UBC Theses and Dissertations
Poetry of the abyss : mid- and late-eighteenth century English poets of destitution Bergstrom, Carson Robert
Modern criticism finds that English poetry written in the mid- and late-eighteenth century lacks the essential qualities of great poetry. The poetry belongs to an age of transition, caught between the final throes of neoclassic coldness and the later romantic warmth. The thesis argues that the concept "transitional age" needs deepening and expanding) and claims that criticism essentially misreads the poetry because it does not consider the particular historical background in which the poets wrote and which infuses their poetic consciousness. The thesis then redefines an age of transition as a rift or abyss and based on Martin Heidegger's discussion of the abyss in his essay "What. Are Poets For?", extends this image to an all-pervading metaphor of poetic vision, with critical importance to related concerns—time, darkness, light, mortality. The thesis then shows how two strong poets—John Milton and Alexander Pope — develop their vision of the abyss. In the first three books of PARADISE LOST Milton triumphs over the terror of the abyss; in THE DUNCIAD Pope sees the age plunging into the darkness of the abyss. These two preliminary analyses reveal several important features which bear on later arguments: the role of the Muse to the poet's identity; the central place which light and dark, as literal and as metaphorical experiences, play in the poet's struggle with the abyss; and the difficulties which the new science created for religious faith and philosophical belief. After this preliminary work, the basic ground of a poetry of destitution is laid, with the abyss as the dominating force in poetic consciousness. The analysis moves to Edward Young's NIGHT THOUGHTS and shows how he battles the terror of the abyss by reversing the conventional hierarchy of Night and Light; however, the imaginative landscape no longer sits solidly in place but whirls through space, enveloped by darkness and light simultaneously. Young's style and method reflect the changed milieu. James Thomson's "A Poem Sacred To The Memory Of Sir Isaac Newton" details further the effect of the new science on poetry--he finds the Muses silenced and poets unworthy to delve into the abyss. William Collins shows a poet trying to establish an identity through a traditional form--the shepherd pastoral --but he finds that it fails him, and he turns to examine the essential qualities forming the strong poetic personality, a turn typical of poets in a destitute time. Gray receives less space than the others, but the same themes and images surface in his poetry. Finally, the thesis argues that the poetry of the mid-and late-eighteenth century forms a valuable part of the literary tradition--in fact, the literary tradition is incomplete without it. The concept of the abyss places the poetry in the tradition.
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