Nineteenth-century British poetry famously drew upon religious models for secular ends. As M. H. Abrams argues, William Wordsworth offered a modern counterpart to theodicy by “justif[ying] suffering as the necessary means toward . . . achieved maturity.” Fiction that was ostensibly preoccupied with worldly matters similarly adopted religious paradigms and vocabularies. Pointing out “how much common ground religious and secular literature share,” Barry Qualls shows that Victorian novels addressed “the pilgrim’s query, ‘What is truth?’”1 As these literary critics show, fiction and poetry together reabsorbed preoccupations that before had been specific to theological discourse.
The overlap between religious and secular modes of thought has been a topic of interest in current cultural critiques as well. Works such as William E. Connolly’s Why I am Not a Secularist (2000), Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, and Modernity (2003), and Vincent Pecora’s Secularization and Cultural Criticism (2006) treat the secular as a mutable and internally contradictory set of concepts and practices, which, like religion, deal with suffering, shape attitudes toward the body, and potentially lead to destructive collective formations.2 A prominent recent contribution to this emergent field is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), a comprehensive exploration of the origins and trajectory of secular thought in the West.3 Taylor challenges the commonplace modern narrative that treats the rise of secularity as liberation from irrational delusions. He argues that modern subjects who sought to ascribe meaning to human experience without reference to a transcendent power had to invent new ideologies and myths about human life and its role in the cosmos.
As A Secular Age suggests, to approach the secular as a social construct is to look beyond its claims to rational objectivity and explore how it crafts fulfilling accounts of existence. In this essay, I turn to a Victorian text that offers an early articulation of some of the insights that have come to inform the critical [End Page 511] study of the secular today: Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, which had arguably become “by far the best known and most popular poem in the English language” at the end of the nineteenth century.4 In this poem, FitzGerald imagines a secular experience that resists the reign of reason. Musing on transcendental matters cannot help the speaker to make sense of life or his own existence, but neither can rational inquiry. Longing instead for “A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness,” he relates to the material world around him by seeking and embracing pleasure.5 Through the senses of wonder, connectedness, and enchantment inspired by the self’s engagement with the natural world, FitzGerald transfers some of the most fulfilling aspects of religion onto a secular experience.
Discussing sensuality and materialism in the Rubáiyát, some Victorian reviewers drew attention to the poem’s secular orientation.6 A reviewer in National Review, for example, suggested that FitzGerald ably captured the zeitgeist (1899):
there is now some recent change in the mood of the Anglo-Saxon race that has caused this wide response to Omar-in-FitzGerald. It is, one must imagine, that there has been of late a wide and rapid decline in religious belief, so that a vast number of English people are able to understand and largely sympathize with the old rebel against the orthodox Islamite Puritanism of the East.(Holland, p. 649)
Another reviewer claimed that the “inexactness” of FitzGerald’s translation had “allowed for the infusion of a modern element” into the quatrains. “That we have heard a good deal of late about Omar Khayyám is not due . . . to any increase in the number of Persian scholars, but to the fact that the existing translation harmonises with a special phase of modern thought,” commented the reviewer, diligently comparing individual quatrains to their Persian originals (Cadell, p. 650). In these accounts, the Rubáiyát’s popularity is rooted as much in its appeal to present-day skepticism and worldliness as in its successful rendition of an...