Exponential futures : Whig poetry and religious imagination, 1670-1745
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My dissertation argues that the eighteenth-century Whig writers Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Edward Young, and Mark Akenside remake poetic futurity as they repudiate materialism. Against materialist thinkers who held that souls don’t exist or are inseparable from bodies, the poetry of these English authors sings the freedom of the immortal soul. They far outstrip conventional apologetics, however, by imagining that the soul leaps out of the human body and into new angelic powers. The result is a claim about time: that the soul can separate from the body means for these poets that the future can break from the present. Yet they won’t be patient for newness to come. Reshaping the discourse of enthusiasm, with its promise of ready access to the divine, they also insist that the separated soul’s expansive potential can be claimed for present use. Their verse means to pull futurity’s changes to the present, making available endless possibilities in advance. These writers accordingly complicate familiar scholarly narratives that portray English poetry and theology of their era as oriented to the past. Rowe, Young, and Akenside instead propel souls forward and outward. Their heady visions reflect the Whig writers’ political leanings and their calls for a modern English literary canon that transcends neoclassical values. Although they name Milton as their model and take up his forms and images, they rebrand their hero to conform him to their agenda. The mortalist Milton holds that the souls of the dead can’t persist without bodies: they must wait for a miraculous resurrection to return to consciousness and then God. By refitting Milton’s poetic style to support an attack on materialism, his self-proclaimed successors rein in one aspect of his radical thought even as they amplify a different aspect. In their poems, inspired spirits needn’t stand by for the end of time to be divinized. They already launch into new worlds, communing with other angelic intelligences and exulting in otherworldly passions. The Whig writers offer a far-reaching but surprisingly understudied defense of the poetry they reinvent. They declare that modern religious verse can allow poets and readers to raid the riches of an angelic future.