[Part Four of "Religious Revival and the Transformation of English Sensibilities in the Early Ninteeenth Century" © Herbert Schlossberg]

For the present purposes, our interest in the romantic poets is less for the sake of their own convictions than for ascertaining the nature of their influence on English society. In their critique of modern society the Lake poets, in common with so many nineteenth-century critics, tended to idealize the medieval period. The new industrialism they believed carried with it a dehumanization, a loss of many values that the Middle Ages had honored by preserving the religious heritage of Europe. The ramshackle, crowded, and noisome tenements in the modern industrial towns compared badly with what they imagined to be the felicities of the stone cottages of previous centuries. Pride in work well done had given way to shoddy goods sold at the highest possible prices [Chandler, A Dream of Order, 210]. Paradoxically, then, the Lake romantics in opening up to nineteenth-century readers a segment of reality closed by the ideological narrowness of the Enlightenment, at the same time denied their readers the perspective to be afforded by a historical viewpoint less colored by sentimentality and wishful thinking. But withal the tendency to obscure certain aspects of reality, the romantics retained, as their contemporaries the utilitarians did not, the conviction that society could not progress beyond the spiritual level of the populace. "There is no other means whereby nations can be reformed," Southey wrote, "than by that which alone individuals can be regenerated" [Quoted in Roberts, Paternalism, 60]. These poets influenced their society in ways that are literally immeasurable because they were repeated in thousands of anonymous individual hearts. The memoirs of the intellectuals who tell of this influence must be multiplied many times to gain an understanding of the work that was done. When John Stuart Mill descended into a state of severe depression that he feared would never release him, a victim of the dehumanizing Benthamite philosophy in which his father had trained him, Wordsworth lifted him out of it with poetry that acted, as Mill put it, like "medicine" to his soul. At the same time Coleridge delivered him from an atomistic philosophy to a recognition of the organic nature of society [Himmelfarb, Victorian Minds, 118f].

Wordsworth also played a marked role on the Oxford, or Tractarian, movement, and therefore on the religious history of much of the century, through his influence on John Keble. Keble's enormously popular book of devotional poetry, The Christian Year (1827), was inspired largely by Wordsworth's influence, and so was his Lectures on Poetry. When Keble published the latter volume in 1844 it was with a dedication to Wordsworth. [Prickett, Romanticism and Religio, 92-96].

TO WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
TRUE PHILOSOPHER AND INSPIRED POET
WHO BY THE SPECIAL GIFT AND CALLING OF ALMIGHTY GOD
WHETHER HE SANG OF MAN OR OF NATURE
FAILED NOT TO LIFT UP MEN'S HEARTS TO HOLY THINGS
NOR EVER CEASED TO CHAMPION THE CAUSE
OF THE POOR AND SIMPLE
AND SO IN PERILOUS TIMES WAS RAISED UP
TO BE A CHIEF MlNISTER
NOT ONLY OF SWEETEST POETRY
BUT ALSO OF HIGH AND SACRED TRUTH. . .]

The two close friends Wordsworth and Coleridge represent a one-two punch on the English mind for much of the nineteenth century. Wordsworth, as we saw in Mill's testimony, provided a kind of soul-healing in people coming out of a the bleak night of a dehumanized rationalism and needed to be taught that it was legitimate to have and show feelings, while Coleridge's rooting of theology in its historical context anchored it in the realities of collective human experience, much as the Bible did. [I take this analysis from Prickett, 148f.] "Yet in spite of his acknowledged influence on Keble and Newman, it is still all too easy to overlook the enormous influence Wordsworth had on the development of English theology in these years. To some extent this is a matter of kinds of influence. The contrast with Coleridge is instructive. The Coleridge who was important to nineteenth-century thought was Coleridge the metaphysician and theologian, not Coleridge the poet — even though it would be true to say that Coleridge could only have been the massive theological influence he was because he remained first and foremost a poet. Wordsworth's influence, in contrast, is not theoretical at all. His achievement was that he transformed the whole climate of feeling in the first half of the nineteenth century in England. He was not a source of ideas, but he had a very great effect on the emotional structure which produced and nourished those ideas. His influence is pervasive and diffuse rather than concentrated and specific, but the testimony of such temperamental opposites as Mill and Keble is strong evidence of his power over the emotional development of a whole generation. What Wordsworth offered sensitive minds in the 1820s and '30s (in a way that not even Coleridge could) was the affirmation that man was more than a mere biological mechanism: he was a creature of profound and subtle feelings. 'Feelings' became for many Wordsworthians a touchstone of their humanity — a proof of Being. It is easy for the modern reader, outside this emotional climate, to misunderstand the impact of a poem like Simon Lee, which is a poem about feeling. Wordsworth not merely asserted the value of feeling humanity he showed it as an artist, as a poet. His readers could feel the value of feeling. In a vulgarised strain a similar spirit had entered the novel--responsible, alas!, for some of Dickens's weepiest writing, which dates from this period."]

Another Christian poet, the only outstanding one of the Anglican Evangelical party, was William Cowper, whose poems were recited and sung for many decades, indeed up to the present. The young Edward Fitzgerald, future translater of Omar Khayyam, wrote to Thackeray that some of Cowper's poems are more affecting than anything in the language. "...they make me cry" [Quoted in Stephen Prickett, "Romantics and Victorians: from Typology to Symbolism," ch. 5 of Reading the Text, 220].


Victorian Web Overview Religion Introduction Next Section Bibliography

Content last modified 1998