Romanticism as Religion: Beyond the Secularization Narrative in Readings of British Romantic Poetry

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2021

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This dissertation examines the philosophy and poetry of three major British Romantic writers (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth) to contest a popular narrative promulgated by literary scholars and intellectual historians that identifies the Romantic movement as a period of progressive secularization in Western modernity. Whether readers subject secularization to critique, such as Charles Taylor does, or welcome it, as M.H. Abrams does, they alike insist that secularization involves a cultural shift from a transcendent ontology to an immanent one and that Romanticism was essential to this shift. I argue, on the contrary, that Romanticism offers a robustly transcendent ontology and that the failure to recognize this very often results from a reader’s reliance on a limited conceptual framework (a Christianity vs. secularism binary, or, in its broader form, secularism vs. organized religion). Thinking in terms of this dichotomy leads readers to misinterpret and overlook genuinely transcendent (i.e. religious) ideas and dispositions in Romantic writers and, therefore, mischaracterize them as secular. The term “secular” effectively erases alternative forms of religiosity, including what I term "Romantic religion," by tossing idiosyncratic theologies and spiritualities together with genuinely irreligious and immanentist philosophies into one single category defined strictly in terms of negation (i.e. that which is not Christianity/organized religion). This tendency is clearest when readers implicitly synonymize “religion” with Christianity, or “transcendent ontology” with Christianity, or “belief in God” with “belief in patriarchal, personalist monotheism.” When readers inherit philosophical and theological concepts strictly from orthodox Christianity, they overlook novel forms of religiosity found in the Romantic period. For example, a writer’s rejection of personalist monotheism or a writer’s belief in the infinite temporality and/or cyclicity of the universe is mistaken for evidence of atheism (one of the many terms subsumed by “secular”). Treating each author in each chapter, I argue that Coleridge accommodates Romanticism to orthodox Christianity, while Shelley and the young Wordsworth redefine “God” as a transcendent real absolute manifest as the universe/Nature, rather than a man who creates and intervenes in the universe/Nature. To break away from the Christianity vs. secularism framework, I use concepts not only from Christian theology (Coleridge), but also Neoplatonism (all authors), Indian Vedic philosophy (Shelley), and Japanese Zen Buddhism (Wordsworth). I argue that none of these writers ought to be regarded as secular, since none of them reject religion per se. To go even further, Romantic religion not only redefines religiosity such that the experience of God can take place outside the clerical, dogmatic, and institutional boundaries of recognized major world religions (in Romantic religion it occurs within aesthetics and the inner life of feeling) but it can also be absent from the experiences of persons traditionally identified as religious solely on the basis of their creedal assent, outward conformity to a given moral law, and/or participation in the ritual practices of an institution. Nonetheless, as the case of Coleridge shows us, Romantic religion is not mutually exclusive with being religious in a traditional sense since Coleridge retains a Romantic sensibility even after converting to Anglicanism.

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Buckley, Devin J (2021). Romanticism as Religion: Beyond the Secularization Narrative in Readings of British Romantic Poetry. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/23073.

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