Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry
by Morton D. Paley
Romantic Atheism: Poetry and Freethought, 1780-1830
by Martin Priestman
(Cambridge University Press, 1999).
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 21, Spring 2003, pp.103-107)
ACCORDING to Martin Priestman, recent criticism has made a good job of putting the politics back into Romantic poetry, but has failed to extend the same courtesy to ‘the religious debates which so intimately accompanied this politics’. The implication is that a modern readership accustomed to talking about Nature or the Imagination is largely indifferent to matters that were part of the stuff of educated debate in the period. Here, though, rather like a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses on one’s mental doorstep, are two books that insist on talking about religion. They are, as their titles indicate, radically different in subject matter. Both are scholarly, well researched, and critically astute. Both focus on the traditional Magnificent Six male poets, while making efforts to surround them with lesser-known writers in the manner of most recent historical criticism. Yet Priestman’s book aims to relate these poets to the ‘emergence of declared atheism’ towards the end of the eighteenth century, while Morton Paley sets out to reveal their indebtedness to the Book of Revelation and contemporary eschatology. Reading one book straight after the other is initially, perhaps not surprisingly, a disorientating experience, since much of the time it is the very same texts that are invoked and discussed in relation to two such contrasting bodies of thought. It is only the fact that Priestman does not pretend that the major Romantics are all atheists in the ‘technical’ sense, while Paley is frequently concerned with secularized forms of millennialism, that prevents the two books sliding into parallel critical universes.
Both authors contextualize their discussions of individual poets fully, carefully, and illuminatingly. For Priestman, this involves giving time to the French philosophes, in particular Baron d’Holbach’s Système de la nature, the benchmark of contemporary ‘infidel’ discourse. The often bitterly confrontational religious politics of the 1790s is vividly recreated: Priestman draws heavily here on William Hamilton Reid’s anti-Jacobin The Rise and
Dissolution of the Infidel Societies (1800), in which ‘republicanism, reform agitation, Unitarian Dissent, millenarian enthusiasm, deism and atheism’ are fused improbably in a single underworld of insidious intent. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura is identified as the main classical influence on atheist thought, and Priestman traces its influence on three poet-intellectuals: the Christian deist Sir William Jones, the ‘nominally deistic’ materialist Erasmus Darwin, and the thoroughgoing religious sceptic Richard Payne Knight. All three, interestingly, saw a major role for poetry in communicating truth, renouncing identification with the priestly castes who once kept to themselves the secret of the heuristic nature of religious myths. It is clear that it was at least possible to have a debate, however ill-tempered, on these matters for much of the 1790s, but the outrage generated by Paine’s Age of Reason took away the respectable middle ground of deism between belief and disbelief. A separate chapter explores atheist strategies in the more polarised climate of the period 1800-30, when science, comparative mythology, and political utility made up a formidable arsenal deployed against orthodox religion.
Paley establishes his context tidily and economically in his introduction, helpfully defining the differences between ‘millennialism’ and ‘millenarianism’ and between ‘pre-millennialism’ and ‘post-millennialism’—distinctions that, nevertheless, are said not to be of the greatest importance for the Romantics. Disregarding such academic niceties, the major poets were nonetheless all keenly interested in narratives of ‘apocalyptic expectation and millennial desire’, and proved themselves well grounded in the Biblical texts and interpretations that underlay such themes. Inevitably, Paley deals here with the broad confluence of millenarianism and political radicalism in the early years of the Revolution that has been well explored in recent criticism. This means that his argument abuts Priestman’s in certain places, for instance in the attention both give to Joseph Priestley—a ‘hectically versatile defender of Christianity’ for Priestman, the ‘leading hermeneutist of apocalyptic-historical events’ for Paley. Given the closeness of his topic to that of M. H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism, I was interested to see how Paley would negotiate terms with this major precursor. Oddly, despite an early footnote recording his ‘admiration’ for Abrams’s ‘profoundly learned book’, Paley keeps Abrams very much at arm’s length throughout: the reason seems to be that he objects to Abrams’s celebratory approach to the secularized and internalized forms of millennium he finds characteristic of Romantic literature, but it would have been good to have seen a fuller critical dialogue develop.
Readers of this Bulletin will naturally want to know how each critic assimilates Coleridge to his very distinctive interpretive framework. For Paley, of course, this is plain sailing, since the apocalyptic reading of contemporary events in early poems like ‘Religious Musings’ is a well-laundered theme of Coleridge criticism. For the same reason, there is a slightly weary sense of covering familiar ground, although Paley is especially good at positioning Coleridge within a wider ‘community of discourse’ and elucidating the often
messy publication histories of individual poems. In this chapter, as throughout the book, Paley is fascinated by the ‘shifting ratios of apocalypse and millennium’: the conversation poems are short on apocalypse, but offer ‘a millennium in microcosm’ in the trademark cottaged dell; in ‘Ode to the Departing Year’ apocalypse violently crowds out millennium; while satirical poems like ‘Fire, Famine, and Slaughter’ present the unusual spectacle of what Paley calls the ‘apocalyptic grotesque’. In his later poetry, Paley argues, Coleridge’s application of Revelation to history becomes more figurative than prophetically literal; but in covering such a broad chronological and generic range of the poetry Paley’s own pursuit of millennialist meanings sometimes appears equally figurative.
