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

Friday, December 5, 1997 - 08:25
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.

This is therefore a good and useful book, owing to the integrity of its intentions and methods, and also the achieved clarity of its style; as argument, however, it voices implausible conclusions about the religiousity of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Mary Shelley, and even Percy Bysshe Shelley; but the implausibility of these conclusions should not diminish appreciation of its originality, trenchancy, and usefulness. The intelligence of its accounts of the different senses of the word "religion," its deep learning in the historical literature of religion in England (and I suspect that we are here given only the abridged version of Ryan's long view), and its exposition of the social, political, and economic crises that religion symbolized distinguish this new book profoundly from many of those that have previously treated its topics.

Ryan points out that "it is difficult to distinguish between the political and religious aspects of the cultural transformation experienced by English society at the beginning of the nineteenth century"; the vitality of dissenting communities and of millenarianism gave "eschatological resonance to current events . . . during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras" (3). Other scholars—E. P. Thompson, M. H. Abrams, David V. Erdman, Terence Hoagwood, Ian McCalman, John Mee, and others—have argued that the relationship worked the other way: eschatological vocabularies represented the political significance of the Revolution and the war. But Ryan's concern is the relationship between those two discursive sets, sociopolitical change and religious myth.

The introduction states the book's primary thesis: "all the poets [treated in the book] committed themselves resolutely to this work of cultural critique," wherein "the role of religion" is "a dynamic ideology behind social and political action" (4). Ryan writes that all the writers he discusses "dedicate their talents to the subversion or revision of coercive and obscurantist systems of belief" (5). Revolutionaries and reactionaries alike understood that "to discredit Christianity [as Byron does in Cain, e.g.] was to contribute to the destabilization of the British government" (7). The reformation named in the book's title refers to the writers' creative expression of "radical dissatisfaction with the state of public religion in their time" (7); rather than compensatory fantasies about a super-power promising eternal rewards in some other world, Ryan argues, "the Romantic religious agenda was a response to history, to politics, to economics" (8).

The first chapter of The Romantic Reformation discusses "Romanticism's historical milieu," in which "religion was perceived . . . to function as an ideology of liberation rather than one of repression" (10). Ryan characterizes Milton's importance for the romantic-period poets in this context in part by citing Milton's Of Reformation (1641): "'For the property of Truth is, where she is publickly taught, to unyoke and set free the minds and spirits of a Nation first from the thraldom of sin and superstition, after which all honest and legal freedom of civil life cannot be long absent'" (quoted, 16). Ryan summarizes the social and political importance of dissenters, of the Evangelical Revival within the Established Church, and of the Catholic Question; the chapter cites aptly Richard Price, Edmund Burke, Robert Hall (Christianity Consistent with a Love of Freedom, 1791), the Anti-Jacobin Review, works by Leigh Hunt, and anonymous pamphlets, as well as the work of recent historians and critics whose work Ryan knows and acknowledges, though his own book takes different views—e.g., E. P. Thompson, Ian McCalman, John Mee, and many others (though David Worrall's Radical Culture [Wayne State University Press, 1992] is strangely absent). Ryan contends that "the poets' increasing concern with religious matters was not a retreat from social activism; it was an energetic engagement in some of the central public policy debates of the era" (23–24). Though it may seem odd to generalize in that way about "the" poets (surely poets in the period pursued different routes toward and away from religious myths), one infers that Ryan here generalizes a pattern that has long and widely been held to characterize the careers of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Ryan interprets the political force of Evangelicalism and dissent according to the suggestion of Christopher Dawson (Religion and Culture [Sheed and Ward, 1948): "Religion, though it normally exerts a conservative influence on culture, also provides the most dynamic means of social change" (25).

