Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wielding Natural Methodism: Prospect's Retrospection

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Wielding Natural Methodism: Prospect's Retrospection

Article excerpt

Creativity arises as the result of the intersection of two quite different frames of reference.

--Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (1964) (1)

Francis Jeffrey's indictment of William Wordsworth's The Excursion (1814) as "mystical verbiage of the Methodist pulpit"--"This will never do!"--will itself never do (Jeffrey 463, 465). Charles Lamb's praise of The Excursion as "natural methodisin" provides a fuller, more positive clue to the historical, interdisciplinary resonance of Romanticism (Lamb 2:149). Lamb's two-word mouthful offers versatile insight, bears interpretive weight. This phrase signals how the rival traditions of empiricism and evangelicalism come together to embroider not just Wordsworth's art, but Romantic literature throughout the English-speaking world. A lower-case but not entirely secularized swerve to evangelicalism spins volumes about how 19th-century poetic faith willingly suspends disbelief: the free-wheeling swing of Romantic-era creativity proclaims interconnection.

The combination of "natural" and "methodism" opens a critic's pathway. British empiricism and transatlantic revivalism strike sparks off the literary imagination of a bi-national Romantic Movement. On United Kingdom/United States shores, faith in experience and experiential Faith rise inexorably to converge at the crossroads of an inspired transatlantic artistry, a prime location--and locator--of creative authority. Lamb's label pinpoints a cache of Anglo-American Romantic power. This natural methodism counts as a bi-nationally indigenous, religious as well as philosophical equivalent to M. H. Abrams's magisterially philosophical emphasis on how Continental European Natural Supernaturalism applies to British Romanticism (Abrams, 1971). This arc from the late 17th to the middle 19th century encompasses John Locke (1632-1704), John Wesley (1703-91), Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), and the method of Anglo-American Romanticism. This one curve of that great timeline gives meaning perhaps even to such a spontaneous overflow recollected in tranquility as the signature middle-century question asked by Emily Dickinson (1830-86) as late as 1862: "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" (Poem 365, 1). For the remainder of this segment to draw out the implications of Jeffrey's negative assessment and Lamb's favorable judgment of Wordsworth's poetry is to announce that wielding natural methodism along that arc from high to late Romanticism of the Anglo-American world is the procedure and the concept of this essay.

Jeffrey's already-quoted words of withering condescension come from a Whig to the formerly radical but in 1814 Tory-leaning poet of middle age. Yet these phrases may be conservative in that they reflect Jeffrey's 18th-century premises of literary taste. Jeffrey may disclose a way or three in which The Excursion does not live up to readers' expectations. Without looking for sublime thrills, sincere expression, and inventive swagger, Jeffrey nonetheless detects hot air, disingenuous formula, and crowd-pleasing convention. He assumes disconnection between religion and literature. He believes that Wordsworth could not possibly allude or appeal to Methodism, however subtly, and with however a paradoxical understanding of this simultaneously edgy and mainstream evangelical form, for any poetically proper reason. And throughout all his hostility Jeffrey makes at least one good point. Wordsworth's preachiness (witness the Wanderer) scarcely supports the pillar of art-as-pleasure.

That said, Jeffrey's scathing review grinds an ax (or four) and makes this strangely haughty Whig British Exhibit A among those "cultured despisers" of religion whom German Romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher skewers. Whether Methodism enchants or entrances The Excursion, Jeffrey gets Methodism wrong. The savvy, sense-based reason of ur-Methodist Wesley, like his equally experience-oriented practice of charity, fights shy of mysticism, which, whether interior or otherworldly, elides embodiment, circumstance, the sensate. …

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