Romantic Writing and Dissenting Religion

Tim Fulford
Nottingham Trent University

Daniel E. White’s excellent study, Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent (Cambridge, 2007), shows all the hallmarks of the New Historicist methodology introduced to Romantic Studies in the 1980s.   Treating literature as a discourse among many discourses that articulated the needs, interests and desires of a specific class at a specific period of class-relations, it assesses poetry and fiction in conjunction with religious tracts, political philosophy, and instructional manuals.   It analyzes texts not for their timeless quality, nor for their expression of their authors’ inner lives, nor for their formal and stylistic innovations.   Rather, it examines them as products of the culture–the social practice–in which they were produced and consumed, in particular the culture of religious dissent from the 1770s to 1800.   White’s interest in Dissent is of a piece with his interest in literature: he is less concerned with expositions of Protestant theological disputes (though these disputes are sketched in where they illuminate aspects of the social history of dissenting sects) and more with charting the history of the cultural forms and social practices that the various dissenting communities developed.   These, as he shows in a carefully nuanced discussion, need differentiation from each other if the characteristic discourses of the writers who emerged from them are to be properly clarified.   Rather than a generic Romanticism, White gives us a series of related but nevertheless significantly different writerly practices best understood as expressions of (or reactions against) the norms of the various dissenting cultures and discourses.   Thus Anna Laetitia Barbauld (née Aikin) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, often termed Unitarian alike, are positioned at different points of a dissenting culture in which Unitarianism was hardly a distinct church, more a persuasion or view held by Christians, many of whom remained within Presbyterian or Baptist congregations.   Here White makes a similar point to that made by Stuart Andrews in his Unitarian Radicalism: Political Impact, 1770-1814 , a book that, like White’s, adds much to our knowledge of the intellectual networks that sustained writers including Robert Southey and William Godwin as well as Barbauld and Coleridge.[1]

White’s book constantly demonstrates his discriminating intelligence: his talent is for understanding the larger significance of small and unspectacular facts.   He begins by discussing Barbauld, arguing that a more precise examination of the religious community in which she was educated and within and for which she wrote reveals that the usual label “Unitarian,” applied to her is misleading to a degree.   Barbauld’s Unitarian associations were of a very different kind to Coleridge’s, for she came out of a Presbyterian community that now prided itself upon openness rather than exclusivity, a community in which Baptists, Independents, and self-avowed Unitarians were included.   Rejecting sectarianism, these non-conformist groups left traces in Barbauld’s work, most notably her emphasis on moral sensibility, particularity, and spontaneity in devotional writing.   Anxious to avoid the vulgar emotional outpourings of Methodism, Barbauld nevertheless aligned religious experience with the feminized trait of sensibility, locating Christian practice in the domestic sphere so as to counteract the tendency of Unitarianism, with its denial of Jesus’s incarnation, to offer worshippers only dry, abstract rationalism.   Barbauld also, White shows, harnessed the spontaneous and experimental qualities of seventeenth-century Puritan preaching for a new latitudinarian age.

For a literary critic–albeit a historicizing one–the acid test of historical research is whether it clarifies the writing of the authors examined (otherwise, why privilege authors above other figures as objects of study?).   White’s teasing out of the different threads that made up the fabric of late eighteenth-century dissenting culture does indeed clarify Barbauld’s writing.   He has too little space to examine much of it in detail but his arguments about the origins of Barbauld’s emphasis on domestic circuits of shared emotion ring true.   White essentially provides a historical explanation, in terms of dissenting culture, of the self-consciously feminine playfulness–combined with pious wonder at nature–that characterizes Barbauld’s poems to Joseph Priestley.   She wanted to lighten up the dry man of science and theological disputant–because to ignore humor, affection, and feeling risked alienating potential believers.   Here White’s analysis provides a historicized context for the poetic practice that Lucy Newlyn brilliantly analyzed in Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception .[2]   It is a pity that White himself had little space to pursue the implications of his argument across a wider range of Barbauld’s texts.

White next deals with Barbauld’s model of literary production–a model of familial collaboration with her brother, the aim being again to temper the dissenters’ reputation for abstract speculation, theological disputation, and a commercialist ethos with the intimate imaginative space of a writing that was centered on the home.   This writing, White contends, had the ideological function of masking the dissenters’ reputed self-interest (their eye to trading prosperity) as disinterested domesticity.   Thus the purpose of her writing paralleled that of the Georgic landscape poem, which, as John Barrell has shown, dissimulated the gentry’s self-interested need to profit from landownership as the disinterested and extensive viewpoint that fitted them to be governors.[3]

A chapter on Godwin charts his movement away from Sandemanian Calvinism and usefully explains the difference between Godwin and other political radicals in the 1790s.   Godwin, White shows, inherited a model of the public sphere based not on collectivism–meetings, marches, petitions and so on–but on the private judgment of individual readers.   He secularized a dissenting model, as he did also the Puritan practice of individual censure, wherein an erring Calvinist is rebuked by other members of his congregation if not by his own conscience.   For Godwin, society was to be changed by “individuals reflecting separately and soberly before coming together in the public sphere to discover both and determine upon actions through ‘candid and unreserved’ rational conversation” (99).

The chapter on Coleridge contributes to the increasing critical recognition that, as White summarizes, “the disinterested persona and public imagined by Coleridge in his political, religious, and poetic writings emerge not from a latent German idealism but from Coleridge’s Unitarian rejection of the habitus of rational dissent, especially with regard to its commercialist nature” (120).   Because dissenters were not allowed full access to a public sphere in which self-interest was mystified through the discussion of opinion and taste in the literary world, they had to generate alternatives to that sphere.   They could not afford to seem disinterested, as those who had access to power pretended to be, because they had to campaign for participation and to protect their commercial interests.   So they instead emphasized collaboration in literary production as a means of cloaking in polite garb the competitive aspects of the commercial economy in which many of them engaged.   Coleridge’s model of “conversation” poetry, White shows, while related to Unitarian practices of collaboration, was nonetheless distinct and indeed contrary to bourgeois dissenting representations of collaborative practice.   Coleridge’s notions of friendship or “philanthropy” reveal a conflicted attempt to forge a non-competitive productive community, one which does not harmonize interest and love but rather effectively transforms self-interest into benevolence within the productive relationship.   Replacing collaboration as practiced and represented by dissenters with very different forms of sociability, Coleridge’s vision of community in the 1790s–from Pantisocracy to the lectures, The Watchman , and the conversation poems–is communist-agrarian, domestic, and Unitarian: patterned after the example of the human Christ, it embodies public discourse between disinterested and property-less individuals in close relations of social affection, in nature, leading to a higher form of communication with a unified God whose voice speaks through all things.   Coleridgean conversation produces an early Romantic public that seeks alternatives to a world of getting and spending, of competition, appropriation, and alienation, and its dissident notions of sociability are therefore deeply uncomfortable with the kinds of collaboration consistent with the bourgeois dissenting response to nonconformity’s simultaneous illegitimacy within the British polity and centrality within the nation’s commercial life (127).   As White reveals, Coleridge attempted to transcend the dissenting response by moving outwards rhetorically towards a non-commercial location in the mind and heart of the poet who intimates the divine, on his imagined audience’s behalf, in his presentation of nature.

White’s discussion of Coleridge is astute but necessarily less original (Coleridge having been so thoroughly analyzed) than his chapter on Southey.   There is extra verve in White’s writing here, as if he is excited by the new pastures afforded by a less-studied author.   And the chapter is excellent.   Beginning with the aphorism “Southey in the 1790s was a kind of dissenter from Dissent,” White makes more sense of Southey’s religious position and its influence on his strikingly original poetry than any previous critic.   He shows that Southey adapted an intellectual Quakerism, without attending Friends’ meetings or adopting their dress.   What attracted him was Quakerism’s fervor (so lacking in Unitarianism) without the superstition/idolatry he found in Catholicism, accompanied by a refusal to enter doctrinal controversy.   The non-conformist alternative to the public sphere of rational dissent “led him to find in Islam material suitable to a Jacobin mythological poem” (154).   That is to say, Thalaba , the defining Romantic/Lake School poem for critic Francis Jeffrey, was the fruit of a non-denominational religious radical who saw in Islam what he found in Quakerism–a challenge to established authority in Church and State that was not disputatious though it was fervent.   It was intuitive and active rather than rational and skeptical.   The poem’s eponymous hero, like Southey himself, had an unshakeable self-righteousness proceeding from inner conviction rather than intellectual argument.

It is fitting that Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent ends with Southey because it is in this final chapter that White most powerfully demonstrates the benefits of his approach–the forensic examination of dissenting cultures enables us to understand for the first time exactly how a new kind of poetry, even one so apparently remote from the politics and theology of Protestant Britain as the Orientalist and Islamist Thalaba , grew out of the possibilities which dissenting culture created and the limitations it imposed.


[1]   Stuart Andrews, Unitarian Radicalism: Political Impact, 1770-1814 (Houndsmill and New York, 2003).

  Lucy Newlyn, Reading, Writing, and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (Oxford, 2000).

[3]   See John Barrell, English Literature in History, 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey (London, 1983).