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Martin Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-521-62124-0. Price: £40.00 (US$59.95).

  • David M. Baulch

…more information

  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

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At first glance it seems surprising that no one has directly addressed the topic of Romantic poetry and atheism in a book-length study, but Martin Priestman's Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought 1780-1830 makes the definitional difficulty of such a task abundantly clear. "Atheism," as specifically a disbelief in God, turns out to be a relatively rare thing among writers in the Romantic period. Indeed, Romantic Atheism is barely able to flush out a handful of solid atheists and very little atheist poetry per se; nevertheless, in Priestman's often fascinating and enlightening study atheism becomes the discourse that casts long shadows over everything from Priestley's and Coleridge's Unitarianism in the 1780's and 90's to Marx's dissertation on Lucretius in 1839. In this way, atheism as a discourse in the Romantic period, rather than atheism itself, takes center stage in Priestman's book, exerting an almost magnetic pull upon the literary culture that revolves around it.

Published on the heels of Robert Ryan's The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature 1789-1824, one would expect more friction between these two well-informed studies that structure themselves in large part around the "big six" of the Romantic canon. Interestingly, however, Priestman states that "there is more in [Ryan's] book that I agree than disagree with, given that the word Reformation can be approached from either side" (p. 5). From Priestman's perspective, the very notion of the Reformation, in its historically complex slipperiness, has almost as much to do with atheism as it does with Christianity. Indeed, the implications of the Protestant Reformation manifest themselves as a diverse spectrum of positions that reach the extreme where, as Edmund Burke feared, one "protests against the whole Christian religion" (qtd. p. 5). While Ryan's book emphasizes one of literary history's enduring truisms that sees the first generation of canonical Romantic poets eventually moving to more or less orthodox religious positions and the second generation dying before they would have surely tempered their views, Priestman takes the equally well-established critical position that each of the figures he surveys has an "'infidel' phase" (p. 5) during which "they were acutely aware of positive, unapologetic atheism as a phenomenon of the time, and that most had unorthodox moments or periods which they knew could easily be accused of atheism" (p. 7). Because Priestman and Ryan explore two sides of the same loose body of issues, their two studies are much more satisfying when read together than individually as studies of poetry.

That much said, the strength of Romantic Atheism does not lie in its rereadings of a number of the central texts of canonical romanticism, rereadings which are often less illuminating than they promise to be. What the book most usefully offers is a part of the continuing resituation of Romantic poetry into a more culturally, politically, and intellectually immediate context than that which characterized much scholarship on the period into the mid-eighties. To this end, Romantic Atheism consciously positions itself against the view offered by M. H. Abrams' Natural Supernaturalism in its insistence on Neoplatonic thought and German Idealism as the intellectual lens through which British Romanticism should be understood. Priestman's strategy, then, is to situate the poetic texts he examines along the broad range of different religious and anti-religious positions from Unitarianism to outright atheism as ultimately influenced by the Enlightenment intellectual tradition of the French philosophes and the political pressures created by the various phases of the French Revolution. In this way, Romantic Atheism claims to avoid what it sees as Abrams' totalizing "Romanticism" and the tendency toward the recuperation of Romanticism as "the religion it has ousted" (p. 4).

Yet, although Romantic Atheism claims to see the term "Romantic" as denoting "only a literary period, not…[a] kind of extractable essence," the book divides its argument about the intellectual and cultural currents of atheism in England and the poetic texts it examines along the lines of the traditional distinction between first and second generation Romantics (p. 6). Individual chapters providing glances at Blake's, Coleridge's, and Wordsworth's poetic texts of the 1790's are placed within the cultural and philosophical context identified by chapter one as "The atheism debate, 1780-1800." Later, Shelley, Byron, and Keats are bound together in a single chapter focused on their poetry of the 1810's and set against the background provided by chapter six's examination of "atheist strategies, 1800-1830." Because of its structure Romantic Atheism itself is divided between a cultural study of atheism and a reassessment of Romanticism's major figures, but neither strand of its inquiry seems fully developed nor integrated.

