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Nancy Easterlin, Wordsworth and the Question of "Romantic Religion"

Friday, December 5, 1997 - 12:28
Nancy Easterlin, Wordsworth and the Question of Romantic Religion. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996. 182 pp. $33.50 (Hdbk; ISBN 0 8387 5309 4).

Reviewed by
Beth Bradburn
Boston College

Nancy Easterlin's Wordsworth and the Question of "Romantic Religion" vividly manifests both the advantages and the pitfalls of an interdisciplinary approach to literature. Easterlin addresses the question of Romantic religion by thinking about religion, and by bringing to bear the cumulative insights of the field known as psychology of religion. She argues persuasively that the psychological study of religious experience may productively rediscribe some important tensions in Romanticism; for example, she points out that it is "the paradoxical discrepancy between religion defined, on the one hand, as affective experience—state of heightened consciousness or intuition of the divine, for example—and, on the other, as organized belief systems that describes the characteristic and manifestly problematic religiousness of romanticism" (29). The tension between individual and social that seems to pervade Romanticism is, in other words, also the paradox of religion.

This recognition opens up a partial insight into the formal project of Romantic poetry. Easterlin contends that religious debates which distinguish spirituality, or subjective religious experience, from ritual and dogma are brought on by the faltering of orthodox beliefs. It is precisely religious orthodoxy, however, that promotes the faith that affirms the authenticity of subjective religious experience. Any effort to validate individual spirituality through poetry actually ends up undermining faith, because "the highest order of religious experience is by definition extraconceptual, and therefore extralinguistic" (49), and because the very project of writing poetry calls attention to the individual human consciousness and cognitive processes at work, thereby weakening the perceived reality of mystical states.

This psychological paradox provides the key to Easterlin's reading of three of Wordsworth's major works. "Tintern Abbey" sets up and expresses the paradox. The Prelude and Ecclesiastical Sonnets both represent efforts to resolve it, The Prelude by "deemphasizing religious experience per se and instead elaborating a monistic conception of reality which is the characteristic result of mystical experience" (47), and Ecclesiastical Sonnets by moving away from the spiritual toward the orthodoxy of ritual and dogma. Easterlin attributes Wordsworth's poetic decline in part to the gradual failure of his conviction that poetry can provide the assurance offered by religious institutions.

This approach works well in the chapter on "Tintern Abbey," which Easterlin insists is generated by a "contingent need to recover, reinterpret, and communicate the value of mystical experience" (64). She argues that several passages are best interpreted, in terms of both language and imagery, as attempts to render a particular type of religious experience; her insight demonstrates a most effective use of interdisciplinary study. Psychologists of religion have a typology of religious experience that literary critics lack; some aspects of "Tintern Abbey" are visible only from the vantage point of another discipline. "Psychology of religion," by the way, is a subfield of the contemporary discipline of cognitive psychology, not of psychoanalysis. Easterlin devotes a large part of her first chapter to distinguishing psychological models from psychoanalytic ones, and her eloquent critique of literary scholars' over reliance on Freudian theory invigorates her crossing of disciplines.

Of course, one problem with an interdisciplinary approach to literary scholarship is that the imported discipline may be emphasized at the expense of literary critical or historical considerations. Wordsworth and the Question of "Romantic Religion" falls into this trap, resulting in a general sense of inadequate historical grounding. Though Easterlin's explication of the psychology of religion is important and interesting, I sometimes felt that I was learning more about William James than about William Wordsworth. Other than the major poetic texts under consideration, there is very little of Wordsworth's other writing, or even other Romantic-era material, quoted or alluded to. While I find plausible the assumption that a neuropsychologically grounded theory of religion has some claim to transhistorical application, Easterlin's speculations about the effects of an unstable religious orthodoxy suffer from the absence of any discussion of how that instability played out both in Wordsworth's life and in the larger historical and cultural context.

Moreover, the entire project of interpreting Wordsworth's poetic trajectory in terms of a move toward religious orthodoxy depends on the unexamined premise that traditional poetic forms have a fairly simple relationship to traditional religious dogma and ritual. Easterlin appears to take it for granted that linguistic features directly represent philosophical concepts, saying, for instance, that "Wordsworth's habit of merging literal and figurative language" (98) is an elaboration of his philosophy of the inseparability of the real and the imaginary. Such assertions are symptomatic of a larger problem with the book; ultimately, Easterlin's application of psychology of religion does little more than rename philosophical and aesthetic tensions to which the Romantics themselves consciously attended. The potential for new insight is realized only in partial and sporadic ways.

Clearly, however, the potential is there; I never lost faith in Easterlin's insistence that what cognitive psychologists now know about religious experience in general may help us understand Romantic religious experience in particular. The book is valuable and instructive for its intelligent effort to work outside psychoanalytic theory; but attempts to rethink the psychological models we use to understand Romanticism must integrate other recent critical insights, particularly those of New Historicism.