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Temples and Mysteries in Romantic Infidel Writing

  • Martin Priestman

…plus d’informations

  • Martin Priestman
    University of Surrey, Roehampton

Corps de l’article

It is still sometimes argued, or felt, that Romantic poetry must be at bottom highly religious, because of the number of religious-sounding images it invokes. My title, "Temples and Mysteries," refers to two such types of religious image. But I am going to look at these in terms of an alternative tradition, which invokes such ideas precisely to mount an attack on conventional religion and, in many cases, on all religion.

It is useful to start with what to most contemporaries would have been the most striking and shocking instance of this: the conversion in 1793 of Notre Dame Cathedral to a "Temple of Reason" at the height of the French Revolution:

Three days later a festival was held in Notre Dame, débaptisée the Temple of Reason. In the interior a gimcrack Greco-Roman structure had been erected beneath the Gothic vaulting. A mountain made of painted linen and papier-mâché was built at the end of the nave where Liberty (played by a singer from the Opéra), dressed in white, wearing a Phrygian bonnet and holding a pike, bowed to the flame of Reason and seated herself on a bank of flowers and plants.

Schama 778

We may note for future reference here the stylistic opposition of classical to gothic, the presence of a mountain symbolizing Nature (if not also the radical Montagnards who dominated the French Assembly at this time), and the presence of a white-clad priestess. Though the Hébertists who conducted this dechristianization were rapidly ousted by the more pious Robespierre, the imagery crystallized here continued to flourish, as we shall see. The Temple's name lived on too, for instance, in the "Temple of Reason" set up in a salesroom in Whitecross Street, London, in 1799, as recorded in William Hamilton Reid's fascinating The Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies in this Metropolis, which traces the brief flowering and collapse of such radical-atheist meeting-places with a glee not unmixed with fear that they may return at any moment if not ruthlessly stamped out.

That they did indeed return is borne out by this passage from the first of a series of lectures given in 1832 by the radical feminist atheist Eliza Sharples at the Rotunda lecture-hall, Blackfriars, as reprinted in her periodical The Isis.

Let your sons and your daughters come, and, as the Pagans of old personified and deified the virtues and the graces in their temples, and made a pursuit of them a matter of worship and religion, so here will I aspire to be, in example, an Isis Omnia. Here, in this temple, shall every virtue and grace be taught; not in the sculptured marble or teinted painting alone; but in life and all its practices.


Here again, we see the ideas of classical Paganism as embodying natural, non-religious values, and of a woman as the presiding figure: Isis, the Egyptian goddess of Nature.

The temple-idea also recurs in more speculative form in the period. Though unpublished in his lifetime, William Godwin's "Of Religion" provides a useful key to the religious, or anti-religious, thought of this most influential of radical philosophers. Conceding a very residual deism whereby "God" simply means "whatever created the universe," Godwin ponders what might replace the emotional benefits of religion once it has been discarded:

To me a gallery of admirable paintings is the genuine Temple of God […]. To bring this still nearer to our idea of a temple, let concerts of music be from time to time performed in this gallery; let me witness in it the execution of the finest compositions of Handel. In that case I shall be sure to see assembled, in addition to the works of art that adorn the walls, a number of human beings seated in decent order, dressed with more than their normal attention to neatness and propriety, and with their countenances composed to serenity and happiness.


Art, then, will take over where religion left off. This is also the function of science, at least metaphorically, in the language of Dr. William Lawrence, who was dismissed from the Royal College of Surgeons for denying that life, and hence perhaps the soul, exists independently from the body. Responding to accusations of importing impious French ideas into British physiology, Lawrence retorted in his lectures that

Science, the partisan of no country, but the beneficent patroness of all, has liberally opened a temple, where all may meet […]. The philosopher of one country should not see an enemy in the philosopher of another: he should take his seat in the temple of Science, and not ask who sits beside him. The savage notion of a natural enemy should be banished from this sanctuary.


We may note that part of the notion of the temple or sanctuary here is that some things need to be excluded from it: "the savage notion of a natural enemy" must be banished before its pure goals can be achieved.

In poetry, too, we encounter temples of a distinctly non-Christian nature, as when Shelley's Queen Mab whisks Ianthe into space to look down on a world ruined by kingcraft and religion:

     Spirit of Nature! here!
In this interminable wilderness
Of worlds, at whose immensity
     Even soaring fancy staggers,
     Here is thy fitting temple.

