Post-Secular Perspectives on Romantic and Victorian Poetry

Keynote:  Kevin John Hart

Photo of Kevin John Hart
University of Virginia

"Contemplation as Hermeneutic in Hopkins's 'The Windhover'"

This colloquium aims to bring together scholars interested in challenging narratives of progressive secularization in the long nineteenth century, whether or not those narratives follow new historicist and materialist approaches (e.g. McGann, de Man) or humanist approaches (e.g. M.H. Abrams, Earl Wasserman). While humanists like Wasserman often emphasize Romanticism’s spiritual orientation as a movement towards secularizing the theological, scholars like McGann or de Man hope to evacuate the religious vestiges that Wasserman celebrates in secular form, but all alike employ the narrative of progressive secularization. Nonetheless, many Romanticists (e.g. Colin Jager) and Victorianists (e.g. Charles LaPorte) now reject the notion that the “secular” comes simply to replace “religion”—understood primarily as belief in the supernatural or as cognitive affirmation of propositional doctrine. Thinking beyond progressive secularization, we want to examine the long nineteenth century as a period entangled in theological concerns. Rather than rejecting theology or simply translating its concepts into secular terms, we propose that theology might open new modes of inquiry. Instead of using Hume or Locke as a lens, for example, one might use Gregory of Nyssa, Nicholas of Cusa, or Augustine to explore theories of mind and images in writers. More ambitiously, one could situate Romantic or Victorian texts within alternative genealogies of the secular, beginning not at Enlightenment skepticism or even Renaissance humanism, but at contingent theological and social transformations within late medieval Christianity, such as voluntarism, nominalism, and reform. Given these genealogies, Romanticism’s Promethean impulse might appear not as a straightforwardly secularizing hostility toward God but a resistance to God as a voluntarist super-agent. Similarly, Romanticism’s fascination with feeling might register a rejection of the reduction of belief to mere propositional assent. Still further, from the vantage of these new lenses and genealogies, the Romantic and Victorian replacement of religion with art might not simply betoken doubt about religious doctrines but rather reveal deeper unease about the very formulation of religion as excarnated belief unhooked from aesthetic form. This colloquium will forge a new approach that reads the long nineteenth century neither as a fall from medieval Christendom nor as a precursor of postmodern liberation but rather as a moment that interrogates many of the hallmarks of secular modernity.


8:30 - 9:00 a.m. – Coffee and light breakfast  

9:00 - 10:30 a.m. – Devin Buckley, “Is There A God in Mont Blanc?”
                                     Alexander Hampton, “A Post-Secular Romanticism: Platonic Metaphysics and the Synthesis of Transcendental Idealism and
                                     Spinozistic Pantheism”

10:45 - 12:15 p.m. – Joseph McQueen, “Liturgical Aestheticism and Secular Excarnation” 
                                     Charles LaPorte, University of Washington, “Is Particularity a Post-Secular Ideal?”

12:30 - 2:00 p.m. – Lunch & Break

2:00 - 3:45 p.m. – Keynote: Kevin Hart, “Contemplation as Hermeneutic in Hopkins's 'The Windhover'"
                                   Respondent: Thomas Pfau        

4:00 - 5:15 p.m. – Plenary Discussion

Photo of Devin Buckley
Duke University

Devin Buckley
"Is There A God In Mont Blanc?"
Given Shelley’s own deliberately provocative self-description as atheist and his own early interest in materialism, the theological content, especially of his more mature works, tends to be obscured. When scholars focus on Shelley’s eventual dissatisfaction with materialism, they portray him as skeptical or idealist. Reading Shelley strictly in terms of materialism, skepticism, or idealism, however, obscures the theological content of his thinking. In this paper, I would like to make a counterintuitive claim: that Shelley actually does believe in God and that his use of Plato does not merely indicate a turn from materialism to humanist ideals, but illustrates Shelley’s attraction to a version of qualified monism in which God is posited, not as a person, but as a transcendent real absolute in which all material reality has its being through participation. Rather than using Platonism to valorize the immanent human mind’s capacity for thinking in ideals, he elevates the human mind to the level of the transcendent real by realizing its possible identification with immaterial reality understood as consciousness itself. 

While his commitment to an idea of an absolute or “the One,” to use neoplatonic terminology, emerges explicitly in his elegy for John Keats, “Adonais,” it has implicit presence in “Mont Blanc,” despite the fact that this poem has traditionally been read as staging a tension between skepticism and idealism. In “Mont Blanc” God appears as “Power,” a word associated directly with the term “God” in Shelley’s Laon and Cythna, since the poem transformed the instances of the term “God” to the term “Power” in the censored version, The Revolt of Islam. Furthermore, in the preface Shelley writes, “The erroneous and degrading idea which men have conceived of a Supreme Being…is spoken against, but not the Supreme Being itself. The belief which some superstitious persons whom I have brought upon the stage entertain of the Deity, as injurious to the character of his benevolence, is widely different from my own.”

Thus, I believe we should take seriously the line in “Mont Blanc”: “The Power is there” as an affirmative statement about the speaker’s experience of God. However, this experience of God does not resemble the God of Christianity, nor is it an identification of material nature with God, since Shelley recoils from a deterministic monism. Nor is it Deism, since Shelley rejects the rationalist premise of Deism that discursive and inferential argumentation can demonstrate God’s existence. Rather, the encounter with God in this poem is more akin to Moses’s encounter with the “back of God” as described by Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses insofar as Shelley portrays God apophatically, as incomprehensible transcendent. Thus, God can only be intuited non-discursively in feeling and aesthetic experience. At the same time, Shelley deviates dramatically from Nyssa, since he considers that consciousness may be identical to God, a belief resonating with some versions of Vedic philosophy in which self recognizes its true self is Brahman (God), Brahman being understood as absolute, totally transcendent, non-discursive (even paradoxical when articulated), incomprehensible, atemporal, aspatial, and impersonal ground of Being distinct from material reality. In short, “Mont Blanc” offers us a curious intersection of Shelley’s Platonic tendency with a Vedic God, the two philosophies being similar in virtue of their qualified monism.

