freethinking and skepticism.

The writers in this "Mind and God" perspectives section of our anthology establish positions resistant to empirical approach. They are all, in their various ways, doing the opposite of what Sprat declares the Fellows of the Royal Society are up to. The Fellows’ “purpose was to heap up a mixed mass of experiments, without digesting them into any perfect model,” but authors in these "Mind and God" perspectives assert order, completion and wholeness, either in the mechanical workings of the universe, the epistemological workings of the mind, or other asserted "divine works." The argument from design that we know today as "Creationism" and "Intelligent Design" arose in this period.

 

 

Alexander Pope revisited
A PopeA Pope selection that fits this theme of divine order is the
Essay on Man, which is not a philosophical argument but a poetic distillation of one. In his introduction Pope says, he “chose verse, and even rhyme,” in order to “strike the reader more strongly at first” and to be the more memorable afterward. Pope thinks he can be more persuasive in poetry than in prose.

The Essay is not only poetic but informal, taking the form of an epistle (letter) to one of his friends, Henry St. John. The title also suggests informality, an "essay" (meaning "trial" as Montaigne and Bacon had used the term). Does this choice of poetic and conversational form allow Pope to dispense with science, logic and reasoning, even formal learning?

It was Milton's purpose in Paradise Lost to justify the ways of God to mankind, and Pope chooses the same theme for his essay (line 17). Notice that instead of arguing from scripture, as Milton had done in reworking the Genesis story of Eden, and instead of beginning with concrete facts or specifics of empirical observation, Pope begins his conversation with abstract universals or generalities (e.g., we all know that God created the universe, so the only question is whether God assigned man to the wrong place). Pope's question is one that would not have been asked in public in the Middle Ages, but his answers depend heavily on similes and metaphors (just as the horse does not know why he is being ridden, so human beings don't know God's purpose for them; the book of fate is hidden from all creatures, so people must accept the limits of their knowledge, etc.). Has Pope attempted to create a new poetic scripture? Is he a friend or foe of the new learning and experimental method?

Why has not Man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, Man is not a fly. (ll193-194)

Is Pope accusing Hooke of looking too close at things?

 

 

Left: Alexander Pope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Isaac Newton
In the "Mind and God" section of our anthology we find texts of various genres or forms. What are the various rhetorical merits of the letter, the essay, the dialogue, the hymn, the psalm, the poem? Why have these particular genres been selected by the authors represented here?

Like Pope, Newton (1643-1727) explains his beliefs in the form of a letter. Of course, his choice of genre is largely predetermined: he’s responding by letter to Bentley’s letter asking for help in understanding the relationships between Newtonian science and religious faith. But what does the letter form permit Newton to say? He can, and does of course, essentially write a small essay, but that essay takes on the qualities of a private conversation in which doubts, implicit or explicit, can be answered directly.

Letters have specific and limited audiences. Bentley alone must be addressed by Newton in the letter. Other "minds" can be dismissed. This narrow scope allows informality almost at the level of a personal conversation. Therefore after the letter lays out its shared agenda (“I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”), it then supports that agenda with personal statements: “I do not think”; “I know no reason but”; “I see not why”; “I see nothing extraordinary.” Newton does not say: it is, only, I think it is. Opinion is acceptable on this occasion; it would not be acceptable at a meeting of the Royal Society or in a treatise on the laws of motion.

The letter creates a supernatural universe beyond the natural one. The supernatural exists by inference. Nature is not “explicable by mere natural causes,” so its origin must be ascribed “to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary agent.” The Creator is premised on the basis of physical laws which appear to be universal throughout nature. Order is established. However, Newton's sense of being “forced to ascribe” to a Deist conclusion will not be shared by skeptics like David Hume. The Deist or Creationist conclusion may be  plausible, but it is not inevitable. As the introduction to this "Mind and God" section points out, “for Newton, Locke, and countless other inquirers, empiricism promised to explain the ways of God; but they had begun a process which, in other hands, might threaten to explain God away.”

 

 

 Left: Isaac Newton.

 

 

 


John Locke
Locke (1632-1704) did for psychology as Newton did for physics. His epistemology seems part and parcel of the eighteenth-century fascination with things, with lists, with a compartmentalizing of the universe, and with attempts to explain that all of this superficially diverse phenomena is deeply unified. For Locke big ideas arise from small ideas, and small ideas in turn arise from sensations and perceptions of things. The greatest idea would be the collection of ideas, based on the most sensations and perceptions.

