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Religion and Romantic (Re)Vision — A Special Issue of Romanticism on the Net

  • Frances A. Chiu

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  • Frances A. Chiu
    New School University

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When drafting his essay, "Romanticism and Classicism," in the early 1900s, T. E. Hulme referred to Romanticism as "spilt religion," that is, an outlet for religious instincts when "you don't believe in a God" (118). The very assumption that an age of industrialization presupposes a declining concern with religion has misled too many Romanticists to underestimate its significance in literature of the period. Yet, to do so is to confuse the British Enlightenment with its more deistically inclined French counterpart by ignoring not only its reconciliation of science and religion but also the strong persistence of Biblical rhetoric in contemporary political and legal writing. These revised understandings have only been acknowledged by literary scholars in the last two decades, particularly in the 1990s. With the increasing number of panels featured at literary conferences on both sides of the Atlantic after 1995, such as "Religion and the Gothic Novel" (International Gothic Conference, 1999) and "Women Writers and Religion" (Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers Conference, 1999), it became clear that a wider forum for discussing the impact of religion on Romantic period literature was needed. I thus decided to organize and chair a special conference Religion and Romantic (Re)Vision, 1780-1830, to be held on 22-23 July 2000 at Oxford University.

It was evident in 2000, as it is now, that there were and are still numerous intersections between religion and literature which demand further exploration. To be sure, considerable attention has already been devoted to the theological doctrines and Biblical interpretations of the "six great poets" by such scholars as J. Robert Barth, Harold Bloom, Northrop Frye, and Morton Paley. Much remains, however, to be done in relating these doctrines to the shaping of political and literary issues, particularly its moral engagements, discursive strategies, and theories in both religious and less overtly religious contexts. In many ways, the issues and topics broached by M. H. Abrams in his ground-breaking Natural Supernaturalism (1971) have only begun to revive under the aegis of New Historicist criticism so that what he refers to as the Romantic "assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas" can be studied more thoroughly in its social and political contexts. In the past decade, such scholarship has yielded invaluable insights into literary imagery, strategies, and aesthetics: for instance, Jon Mee's Dangerous Enthusiasm (1992) and E. P. Thompson's Witness against the Beast (1993) have helped elucidate some of William Blake's seemingly idiosyncratic images and narrative strategies through the analysis of the tropes and images associated with radical enthusiasm and late-eighteenth-century Antinomianism. Similarly, scholarship on the rational Dissenting ideas and philosophies of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats by Nicholas Roe and Robert M. Ryan have helped us reconstruct the framework behind the poets' themes and aesthetics.

Much the same has also yet to be applied to other genres of the period. If Romantic poetry, as Ryan aptly states in The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature 1789-1824, may be "more profitably considered as acts of Miltonic engagement in the religious culture of the time than as meditations in retirement from social realities" (5), it is time for Romantic novels, dramas, and literary criticism to be read in a similar light, even if poetry possesses the supposed advantage of monological expression. Just as recent scholarship on rational Dissent has helped to clarify some of the philosophies and themes articulated by the "six great poets," it has also begun to shed light upon some of the central themes, tropes, and philosophies appearing in popular fiction of the period.[1] In many instances, the anti-clerical sentiments and the theological doctrines shared by Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, and other Dissenters can help explain why such novels as Matthew Lewis's Monk (1796) and Elizabeth Inchbald's Nature and Art (1796) share highly affinitive negative stereotypes of ecclesiastical establishments while disseminating notions of a rational, active and worldly benevolence. In short, we can begin to understand reciprocally how popular fiction played a significant role in the changing conceptions of Protestant agency, or that which Max Weber has referred to as the rise of a modern, Western "active asceticism."[2]

At the conference itself, the highly stimulating papers delivered by the three plenary speakers, Jon Mee, Robert Ryan, and Barbara Taylor, as well as papers by panelists, all reflected predominantly on Romantic re-visions of religious ideas and trends, and occasionally, Victorian interpretations of Romantic religious ideas. While some focused on the mutual sectarian influences and the trajectories undergone by religious writing in this period (that is, William Huntington and John Henry Williams), others addressed the influence of religious thought in the crafting and design of Romantic period literature. Moreover, a significant number of papers in the panels on theologized politics, politicized theologies, Evangelicalism, mysticism, religion in novels, and religious education not only introduced fresh views on the "six great poets," but also brought a spectrum of other authors into closer consideration: Jane Austen, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Emily Brontë William Cowper, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Hays, James Hogg, Thomas Love Peacock, and Robert Southey.

