- Romanticism, Religion, Secularization
For quite some time, scholarship on the Romantic period has achieved much of its critical force by returning to, and revising, the work of M. H. Abrams. Marjorie Levinson, for instance, finds in Natural Supernaturalism (1971) and other major essays that Abrams's readings of Wordsworth's poetry travel only within the conscious realm of literary production, resulting in totalized versions of works that are inattentive to deeply embedded contradictions. But Levinson also points out how her own focus on those contradictions does not merely oppose Abrams but rather modifies him by way of a "textual intervention" beyond the poetry's "metaphysically preoccupied surface." 1
While in one sense Levinson's modification aims towards historical correction, it seems more like an unhistorical gesture, since her complaint with Abrams is not about the way he does history, but rather with the way that language in general tends to work. In Levinson's work, even while the critique of totalized readings seem to be different from post-structuralist readings of Wordsworth, it ends up being very close to those readings, insofar as it credits [End Page 150] poetic language with the power to mystify, and insofar as it associates a certain trajectory of criticism with an acceptance of mystifications.
The interest in Abrams's work continues in still more recent historicism, although the direction of the criticism is different. Two superb and elegantly argued books on Romanticism and religion, Colin Jager's The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era and Daniel E. White's Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent, are the latest of a whole series of studies that have taken issue with Abrams's account of secularization as it is played out in a variety of philosophical and literary contexts. In particular, they take issue with Abrams's central thesis about secularization as internalization: a process in which the attention of Romantic writing shifts from the supernatural to the natural, the latter of which is united with the mind in a "holy marriage."2 The problem with that argument, both accounts suggest in quite different ways, is that it inaccurately represents Romantic writing as participating in a progressive "internalization of the powers of divinity" through which a new world is founded upon the powers of the mind (Abrams, 55 – 56).
What is different about this response to Abrams is not that it shifts to a new and specific object of inquiry (the history of secularization rather than just history), but rather that it registers a change of theoretical commitment. The problem with Abrams is no longer that he considers literary works in terms that are too metaphysical to aid the cause of historical scholarship; indeed, Jager and White consider the "christological concept" that Levinson believes to be a mystification in Abrams's reading of a poet like Wordsworth to be an effort to grasp precisely what the content of a historical reading might be (8). In other words, the problem with Abrams is not that his history suffers from a delusion perpetrated by Romantic ideology. The problem is that his history is wrong.
Abrams is wrong, both books charge, because he focuses too much on secularization as a philosophical accomplishment rather than as a historical process of differentiation of religious and nonreligious institutions; he regards religion as internalization rather than a highly public and visible feature of literary and cultural life. As I have said, though, Jager and White arrive at these conclusions from quite different directions. Colin Jager's The Book of God analyzes Romantic-period writing from the standpoint of natural theology, considering the positions that poetry and novels assume in relation to arguments about design. In his book, writers from Hume to Wordsworth participate in an ongoing, and never entirely stable, attempt to situate their writing between a teleological commitment to design and inductive reasoning. In many ways, Jager...