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

  • Frances A. Chiu

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  • Frances A. Chiu
    New School University

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. In many instances, the anti-clerical sentiments and the theological doctrines shared by Richard Price, Joseph …