Chapter 2, with its deliberately strange title, "Blake's Orthodoxy," argues that "theologically, in the belief that fallen humanity would finally be saved only through the redemptive intervention of Jesus, Blake's thought was in harmony with that of all orthodox believers" (44). (Because Ryan is admirably alert to this sort of point elsewhere, I will point out that whether such a thought amounts to orthodoxy depends entirely on what Blake might have meant by the word "Jesus.") Pointing out that "the denial of Christ's divinity" was "a criminal offense in Britain until 1813" (48), Ryan admits that Blake's "apparent equation of Christianity with imaginative freedom would seem to rob the faith of all transcendent reference" (54), but then explicates Jerusalem as a narrative on the theme that "the Savior . . . must intervene from a transcendent realm of existence to rescue mankind when the highest human gifts prove inadequate to the effort" (55). "Any effective reformation of the national religion would require a critique so radical that it might look like atheism" (56), but this chapter reads Jerusalem as an allegory of psychological, moral, and spiritual values. As Ryan knows, such allegorical exegesis has among its dangers this one: it is as easy to say and to show that atheism required expressions so cautious that the poem might even look as if it had spiritual meanings. Ryan's chapter does take into account the poem's references and meanings in connection with historical realities of economic inequality, for example the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Ryan finds that Blake's beliefs are consistent with Christian orthodoxy according to the formulation of orthodoxy prevalent at the time.

Chapter 3 points out that writers as different in their beliefs as John Keble and Charles Kingsley agreed in understanding and admiring Wordsworth primarily as a religious poet (80). Ryan observes that "the Excursion was the poem in which Wordsworth most directly addressed the social and economic conditions of his country" (81), and he faults twentieth-century criticism for substituting The Prelude as the main focus of critical attention and for misrepresenting Wordsworth as "a writer alienated from history and the social realities of his day" (81). Narrating Wordsworth's progress out of the Church to the position of "at least a semi-atheist" (Coleridge's phrase), Ryan argues that Wordsworth does not later abandon his radical views, but rather accommodates them to the importance of public religion in the national life.

Ryan suggests that young Wordsworth's naturalism modulated (via pantheism) to a theologically unsettled (and uncommitted) acceptance of the social and political role of the national church. Wordsworth's "willingness specifically to identify what elsewhere he calls Spirit, Life, Presence, etc. with what others call God is a major concession to the requirements of public religious discourse" (99). Ryan reads the Excursion as a dramatic poem that "makes an admirable effort to be true to the entirety of his experience, to the radical humanism and the natural religion he had espoused earlier in his life as well as the Christian faith he had more recently embraced" (101). Ryan's otherwise careful and learned account of intellectual and religious positions stumbles for a moment when, in connection with the character of the Solitary in the Excursion, "skepticism" is treated as if it were the same thing as "repudiation of religion," whereas, as I have pointed out elsewhere, "skepticism" was and is nothing of the kind. The poem's lack of closure represents for Ryan "a dialogue that may be fruitful even if not conclusive" (116)—a good description of philosophical skepticism and likewise Ryan's own cautious and qualified judgments.

Chapter 4 points out the hostility of Byron's contemporary reviewers, including the writers for the British Critic, a journal sponsored by the Church, toward what they perceived as his infidelity; but (in contrast to the arguments presented in previous books on Byron including those by Leslie Marchand, Edward E. Bostetter, Jerome J. McGann,. Robert F. Gleckner, Anne Mellor, and Terence Hoagwood) Ryan contends that "amidst the angry accusations of heresy and blasphemy, few readers seemed able or willing to see that Cain owed its disturbing power not to an abandonment but to a refinement of its author's characteristic ambivalence" (122). Justly, Ryan observes that, despite "a common tendency among Byron scholars to speak as if the poet lived in a continual state of metaphysical anxiety" (124), Byron's writings, in fact, exhibit a "harmonic motion between two opposing intellectual tendencies [isostheneia is the classical term for this oscillation, though Ryan does not say so] whose mutual correction resulted in something much closer to equipoise [epoche is the classical term] than to turmoil" (124). Again, however, a problem with "skepticism" troubles this discussion, when Ryan writes that "neither skepticism nor uncritical belief seemed to him an adequate response to the condition of the universe" (124). Philosophical skepticism is not the denial of any proposition, religious or otherwise; skepticism is not a dogmatic negative but rather an open mind.

