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The Religion of Art: A Modernist Theme in British Literature, 1885–1925 (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 45, Number 2, Winter 2008
pp. 377-379 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0073

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Judging by its brevity and the size of its typeface, The Religion of Art appears to be aimed at undergraduates and non-specialists. It is handily organized with selected bibliographies at the end of each of the six chapters on Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence. Karl E. Beckson—who has previously published on Wilde, Arthur Symons, Henry Harland, and the fin de siècle culture of the 1890s1—approaches his theme with a pithy and densely packed introduction that outlines the origins and development of the “Religion of Art,” which emerges when art forges an independence from both Church and State. The result is “not only a convention but an identity relying on sacred imagery and rhetoric for aesthetic purposes ‘to evoke the transcendent’: hence, the artist was seen as priest, saint, or visionary” (1). The Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, are identified as “precursors” on account of their “quest for idealization” (1) and proclamation of the poet as priest and “unacknowledged legislator of the World.”2 John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold typify the widespread currency of the Religion of Art in the late nineteenth century. In “The Study of Poetry,” for example, Arnold prophesies that “[t]he future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. . . . most of what now passes with us for religion and philosophy will be replaced by poetry.”3 Walter Pater is cited as an example of the “widespread acceptance” of the Religion of Art in the Aesthetic Movement “by those who had either abandoned their faith or had suffered from unsettling doubt” (2–3). The “Modernist” label in Beckson’s title is therefore justified by this genealogy beginning with German and English Romanticism in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and passing on to French Symbolism and the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century. These are the roots of the Religion of Art in twentieth-century modernism, which, according to Beckson, presented “the challenge of a new visionary culture”: “Many artists sought retreats in private worlds of the imagination, the result of which was an increasingly difficult and obscure art: they hoped for means of transcendence and salvation, a deliverance from both mechanized society and nature’s annihilating effect” (5).

The impact of Beckson’s prologue is diminished somewhat by its compression. On a first reading, his streak through two hundred years of literary history is too quick to absorb fully. He does not give himself the space to tease out the equivocal potential of the “Religion of Art,” which, left unarticulated, proves to be a slippery phrase. He does not, for example, locate the earliest source of the exact phrase, placing instead more emphasis on the emergence of the theme that it signifies.

The book’s structure is chronological, beginning with biblical references in Hardy and ending with the religious imagery of the lapsed Congregationalist Lawrence. In between are essays on Wilde’s paradoxes (“turn[ing] sacred things inside out to make them secular, and secular things inside out to make them sacred”4) and Shaw’s insistence on the “fundamental unity of Church and Theatre”: “The theatre is really the week-day church; and a good play is essentially identical with a church service as a combination of artistic ritual, profession of faith, and sermon. Wherever the theatre is alive, there the church is alive also.”5 Yeats appears to be a crucial link in the theme’s incorporation into the modernist aesthetic. Writing on “William Blake and the Imagination,” Yeats remarks that Blake “announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world he knew; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world we know.”6 This comes from the chapter devoted to Yeats halfway through the book on the affinity between Yeats and Blake in their desire to make art a form of spiritual belief and turn religious ritual into an...



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