Locke argues that when an English person sees or thinks of a swan, she sees or thinks of a “white color, long neck, red beak, black legs, and web feet, and all these of a certain size, with a power of swimming in the water, and making a certain kind of noise.” The mind puts these things together to construct a whole swan. The “whole” comes second to the parts. In this same way Locke concludes we put together the idea of God, composed of bits of what we know magnified to an imagined perfection. This is not to say that Locke does not believe in God, or that he believes only in a humanly constructed God. He says that the human organism is capable of understanding God only in this limited human way. He is no less Deist than Newton.

 

 

 

Left: John Locke.

 

 

 


Isaac Watts
The selections from Watts (1674-1748) here show two very different minds. One is rhythmical and orderly; the other is free-verse. “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy” offers a simple metrical and rhyme scheme that opens with a promise (“There is”), and that opening offers us everything we habitually dream about: no pain, no night, no faded flowers. Its middle describes the timorous Us, fearful of the impeding isthmus; its end describes the larger, telescopic perspective that would and should nudge us into faith. The questions get resolved quickly and and firmly through the poetic form using simple meter and rhymes. This hymn offers a structure of reassurance fundamentally different from the structure of argument, which argues with doubt in such a different way. This hymn records the experience of doubt but displaces it swiftly with the promise of a larger perspective.

Watts’s “The Hurry of Spirits” is a very different animal, a "spiritual song" rather than a "hymn." Its irregular blank  verse permits the doubt. Little is “closed” between lines; much spills over into the next. Clauses or even sentences often end in the middle of lines; form as well as content is in a relative uproar, only relatively contained by a basic pentameter. The choice of forms here reflects the subject matter and audience. “Abrupt, ill-sorted” abruptly stops a line and asks for sorting (l. 20).

“Against Idleness and Mischief” and "Man Frail, and God Eternal" return to smooth sorting. The hymns are addressed to God; they call God to hear with the biggest most pleasing sound that people can produce. The whole idea of form is crucial in Watts: when to bolster with meter and rhyme and music and a general sense of congregational chorus to support an idea, and when to let the idea bleed itself out in more tense, private or disunified ways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image left:
modern statue of hymnist Isaac Watts in Southampton, UK.

 

 

 


Joseph Addison ("Adam's son")
Addison’s Spectator essay raises its own questions: what’s the relative importance of solitude in negotiating the difficulties of faith? The eighteenth century was an age of conversation, but as the textbook introduction points out, it was also an age of solitude. Addison observes that the world is too much with us; as Hume says, “our eyes cannot turn in our sockets without varying our perceptions.” Precisely because knowledge was coming to be perceived as the product of sensory experience, we need time to sort things out, to watch the operations of our own mind, to “reflect” in Locke’s sense. The very obviousness of God, on Newton’s argument from design, requires an observer who is not too caught up in the empiricism of his or her own daily life.

Note Addison’s switch from prose to poetry: the difference in typesetting on the page is something to consider. Does it call the readers to a different mode of thinking? We are forcibly moved from the engulfing prose of the page to the spatially isolated ode; the large margins of page-space itself give room for reflective thought?


 

 

Left: journalist, poet and playwright Joseph Addison, but that's not his hair.

 

 

 

George Berkeley
George BerkeleyBishop Berkeley (1685-1753) chooses dialogue for his form. Why? How does it help to have two persons on the stage? What is the difference between expounding and discussing? The reader, in a dialogue, is given voice, so to speak, and even a choice of voices with whom to identify. The choice is programmed, of course, towards the mind-loving Philonous, but at least the reader is offered an outlet, a way of asking those embarrassingly obvious questions. How does Berkeley work to make Philonous’s position seem the right, the sensible, the transparent choice? How does conversation itself work to make abstract ideas concrete, to make philosophical peculiarities seem common-sensical?

Some great minds of the eighteenth century never felt fully satisfied with Berkeley’s system. Boswell recounts Samuel Johnson’s distinctive form of refutation: “After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus’” (Life of Johnson [Oxford UP, 1980] 333). How would Philonous answer Johnson?

 

 Left: Bishop Berkeley as seen in the National Portrait Gallery, London. If you kicked this small painting, it might not hurt your foot too much (although you would probably be arrested).

