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).