Superstition, the National Imaginary, and Religious Politics in Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sketches

By Tomko, Michael | Wordsworth Circle, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Superstition, the National Imaginary, and Religious Politics in Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sketches


Tomko, Michael, Wordsworth Circle


Enthusiasm, the individualistic energy derived from radical Protestantism, has become a central critical category for reconsidering what Robert Ryan has termed "romantic religious politics," or the way that Romantic theological diction enacted a "creative and effective engagement in the contemporary religious crisis" with "far-reaching consequences in the political order" (5). Jon Mee reads Wordsworth as harnessing the power of enthusiasm to vitalize his prophetic and poetic vision while also regulating against what he viewed as its religious and political excesses (214-56). Yet enthusiasm only represented part of British post-reformation religious identity, which organized itself around the Anglican ideal of the via media, or middle way between the dangerous extremes of radical enthusiasm and Roman Catholic superstition. For instance, David Hume's 1741 essay "On Superstition and Enthusiasm" denounces the way a superstitious imagination engenders threats from lifeless things and then seeks relief in "ceremonies, observances, mortifications, sacrifices" (4). While Hume saw little redeeming in this primitive and papal power, superstition often remained seductive, especially amid "enthusiastic" revolutionary upheavals. In the American context, architectural historian John Davis has traced the development of what he labels "Catholic envy," a Protestant guilty facination with a Catholic Other's mysterious, embodied, communal aesthetic. A similar ambivalence over superstition structures Wordsworth's Ecclesiastical Sketches (1822), which expresses both Wordsworth's anxiety over the social threat of Catholic Emancipation and his attraction to the remains of Britain's Catholic past.

Begun in 1820 and published in 1822, the Ecclesiastical Sketches addresses the Catholic Question through a historical narrative about church property and the national landscape. During these years, Wordsworth worried about rumors in the newspapers about "the Ministers giving up the Catholic Question--to conciliate new Friends" (MY 2: 566), saw "Roman Catholic concession" as one of "three great domestic questions" along with "liberty of the press" and "Parliamentary reform" (LY 1: 97), and feared that British Catholics were striving "in co-operation with other Dissenters and Infidels" to "overthrow" the "Protestant Establishment" (LY 1: 58). In the prefatory "advertisement," Wordsworth claims that the sonnet series derived from a December 1820 walk to view the site for a new church being built by Wordsworth's patron Lord Lowther, a vehement parliamentary opponent of Catholic Emancipation. The sonnets were to be a "private memorial" of their "feelings" that were "in harmony with the cherishing influences of the scene" that led them to "look back upon past events with wonder and gratitude, and on the future with hope" (137). Wordsworth contrasts this image of equipoise with the unsettling influence of the "Catholic Question, which was agitated in Parliament about that time" (137). Regina Hewitt notes that this connection is not straightforward, that sonnets praising Catholicism outnumber the attacks. This ambiguity, however, should lead one to ask how, rather than if, the Ecclesiastical Sketches, is engaged with the Catholic Question. Wordsworth's ostensibly positive approach to Catholicism attempted to bring the British imagined community back to the political, aesthetic, and spiritual middle way of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. By rearticulating a threatened sense of national identity while signaling the dangers of allowing Catholics back into British civil society, the Ecclesiastical Sketches intervenes in the very issues of national and religious history that Wordsworth saw as the political and social stakes of the Catholic Question.

A focus on the events treated in individual sonnets gives the impression that the Ecclesiastical Sketches is a mere chronology, a history textbook. Yet, this interpretation obscures the strong presence of what Hayden White called the "deep structure" of "emplotment" in the historiographies of nineteenth-century Europe (2, 7). …

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