Queen Mab, Canto 1: 264-69

And there is a more elaborate anti-religious temple in Laon and Cythna, where the veiled priestess Laone/Cythna presides at a shrine in which the statue of Equality tramples on the "obscene worm" of Faith (2168). It is interesting to note that the officiator at both these temples is again a woman. Though not always the consciously feminist gesture it is with Shelley (and certainly with Sharples, who likens herself to Shelley's "fairy Mab" as well as Isis), the materialist tradition I am tracing tends to favour a female priesthood, partly to gesture at the pagan Mystery cults I shall discuss in a moment, but also to effect an instant imaginative break with the male-centered hierarchies of Christianity and the other monotheistic religions.

To be worthy of her initiation into Mab's anti-religious truths, Ianthe has to be "good and sincere" and to have "burst the icy chains of custom"; we saw too how Lawrence's Temple of Science demanded the exclusion of "the savage notion of a natural enemy." The image of the temple thus elides with that of the Mystery cult, from whose rites the "profane" must be banished before the pure "initiates" can partake of its revelations. The most important of the Greek Mystery cults was the one based at Eleusis near Athens, centering on the story of Demeter and her search for her daughter Persephone who had been abducted to the underworld by Hades. This cult had a public side, as marked in the public celebration of "The Lesser Mysteries" in Athens, and a secret side, as celebrated in the "Greater Mysteries" at Eleusis. The latter were open only to the "pure" (no murderers need apply), who could only become "initiates" on the understanding that the direst penalties would follow if they ever divulged what they had seen (Mylonas 224-85). Because this rule was rigorously adhered to, the precise nature of events in the Greater Mysteries remains clouded in, precisely, mystery (this is where our word comes from), which has in turn produced a vast and fertile field for subsequent speculation.

In the eighteenth century and Romantic period, the Mysteries were adduced both to support and to undermine the claims of Christianity. Thus, in his 1825 essay, "On the Prometheus of Aeschylus," Coleridge saw them as a vital conduit between Biblical monotheism and ancient Greek poetry: "the schools of the prophets were, however partially and imperfectly, represented by the mysteries derived through the corrupt channel of the Phoenicians. With these secret schools of physiological theology, the mythical poets were doubtless in connection." Hence, "It was the office of the tragic poet, under a disguise of the sacerdotal religion, mixed with the legendary or popular belief, to reveal as much of the mysteries interpreted by philosophy, as would counteract the demoralizing effects of the state religion, without compromising the tranquillity of the state itself" (1264-65). The poet's main job is thus to mediate between difficult truths (in this case monotheism) and the common stock of religious/mythological images through which these can be made acceptable without destroying the public's socially necessary faith in such images. We may detect here some of the seeds of Coleridge's idea of a "clerisy" in On the Constitution of the Church and State (see Leask 188), as well as a trace of his earlier image of the poet's dangerous knowledge in "Kubla Khan":

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.


Despite major divergences, Coleridge's view of the mysteries' monotheistic content echoes that of the eighteenth-century Bishop William Warburton, who argued in The Divine Legation of Moses, Demonstrated on the Principles of a Religious Deist (1738-41) that the Mysteries were allegorized in Virgil's Aeneid Book 6, where Aeneas descends into the underworld. From this, Warburton deduced that they taught the "doctrine of a future state" (135)—a crucial plank in his somewhat tortuous argument that since the afterlife was a tenet of all ancient religions except Judaism, the latter's survival without such a belief proves its divinely decreed role as a springboard for Christianity's "true" teaching that the afterlife does in fact exist. One of many who protested at the "extreme ridiculousness" of Warburton's claim was the Neoplatonist Thomas Taylor, acquaintance of William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft, who said the Bishop "might as well have added, that the great secret consisted in teaching a man how, by writing notes on the work of a poet, he might become a bishop!" (374).

