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'A Pleasing Rape': John Dennis, Music and the Queer Sublime

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMusic and the Sonorous Sublime in European Culture, 1600-1880
EditorsSarah Hibberd, Miranda Stanyon
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ISBN (Electronic)9781108761253
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 May 2020


  • 2. Head - final

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John Dennis, a founding father of the Longinian sublime in English literary culture around 1700, also wrote against male-male sodomy, then subject to moral panic, prosecution and hangings in London. This was more than coincidence: Dennis imagined the effects of the sublime on a (normatively) male reader in terms of sexual violence, ravishment and penetration. This chapter suggests a dialectical relationship between sodomy and the sublime. Rooting its argument in the critic’s homosocial literary context, classical pedigree, defence of the morality of the stage, and highly sensual theories of literary creation and reception, it unsettles the place of the sublime on the continuum of virtue and vice. Similarly, Dennis’s ambivalence towards music is explored in terms of sexual politics. A disunified and queer term in his writing, music lent penetrative force when in service to sublime literature (helping to ensure patrilinear continuity) but threatened to undo the male subject when taking the lead in Italian opera (through the performances of women and castrati). Such entertainments, Dennis warned, would lead to male-male marriages should their popularity continue. The prospects for a musical sublime in England in the lead up to Handel’s arrival were mixed.

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