Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era

Colin Jager, The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). xiv + 274 pp (Hdbk., $59.95; ISBN 978-0-8122-3979-9).

Reviewed by
Tristanne Connolly
St. Jerome's University in the University of Waterloo

The prospect of reading Nature as the Book of God in and around the Romantic period immediately calls up both the precise, “rational religion” of the eighteenth century (how much can be known of the true God without Revelation?) and the vague, evocative pantheism that has traditionally defined high Romanticism. Colin Jager navigates a way between the two, and the topic of design, seemingly only one small detail in the larger relations of theology, philosophy and literature, reveals itself as influentially everywhere, much like the hand of God. Design becomes a deft little needle to embroider the broad fabric to which Jager sets himself, a repatterning of the relation between Romanticism and modern secularism. The project points suggestively toward multiple significances of the concept of design, and ways to rethink Nature and Reason in early and late Romanticism, and in modernity. More explicitly, the book considers how to read religion in Romantic literature where it might seem most elusive, critiques Romantic criticism through its own investments in a certain narrative of modernity, and extrapolates that critique into a revisionary theory of secularization that accounts for the persistence of divine design and human faith.

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

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).

Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination

Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1998. 208pp. $18.95 (Pbk; ISBN: 0-940262-88-6).

Reviewed by
Sheila A. Spector
Independent Scholar

The task of reviewing for a scholarly journal a book intended for a popular audience invites a comparison between what are essentially two completely different genres—the trade book and the scholarly monograph—as well as some speculation about the gap that separates the two. When the book, like Paul Davies's Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination, deals with so-called New Age teachings, the problems are compounded because at least since the Enlightenment, the rationalists dominating intellectual matters in the West have relegated studies of the occult to the outer margins of what has, as a result, become commonly viewed as some sort of pseudo-scholarship. Yet, as the persistent appearance throughout the centuries of books like Davies's suggests, significant numbers of people, even in the rational West, have always been and continue to be attracted to areas of supposedly unenlightened thought, so the question for the reviewer is not whether or not to condemn a popular text for lacking scholarly rigor but, rather, to consider its implications for academics.

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

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.

Robert M. Ryan, The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature

Robert M. Ryan, The Romantic Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature, 1789–1824. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xi + 292pp. $59.95. (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-57008-5).

Reviewed by
Terence Allan Hoagwood
Texas A&M University

This well-written book is an important contribution to studies of romantic-period literature for an unusual combination of reasons. The Romantic Reformation takes for its topics two that have been widely believed to be important as long as there have been studies of romantic-period literature: the writers' treatments of religion, and the question of the writers' religious beliefs (those topics are not the same). This book makes large statements on those topics which are simultaneously very different from received views and very responsibly considered and articulated. In a threatened profession, new books sometimes exhibit a desperate novelty or appeal for interest. Rhetorically overheated books and articles refer to "passion" and "pleasure" more often than formerly. It is still useful to recall the difference between a scholar's interest in the content of an argument and a careerist's interest in sales appeal; few of us would want to resurrect uncritically Arnold's concept of "disinterestedness"—as Jerome McGann has shown, that concept was always polemical and therefore self-contradictory (Social Values and Poetic Acts [Harvard University Press, 1988], 86)—but perhaps all of us do, or can, or should reflect on the difference between scholarly argument and ulterior motives, even in a time of faculty downsizing. In contrast, then, to the sort of book which is actually an ad for its author's own career, The Romantic Reformation displays throughout an integrity of scholarly purpose and a profound respect for its subject matter, voicing honest doubt, for example, rather than histrionics or dogma. While the achieved clarity of this book's prose opens the argument to a readership outside the small circle of specialists, the honesty and restraint of its method are exemplary and even, in an age of opportunistic anxiety, moving; so are its advocacy of an open mind, and its consistent and humane sense of the social realities that (outside one's own career) are at stake.

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