Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age

Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age

Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age

Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age


In Great Britain during the Romantic period, governmental and social structures were becoming more secular as religion was privatized and depoliticized. If the discretionary nature of religious practice permitted spiritual freedom and social differentiation, however, secular arrangements produced new anxieties. Unquiet Things investigates the social and political disorders that arise within modern secular cultures and their expression in works by Jane Austen, Horace Walpole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley among others.

Emphasizing secularism rather than religion as its primary analytic category, Unquiet Things demonstrates that literary writing possesses a distinctive ability to register the discontent that characterizes the mood of secular modernity. Colin Jager places Romantic-era writers within the context of a longer series of transformations begun in the Reformation, and identifies three ways in which romanticism and secularism interact: the melancholic mood brought on by movements of reform, the minoritizing capacity of literature to measure the disturbances produced by new arrangements of state power, and a prospective romantic thinking Jager calls "after the secular." The poems, novels, and letters of the romantic period reveal uneasy traces of the spiritual past, haunted by elements that trouble secular politics; at the same time, they imagine new and more equitable possibilities for the future. In the twenty-first century, Jager contends, we are still living within the terms of the romantic response to secularism, when literature and philosophy first took account of the consequences of modernity.


the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,
Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight” (1798)

I spent my childhood in a picturesque New England village whose architecture, as it happens, bears witness to the argument of this book. On one side of the village green was the town hall, built in 1787, where the community’s business happened: here the selectmen had their offices, from here children graduated to bigger things, and here, every March, the townspeople gathered to complain about taxes, praise the road agent, and pass a budget. Less than a hundred yards away, on the other side of the common, stood the Congregational Church, where God’s business happened: Sunday morning worship, mostly, and the occasional wedding or funeral. Except for Sunday, the church was usually closed. Except for Sunday, the town hall was usually open. As I was growing up, that seemed the right and proper order of things.

But, like many such distinctions, this one has a history.

In the case of my hometown, that history covers the early decades of the nineteenth century. the town’s colonial-era founders, with their roots in England’s Nonconformist and Dissenting communities, had been reluctant to build something that looked like a church. Like the communities nearby, they built a meetinghouse instead—a simple, white rectangular building that could house both God’s business and the world’s business. It is unlikely that those early New England pioneers even made the analytic distinction between what we today call the “religious” and the “secular.”

By the 1820s, however, the increasing size and religious diversity of the village made it desirable to begin drawing some boundaries. It was not clear . . .

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