Turning to Priestman, it is perhaps just as well that he does not claim that Coleridge was an atheist (that would have been a remarkable critical coup), but that his Christian trajectory encompassed positions that were accused of atheist tendencies at the time. Prime among these is Unitarianism, associated as it was with denial of the divinity of Christ, scepticism regarding the afterlife, and pantheistic conceptions of a divine energy coextensive with matter, as well as its equally suspect commitment to political change. Whereas Paley barely mentions Coleridge’s Unitarianism, despite his lengthy discussion of ‘Religious Musings’, for Priestman the latter’s ‘millenarian optimism’ helps to make it ‘his most firmly Unitarian poem’. More challengingly, perhaps, Priestman sketches some parallels between ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’ and the first of Coleridge’s Lectures on Revealed Religion to suggest that the former is a ‘tightly woven allegory’ of a radical’s journey in the 1790s, tortured by ‘the Unitarian dilemma of how far to go in rejecting orthodox Christianity’. In Priestman’s account, the poet embraced Unitarianism as a rational alternative to atheism because of its friendliness to scientific progress, and in particular its ‘“energy”-based model for God’; he disowned it when it came to seem dangerously atheistic itself, only to replace it with forms of ‘consciousness-empowering Platonic idealism’ that had little to do with conventional Christianity and could themselves be bracketed with religious infidelity. It is interesting that, as he struggled to maintain his belief in the ‘one life’ while keeping the ‘owlet Atheism’ at bay, Coleridge appears to have needed the company of confirmed unbelievers whom he might endeavour to convert: William Godwin, John Thelwall, Robert Southey, Humphry Davy. All in all, I found Priestman’s presentation of Coleridge as one ‘suspected of atheism, keenly interested in atheism and perhaps drawn to atheists as a way of exploring potential aspects of his own intellectual make-up; but as emphatically no atheist himself’ opened a refreshing new perspective on his life and work.
I have space to look only briefly at the coverage of other major writers in these two books. I confess to discovering an overpowering need to mow the lawn or clean the cooker whenever I come across another discussion of Blake and Swedenborg, so I was unable to summon much interest in either author’s chapter on Blake, since both major on this relationship. Paley’s discussion,
which makes close reference to individual plates, is very difficult to follow without an illustrated Blake to hand. Blake’s dialogue with Wesley in Milton is one intriguing feature of his analysis, while Priestman demonstrates how the poet’s individual polytheistic world-view mediates an attack on state religion and the power of priestly elites. I was more engaged by Paley’s well-organised treatment of five key moments in Wordsworth’s Prelude that establish different relationships between the apocalyptic and the millennial. He is obviously building here on a rich tradition of criticism, notably the work of Geoffrey Hartman, but his analyses are sharply focused, and this whole important dimension of The Prelude has never been handled with such clarity and concision. Priestman’s Wordsworth, unremarkably, cuts a very different figure: here it is his early hostility to ‘Superstition’s reign’ (‘The Female Vagrant’), his later silences and evasions on matters of religion, and the powerful poetic evidence of his materialism—his ‘refusal to take his eye off the object, because of his profound recognition that there is no elsewhere’—that are highlighted. If we try to come to terms with the fact that this poet, and the poet of liminal vision explored by Paley, are one and the same, then we are closer to reaching an understanding of Wordsworth.
The second generation Romantic poets are lumped together in a single chapter by Priestman, and consequently fare better in Paley’s more expansive account, though the latter’s chapter on Keats is little more than a coda. Of particular interest is Paley’s assessment of Byron’s forays in the territory his book surveys: ‘Darkness’, a haunting post-apocalyptic nightmare which reviewers struggled to fit into conventional categories; Cain, in which Byron uses Cuvier’s catastrophism as ‘scientific confirmation of his deeply held conviction that the millennial was either a fraud or a fantasy’; and Heaven and Earth, a mere ‘disaster scenario’ that fails to come off. Shelley, of course, allows Paley to spread his critical wings, and this chapter gives a full and satisfying account of the apocalyptic energies of Shelley’s poetry, from Queen Mab through to Prometheus Unbound. Few would disagree that the latter poem represents ‘the most extensive treatment of the millennium to be written during the Romantic period’, and Paley does justice to its achievement, although the uniquely utopian figurations of Act IV continue to defy adequate criticism. Priestman’s brisker overview of the ‘infidel poetry’ of the younger Romantics hinges nicely on a reading of ‘Julian and Maddalo’, negotiating as the poem does the differences between Shelley’s ‘intellectual extremism’ and Byron’s ‘more worldly perspective’. Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion is offered as a final example of what has emerged as a familiar trope of atheist literature—the narrator’s visit to the temple of a goddess, which affirms ‘simply by the change of sex the displacement of the God of orthodox religion’.
To conclude, both these books can be warmly recommended. Neither is a particularly easy or entertaining ride, but both offer rewards to the serious reader or student of Romantic literature. Despite feeling irritated by its title (‘romantic atheism’ is a cute piece of marketing, but does it actually mean
anything?), I would suggest that Priestman’s book is the more likely to offer readers an arrestingly new perspective on the period. Nevertheless, each author’s master-theme threatens to become a straitjacket on the literature, and it is perhaps only by reading the two books together, the ‘heaven-ward wing’ of millennial prophecy competing in flight with the ‘owlet Atheism’, that one develops a just appreciation of the religious and anti-religious intensity of Romantic writing.