Romanticism and Millenarianism
by Tim Fulford (Palgrave) Waiting for the millennium was a
major feature of British society at the end of the 18th century. But how
exactly did this preoccupation shape-and how was it shaped by-the
literature, art and politics of the period we now call Romantic? The
essays in this collection investigate a series of millenarians both
famous and forgotten, from Coleridge to Cowper, Blake to Byron.
Expectation of the millennium, the belief that Christ's second coming and/or an apocalypse would precede the coming of a millennium; millennialism is used to denote the belief in a gradually approaching millennium without preceding apocalypse. It was widespread in British society at the end of the eighteenth century. But how exactly did this expectation shape--and how was it shaped by--the literature, art and politics of the period we now call Romantic? Developing the ground-breaking work of Morton D. Paley, the essays of this collection investigate a series of millenarians both famous and forgotten. Coleridge and Cowper, Blake and Byron are featured; so are the artistic and political subcultures of radical
Studying Millenarianism in Romanticism
No writer or artist dedicated more
genius to restoring sublimity to people, rather than to machines and
institutions, than Blake. And Blake has been the main focus for literary
studies of millenarianism in Romanticism. Northrop Frye, in 1947,
discussed Blake's vision of
The most influential scholar in the area has been Morton D. Paley, whose 1970 book Energy and the Imagination: A Study of the Development of Blake’s Thought was the first to show in detail how central Blake's changing understanding of the apocalypse was to the developing form and style of his work. Paley argued that Blake, "despairing of the revolutionary millennium he had once expected . . . turned to an apocalyptist who saw history as Outside human control" (p. 164). Whereas he had once, like Joseph Priestley, welcomed the American and French revolutions as the millennium occurring within history, and as "eruptions of long-repressed energies, now freed to transform the conditions of life" (p. 161), he adopted, after 1795, "an apocalyptic view promising an other-worldly fulfillment" (p. 164). The Messianic kingdom of peace was not about to be realized in the political convulsions of contemporary society; instead, Paley showed, Blake anticipated a spiritual kingdom in which men would become as angels. For the historical apocalypses of "the Song of Liberty" and America, Blake substituted a "psychological equivalent-regeneration in the individual" (p. 244), a process that echoed the visionary texts of mystics William Law and Jacob Bohme and which Jerome J. McGann was later to highlight in Wordsworth and Coleridge as the Romantic Ideology.
Whether or not Blake's development was characteristic of Romanticism generally remains open to question. It is a fact, however, that Paley’s scholarship reveals considerable affinities between Blake and the path taken by several other seventeenth- and eighteenth-century millenarians. Subsequently, Paley was to demonstrate as much of Coleridge, a demonstration that implies that what many of the so-called Romantics had in common was less a unique ideology than a shared renegotiation of millenarian belief in the light of historical events--a renegotiation that many preachers, politicians and self-appointed prophets also tried to effect at the time. Paley's 1973 article, "William Blake, the Prince of the Hebrews, and the Woman Clothed with the Sun," not only established historical connections between Blake and the followers of Brothers and Southcott, but revealed similarities in the form and style of their writings about the millennium, similarities that, however, throw their differences into sharper relief Blake emerges as a man of his time and place‑part of "a contemporary ferment of ideas about what Jerusalem was or ought to be"--a man whose claims to be a visionary were not exceptional but typical of an artisan culture that produced figures such as William Bryan and John Wright, who left London for the millenarian and secret Society of Avignon, and Joseph Bicheno and Francis Dobbs, who forecast the imminent return of the Jews to Jerusalem. These figures, and others like them, had a literal belief in the coming of a New Jerusalem on earth. Brothers, as Paley showed in his next monograph The Continuing City: William Blakes Jerusalem (1983), even published detailed descriptions and street plans of the millennial city that he thought would shortly be founded.
