John Dennis as a psychological critic
Richeson, Edward, Jr
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This study presents John Dennis as a psychological critic by making a thorough analysis of the fragmentary, but fundamental, part of his criticism which explains aesthetic creation, the art object, and its effect as dependent upon the emotions of the poet and his audience. Ridiculed by Augustans as Sir Tremendous Longinus for insisting that poetry reflect the poet's emotions and arouse those of his audience, until recently Dennis was classified as a pedantic rationalist. Since Saintsbury, however, scholars have recognized precursory elements of romanticism in his work. But until this study, such acknowledgment has been grudgingly made in the few inadequate treatments of his criticism. Only Thorpe, Monk, and Hooker have made any attempt to explain the original part of Dennis' aesthetic. Augustan and earlier critics believed that poetry should arouse emotions in its audience, but did not agree upon how it did so. Dennis explained catharsis and the effect of poetry in terms of Augustan psychology more completely, and with more conviction, than did any of his contemporaries. He believed that passion was essential to both rational and sensual activity, and that poetry effects harmony between emotion and intellect because the passions it arouses cooperate with reason to search for universal and original truths. Distrusting emotion, few critics of the period described poetry convincingly as an expression of the artist's emotional response to life . But Dennis made emotion vital to creativity and the resulting work . Genius, being emotional sensitivity to mental and physical experience, reflects itself in all parts of a poem; and imagination, activated by passions, furnishes materials for aesthetic creation only in minds that make a sensitive response to life. If through his passions an artist can express the events which he depicts as though they were real and suggest ideas beyond the facts of the work itself, his poem will possess sublimity and the power to elicit a strong audience response. The predominant part of Dennis 1 aesthetic is based upon the rules of neo-classical criticism. Yet he thought rules could be applied effectively only by a poet inspired with enthusiastic passion. He failed to see a contradiction between premeditated and controlled art and art inspired by emotion. He explained that rather than being a disturbing force in creativity, passion as an aid to reason effects harmony between the disparate parts of a work. As in physical creation rule and order and harmony were effected by nature, a creating and informing principle paralleling genius, so paradoxically they are imparted to poetry by passion when the rules prevent dissipation of the creative force. In Dennis' critical judgments a literary work was sublime if it reflected the passions that accompanied its creation whether it conformed to the rules or not. He valued most the passionate parts of Shakespeare and Milton. But unless a work presented its subject in a design reflecting cosmic harmony and beauty in such a way as to inspire similar qualities in man, Dennis judged it extravagant and meaningless. His opinions of contemporaries were seldom so disinterested as his judgments of early writers. Yet, he justified his estimates of Addison, Pope, Steele, and others by showing how their work lacked passion and aesthetic harmony. In practice Dennis tried to follow his theory, but his poetry has little that is sublime. Though conforming to the rules, and striving to express genuine passion in metaphor and style, he usually produces fustian rather than sublimity. He failed as a creative artist because he lacked genius, rather than because his creative principles were invalid. Analysis of Dennis' criticism reveals that though neoclassicism dominates his aesthetic, his psychological theory underlies all phases of his work. He failed to express a fully developed psychological poesis, and to reconcile the contradiction between emotionalist and rationalist art, but fundamentally, he was searching in the right direction for an explanation of aesthetic creativity.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University.