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).[Notice]

  • David M. Baulch

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  • David M. Baulch
    University of West Florida

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 …

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