 



David HumeDavid Hume
Hume (1711-1776) poses a modern theory of identity—basically, that we have none, it’s all convenient psychological construct. This uncomfortable idea was not widely accepted in the 18th century, but it offers perhaps the best theoretical basis for understanding much of 18th century literature. The general cultural preoccupation with masks, costume and display all suggest a search for some sort of identity, some sort of stability, after a loss of certainty about self. Hume himself connected personal identity and theater: “The mind is a kind of theater, where several perceptions successively make their appearance: pass, re-pass, glide away and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.”

The question "who am I?" had been easier to answer in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. Britain had entered a century of new genres based on exploration of the self: biography, autobiography, familiar letters, travel narratives, and the novel.

Hume is not happy with himself. Where Addison recommends retirement for self-study, self-composure, and acquaintance with God, Hume finds himself “ready to throw all [his] books and papers into the fire” and find a sociable game of backgammon. He “is convinced that skepticism is logically irrefutable; nevertheless, he is convinced also that scepticism is psychologically untenable” (James Sambrook,
The Eighteenth Century: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1700–1789 [Longman, 1990], 60). The path of philosophy, of solitary contemplation, when truly steadily pursued, leads the pursuer into skeptical darkness; careful questions and honest answers dissolve ideas of self, of cause and effect, of an external world, of God. How can human beings live in this cold darkness? Why would such a world need literature or art?

 

 

 

Left: Scottish skeptical philosopher David Hume (shorter hair), a chief member of the Scottish Enlightenment.

 

 

William Cowper
William CowperAs with Watts, it is revealing to watch the change in generic form as Cowper (1731-1800) changes his poetic perspective. The three selections in our anthology offer different attitudes, different tones, different structures, different visions. What is the difference between the kind of vision or observation made possible by “philosophic tube” (the telescope) and by poetry, by the word of God? What does it mean to “baptize” philosophy? How does poetry itself work into that process?

It has been suggested that Cowper’s verse “rises in technical control when he approaches matters of close personal concern,” most poignantly in the Calvinistic allegory of “The Cast-away” (Pat Rogers, “Literature,” in
Eighteenth-Century Britain: The Cambridge Cultural History, ed. Boris Ford [Cambridge UP, 1991, 1992], 170). The poet's choices of structure, rhyme scheme, meter, and stanza pattern, all contribute to the power of the anguish and loss in religious despair. Like the other writers in this lesson, Cowper moves from experience to reflection, from empirical data to philosophical implication, from a story current in the world around him to a darker story within himself. Cowper’s poems reveal both the promise of hope and the thread of doubt occasioned by very “advances” in science and reason in the eighteenth century.

 

 

 

Left: mad poet William Cowper.


Christopher Smart
Where does poetry find a place in an era of science, reason and doubt? Is there a place for unreason? In the age of books, poets assumed the place which had been occupied in the Middle Ages by mystics. Their inspired speech was taken to have prophetic qualities or gifts of madness. It could penetrate divine order or at least lay bare the hidden soul.

In Oxford in the 1740s, Robert Lowth (1710–87) delivered lectures in which he demonstrated the differences between Old Testament prose, marked by regular word order (“correct, chaste, and temperate”), and poetry, in which “the free spirit is hurried along, and has neither leisure nor inclination to descend to those minute and rigid attentions. Frequently, instead of disguising the secret feelings of the author, it lays them quite open to public view; and the veil being as it were suddenly removed, all the affections and emotions of the soul, its sudden impulses, its hasty sallies and irregularities, are conspicuously displayed” (Lowth, The Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, trans. by G. Gregory [1787], lecture 14; quoted in Sambrook, 188).

Christopher SmartA similar notion of poetry as "feelings" informs "Jubilate Agno" by Christopher Smart (1722-1771). Smart constructs a God-warmed universe with strategies utterly unlike mathematical or philosophical discourse—without argument, without formulas, without deduction, without induction, but instead with bits of religious history, with linguistic puns, with Hebraic parallelism, with public emotion, with sudden impulses, with moving irregularities. What are the linguistic, historic, emotional, religious, and imaginative connections that sustain this all-encompassing prayer?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left: poet Christopher Smart. Affecting madness was expected of poets in the age of reason, the age of  mad George III.

 

 

OTHER RESOURCES & AMUSEMENTS

George Berkeley at Bartleby.

David Hume from Bartleby. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from Oxford University.
Of the Standard of Taste from Bartleby.

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education at Bartleby

John Stuart Mill, Essay On Liberty from Oxford University. On Liberty at Bartleby.

Isaac Newton at St Andrews

 

 

 

Know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson? Please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess