Jonathan Roberts (ed.) 2010. Blake. Wordsworth. Religion.
This innovative short book is part of Continuum's New Directions in Religion and Literature series, which, in the words of the editors, "seeks to develop the long- established relationship between the disciplines of religion and literature" (viii). Something not explicitly mentioned in the editors' preface, but evident from many of the books published in the series so far, is an emphasis on experimentation: in form, in genre, even in approach to the topic. Continuum is one of only a few academic publishers to have shown an active and significant interest in the emerging sub-genre of experimental criticism, and Jonathan Roberts' book contributes to this much-needed sense of reinvention in the field, in a number of small but valuable ways.
The book is divided into eight short chapters, each of which endeavours to read just two poems--Blake's "To my friend Butts" and an excerpt from Wordsworth's The Excursion--from a variety of perspectives. The whole book takes as its textual focus a little over 230 lines of verse from these two Romantic poets, but examines them using a number of different critical lenses: biography and history, autobiography, mysticism and psychedelics, theology, and religion. Roberts informs us that he has chosen these poems "first because I think they are great poems, and secondly because although they are both widely anthologized, there has been comparatively little critical work written on them" (4). Thus one of the most attractive aspects of this book is that it takes a familiar critical subject --religious vision in the work of Blake and Wordsworth--and yet succeeds in looking at it afresh, through almost exclusive focus on these two short pieces.
The book's length--or rather relative shortness--sometimes makes each of the brief chapters feel a little too much like part of a whistle-stop tour of its subject: the print is large, and no chapter longer than eighteen pages (many of them are shorter than this), and so occasionally one feels Roberts has just started with his subject and then he is on to the next approach, leaving us wanting more analysis. But this is partly a reflection of Roberts' skill at reading his poets: the chapter on biography and history is a particular tour de force, using a combination of traditional archival research and modern online meteorological databases to calculate the date of composition of Blake's poem. This detective work leads to a discussion of "the hermeneutical relationship between fact and narrative" (30), one that has perhaps never been more timely, given the renewed emphasis on archival scholarship in literary research.
But the most inventive chapter is the one on autobiography, in which Roberts recounts the religious vision he experienced after taking mescaline one summer while a postgraduate student. After reading Blake's poetry while on a camping trip in the Lake District, he underwent a sort of spiritual conversion, seeing the world in Blake's grain of sand, and eternity within an hour; he describes this very personal spiritual memory with a poetic clarity not often found in literary criticism. The relationship between religion, literature, and autobiography is one which other noted critics have started to explore--John Schad's bold and pioneering Someone Called Derrida springs to mind--and Roberts's autobiographical account is eloquent and thought-provoking. As with the rest of the book, Roberts is constantly stepping back from his subject and reflecting on the nature of performing, or attempting to perform, a critical reading upon a literary text, and here he is no different. Personal visionary experiences are relevant, he concludes, not least because that is what the poetry itself is conveying; the application of logic, and logic alone, to such poems can only go so far towards elucidating the literary text.
Given that 'religion' appears in the title of both Roberts' book and the series of which it forms a part, it is worth noting that the chapter on religion is arguably the weakest of the book, or at least the only one which this reviewer found occasion to fault in any serious way. In this chapter, the author explains, "I will argue that a statistical majority of British people identify as having a theistic belief, but simultaneously maintain an outlook that is anti-organizational, anti-ecclesiastical, and rooted in private 'spiritual' experience" (81). Roberts spends a large part of this chapter discussing the contemporary findings concerning religious belief in Britain, quoting the summary of the 2001 census which states that there are "37.3 million people in England and Wales who state their religion as Christian" (81). Proceeding to assess these findings, Roberts suggests that many of these people "prefer to identify as 'spiritual' rather than 'religious', as the former permits a theistic outlook without commitment to the forms of life associated with the latter" (82). But one alternative which Roberts does not mention is that the particular Christian belief of many of those 37.3 million people may be deist rather than theist, which would explain the discrepancy-- which Roberts also refers to--between the number who believe in God and the number who regularly go to church. The matter is not as clear-cut as the setting up of a binary between 'spirituality' and 'religion' would suggest, since deism may not necessarily imply any great spiritual belief in the here-and-now. Blake, for one, attacked deists for this very reason. (Many people who completed the census, I suspect, had not given the matter a great deal of thought, which is one reason why books like Roberts' are welcome for opening up this religious debate and linking it to literary study.) But to devote too much time to this issue is to get side-tracked. The second half of this chapter is as illuminating, as alive to the spiritual complexities of the poetry of Blake and Wordsworth, as the rest of the book.
This book is doubly welcome, not just because it contributes to the much-needed debate concerning the relationship between religion and literary studies, but also because of its fresh and original approach to the subject. Furthermore, with the inclusion of an autobiographical narrative, Roberts encourages us to question some of the long- held notions of literary criticism: the supposed objectivity, the attention to fact, the attempts to exclude personal experience from any readings of literary texts. But reading literature is always a personal experience first and foremost, and Roberts' book finds a successful way of acknowledging this, without sacrificing the notion that archival research, close reading of poetry and attention to historical and biographical facts are all integral parts of the same process.
Loughborough University, U.K.
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|Publication:||European English Messenger|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2015|
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