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Robert Ryan, The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature 1789-1824. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997. ISBN: 0 521 57008 5. Price: £35 (US$59.95)

  • Jon Mee

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  • Jon Mee
    University College, Oxford

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Robert Ryan's new book is a refreshing contribution to recent Romantic studies. Whatever one thinks about its general account of the phenomenon or its conclusions about particular texts and authors, the renewed emphasis it gives to the absolutely central role of religion in British society of the Romantic period is incontestable. Lending themselves to linear narratives of historical "progress", too many literary studies have taken secularisation to be an already-achieved state in the period. M. H. Abrams, for instance, assumed that the Romantic poets could be unproblematically understood as rewriting prophecy in terms of purely secular concerns as if religious experience was universally regarded as an outmoded form of knowledge. A great deal of liberal-left scholarship, too, has been habitually hostile to religion, as Ryan points out, although his strictures perhaps underestimate the work of scholars such as J. F. C. Harrison and E. P. Thompson. This hostility has meant scholars interested in popular culture and working-class consciousness, among whom I count myself, have often ignored a form of knowledge that remained central to popular experience across the political spectrum. Generally speaking religion remained at the very centre of public and literary debates in the period. Indeed, as Ryan points out, in many ways the period was an age of religious revivals.

Although its general argument about the role of religion in the Romantic period seems incontestable, I felt that The Romantic Reformation suffered on two fronts from presenting an overly totalised picture. First, it bites off rather more than it can chew in trying to cover the writing of six major Romantic figures. The most obvious candidate for a place in the book, Coleridge, is omitted on the grounds that he warrants a separate study on his own, but I think much the same could be said about Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, and Percy and Mary Shelley. The second general problem with The Romantic Reformation seems to be a product of trying to digest such a big bite, that is, the historical complications of religious controversies in the period tended to be smoothed over in pursuit of the thesis that Romanticism as a movement can be defined in terms of its desire to complete the work of the Reformation. The term Romanticism always makes me nervous, even though one can never entirely abandon it, but here I think it tends to obscure many of the author's own most interesting local insights and flatten out the historical terrain. The idea that the "big" writers had as a central concern the "reformation of the national church" silences a host of key contemporary debates and arguments over religion, such as, for instance, the whole question of whether there should be such an institution as a national church, an idea, I think, that Blake and the kind of dissenting tradition with which he was associated would never have accepted.

Logically enough, Ryan's first chapter deals with Blake, who, he claims, took it as his primary poetic mission to combat the corruptions of Christianity in his day and offer a more authentic, radically reformed version of the religion of Jesus. The paradox of Blake, Ryan argues, is that he wanted to return to orthodoxy, whereas he tends to be read now as a heretic. While I agree with Ryan that too much Blake criticism tends to bleach the poet's enthusiasm, reproducing him in the image of the liberal-bourgeois critic, I am not convinced either that this enthusiasm can totally be made sense of in terms of purifying Christianity of its corruptions or by emphasizing Blake's sense of "the need for the intervention of Jesus to effect human salvation". The former underplays the complicated ways in which Blake incorporates other kinds of religious traditions. The latter tends to ignore the pressure Blake exerts on the idea of a personalised divinity beyond the human. This pressure does not mean that we ought to read Blake as a secular humanist, as Ryan correctly points out, not least because his enthusiasm retains a confidence in a sense of spiritual illumination that enlightenment notions of progress, which still underpin most academic accounts of religious phenomena, find hard to accept intellectually. In general I felt this kind of complication was too easily resolved into Ryan's paradox of Blake's orthodoxy. One may believe that Blake got closer to what Jesus meant than the Christian churches, but does this mean one can say Blake was the more orthodox Christian? It doesn't if one believes that the very institutionalization of religion, the very invention of Christianity even, was antithetical to the Christ who stamps the stony law to dust. I certainly cannot see that such an understanding of Jesus means that Blake was in line with "hegemonic Christian tradition" in any normal understanding of the word "hegemonic".

Although they also display a desire to translate a sympathy for Jesus into a sympathy for Christianity as a national institution, the subsequent chapters have a great deal of corrective value in revealing the importance of religion to the development of Romanticism, emphasizing the ways in which, for instance, discussions of Wordsworth as a nature worshipper have taken place in a vacuum that ignores the extent to which such "pantheism" was typical of the kind of natural religion that was part and parcel of eighteenth-century Anglicanism. Ryan's concluding chapter changes the perspective of the preceding argument to consider the effect of Romanticism on the religious consciousness of the nineteenth century and beyond, stressing various autobiographical conversion narratives in which reading poetry, especially Wordsworth's, was granted an important role. Certainly Wordsworth seems to have been perceived by his followers as having played an important role in the "reformation of national religion". One of the problems with Ryan's own argument is the need he perceives to offer an account of the response to religion in the period sufficiently totalised to allow him to preserve Romanticism as an autonomous category. Indeed the discussion of reception history in his conclusion implies that the invention and preservation of Romanticism as a category may itself have been part of a desire for a "reformation of national religion"

Romantic Circles Review