Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romantic Religion, Life Writing, and Conversion Narratives

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Romantic Religion, Life Writing, and Conversion Narratives

Article excerpt

Anthony John Harding notes that almost all life-writing raises fundamental questions about human living in the world, but Romantic forms, in particular, attended sympathetically to models that some critics thought unworthy: "This was the idea that Jeffrey and Hazlitt so vehemently resisted: the notion that some barely-literate farmers, quarrymen, or woodsmen, or their wives, widows, and daughters, who had scarcely travelled outside their home parish, might possess 'knowledge' that could benefit a well-read, much-travelled man such as the Solitary, and indeed might make him a useful member of society" (87). Rustic life could provide entertainment, to be sure, but the notion that "a man who has read Voltaire could actually learn something from his rural neighbours" could only be regarded as an outrage. As with Romantic sources of life-writing, 18th century conversion narratives cherished the testimony of the common man or woman because every individual could attest to the transformed life. In this essay, I describe ways that Romantic life-writing imitates 18th century religious conversion narratives, undermines that form by destabilizing the anticipated event of assurance, and establishes a process of religious growth that often defers closure.

Romantic life-writing shares many characteristics with religious autobiography. M. H. Abrams, in what remains the most influential treatment of this theme, compares passages from Augustine and Wordsworth, claiming that Romantic philosophy departs from the traditional Christian emphasis on God, nature, and the soul in at least one significant respect: "The tendency in innovative Romantic thought ... is greatly to diminish, and at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as the prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature, the ego and the non-ego, the self and the not-self, spirit and the other" (91). Richard Brantley finds signs of evangelical spirituality and covenantal relationships throughout The Prelude, and he claims that Book IV, in particular, presents "an intense and concentrated period of spiritual development," "epiphanal interventions," and a "confession of need and celebration of grace" (91). Geoffrey Hartman compares Wordsworth's account of Mont Blanc to an Augustinian conversion informed by biblical apocalyptic: "a turning about of the mind as from one belief to its opposite, and a turning ad se ipsum. ... there is an inner necessity to cast out nature, to extirpate everything apparently external to salvation, everything that might stand between the naked self and God, whatever risk in this to the self' (79). Sheila Kearns compares Romantic life writing to earlier forms of autobiography, but counters that the Romantic self lacks the stability of earlier architypes in the genre: "These paradigms are generally drawn from models of spiritual, intellectual, or personal development such as the Christian confession ... [but] the relationship between the subject and the object of autobiography, the self writing and the self written, is not so easily described or defined in any final terms" (19). Daniel Robinson concludes that the authorial act itself indicates an inward change: "[Wordsworth] has learned that composition--his preferred term for 'writing'--is conversion in the act, happening again, over and over. It is renewed life--again and always" (21). Yet few treatments of Romantic life-writing clarify how these texts simultaneously imitated and subverted the primary religious objectives of 18th century conversion narratives.

Conversion narratives proliferated during the evangelical revivals of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. These autobiographical works describe a life bound to sin, depravity, and immoral living before a salvific event results in the transformation of the individual will. John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), for example, relates a life of selfishness and ignorance before unmerited grace accomplishes individual salvation. …

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