A rare scholarly lapse appears when Ryan observes that Byron was "'bred a moderate presbyterian' [Byron's phrase], having loved the Old Testament, which he enjoyed reading with his Calvinist nurse" (126). In fact, Byron was sexually abused by his nurse, Mary (or May) Gray, who succeeded her sister Agnes in the job and who was dismissed when her repeated sexual molestations of the little boy were discovered (Leslie Marchand, Byron: A Biography, Knopf, 1957). Perhaps Byron's perception of reverence for the Bible was affected by its association, in his experience, with the sexual abuse of a child. This possibility calls into question (to say the least) the sentimental picture of the little boy loving to read the Bible with his nurse. Whether in Byron's play "Cain's discomfort expresses Byron's own response to a cosmic order that is imperfect and irrational, but which, nevertheless, is unquestionably the creation of a Divine Being" is a question that I will leave for others to consider (141), as I have elsewhere suggested a very different view of Cain.

Prior to the chapter on Keats in The Romantic Reformation, the most important critical work on Keats and religion was Ryan's previous book, Keats: The Religious Sense (Princeton University Press, 1976), which argues that Keats was a theist (as this book does, too) and articulates the historical context of Keats's religious ideas. In The Romantic Reformation, Ryan writes that for Keats "national religion . . . provided the ideological rationale for subservience to the existing order of power" (153). Trials for blasphemy—Hone's in 1817 and Carlile's in 1819, for example, "both of which Keats followed with close attention and with admiration for the defendants" (153)—characterized the political setting in which "for liberals less eager to risk prosecution and imprisonment, there were subtler ways of impugning the national faith" (153). Ryan argues that "Keats began his poetic career as a devotee of mythology in the Humean and Gibbonesque mode [associating classical mythology with a humane social order and a love of liberty and free speculation], but that he ended it subscribing to the more critical anti-mythological views of the radical deists" (154).

Commenting on Endymion, Ryan observes that "in an ideological milieu where Pan symbolized an alternative social order to the established Christian one, Keats's Pandean festival would inevitably have had a distinctly liberal political resonance" (160)—and this observation places Ryan's book in a positive relation with Nicholas Roe's John Keats and the Culture of Dissent (Clarendon Press, 1997). In Hyperion, "having positioned himself in the vanguard of a ‘grand march of intellect' that had left superstitions like those of Milton behind, Keats tried to make his poem express the forward-looking optimism that the Enlightenment had opposed to Christianity's retrospective emphasis on the fall of man" (166). Keats's views then changed when he came to doubt or reject the promise of immortality and when his "sentiments and language" came to resemble those of Paine's Age of Reason (168). In The Fall of Hyperion "Moneta represents the irrelevance of religious myths and rituals that operate in temples secluded from the suffering world" (174). Ryan concludes that "Keats's system left no room for palpable personal deities, or mediators, or saviors, and the political crisis of autumn 1819 [including the Manchester massacre and the trial of Carlile for blasphemy] reinforced for him the necessity of rejecting all religion but the ‘abstract adoration of the Deity' allowed by the austere piety of Paine's radical faith" (178). Ryan understands well how striking that statement is, how odd is the term "piety" applied to Keats, or to Paine, and how few scholars now working in the field are likely to accept that description.

Ryan's chapter on Frankenstein suggests that "by making a monster the exponent of the religious system that stood in radical ideological opposition to her father's views, [Mary Shelley] set up a curious dialectic by which she was able to call the Godwinian order into question without distinctly affirming the Christian alternative, which functions so ambiguously as to leave its validity in question" (181). In fact, "neither God nor demon has any role to play in this tale of curiosity, pride, and error, in which humanity has only itself to blame and fear" (181). (This reading of Frankenstein via the critique of romantic optimism connects Ryan's book with Anne Mellor's influential Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters [Methuen, 1989]). Though the monster accepts the Christian faith, on his reading of Paradise Lost, "the faith is uniquely irrelevant to him" (184). Mary Shelley's achievement was "to challenge one system [i.e., Enlightenment skepticism] without distinctly affirming the other [religion]" (189).

