The futures in Futures of Enlightenment Poetry are not those of peoples or societies, but the soul. Keenly aware that a study of poetry about heaven and immortality may not appeal to contemporary secularist sensibilities, our culture of embodiment, or accepted philosophical-scientific physicalism, Stewart manages to shed light on the crucial roles of the afterlife in poets from John Milton to William Blake and Emily Dickinson. His book shows that poets toggle between drives to disembody the soul and to reembody it, or between what he calls a “spiritualist” and a “mortalist” poetics. This conceptual opposition is premised on Protestant theology's bifurcated doctrines of, on the one hand, an immortal soul's definitive separation from a body after death and, on the other, the resurrection of the body, which reunites a body with the soul at the end of time. Stewart, however, does not labor over querulous theologians’ discussions or interpret poetry as applied doctrine. Using Milton's famous adherence to the inseparability of the soul as a springboard, Stewart explains that Christian mortalist poets sometimes pull back the soul from its flight in order to draw the futurity of the afterlife into an embodied present. Spiritualist poetics, in contrast, glorifies disembodiment and counters the idea of no-soul-without-body. The spiritualist's futurity is not simply salvation but a perpetual poetic resource.
Reading an impressive range of poets, many of whom would seem inaccessible especially in a classroom, Stewart does something notable by persuasively conveying these poets’ self-understanding as immortal souls and showing their discomfort with the unknowability of the hereafter. Through Stewart's carefully delineated but straightforward prose, we come to understand the transformative work of the incorporeal in English poetry between the canonical highlights of Milton and the Romantics (as a mid-nineteenth-century American, Dickinson is an outlier). The premise here is that the afterlife, which no one can experience and live to tell about, is nonetheless experiential in poetry. Mortalists defer heavenly ascent, which makes “more time for poetry” in the present, as Stewart demonstrates in his reading of Milton's Paradise Regained and of Anna Barbauld's poetic commitment to cheerfulness and to her present body against gloomy religion (17). Spiritualists, for their part, fearlessly glimpse newness in the postmortem mystery and generate a poetics of anticipatory excitement, even if it is a willing fantasy, as Stewart explains in readings of Elizabeth Singer Rowe, Edward Young, and Mark Akenside.
Poets are lined up on one side or the other of this tension between mortalist and spiritualist, but taken over time, the two are bound into a dynamic of lyric history. Their alternation or “rhythm” also dictates the book's arrangement in three movements. The strong mortalism of Milton is countered in the second movement by the strong spiritualists Rowe, Young, and Akenside. Admittedly, however, mortalism, which is allied here with materialism, is sustained throughout the period, and devotional Christian poetry survives throughout as well. The oscillation between mortalist and spiritualist poles is thus imbrication, especially evident in the third movement due to modifications and “modest materialism,” even as particular poets—Erasmus Darwin, Anna Barbauld, William Wordsworth, Phillis Wheatley, William Blake, and Emily Dickinson—are said to lean one way or the other. If history comes down to impulses, to use Stewart's word, this one is more convincing at the level of individual poets’ predilections than as an explanatory model for poetic history in the long eighteenth century. The idea of a nondoctrinal immortality can be found in any number of poets, who either espouse or abhor religion, from antiquity to the twenty-first century. The appeal of so much poetry, as Stewart demonstrates, is how delicately and effusively it balances the earthly and something else.
Within Stewart's dialectic, there is also a more subdued argument for a poetic genealogy that begins with Milton and freshly reconsiders his acknowledged influence on eighteenth-century poets. Edward Young continues the lineage to become an influence in his own right, while later poets distance themselves from these predecessors to promote their own aesthetics. Black Christian writers play a role at various points here: there is a short section on Phillis Wheatley's “On Imagination,” which takes up soul and body in relation to freedom and enslavement; Ottobah Cugoano and Ignatius Sancho are cited as appreciative readers of Young, apparently positioned to imply Young's racially transcendent allure. Although Black writers belong here, the book might have presented the fraught relationship of enslaved Africans with the Christian religion by providing some context on the systematic immorality of the “nominal Christians” that Olaudah Equiano calls out, or on Christians’ racialization of Black bodies (Equiano  2003: 61), or delve into the coercive tactics of Christian churches in conversion narratives, even when they appear genuine and enable some measure of agency (as John Marrant's  narrative reveals).