Photo of Alexander Hampton
University of Toronto, Canada

Alexander Hampton
"A Post-Secular Romanticism: Platonic Metaphysics and the Synthesis of Transcendental Idealism and Spinozistic Pantheism" 
The fundamental concern of Romanticism, which brought about its inception, determined its development and set its end, was the need to create a new language for religion. Romanticism was deeply influenced by both post Kantian transcendental idealism and Spinozistic monist pantheism. Yet whilst these were both deeply influential upon the movement, what was at stake for the Romantics was the eclipse of a transcendent realist ontology, a way of conceptualising reality that had been central to the West since Plato. Both Kantianism and Spinozism, despite their mutual opposition, share a more fundamental modern commitment to immanence, set against the metaphysics of realist transcendence. 

To characterise Romanticism in terms of either idealism or pantheism subsumes it, as has often been done, into a wider secularisation narrative, since both pantheism and idealism locate their foundational principles in immanence.  The Romantic insight was to see the crises conditions that characterised the close of the eighteenth century – determinism, materialism, anomie, nihilism – as the result of an immanent form of reason, incapable of transcending its own finite limitations. Three principle figures of early German Romanticism, Schlegel, Hölderlin and Novalis, carried forward this insight by seeking to synthesise both the Kantian and Spinozistic positions by transcending the immanent logic of both. They did so by looking back to the transcendent metaphysics of the Platonic-Christian tradition, and advancing an idea of reason that was expressed not through the limitations of discursive argument and understanding, but through aesthetic expression and feeling. 

What Taylor has termed the ‘immanent frame’ of modern thought, and our present movement beyond the ‘secularisation thesis,’ characterised by thinkers such as Habermas, Milbank and Berger, demands a critical re-evaluation of our own characterisation of modernity, and particularly Romanticism. In the past, reading Romanticism from either Spinoza or Kant forward allowed the movement to be fit within the immanent frame and the trajectory of secularisation, the present state of affairs makes this approach problematic. In re-evaluating Romanticism in this context, we are able to connect it to developments in the history of Western thought, particularly to the rise of nominalist thought that emerged in the late high-middle ages, and which may be seen as culminating in transcendental idealism and monist pantheism. In this light, Romanticism may better be understood as responding to the extreme manifestations of an ever more ascendant immanent frame, and its ideas better explicated in light of classical, even perennial, religious concerns regarding transcendence, immanence, and the relation between the two.

Photo of Joseph McQueen
 Northwest University
                    Kirkland Washington

Joseph McQueen
"Liturgical Aestheticism and Secular Excarnation"
Standard readings of Romantic secularization often rely on the assumption that religion is largely a matter of private belief in supernatural doctrines, and thus, the Romantic re-enchantment of nature appears to draw the otherworldly domain of religion down into the material world. The Romantics naturalize the supernatural. Something of the same simplistic view of secularization appears in criticism that sees Victorian aestheticism’s interest in High Church liturgy as yet another secularizing move toward materiality and away from religion’s true substance: private belief in doctrinal propositions. Such readings, however, elide many historical and theological transformations that divide the natural and supernatural in the first place: the nominalist-voluntarist corrosion of analogical participation, the neo-Thomist isolation of pure nature, the reforming drive to shift religious devotion away from material forms to inward belief, and more. By recalling these elided genealogies, I would suggest that rather than advancing secularization, the Romantics and Victorian aesthetes frequently interrogate its fundamental structures. Indeed, insofar as Romanticism’s vision of enchanted nature and aestheticism’s fascination with liturgical beauty rely on material reality—the material reality of “Sea, and hill, and wood,” on the one hand, and of incense, wafer bread, and liturgical vestments, on the other—they both resist any clean division of matter and spirit, natural and supernatural, the very division by which religion becomes synonymous with excarnated, interior belief. To pursue this larger claim, I focus specifically on how the Victorian aesthetes Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde see liturgical language and form as analogous to aesthetic form. For Pater, especially in his novel Marius the Epicurean, that analogy allows both the literary and the liturgical to operate together, disclosing the body’s sacrality and defending the body’s formal integrity against violence, decay, and death. For Wilde, the analogical connection between liturgy and aesthetics makes liturgical language a model for all language, for liturgical language does not simply imitate reality but instead reshapes—or perhaps even transubstantiates—reality by giving flesh to imaginative concepts.

Photo of Charles LaPorte
University of Washington

Charles LaPorte
"Is Particularity a Post-Secular Ideal?"
It is possible to read the course of academic poetry criticism in English as a longstanding effort to disavow the theological inclinations of earlier critics.  Ironically, this crusade stretches from decade to decade because any given disavowal may soon seem tainted by its own metaphysical pretensions and meet with subsequent disavowals in its turn.  Post-secular and post-"suspicion" modes of interpretation seek among other things to escape from this irony and to find alternative models for understanding literature.  This work asks what happens when we return to theologically-inflected Romantic ideas as positive models for what poetry is and does.  In particular, I take up Gerard Manley Hopkins's uses of Duns Scotus's "Haecceity" (i.e. particularity or "this"-ness) as an interpretative model that better gets at the value of literary art.  I then revisit academic literary history to ask about particularity as a post-secular ideal.