As a self-declared Polytheist, however, Taylor's brand of anti-Christianity was hardly standard. More common among non-believers was the idea that the Mysteries were of a piece with the general tendency of "priestcraft" to hide whatever knowledge it had from the "vulgar" masses, in order to dominate them politically. Thus Godwin, in another work on religion he did not publish in his lifetime, described how:

The Ancient Egyptians, the Pythagoreans, the leaders of the Hindoo religion in India, the Druids, and a number of speculative men of all ages, have been of opinion, that there is one set of doctrines that it is convenient should be recommended to and imposed upon the vulgar, and another that should be communicated only to such as were found unquestionably worthy of that favour and distinction. […] The question is the same as that of political liberty and slavery […]. So long as we were divided into two classes, the master and the slave, both parties were corrupted.

Godwin 99

Though Godwin does not mention the Mysteries in particular here, Warburton had long claimed that "several barbarous Nations had learnt them of the Egyptians long before they came into Greece," specifically "the Druids of Britain […]. As well as the Brachmans of India" (136). A similar picture of priesthood as straddling a split between public and esoteric knowledge for political reasons can be found in Plate 11 of Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "a system was formed, which some took advantage of and enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the mental deities from their objects. Thus began priesthood" (111). An earlier infidel writer who would have agreed wholeheartedly was Richard Payne Knight, whose Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786) deduced the secrets of the Mysteries from the extant "Orphic Hymns" which, he argued, demonstrate a hidden knowledge of the solar system and much other up-to-date scientific information in complete contrast to "the vulgar religion" (18-20).

The idea of initiation into special secret knowledge might also remind us of Freemasonry, which according to Margaret C. Jacob began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a fundamentally Whig Enlightenment movement, positing a deistic-sounding "Architect of the Universe" against the God of conventional religion, while affording a rare social space for the mixing of classes on a basis of equality (23-72). Though the English lodges fell over themselves to declare their loyalty to crown and church after the Whiggish Glorious Revolution of 1688, Masonry also sometimes provided cover for real religious scepticism and political radicalism, as in the case of the "Illuminati" founded by Adam "Spartacus" Weishaupt at Ingolstadt University in Bavaria. Slowly admitting his initiates to atheist "truths" as embodied in such notorious materialist texts as Baron d'Holbach's System of Nature, Weishaupt then sent them off to gather highly-placed converts by infiltrating targetted Masonic lodges, with the ultimate aim of world revolution. At one stage, such converts were said to include Goethe, Mozart, and Emperor Josef II, but by 1785, shocking revelations by disaffected ex-members caused a Europe-wide panic leading to the movement's effective suppression (Roberts 118-45). Though Masonry itself was based on much mystical mumbo-jumbo about the building of Solomon's temple—sometimes related specifically to the Eleusinian Mysteries, as in the Norwich Lodge named after them (see By-Laws, below)—the easy overlap between its membership and that of the Illuminati testifies to the kind of interplay between hard Enlightenment rationalism and the wildest shores of mystical fancy which is slowly becoming more familiar to us through the work of writers such as Jon Mee and Iain McCalman.

A very full illustration of most of the themes and tropes discussed so far can be found in the opening to Erasmus Darwin's The Temple of Nature (1803). A founder member of the Lunar Society along with such fathers of the Industrial Revolution as Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, and Joseph Priestley, Darwin was a serious scientist in his own right, who anticipated the modern "big bang" theory of the origin of the universe as well as that of the evolution of all living species from primeval filaments which we now associate with his more famous grandson, Charles. Briefly hailed for his ability to convey such scientific arguments in wittily artificial verse, in his earlier Botanic Garden (1791), by the end of the century his atheistic materialism and radical pro-French sympathies had led to his reputation being destroyed by the reactionary press. In his last poem, The Temple, published a year after his death, Darwin pushes his radical views even further, while acknowledging their unpopularity through an elaborate use of the Eleusinian Mystery distinction between "profane" and "initiate" truth.

While setting out to explain not only the big bang and evolution but much of the rest of cutting-edge materialist science, topped off with accounts of human psychology and the dynamics of social progress, the poem first of all spends a great deal of time with a fanciful vision of the poet's Muse and his readers seeking enlightenment from the Priestess of a fantastic temple dedicated to the goddess Nature. Darwin gives the reason for this elaborate performance in his Preface: "In the Eleusinian mysteries the philosophy of the works of Nature, with the origin and progress of society, are believed to have been taught by allegoric scenery explained by the Hierophant to the initiated, which gave rise to the machinery of the following poem" (Darwin, Temple). Here, the phrase "the philosophy of the works of Nature," meaning "science," is more highly-charged than may appear: "philosophy" was a term currently in disrepute by association with the philosophes whose atheistic scepticism was blamed by Burke and others for the French Revolution, while "the works of Nature" implies a whole enablement of Nature as an active force hotly disputed by Christian apologists such as William Paley, for whom all activity was an extra bestowed on an inert Nature by God, and whose Natural Theology (1802) was in part an attack on Darwin's earlier expressions of materialism.

