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Formal Prospects: The Long Poem After Milton

Hushagen, Sam. Formal Prospects: The Long Poem After Milton. 2019. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.

This dissertation examines how long form loco-descriptive poems written between 1660 1800 approach aesthetic experience as kinesthetic and embodied. Aesthetic theory since Addison has typically treated the experience or art as detached and contemplative, but the poems studied here challenge this approach. Contemporary scholars have read these poems from a perspective that holds the formal unity of a work of art to consist in an ideal axiom or moral precept. But these sprawling texts present artistic unity as prospective and open, emerging in line-by-line unfolding rather than existing as a transcendent predicate beyond them. The idealist tradition in philosophical aesthetics developed in foundational eighteenth-century critical theory still shapes contemporary debates about critical reading and methodology in literary studies, though scholars often fail to recognize or acknowledge it. This dissertation contests still-influential Enlightenment approaches to art and cognition and challenges the consensus that loco-descriptive poetry enacts fantasies of an imperious, remote observer, whose immobile eye orders the world around it. Instead, poems like John Milton’s Paradise Regain’d, James Thomson’s Seasons, William Cowper’s Task, and William Blake’s Vala, or The Four Zoas, join a critical tradition of common sense philosophy developed by Thomas Reid by rejecting the pervasive belief that cognition involves detached observation of the world by a single and unified optical subject. These poems complicate critical narratives that narrowly define the visual culture of the Enlightenment in terms of the remote, unified and domineering viewer by exploring the prospects of an alternative eighteenth-century tradition of embodied aesthetics.

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