What is troubling here is that beyond following the organizational structure whereby the biographies of canonical poets define the period, Romantic Atheism leaves unchallenged many of the traditional critical assumptions attendant upon this way of conceiving of a Romantic period. By following these assumptions, Romantic Atheism forecloses the possibility of a significant rethinking of the very complexity of these poets' later views. The conclusion of the Blake chapter, for instance, repeats the observation "[t]he great epics Vala, Milton and Jerusalem accompany a return to something like recognizable Christianity in Blake's work" (p. 121). This assertion reflects Northrop Frye's Blake as a structuralist and Christian mythographer, rather than more current views of Blake that see his later works as presenting a "much more profoundly radical" engagement with Christian thought that takes these "more conventional ideas to their furthermost limits, and in so doing, fatally subverts them" (Dortort p. 13). [1] Likewise, Romantic Atheism is content to let Hazlitt, with his seemingly endless sentence from The Spirit of the Age indicting Coleridge's wandering philosophical interests, have the last word on the post-1790's Coleridge. Arguably, it is the spectacular collision of Coleridge's Christian tendencies and interests in German Idealism in Biographia Literaria that, while admittedly not poetry, nevertheless suggest an increasingly intense engagement with many of the elements of Coleridge's earlier poetry that Romantic Atheism cites as atheistic. Reasonably close attention to Coleridge's later prose finds his supposed turn to orthodoxy to be permeated with philosophical elements hardly assimilable to the conventional Anglican doctrine of the age. By contrast, the case for Wordsworth's atheism revolves around what Romantic Atheism characterizes as "acts of non-publication" (p. 159). Here, apart from discussions of The Borderers, Salisbury Plain, and "Imitation of Juvenal: Satire VIII" is, of course, The Prelude. Priestman argues that "if The Prelude had been in circulation from 1804-5, it would have been taken as a very plain statement of pantheist infidelism as well as of Jacobinism, through whose lens all his subsequent work would have been more sharply scrutinized for similar tendencies than it was" (p. 160). Romantic Atheism attempts to play out this speculation by comparing particular passages from The Prelude with Cowper's The Task. In this comparison the "repeated secularization of his [Wordsworth's] Cowperian model emerge[s]" (p. 175). While Wordsworth is undoubtedly a more secular poet than Cowper, many of Wordsworth's secularizations invoke arguments about his elusive construction of "nature" that hearken back to Carl Woodring's Wordsworth (1965). In short, Romantic Atheism emphasizes atheism as a cultural context that adds another layer of richness to one's thinking about some central texts that have occupied critics for the last thirty years, but it does little to suggest significantly new readings of these texts.

The most interesting chapters of Romantic Atheism are, ironically, those that do not deal directly with the writings of the major poets upon which the study concentrates. Chapter one on "The atheism debate, 1780-1800" is grounded in the of pamphlet exchange between a man who identified himself as William Hammon and Joseph Priestly. Hammon, supposedly the editor of Answer to Dr Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part I, the main body of which was later identified as having been authored by Liverpool physician Matthew Turner, responding to Priestly's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever provides Romantic Atheism with a specific textual and historical site from which to unpack the issues germane to what Priestman calls the "atheism debate" of the 1780's and 90's in England. Hammon claims that Preistley, in attacking the overtly atheistic Baron d'Holbach's Système de la nature, which he calls "the Bible of Atheism," and most importantly David Hume's, apparently much more dangerous, absolute skepticism, inspires in him to become both a "philosopher," in the sense of the French philosophe, and an "unbeliever" (p. 13). Priestley's position is an interesting one in that even as a defender of Christianity in this exchange, he is also a leading Unitarian whose "Rational Dissent" and radical politics place him well within the sphere of positions that Romantic Atheism finds habitually associated with atheist discourse in the period. The Hammon/Priestley exchange, although only one of a number of such exchanges in the period, such as the better-known print conversation between Edward Gibbon and Bishop Watson, becomes important because it summarizes the major philosophical influences upon England's atheism debate. Here, Volney, Helvètius, Diderot, and d'Alembert, join d'Holbach and Hume as key players. Thus Romantic Atheism does usefully resituate English Romanticism's philosophical heritage from one of German Idealism to the French Enlightenment.