As demonstrated in The Botanic Garden as well as here, Darwin really did believe that the Eleusinian Mysteries conveyed the materialist truths of a "philosophy of the works of Nature" also embedded in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which had been misread into what became Greek mythology with the invention of writing. Thus the myth of Adonis is "a story explaining some hieroglyphic figures representing the decomposition and resuscitation of animal matter" which also provide the true, materialistic basis for the Pythagorean belief in transmigration of souls, while the rape of the flower-gathering Proserpine by the subterranean Pluto really signifies the oxidisation of iron as demonstrated by Darwin's Lunar associate Joseph Priestley: "From these fables which were probably taken from ancient hieroglyphics there is frequently reason to believe that the Egyptians possessed much chemical knowledge, which for want of alphabetical writing perished with their philosophers" (Darwin, Botanic Garden, Part 1, Canto II: 586n; Canto V: 178n; see too Priestman 65, 73). Hence, perhaps, Darwin's suggestion in one of The Temple's notes that the best way of conveying such "philosophical truths" is through direct visual "imagery" rather than language: "Might not such a dignified pantomime be contrived, even in this age, as might strike spectators with awe, and at the same time explain many philosophical truths by adapted imagery, and thus both amuse and instruct?" (Temple 1: 137n). And indeed, as I hope to show, for all its elaborate wordiness the opening of The Temple of Nature works through a series of starkly juxtaposed visual images rather than through any clearly graspable narrative.

After initial invocations to the Muse and to "Immortal Love", whose "wide arms" (1: 14, 19) connect everything in the universe from atoms to sexes to minds, the poem whisks us to the spot "Where EDEN's sacred bowers triumphant sprung," and a passage containing one of the strangest series of scene-changes to be found in any poem of the Romantic period. It begins conventionally enough, albeit with an unwonted tone of classicizing insouciance:

On sun-bright lawns unclad the Graces stray'd,
And guiltless Cupids haunted every glade;
Till the fair Bride, forbidden shades among,
Heard unalarm'd the Tempter's serpent-tongue;
Eyed the sweet fruit, the mandate disobeyed,
And her fond Lord with sweeter smiles betray'd.
Conscious awhile with throbbing heart he strove,
Spread his wide arms, and barter'd life for love!

1: 39-46

Perhaps only the fact that Adam's shrug-like gesture repeats the earlier arm-spreading of "Immortal Love" alerts us to the unconventional sympathies we are being invited to adopt here. Suddenly and disconcertingly, however, we are plunged into a horrendous storm-tossed landscape, with a vast craggy rock-formation at the centre:

Now rocks on rocks, in savage grandeur roll'd,
Steep above steep, the blasted plains infold;
The incumbent crags eternal tempest shrouds,
And livid lightnings cleave the lambent clouds;
Round the firm base loud-howling whirlwinds blow,
And sands in burning eddies dance below.

1: 47-52

Though Adam and Eve have now completely vanished, we can assume that this is the present-day site of Eden, subjected to all the irregularities of Nature which Milton and others saw as a direct consequence of the Fall. However, it is at this point that Darwin begins to invoke the Eleusinian Mysteries, with their idea of two kinds of truth, for the profane and the initiate respectively:

         Hence ye profane!—the warring winds exclude
Unhallow'd throngs, that press with footstep rude;
But court the Muse's train with milder skies,
And call with softer voice the good and wise.

1: 53-56

The "warring winds", the apparent roughness and wildness of Nature, are only off-putting to the masses without the wisdom to try to understand them; but for those who do try to so, especially "the Muse's train", the same winds produce "milder skies" which positively invite them onward. Now, in the most amazing transition of all, the rugged rock opens like Ali Baba's cave to admit the Muse's train of initiates into a fairytale interior with crystal walls.

