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Martin Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780–1830

Monday, September 30, 2002 - 11:58
Martin Priestman, Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. xiii + 305pp. Illus.: 7 halftones. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-62124-0).

Reviewed by
Mark S. Lussier
Arizona State University

Given the pronounced tendency in Romantic Studies to ground critical efforts historically and to re-examine past assumptions from that historical prospect, a book exploring the full range of "these [Romantic ] poets" in their "infidel phase" (6) was somewhat inevitable. And while Martin Priestman's Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830 traverses much familiar territory, the book steadfastly realizes its aim "to show how the possibility of being an atheist impacted on a wide range of poets and other writers" (257). Thus, while one can certainly agree with Priestman's initial self-assessment that "the core idea of this book is simple" (1), such modest, self-effacing critical humility, although rare and welcome in any scholarly investigation, hardly does justice to the motives for and results of this detailed re-assessment of one of the "givens" within Romantic thought. Taking the last first, this book strives in every possible way to provide its readers aids for reflection, including the quite useful "Glossary of Theological and Other Terms" (whose entries ranges from "alchemy" to "Zoroastrianism" [258-62]) with which it concludes. Such glossing is necessary to do justice to the spectrum of thinking and writing Priestman engages, and this range is evoked near the conclusion to the work's "Introduction," where the author carefully defines the terms of his engagement. Upon completing this satisfying assessment and re-examination, Priestman amply proves the case that the issues analyzed "touched everybody" (10).

The book positions the multifaceted and prolific writer and scientist Joseph Priestley as a portal of entry into the boundary conditions of the topic, since he responds also to every aspect of emergent and established atheism. Thus, Priestman opens with a detailed analysis of the last generation of writing in the eighteenth century, which includes the attacks on Gibbon, Hume and d'Holbach mounted by Priestley. The work, then, moves into the emergence within British culture of the study of mythologies through Knight's A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, Bryant's Analysis of Ancient Mythology, and Volney's Les Ruines, ou méditations sur les révolutions des empires. Such comparative mythology, although not novel, "made very clear the possible dangers of this rising field of research" (22), and when the comparativist project was extended by "the rapidly expanding field of Orientalist knowledge" (25) fueled by Sir William Jones, Priestley responds by declaiming the "irrational . . . obscenities" (26) of Hinduism when compared to Christianity. By chapter's end, Priestman provides evidence confirming both the range and complexity of atheistic thought, where "distinctions between republicanism, reform agitation, Unitarian Dissent, millenarian enthusiasm, deism and atheism seem to break down . . . as groups leaning towards one or the other combine and interconnect" (43).

The work's second chapter, "Masters of the Universe," re-examines the influence exerted by Lucretius, whose De Rerum Natura "offers a model for many of the poets to be discussed in the rest of the book" (45), and the chapter extends this position by considering the relatively neglected poetry of Sir William Jones, Richard Payne Knight, and Erasmus Darwin. Epicurean philosophy was certainly not new to the English literary tradition, given its influence on empowered Restoration writers like Rochester, Dryden and Evelyn, but Priestman's exploration of this influence in pre-Romantic poets anchors the discussion in then current cultural dynamics. In the case of Jones, "the strongest impact of his Indian-based writings was to establish the idea of a rich, vivid and largely admirable belief system outside of both Christianity and the classical mythology which long habituation had largely drained of its 'alternative' potency" (50). Jones's poetry presents "all world religions and mythological systems as interrelated and as equally worthwhile objects of study" (54), with this worthy subject providing inspiration for the mythic cycle offered later by Robert Southey. Shifting attention to Richard Payne Knight, "the perfect embodiment of the links between libertinism, religious infidelity and political radicalism" (55), Priestman probes how Knight's mapping of phallic potency reconstructs "a fundamental worship of creative energy" that preceded "any notions of anthropomorphic or external deity" (57). The author skillfully identifies several Lucretian strains within Payne's comparativist approach, which articulated an "aesthetic of energy" that clearly casts long shadows across the Romantic poetic enterprise. The third figure considered, Erasmus Darwin, has been often associated with the emergency of a "lyricized science" that impacted virtually every Romantic poet, yet in works like The Economy of Vegetation or The Temple of Nature, Darwin offers "an increasingly organized assault on the biblical account of creation" (62) founded upon material principles and spawns opposition that destroyed his reputation. In articulating the emergent understanding of mythological connections between cultures, the three writers "declare their membership of an elite of initiates, whose insights into the purely provisional nature of religious imagery give them a resemblance to those Brahmin, priest-kings and hieroglyphists their work often discusses" (70). As well, although each author was attacked for their shared comparativist concerns, "all three assume 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" (75).

