Emma Mason

"To feel, is to be fired; / And to believe, Lorenzo! is to feel," cries the narrator of Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742—5: iv. 199—200), directing us to the central preoccupation of eighteenth-century religious poetry: to move the reasoning reader into the emotional experience of faith. In a period suspicious of enthusiastic expression and wherein Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, could declare: "There is no profusion of the ethereal spirit among us," poets like Young sought to supernaturalize the nation by uniting it as a Christian community bound by poetry (Sichel 1901—2: vol. 1, 93). He was not alone in his mission. Many poets of the age fought to spiritualize society by versifying orthodox and free thought; rational and mystical beliefs; private and communal expression; and moral and benevolent codes of practice. Poetry and religion had long been coupled, and the eighteenth century witnessed the two converge in their development. Evangelicalism's progress was recorded in the hymn; nonconformism secured itself to original renderings of scripture in biblical paraphrase; Newtonian imaginings located theology within an interstellar cosmos; and new conceptions of death and the afterlife emerged in the graveyard verses on which Romanticism was built. At the same time, we are almost obliged to agree with Johnson's proclamation that religion is so "habitually interwoven with the whole texture of life" that its associated poetry "cannot be seen as a coherent kind of writing" (Johnson 1906: vol. 1, 130—1). This is not to say that religious poetry resists definition, but that its themes and ideas were deeply absorbed in the minds and hearts of the public; even the illiterate held dear that which emanated from the pulpit.

Believers and nonbelievers alike were constantly confronted with religious poetry, at the very least in the numerous editions and translations of the Bible. Dissenters continued to read Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; and Isaac Watts's and Philip Doddridge's gentle nonconformism generated a modern musical liturgy in which the hymn was reconfigured to stir the emotions as much as the mind. Feeling had always been key to evangelical dissent, an approach to religion that invested in the primacy of the believer's own experience of religion. One of the few Puritan traditions accepted by rational and evangelical dissent alike was acceptance of the heart and affections as the guides of the will and understanding. Rationalists, however, molded the knowledge of the heart into both a religious psychology and a philosophical exploration of what constitutes human nature, whereas evangelicals tended to elevate such knowledge as a way of subverting an increasingly rational and intellectual climate in religious debate. Watts and Doddridge were ideally qualified to manage such deliberation: the former raised in orthodox Calvinism but settling as a moderate; the latter siding with a strain of low Calvinism which opposed both orthodoxy and rational dissent as cold and dry belief-systems. Both agreed on the task of reviving a vital and practical religion, one that stressed the role of feeling in producing moral action. Reason might have allowed the believer to receive, test, and accept revelation; but without feeling, Watts wrote, it was a "poor, dark bewildered thing," unable to grasp knowledge or provide an impetus for good works (Watts 1800: vol. 1, 192).

Watts could make such a claim only because of the continued and profound influence of Milton, whose vehement support for private judgment had rendered Protestantism an infinitely interpretable belief-system (Young 2000). Numerous Anglican and dissenting positions thus splintered further into skepticism, the rejection of revealed religion, and deism. Deism held a particular appeal for the eighteenth century, disseminated by John Toland, whose Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) renounced revealed religion in favor of a natural religion presided over by an unknowable sovereign power or deity. Such free-thinking pushed orthodox Christians into a corner from which theologians like Joseph Butler and William Law turned back to revealed and mystical religion as a defense against reason and rationality. Law in particular was appalled by the interpretative leeway granted by latitudinarian clergy on religious subjects, fueled by the philosophical and scientific advances achieved by Locke and Newton. Their quest for a moral science forged through natural philosophy launched a revolution of thought which constructed a framework for questioning, discussing, and ultimately undermining Christianity. Locke insisted that verse itself was an impractical and useless aspect of education, distrusting poetic and rhetorical thinking as that which muddied simple, biblical religion. However, while for Locke creed, poetics, and tradition cluttered faith, Addison, Charles Gideon, Matthew Prior, and Mark Akenside stood up to defend poetry against his attack as the foundation for orthodox and nonconformist belief and literature alike (Sitter 2001: 137).

Newton sought to tidy up in a different way, arguing that the world and the spaces beyond it functioned together as one scientifically forged and theologically controlled expanse (Morris 1972: 2). His rejection of innate ideas served to release the question of God's existence from empirical debate into the realm of human experience, as Young's Night Thoughts evinces; and yet Law considered Newton's theories unnecessary distractions from true faith founded on God's all-embracing love. In A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728), for example, Law instructed the believer to pray privately, spontaneously, and affectively, but always with a thought for the Christian community of which one was part. His universe was a contest between light and dark, love and hate, rather than something to be rationally or scientifically measured out.

John Wesley was influenced by both rationalism and mysticism, working to achieve a living faith driven by an emphasis on passionate religious experience, but located within Anglicanism. Eighteenth-century evangelicals were fiercely opposed to Protestant free-thinkers, especially when they attempted to undermine the foundations of the Church. In 1772, for example, a group of nonconformist clergy petitioned Parliament for relief from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, an unpopular move with orthodox Anglicans. Opening up a debate over what should and should not be believed fragmented Christians even further, pushing some to turn back to Calvinism and others to reject Trinitarianism altogether in favor of Unitarianism. Developing out of the moderate wing of Presbyterianism, Unitarianism sought to elevate Christ as an exemplary model of Christian love and wisdom, rather than the embodiment of divinity, although its members were notoriously diverse in their beliefs and opinions. They were, however, united by their emotional commitment to philanthropic pursuits, and in this way were part, as were many belief-systems of this period, of a humanitarian religious revival from which Romanticism emerged. This chapter will consider how such a revival developed along the same tracks as poetry, working through, first, contemporary poetics; second, the hymn; third, biblical paraphrase; and finally, the Newtonian, yet still profoundly Christian, "universe" poem.

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