In chapter two, by far the book's richest and most original, Romantic Atheism constructs a Lucretian tradition of Epicurean materialist philosophy in England in the Romantic period. The key figures here are Sir William Jones, Erasmaus Darwin, and Richard Payne Knight. Jones, perhaps the most accomplished Orientalist of the period, is of interest for his nine "Hymns" to Hindu deities. Priestman emphasizes that Jones is a Christian whose hymns "betray an anxiety to establish the proper limits of the 'understanding' of polytheism they work to promote" (p. 53); Jones thus still contributes to the atheist argument in "presenting all world religions and mythological systems as interrelated, and equally worthwhile objects of study" (p. 53). Likewise, Erasmaus Darwin is a key figure—although also neither an atheist nor a Lucretian materialist strictly speaking—because his texts offered popular poetic paradigms for specifically non-Christian verse. Darwin's poems The Botanic Garden, The Temple of Nature, and The Loves of the Plants are important for their "organized assault on the biblical account of creation, firstly by allaying it with other 'myths' derived ultimately from Egypt, and secondly by displacing it with a wholly materialist account of the universe from a primal explosion, and the evolution of man from a primitive 'filament' through a series of environmental adaptations" (p. 63). But Darwin, in the end, is an odd part of an argument for the Lucretian tradition Romantic Atheism seeks to establish; a scientific materialist, Darwin is critical of ancient philosophers like Lucretius "'who contended that the world was formed from atoms' for 'leading the mind to atheism' by attributing too much to 'blind chance' rather than the universal laws of causality" (p. 67).

While Jones and Darwin do not merit the appellation of atheist, the third figure in the chapter, Richard Payne Knight, does not disappoint on this score. Knight's The Worship of Priapus and his membership in the Society of Dilettanti secured his reputation for atheism and obscenity. In The Landscape: A Didactic Poem, Romantic Atheism identifies Kinght's accusation that the Christian church under Constantine was responsible for the decline of knowledge from its classical apex in the Western World. Also, attention is given to the poem's final comparison of revolutionary France with a stagnant pond freed to let its destructive, but aesthetically pleasing and ultimately beneficial waters, cascade downhill. Given this, Knight emerges in Romantic Atheism as more of a political radical than an atheist. Further, given the great ideological differences between Jones, Darwin, and Knight, the largest common claim the chapter can make for them is that "the practice of all three assumes that poetry has a vital function in articulating or even constructing the other realms—political, aesthetic and scientific—in which they were so actively engaged" (p. 75). In view of this conclusion, the chapter's initial claims about atheism and even Lucretian materialism seem a less than likely thread to unify these three fascinating writers.

Chapter six, "Temples of reason: atheist strategies, 1800-1830," begins the second half of the division Romantic Atheism makes in the Romantic period, focusing on the implications of "the disappearance of a shared middle ground which accompanied the legal clampdown on subversive views in the mid 1790s" (p. 184). The three most important discourses to which the atheist debate appends itself in this period are, according to Priestman, those of science, comparative mythology, and, of course, politics. In this chapter the controversy over the scientific writings of William Lawrence is important in showing the way atheism presumably made inroads into mainstream discourses like science despite both institutional resistance to and legal prohibitions upon forms of "blasphemy." Of even greater moment than Lawrence's An Introduction to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology (1816), Lectures on Physiology, Zoology, and the Natural History of Man (1819), which eventually led to his suspension from the Royal College of Surgeons, is the championing of his cause by the atheist publisher Richard Carlile, who along with his common-law wife Eliza Sharples, becomes the most interesting and unambiguously atheistic figure in Romantic Atheism. Doubtlessly, a book-length study that did more to make substantial the cultural milieu of artisan-class radical publishers such as Carlile, Daniel Isaac Eaton, William Clarke, and William Hone as specifically literary figures would be a much needed addition to current thought on the period. It was, after all, Clarke in 1821, and then Carlile in 1822 who both spent time in prison for pirating Percy Bysshe Shelley's Queen Mab for lower-class readers.

The final chapter of Romantic Atheism, "Pretty paganism: the Shelley generation in the 1810s," picks up on the Carlile connection in its examination of Queen Mab's life as an underground radical. Priestman's brief discussion of Byron comes to the judicious, but somewhat anticlimactic conclusion that "Byron presses all the right atheist buttons, without committing himself to a consistent train of argument" (p. 242). Keats' long poems, particularly Endymion, which Wordsworth pronounced "'a very pretty piece of Paganism'" get some passing attention, but little sustained or systematic critical pressure (qtd p. 246).

In all, Romantic Atheism offers an at times fascinating initial view of what is truly a thought-provoking topic in the Romantic period. The study is at its best when it focuses on figures and texts that have only recently begun to receive critical attention. If Romantic Atheism is somewhat less exciting in its rereading of the classic sites of discussion in the well-known texts of the "big six," this shortcoming underscores the unresolved conflict in the book between the desire for a new paradigm and an indebtedness to traditional conceptions of the period.

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