The continued relevance of poetry to the determination of the sociology of knowledge provides the pivot into a consideration of Blake's peculiar relationship to radical and atheistical thought. Priestman follows E. P. Thompson and Jon Mee into the radical underground within which the poet operated in the 1790s, which included Swedenborgianism, antinomianism, Quaker theological dissent, and political radicalism. Of course, as a result of prior intense scrutiny, the chapter on Blake offers, perhaps, insights most familiar to Romantic scholars, but Priestman does an exemplary job of extracting concepts resident in "comparative mythography" and tracking them as they are "reiterated and elaborated throughout Blake's work" (92). The chapter, then, succeeds in broadening the cultural foundation from which Blake's "libertarian or even libertine insistence on bodily and sexual fulfillment" (97) emerges and contextualizes the poet's deployment of "polytheism as a psychodramatic construction" (98) capable of figuring the spiritual state of ever man.

The fourth chapter continues the application of collective insights gathered in the opening two chapters to individual writers and their social and cultural contexts by examining "The tribes of mind: the Coleridge circle in the 1790s." Like the Blake chapter, the focus on Coleridge moves through the well-documented intellectual vacillations of a poet obsessed with atheism, an obsession that "haunts his poetry" (122), yet Priestman provides a new perspective onto this obsession by initially exploring Anna Laetitia Barbauld's direct Unitarian responses to Coleridge's apparent "infidelity" (128). This "public image . . . of atheism" (132), in contrast to the private grappling of Coleridge with the complex of ideas defining free-thought at century's end, propels the chapter through the Pantisocracy scheme shared with Southey and, once it collapsed, the transference of this desire to the Lake District, where Coleridge encountered deistic and atheistic thought in friendships with Thelwall and Davy. Yet in all these relations, Coleridge's tendency is to attempt to "bring around" (136) infidel writers to a "'Christianizing' progress beyond an initially shared theory of energy as the principle unifying mind and matter" (136). Thus, the crucial insight that Coleridge was "often suspected of atheism, keenly interested in atheism and perhaps drawn to atheists as a way of exploring potential aspects of his own intellectual make-up" provides the shift into a deeper analysis of the role of "Unitarianism" as the Coleridgean "alternative to Paineite deism or Godwinian atheism" (139). With great care, Priestman provides a summation of prior critical efforts addressing the mergence of German philosophy, Platonic idealism, Spinoza and pantheistic commitment in Coleridge's developing philosophy and how such strains interrelate in "the idea that in the act of creation the poet can reduplicate the 'infinite mind', of which he can become a 'monad' or independent projection" (148). Priestman then traces this complex through "The Eolian Harp," "Kubla Khan," "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and other well-known works to provide a "picture" of Coleridge as a writer "torn between the unorthodoxies of pantheism and idealism" (154).

Somewhat inevitably, the work turns to Wordsworth, yet where the Coleridge chapter focuses on strong presences that define the spectrum of his flirtation with atheism, this chapter analytically negotiates the "deliberate omissions of religious affirmation" (157) that recurs in Wordsworth's poetry and prose writing. The first form of silence probed, "Wordsworth's deliberate suppression of many of his own actions and beliefs in the formative 1790s and beyond, through some of literature's most notorious acts of non-publication" (157), engages the degree of separation between radical early works and the "new phase of poetry" following 1797, which "aims consciously at resolution and quietude" (170). To this early self-suppression, perhaps best evoked by The Borderers and A Night on Salisbury Plain, one must add the long-delayed and oft-revised The Prelude, which Priestman considers relative to William Cowper's The Task. The dialogic relationship between the two poems, in the author's view, "exemplifies Wordsworth's customary mixture of sympathetic homage and criticism towards the poem he clearly takes as his model on many occasions" (173), but unlike Cowper, Wordsworth's ambiguous language offers "layers of sublime obfuscation" (177) which avoid "religious preference" even as they synthesize "Lockian material nature and the Lockian psychology of sensory perception" (181). Thus, while a number of radical and atheistical ideas flow through Wordsworth's great suppressed works, the "identification of sublimity with obscurity" offered by Burke provides a mechanism for the linguistic emphasis on "the psychosomatic powers of the imagination" (179), and such an emphasis allows the poet to position "mountains as fundamental to the moral instruction" (182) even as it masks the infidel influences that inform such a position.