The six essays by Jon Mee, Gina Luria Walker, Martin Priestman, Robert Rix, Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, and Emma Mason cover a broad range of religious trends and thought as well as authors. In his plenary paper, "Mopping Up Spilt Religion: The Problem of Enthusiasm," Jon Mee arrives at new conclusions on Wordsworth's and Coleridge's endeavors to establish literariness in the late 1790s. Mee revises the common identification between Romantic poetry and prophecy by demonstrating how both poets were in many ways as concerned as early eighteenth-century poets with the policing of enthusiasm. In his analysis of the changing attitudes towards enthusiasm through the long eighteenth century, he convincingly shows how the two poets attempted to distance themselves—as did rational Dissenters and Anglicans alike—from the radical prophesying of such writers as Richard "Citizen" Lee through more regulated forms of enthusiasm uncannily affinitive to those recommended by Shaftesbury.

If the influence of a rational Dissenting philosophy can be said to play some role in molding the philosophies and aesthetics of Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s, it can also be said to play at least as influential a role in the molding of Mary Hays's political and feminist ideologies through the 1780s and 1790s. In "'Sewing the Next World': Mary Hays as Dissenting Autodidact in the 1780s," Gina Luria Walker provides a rare glimpse into the Dissenting education of the intriguing but much ignored Hays, a writer who has been long overshadowed by her contemporary, Mary Wollstonecraft. Here, Walker illuminates many facets of Hays's tutelage under the maverick Dissenter, Robert Robinson, by demonstrating how her readings of early modern Huguenot conceptualizations of free grace and free agency helped determine her ideas on female subjectivity and instill a more vivid awareness of double standards for male and female behavior.

The third and fourth essays explore some of the interactions between radical religion and poetry in the 1790s. Having already surveyed in Romantic Atheism many of the key tropes and images favored by those professing atheism, Martin Priestman's essay, "Temples and Mysteries in Romantic Infidel Writing," scrutinizes in greater detail the various ways in which seemingly religious images of temples were used to subvert Christianity while also showing how the idea of the "mystery cult" was variously deployed to support and undermine the claims of Christianity. By examining the iconography of Erasmus Darwin's much ignored Temple of Nature (1803), Priestman cannily eludicates the means by which Darwin's imagery and narrative strategies exhibit a newly emerging strand of materialist philosophy.

In "Healing the Spirit: William Blake and Magnetic Religion," Robert Rix probes Blake's ambivalence towards Swedenborgianism, from interest in the 1780s to rejection in the early 1790s and, finally, to qualified acceptance toward 1800. Whereas earlier scholars such as J. G. Davies, Northrop Frye, and E. P. Thompson have tended to focus on Blake's disagreement with Swedenborg's basic tenets, Rix presents a more closely detailed and contextualized picture of the activities and relationships in the Swedenborgian circles of late-eighteenth-century London. Focusing on their views on spiritual healing and mesmerism, Rix links some of Blake's most striking images of the body and discursive strategies to the ideas of these new spiritualist healers.

The subjects of the fifth and sixth essays shift to the influence of Evangelical and Methodist thought on literature from the latter part of the Romantic era. In "Not ‘Forsworn with Pink Ribbons': Hannah More, Thomas De Quincey, and the Literature of Power," Daniel Sanjiv Roberts argues that far from rejecting Evangelicalism altogether, De Quincey adapted and reformulated Evangelical notions on literature to construct his own literary theories: theories which, ironically enough, continue to mislead present-day readers into assuming an ongoing secularization of literature during the Romantic period. By re-examining De Quincey's professed contempt for More and comparing the evident similarity in their beliefs on the function of literature, Roberts persuasively demonstrates how contemporary Evangelical attitudes towards poetry were instrumental in shaping the young writer's admiration of Wordsworth, as well as his belief in the necessity of establishing a new class of "professional men of letters."

With Emma Mason's essay, "Emily Brontë and the Enthusiastic Tradition," we get a highly perceptive interpretation of Emily Brontë's poetry in a religious context. By delving into the Methodist environs of Haworth and the enthusiastic tunings of eighteenth-century poetry by Hugh Blair, Edward Young, and William Cowper, Mason shows how the young novelist and poet incorporated the rich, emotive ideas associated with Methodist notions of spirituality into the moral issues and imagery of her own work. Altogether, Mason's study of Brontë's engagement with theological ideas during an age of Protestant revival deals a decisive blow to continuing misconceptions of Brontë as mystic and Shelleyan atheist.

In closing, I would like to thank all of the contributors to this volume of essays not only for their thrilling insights, but also—appropriately enough—for the enthusiasm and faith necessary for the pilgrimage from conference to publication. Finally, I would like to thank Michael Eberle-Sinatra for proposing the idea of a special issue and unobtrusively ensuring the smooth progress of the volume with all the finesse of a "great invisible hand."