The core of the book, three successive chapters on the spiritualist poetics of Rowe, Young, and Akenside, contains the most extensive and illuminating arguments. Although these poets are not absent from standard anthologies of the period, Stewart rightly argues they are largely neglected. These chapters not only contribute to the rediscovery of these writers but also exemplify the relevance of the Christian afterlife to other currents in British culture. For Rowe, perhaps the most zealous in her anti-libertinism and most desirous of angelic being, God is a feminized spirit. Stewart explores Rowe's gender politics of the spirit realm to show how the feminine belongs to the future. The chapter on Young takes up imperial economics. Starting with his poem Imperium Pelagi, and the extraction of seemingly inexhaustible material wealth from Peruvian silver mines, Young's colonizing extends to the inexhaustible immaterial resource of the future in Night Thoughts. Of the three poets, Akenside is perhaps least well known and most fascinating because he straddles theology and biology. Akenside's prose works expose a queer embryology in which God and women procreate together. Akenside may deny paternity an essential role in making new lives, but the male artist turns his apparent impotence into a compensatory triumph through the invention of a new imaginative aesthetics in poetry. Throughout these and other chapters, the approach primarily consists of fluid segues from paraphrase to interpretation of poetic passages, evolving into well-crafted analyses of the conceptual and historical frameworks established at the outset. Formal elements of the poems are not slighted, especially diction and rhythm. Consistent attention is given to metrical flow and to the significance of deviation from regularity, which produces several insights, not least that couplets generate themselves rather than form two-line enclosures.
Futures of Enlightenment Poetry begins by asking readers to “suppose you believe in life after death.” It may sound like an unusual request for many readers, although the afterlife and Protestant religion more broadly are hardly unfamiliar to students of this period's literature. Another key term—soul—is not as easily supposed. The meaning of soul is conveyed in the figural language of flight and known by its inability to be confined by stuff or time. It may not elicit further explanation because what the soul does to time and matter is more salient in poetry than what it is. One wonders, however, whether the soul is coextensive with the person? Or synonymous with the moral or epistemological subject? Does the soul bear consciousness? Is it just an invisible thing that will not go away? Stewart states that no distinction is made in his study between mind and soul, which follows the equivocation of these terms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because these same questions are debated and unresolved in philosophical, theological, and scientific writings of the period, Stewart might have recognized and accounted for the multiple meanings and uses of soul. Other philo-theological currents not mentioned in the book such as Origenism, the Neoplatonic theory of preexistence and descent of the soul, might help explain the frequency of these ideas in poems featured here. Similarly, the soul as releasable from the body to the heavens, heights, or skies recalls Platonic theories and myth in a complex collaboration with Protestantism. Nonetheless, it remains the case that soul migrates seamlessly into lyric poetry while abandoning other domains in the Enlightenment. This book makes the case that soul is historically entwined with lyric, but does not address the fact that both soul and lyric are likewise tightly bound up with personhood, self, and subjectivity, especially in the pre-Romantic era, and remain standard critical terms for lyric, even if interrogated to the point of disintegration in recent studies of lyric and its criticism. Although I was left with nagging questions about poetry's souls and selves, Stewart cannot be faulted for omitting such a broad topic in an already ambitious study.
Awarded the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies’ Louis Gottschalk Prize for outstanding historical or critical study of the eighteenth century, Futures of Enlightenment Poetry is an innovative contribution to historical poetics, not least because it puts forward a grounded and persuasive thesis about the complex conditions for a poetics that propels itself into the future.