With Chapter Six, "Temples of Reason: atheist strategies, 1800-1830," this study returns its attention to broader cultural developments leading "to the disappearance of a shared middle ground" between "orthodox apologists" and "the infidels" that defined earlier manifestations of the atheism debate (184). Unlike the prior period examined in the first half of the book (1780-1800), Priestman forcefully argues that the limitation of publication possibilities offered infidel writers between 1800 and 1830 only four options: "The four possible strategies were: to publish and be damned; to write but not publish; to publish under a pseudonym; and to write with enough of an air of disinterested scholarship to avoid prosecution" (184). Turning immediately to William Paley's Natural Theology, Priestman finds "the justification for the whole book" (185) in Paley's "common-sense" argument from design and his critique of Darwinian "evolutionism" (188). Against this apologist position Priestman positions Richard Carlile's Address to Men of Science, which was "written during one of many imprisonments for publishing 'blasphemy'" (191), Sir William Drummond's The Oedipus Judaicus, which resulted in the author's "immediate branding . . . as an 'infidel'" (192), and Robert Taylor's The Diegesis; Being a Discovery of the Origins, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity, which resulted in his imprisonment. By providing this spectrum within which atheistical thought was disseminated, Priestman's skills as a writer emerge with power in this section as evinced through the critical insights constructed carefully in earlier chapters (e.g., the leveling tendencies of Orientalism, the drive for a comparative mythology, and the scientific challenges to orthodox theology). While Carlile, Drummond, and Taylor encounter resistance, condemnation, and incarceration, William Godwin's "clearest declarations of atheism" (198), published in 1818 and 1835 avoided prosecution through his "very canny sense of how far it was possible to go in publishing one's actual views, and of the appropriate register in which to do so" (199). As the few writers evoked here suggests, the range of Priestman's critical gaze is the compelling achievement of this work, providing a thorough grounding for the boundary condition of freethinking that confronts Romantic writers and the shifting cultural scene wherein these ideas were modified. Thus, the chapter's closing emphasis on Robert Owen and his influence on the rarely examined writing of Frances Wright and Eliza Sharples adds depth and breadth to the discussion and further provides a transatlantic dimension to the "English" encounter with atheism.

Perhaps the most expected discussion of free thought and atheism occurs in "Pretty paganism: the Shelley generation in the 1810s" (Chapter Seven), yet once again Priestman takes the expected and pushes it into the unexpected. As the author asserts, "Shelley, Byron and Keats all fit easily into almost any definition of infidelism, and actively and unashamedly declare as much" (219). Plunging into Shelley's Queen Mab, the chapter recounts the work's publishing history, which resulted in the imprisonment of the underground printer William Clarke (who published a pirated edition in 1821) and which was republished by Richard Carlile ("who was already in jail" [220]). Of course, the pivotal role Mab plays in Shelley's own personal history and his development as a free-thinking reformer has received considerable past critical attention, but Priestman's systematic linking of the poem's range to that found in Southey and Darwin's poetry is achieved with skill and clarity. As well, when the chapter extends beyond Shelley to the "deist women poets such as Charlotte Smith, Mary Robinson and Mary Tighe" (224) as a prelude to an in-depth consideration of the later poetry, this chapter unveils little-appreciated links where the poetic practices of Shelley and Keats are interrelated with the women writers and later poets as they pursue "a separate realm where passion and the quest for beauty can be played out to their logical extremes away from the political and religious repression of contemporary England" (226). Priestman progresses through the full range of Shelley's poetry, identifying the Southeyan roots of "rural protagonists overthrow[ing] the centres of power in justified rebellion" (228) at work in The Revolt of Islam, tracing the epistemic split in "Mont Blanc" to Shelley's response to the same split in Wordsworth (234-6), and grappling with the problematic presence of Byron in Julian and Maddalo. In this last case, while the poem obfuscates somewhat the poets' differing positions, one can only agree with the author's argument that "whatever his philosophical inconsistencies, however, Byron certainly publicized and made glamorous the stance of the solitary individual somehow ennobled by his exclusion from a Christian order in which he may or may not believe" (238). However, this crystallization of concerns through Byron, via Manfred and Cain, is perhaps the least satisfying section of this otherwise exemplary study, since it provides nothing remarkably new to our understanding of Byronism. Once the work shifts to Keats, however, the book does provide a strong corrective to the critical tendency to read him "as the non-polemical poet par excellence" (244), thereby participating in the revaluation of Keats undertaken by Roe and Cox, among others. Thus, in several works, but most specifically in Endymion and Hyperion, Keats evokes a "sense of perpetual evolution" (251) that reconnects with the diverse threads woven across the entire argument.

In concluding this masterful and detailed re-assessment of a complex of ideas "too easily taken for granted" (253), Priestman rightly suggests that the "honest doubt" evoked by Victorian writers like Tennyson and Charles Darwin "were only the mildest restatements of views and ideas furiously circulated and debated between the 1780s and 1820s" (253), and the amassed evidence proffered achieves the aim of the book by showing "how the possibility of being an atheist impacted on a wide range of poets and other writers" (257). Given the complexity of the topic and the diverse threads woven into its argument, Priestman's Romantic Atheism, written with concision and clarity, provides the best historical foundation yet offered for assessing the impact of 'infidelity' on Romantic praxis and should become a touchstone text for any future engagement with radical thought, politics, and writing in the Romantic period.