Ryan's chapter on Shelley admits the implausibility of treating an avowed atheist as a religious reformer, but (citing Henry Crabb Robinson's remarks on Queen Mab and Shelley's own notes to that poem) he suggests that the term "atheist" applied at the time to those who rejected the currently prevailing version of religion, and that Shelley's rejection of all religion expressed "a purer conception of divinity" (195). Ryan interprets "Mont Blanc" as a religious poem reacting to Coleridge's "Hymn Before Sunrise, in the Vale of Chamouni" (which was actually a translation from Fredrika Brun, though Coleridge did not indicate the fact): "Shelley details the brutal, destructive side of the natural phenomena that Coleridge's absent-minded piety attributes placidly to a benevolent deity" (198); "the point of the poem is its two-edged skepticism, its genuine agnosticism" (199). Shelley understood how "the conception of God as a royal divinity assisted the sacralization of the power structure in Europe" (201).

This chapter's reading of Hellas portrays Shelley "representing Christianity as an ideology of liberation" in a way that Ryan finds consistent with the treatment of Christ as a social and political reformer in Shelley's earlier Essay on Christianity (209). The final chorus in Hellas ("The world's great age begins anew") "expresses as much dread of historical recurrence as optimism about renewal," and (in Ryan's view of the poem, but not in mine) "what Jesus offers is the possibility of escape from historical determinism" (217). Ryan writes that "by the time he wrote Hellas, Shelley was in the habit of treating earthly realities as emblematic of higher things" (210). I will mention that others have shown the opposite—that Shelley, like many others, had a way of representing earthly conflicts in mythological form [1]. Ryan acknowledges Shelley's "final repudiation of Christianity" (222), and his chapter on Shelley ends theistically and therefore implausibly but with integrity: "those who labor for the welfare of mankind must deny the very idea of God to prevent its corruption" (223).

The book's "Conclusion" displays briefly but wisely Ryan's informed sense of the literary context of romanticism, pointing out informatively that "the most widely read essayist of the time was not Hazlitt, Hunt, or Lamb, but John Foster, a Calvinist Baptist whose collected essays, published in 1804, ran to eighteen editions in his lifetime" (225). Though I would point out that the journalistic circulation of the work of the romantic-period essayists call such book-based claims into question, because we cannot know how many read Hunt's or Hazlitt's essays in the Examiner, for example, it is instructive to think about Hannah More's novel Cœlebs in Search of a Wife outselling Scott's Waverley (225). More to the book's point, however, are the citations of remarks by F. D. Maurice and John Henry Newman on the spiritual influence of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and other romantic-period writers. By the contemplation of such remarks by such important thinkers, one is reminded of the mutability and fallibility of interpretations. Ryan's conclusion affirms in two ways the value of the religious interest he discerns among these romantic-period writers: social values (Thomas "Merton's orthodoxy resembled Blake's in the powerful witness it bore against war, injustice, and the arrogance of power, including ecclesiastical power" [230]) and liberal humanism: "the Romantics preserved what much of the religious community abandoned, the ideal of freshness of experience, of individual freedom, of imaginative autonomy in matters of the spirit" (232). Whether or not one shares this book's view of these romantic-period writers as believers (and I do not), or even its liberal humanism, this useful book deserves both respect and repeated readings, for its informative and thoughtful narrative of Romanticism and also for the dignity and authenticity of its voice and its vision.

I will end by noticing an important issue to which the book calls attention without ever discussing it explicitly: I refer to the unspoken but guiding assumption that the way to interpret a poem is to try to determine what were the beliefs of the person who wrote it. That is an odd belief about poetry, I am coming to think. Like the personalistic assumptions that once flourished in literary criticism with the blessing of an older school of textual criticism—the concept of a printed text as "the physical record of [the author's] intention"[2]—and like the issues that Ryan's book explores, and like The Romantic Reformation itself, such open questions are likely to be with us for a long time.


1. See Stuart Curran, "The Political Prometheus" (Studies in Romanticism, rpt.), in Spirits of Fire: English Romantic Writers and Contemporary Historical Methods, ed. G. A. Rosso and Daniel P. Watkins, (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990); and on Hellas, see Hoagwood, "Literary Art and Political Justice: Shelley, Godwin, and Mary Hays," in Shelley: Poet and Legislator of the World, ed. Betty T. Bennett and Stuart Curran (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

2. Reiman, "Rogers's Oxford Shelley," in Reiman's Romantic Texts and Contexts (University of Missouri Press, 1987), 43; this essay is a reprint of Reiman's review of The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. 1, ed. Neville Rogers, JEGP 73 (1974): 250–60.