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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

    Edmund Burke, from A Philosophical Enquiry (1759)
    Demaria, pp. 797-802

    Recommended: "On Taste"

DUE: Weekly Post 14 Scotland and Ireland groups

As we begin our final section of the course, I would like to introduce some ideas on the aesthetic of eighteenth-century British literature through the writings of Edmund Burke. Through this selection we will begin to synthesize some of the ways in which literary ideals interact with social constructs -- particularly of gender and class. Moreover we will see the ways in which writers like Milton attain their status.

In the interest of time and consistency, I have dropped the Leapor poem from our discussion. If you decide to read it on your own, I'd be happy to discuss it with you outside of class. It is a delightful poem that revises the generic manor house poem (i.e. To Penshurst by Ben Jonson or Upon Appleton House by Andrew Marvel) from the servant's perspective.

Reading Notes and Discussion Questions:

A Philosophical Enquiry


Part 2 Section 1 -- Of the Passion caused by the Sublime

What is the effect of the natural sublime -- i.e. the ocean? What is the impact on the reason of the viewing individual?

Section 2 -- Terror

"Indeed terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime" (798). What are the implications of this effect when caused by nature? What is the implication when caused by literature?

Section 3 -- Obscurity

In this section, note Burke's method of assuming empirical consensus: "Everyone will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notion of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of being" (798). Who is he talking to?

Note also his references to North American natives: "Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship" (798). What are the implications of this example?

In this section we also see that Burke holds Milton up as the supreme example of sublimity. How does Burke's definition of the principles of sublime characterize Milton? do you agree?


Section 4 -- of the difference between clearness and obscurity with regard to the passions

What does Burke contend regarding the relative power of the visual arts over the passions?

If visual depictions are clearer and hence less potent in their effect on emotion, then what might Burke see as the potential and purpose for visual arts? for literary arts? What might he see as the potential for political discourse?

Section [5] -- the same subject continued

Here Burke makes an extended argument on the inferiority of visual arts to verbal arts given the power of "affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric" (799). Compare Burke's attitude toward rhetoric with Sprat's, who claimed that "eloquence ought to be banished out of all civil Societies, as a thing fatal to Peace and good Manners."

Note Burke's reference to the "common sort of people" and how the best sorts of poetry and painting are not understood by them. What does he mean by this? What are the implications of this judgment?

He continues by claiming that the lower classes are nonetheless strongly affected by the words of a preacher or a popular lyric. Compare his attitude toward the working class with the writings of Duck, Collier, Leapor or Yearsley.

Burke reiterates the fact that ignorance leads to admiration -- "knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little" (800). To what extent do you agree with this? Compare Pope's advice in The Essay on Criticism : "A little learning is a dang'rous thing; / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring" (215-216).

Note again the example from Milton. Burke writes: "The mind is hurried out of itself, by a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused" (800). Explain how Milton exemplifies the sublime. How does this compare with the example from Job?

The Beautiful


How does Burke use language to support his claims regarding beauty? Compare this with his use in section two.

To what extent do you agree with Burke's assessment regarding smallness being a cause of beauty?

"There is a wide difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects, and terrible; the latter on small ones, and pleasing; we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case we are forced, in the other we are flattered into compliance" (801).

What is the underlying power dynamic that Burke describes here? What are the implications of this power dynamic in terms of authority? In terms of dependence? How might this translate into gendered categories?

Section 14 -- Smoothness

Note Burke's list of smooth objects: trees, flowers, leaves, gardens, streams, coats of birds and beasts, skins of women, ornamental furniture. What does this list suggest about beautiful objects? What does the list suggest about women? What does this list suggest about the person who is judging beauty?

Section 15 -- Gradual Variation

Why is it important for smoothness not to continue without variation?

Note again Burke's illustrations for his theory. In particular analyze the values conveyed by his description of "a beautiful woman, where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts" (802). What do phrases like "deceitful maze" and the "unsteady eye slides gidily" suggest?

Note also his rhetorical question: "Is not this a demonstration of that change of surface continual and yet hardly perceptible at any point which forms one of the great constituents of beauty?" To whom is he speaking? What does this assumed consensus suggest about the right to judge beauty? To what extent is aesthetic authority gendered in Burke's text?


Section 16 -- Delicacy

In this section, Burke asserts that "an air of robustness and strength is very prejudicial to beauty" (802). How does this contrast with the qualities of the sublime? What are the implications for beautiful poetry? Why are there no examples of the beautiful in poetry? What does it mean that women are consistently invoked as examples of Burke's empirical method?

"I need here say little of the fair sex, where I believe the point will be easily allowed me. The beauty of women is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy, and is even enhanced by their timidity, a quality of mind analogous to it" (802).

To what extent do you agree with Burke? What examples of this attitude or assumption can you find in today's society? What does this suggest about the literary values of his age? Which is more important to Burke, beauty or the sublime?

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