Gavin Hopps and Jane Stabler (eds), Romanticism and Religion from William Cowper to Wallace Stevens (Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2006), 262pp. ISBN 0-7546-5570-9; £50 / $99.95 (hb).
This book is an important addition to Ashgate’s Nineteenth Century series, containing critical and theoretical discussion of Romanticism and its relationship with Religion. The editors, Gavin Hopps and Jane Stabler, state at the outset their aim to redress secular criticism of the subject, which has been predominant for several years. Quoting Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology as an example, the introductory essay addresses the problems caused by this secular viewpoint, in that it ‘presupposes a view of the world opposed to the religious’ (p. 1). Examining the work of key Romantic period figures, in what the editors term ‘a “theological turn” in postmodern thought’, the book therefore invites us to rethink general assumptions in light of broader concepts of belief (p. 8).
One of the most thought-provoking comments of the volume is seen in Vincent Newey’s fascinating essay on Cowper, where he writes:
We tend to think of the Romantic age as an upsurge of freedom, as in certain respects it manifestly is, including the diffusion of conventional religious energies into broader causes and purposes; but with Cowper, we are prompted to comprehend it as being no less about quietly and persistently setting controls. (p. 54)
Certainly, when it comes to religion, the evidence of this book shows that issues of control appear relevant to a number of Romantic period writers. This is seen, for example, in Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s anxiety about ‘the spreading Catholic infection’ (p. 77). Catholicism was a major subject of debate and concern within the Romantic period: there were the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780; the influx of priests after the French Revolution; the creation of many Catholic seminaries in England and Ireland; and agitation surrounding the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. It was an area that was discussed by a number of leading writers of the time, including (to name a few) Radcliffe, Maturin, Wordsworth, Scott, and Hazlitt. Yet, as Timothy Webb rightly points out, it is an area that is often marginalised in contemporary writings. His article on ‘Catholic Contagion: Southey, Coleridge and English Anxieties’ admirably addresses this deficit by examining the writers’ concerns on European and Irish Catholicism, in the context of wider political and religious debate. The chapter ‘Sacred Art and Profane Poets’ also engages with this important theme. Here, Jane Stabler highlights the responses of the ‘Shelley circle’ to religious Renaissance art and shows how it is possible to use these reactions to modify ideas ‘about the Promethean heroism of the Romantic creator’ (p. 207).
Almost half the book (six chapters out of fourteen) discusses Byron’s responses to and beliefs about religion, which provides an interesting debate on this popular writer. One of the most compelling is Christine Kenyon Jones essay, which presents the argument that Byron was ‘bi- or multilingual in religious matters’. She argues that this gave him an ‘acute sensitivity to nuances of doctrinal argument, an intense and lifelong interest in religious and theological matters and their effect upon psychology and motivation’ (p. 109). Far from popular perceptions of Byron’s dour Calvinist upbringing, Kenyon Jones correctly highlights that Scottish religion at that time was a multifaceted, pluralistic, and socially complex influence that often engaged with English theological thinking. She also presents new research, which shows that the church the Byrons attended in Aberdeen was ‘the only Church in Scotland where there was an organ’ and where the service was chanted as in English cathedrals (p. 110). While essays such as these add to our knowledge and understanding of Byron’s religious views and influences, the overall balance of the book is compromised by such a heavy-handed examination of one particular writer. This bias is undertaken to the detriment of many key literary figures of Romanticism, who perhaps should have been included but were not, such as Walter Scott to name but one.
A. O. Lovejoy once commented that ‘the offspring with which Romanticism is credited are as strangely assorted as its attributes and its ancestors’, and this book is a prime example of this. It attempts to do many things in its overall structure: it re-examines the relationship between Romanticism and religion; addresses what Hopps and Stabler call the ‘recent attempts to recruit the poet [Byron] for the cause of “radical unbelief” ’ (p. 9); and extends temporal boundaries beyond first-generation Romantics to include Gerald Manley Hopkins and Wallace Stevens. Added to a mix of topics and genres (there are essays on poetry, prose, drama, art, and language), these competing aims make the book hard going at times and are a hindrance to its overall coherence. The book would also have benefited from a clearer explanation of how it defines the term ‘Religion’. This is particularly relevant when the editors admit that ‘[n]ot all the chapters in the collection espouse a religious viewpoint’, but what they contribute is [after appropriating Alan Rawes quotation], a responsive openness to possibilities’ (p. 13). It could be argued that while these chapters are hugely valuable in their own right, they result in the book taking steps towards the blurred boundaries between secular and non-secular readings. Regardless of this, Romanticism and Religion from William Cowper to Wallace Stevens is a worthy contribution to the field of Romantic studies, and will instigate and inspire continued debate on the subject for some time to come.