—Charm'd at her touch the opening wall divides,
And rocks of crystal form the polish'd sides;
Through the bright arch the Loves and Graces tread,
Innocuous thunders murmuring o'er their head.

1: 57-60

Strangely, the entering initiates seem to have metamorphosed from the "good and wise" in general to "the Loves and Graces" we last met wandering unclad and guiltless through Eden. It is as if we can have "Paradise Now" if we can shake off the fear and sexual guilt which actually are the Fall, rather than merely the result of it.

         Here, high in air, unconscious of the storm,
Thy temple, NATURE, rears it's mystic form;
From earth to heav'n, unwrought by mortal toil,
Towers the vast fabric on the desert soil;
O'er many a league the ponderous domes extend,
And deep in earth the ribbed vaults descend.

1: 65-70

Remembering that we are still on the site of Eden, the rugged rocks have now opened to reveal the "mystic" form of the Temple of Nature itself, from where we are shortly to hear a creation story completely different from that in Genesis. As in the juxtaposition of the classical frame and "natural" mountain with the pious Gothic of Notre Dame Cathedral in 1793, the equally classical and mountainous Temple of Nature at once subsumes Eden and replaces it with its opposite. No argument as such is needed, but the image-sequence is clear: those who believe Adam should not have given all for love are condemned to be cut off from happiness by seeing the earth as an evil, fallen place, whereas the "good and wise," accepting it as it is, enter it and rediscover lost erotic energies as well as the source of true enlightenment about creation.

After an extended tour of the temple's interior décor—mainly Egyptian-style hieroglyphics allegorizing natural processes—we eventually come to the description of Nature herself:

     SHRIN'D in the midst majestic NATURE stands,
Extends o'er earth and sea her hundred hands;
Tower upon tower her beamy forehead crests,
And births unnumber'd milk her hundred breasts;
Drawn round her brows a lucid veil depends.


This Nature is aggressively materialist. Far from acting as the veil of matter through which a more divine Creator's hand can be glimpsed, she is herself the end-point of the quest for truth, as we later learn when her priestess is exhorted to "the mystic veil withdraw;/ Charm after charm, succession bright, display,/ And give the GODDESS to adoring day!" (1: 163-70). Her hundred breasts, as well as echoing the Ephesian Diana, bring out the poem's emphasis on reproduction and sustenance as the two fundamental determinants of organic life. The towers on her head echo those of the Earth Goddess Cybele, which according to the notoriously materialist poet Lucretius indicate that "she bears the weight of cities" (52). Here, they denote that the "society" to be analyzed later in Darwin's poem—including the whole realm of culture, ideology and religion itself—grows out of Nature and is determined by it.

So much is also suggested when the poem explicitly links this imagery with the Eleusinian Mysteries:

     From this first altar fam'd ELEUSIS stole
Her secret symbols and her mystic scroll;
With pious fraud in after ages rear'd
Her gorgeous temple, and the gods revered.

1: 137-40

Unlike Darwin's note on them calling for similar "dignified pantomimes" to be reintroduced, these lines suggest some of the ambivalence about the Mysteries I discussed earlier. On one hand the real content of the Mysteries was strictly natural and scientific, but on the other the superstructure of gods and religious rituals built on top of it was merely a "pious fraud," designed to keep the profane masses at an unquestioning distance from a truth they could not handle.

It is sometimes argued that where Romantic poetry was truly ground-breaking was in its reliance on symbols and images to make its main impact, in preference to the discursive argumentation of the Augustan "Age of Reason." It would be hard to find a more Augustan or rationalist poet than Darwin, whose sub-Popean couplets were singled out for derision by Coleridge after earlier admiration (King-Hele 259-61), and whose vast array of notes explicate in exhaustive detail everything his poems are in danger of leaving unsaid. Nonetheless, the opening of The Temple of Nature represents, amid all the verbiage, an ideal of non-verbal communication, centered on the power of the image, or "allegoric scenery," to communicate meaning directly, without recourse to the normal narrative or discursive procedures which aim to substitute culture-bound stories for the pre-cultural truths of material nature. In presenting this ideal, and to some extent practicing it, Darwin draws on an iconographic tradition which actively contests the tale-telling myths of religion: the specifically anti-Christian and materialist "allegoric scenery" of temples and Mysteries.

Parties annexes