Wordsworth, Wesley, Hazlitt, and the embarrassment of enthusiasm

Boyles, Helen Margaret (2012). Wordsworth, Wesley, Hazlitt, and the embarrassment of enthusiasm. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000eeb1

Abstract

This thesis addresses an area which has been neglected within the predominantly secular emphasis of post nineteenth-century Romantic scholarship: the impact of religious revivalism on literary Romanticism. It argues that the affective culture of Methodist evangelism actually anticipated literary Romanticism in its commitment to a religion and a language 'of the heart' . My study considers the stylistic and ideological affinity between some Methodist and 'Romantic' writing from the eighteenth to the early nineteenth- century, with specific reference to the culture of 'enthusiasm'. I explain how enthusiasm is identified with both religious and creative inspiration, but consider the problematic implications of this association. The problem is centred in enthusiasm's historical identification with religious fanaticism, and thus with subversive challenge and excess. My thesis discusses the acute embarrassment which this association generated for the Wesleyan Methodist leadership, and for some prominent Romantic writers. I consider how this embarrassment was manifested, within a literary context, in strenuous efforts to distinguish a respectable, genuine inspiration from its dangerous or spurious equivalent. I argue that the ambivalent feelings aroused by religious enthusiasm reflect a persistent discomfort with its plebeian and feminine associations. My study explores the various stylistic strategies employed by John and Charles Wesley, William Wordsworth and William Hazlitt, to distance themselves from vulgar and insincere religious zeal while remaining committed to the affective precepts which inspired their work and writing. This involves examining affinities in the literary theory and practice of John Wesley and Wordsworth, and Hazlitt's implicit distinction between 'gusto' and enthusiasm. I provide an analytical balance between the production and reception of key texts, including Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads and The Excursion. Close stylistic analysis demonstrates how the writers' language reveals contradictory allegiances to rational precepts and the ardent impulses of a 'religious' inspiration.

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