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Edmund Burke among the poets: Milton, Lucretius and the philosophical enquiry

Bullard, P. ORCID: (2011) Edmund Burke among the poets: Milton, Lucretius and the philosophical enquiry. In: Vermeir, K. and Dekard, M. F. (eds.) The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke's Philosophical Enquiry. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 247-263. ISBN 9789400721012

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-2102-9_12


The tradition of eighteenth-century criticism that concerned itself with the sublime in art was neo-classical in origin, and derived from an anonymous Greek rhetorical treatise of the first century called Perì hýpsous, attributed by convention to ‘Longinus’. Edmund Burke refers directly, though with evident reservation, to the ‘incomparable discourse upon a part of this subject’ by ‘Longinus’ in the 1757 preface to the Philosophical Enquiry. A considerable weight of textual evidence indicates that the principal influence on Burke’s thinking about the sublime was not Perì hýpsous, however, but the didactic poem De Rerum Natura by the Epicurean philosopher Lucretius. This chapter investigates the significance of a conspicuous allusion to Lucretius’s poem that reoccurs in Burke’s definitions of the sublime. The allusion is related in turn to two major excerpts from De Rerum Natura that Burke comments upon directly in the second edition of the Philosophical Enquiry. It is also related to the five important passages from the early books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost that Burke reads as illustrations of the sublime. The pattern of Lucretian allusion in Paradise Lost is well established in Milton scholarship, and it is striking that the passages Burke chooses feature two Lucretian themes – first, the physiological impressions made by light on the human eye; and second, the nature of the infinite void in which Lucretius’s universe of atoms is poised. The intelligence with which Burke extends this web of literary correspondence in his own readings of Milton and Lucretius indicates a deep engagement with Christian Epicureanism in his early thought.

Item Type:Book or Report Section
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Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Literature and Languages > English Literature
ID Code:99607

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