Introduction | A Priestley Polemicist | A Faithful Disbelief  | Mad Shelley | Escaping the Infernal Abode | Kubla Khan

Romantic Atheism and Blasphemy

When we say that the Romantic poets worship nature, we tend to forget that in England during this literary period (1789 - 1836) such a mode of worship was both dangerous and radical due to laws which criminalized it. For much of British Romanticism, the state treats blasphemy and, particularly, atheism, as politically subversive actions, which during the years immediately following the 1789 French revolution, were often punished. The Blasphemy Act of 1698, the Two Acts of 1795 and the Six Acts of 1819 were governmental prescriptive threats under which Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, were writing. Joseph Priestley, a prominent scientist and theologian in the 1780s and 90s, would have called all of them "rational dissenters," individuals who use reason to justify their religious belief or non-belief. Whether Deist, Unitarian, or Atheist, each poet’s deviation from religious norms also represents a political deviation from autocracy toward liberal reform. Therefore, when the state or church charged religious blasphemy or dissent, the implicit accusation was sedition and revolutionary politics.

Perhaps the most explicit endorsement of dissent is Percy Shelley's early philosophical tract, The Necessity of Atheism. Shelley argues that God acts as a substitute for reason and belief in him is the beginning of ignorance and superstition. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's attitudes toward religion, particularly in the 1790s, range from Deism to Unitarianism. Like William Wordsworth, Coleridge sometimes presents two different levels of religious language in his poetry: one, popular orthodoxy; the other, belief systems such as pantheism or the Greek Eleusinian mystery sects (Coleridge's poem Kubla Khan partly alludes to these mystery sects), ancient rituals of religious and political initiation performed at Eleusis in Greece. William Blake, the most devout and orthodox Christian poet of the canonized Romantics, was greatly influenced by the theologian and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg, who emphasized a non-literal interpretation of scripture. Several of Blake's prophetic poems, such as The First Book of Urizen, are characterized by antinomianism, the belief that a new age of direct inspiration to individuals has occurred or is imminent. Byron’s dissent from orthodox religious belief often takes the form of Manicheanism, as in Manfred, which understands opposite forces, such as “dust” and “divinity,” as both equal and necessary. Influenced by Leigh Hunt, a political radical who served a prison sentence for his views, Keats’s conception of mainstream religion is colored by classical Grecian mythology. The sonnet, "Written in disgust of Vulgar Superstition," contains the line, "…wailing ere they go / Into oblivion,” a reference to Christian doctrine which is, for Keats, the same as superstition. The Romantic poets could not help but be blasphemous at this historical moment, since any original and creative work of art breaks with what precedes it and challenges the forces that produce it. Yet each of these poets desired, at one point or another during their careers, a more liberal society founded on republican ideals, and each chose to elicit the ire of the traditional institutions of power, authoritarian church and state. Shelley describes the situation some Romantic poets hope to change: "Many are strong and rich, and would be just, / But live among their suffering fellow-men / As if none felt: they know not what they do." Through their writings they tried to spark universal sympathy and compassion; they tried to make the world feel more than they believed, and so desired men and women to turn toward themselves, rather than church or state, when faced with life’s difficult questions.

Brent Robida

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