Morton Paley stands behind the essays in this book, for it is not too much to say that our whole understanding of Romanticism's and millenarianism's relationship is shaped by his work. And so this book honors him for his forty years of pioneering the study of the overlapping cultures of literature, art, and religion in that period from which our contemporary, twenty-first century civilization emerged. Romanticism and Millenarianism builds on Paley's methodology--a historically contextualized examination of genres, styles and figures in literary and artistic works--but uses it to investigate further some areas that Paley opened up for research. In what follows, I outline the investigations pursued by the individual contributors, sketching out some of the arguments and debates that emerge from their work.
Adam Rounce investigates a poetic
oeuvre that influenced both artists and poets.
For Cowper and Coleridge,
Let the axe Strike at the root,
the poison‑tree will fall; And where its venomed exhalations spread
Ruin, and death, and woe, where millions lay Quenching the serpent's
famine, and their bones Bleaching unburied in the putrid blast, A garden
shall arise, in loveliness Surpassing fabled
He is certainly a haunting presence in John Beer's essay. Starting from Paley's work in Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry Beer analyzes the effect of the French Revolution on the Miltonic verse with which Coleridge and Blake prophesied forthcoming apocalypse. He shows how, in abandoning faith that events signified the large‑scale destruction and remaking of heaven and earth, both poets turned to forms of displaced apocalypse and millennium. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Beer concludes, is a masterpiece that emerged from the failure of Coleridge's explicitly millenarian poetry: out of the mental uncertainty that followed the collapse of his prophetic writing came a new, internalized, revelation in which the values that he had hoped would triumph at the millennium were now deposited, ambiguously, in a fictional vision--"His apocalypse, his revelation, like Wordswortlfs in the Alps, was that a poem could be at one and the same time fraught with contradictions, crossing as it did all the major lines of one's discourse, and yet still be possessed of a remarkable unity--the unity, one might say, of its `chant' so that however incomprehensible it might seem once one began asking questions of it, it would remain secure in the wholeness of its appeal to the three qualities he valued most: light and energy and love."
When Robert Southey reviewed "The Rime" he found it to be a Dutch (i.e., nonsensical) attempt at German-style sublimity. This finding was in line with Southey's growing suspicion of all apparently irrational discourses, discourses he had come to equate with religious enthusiasm and revolutionary fanaticism. Tim Fulford examines Southey's developing views, putting his suspicion of millenarianism into the context of colonialism. For Southey, he demonstrates, the millenarianism of Richard Brothers and his followers was an Oriental infection, another licentious import from the empire, symptom of a decadent fashion for all things Eastern. This approach, engaging with the enquiry into imperialism begun by Edward Said, refocuses our view of some aspects of both millenarianism and Orientalism.
The popular discourses that
Southey so disliked were highly significant in Blake's
Self-conscious historicism reached a peak of anxiety in the period in the work of Malthus, concerned as it was to show that its arguments about Taking scripture literally could lead to charges of heresy and madness--as William Blake discovered. Blake's literal approach--his insistence on the reality of the figures he saw in his visions--is analyzed here by G. E. Bentley, Jr. Bentley discusses Blake's "visionary heads," the drawings of historical and eternal figures, including War Tyler, Shakespeare and Satan, whom Blake claimed to have visited him. Bentley suggests that it was precisely Blake's habit of making exact material representations of the spiritual that disconcerted his contemporaries and led to his being taken, like Brothers and Southcott, for a religious lunatic--even by fellow poets such as Southey and Wordsworth who themselves employed millennial figures and claimed prophetic insight. Bentley then completes an extensive survey of the heads, identifying for the first time a missing sketchbook in which many were contained--a lost work that remains to be located.
Blake's literal approach (in the root sense of that adjective) is the subject of Martin Budin's contribution. Blake wrote letters and words--Hebrew and English--all around his engraving of the Laocoon. The result, a composite print, was one in which words became part of the image--not simply an appended text but a feature integral to the visual design. Butlin sees this late development of Blake's work as a culmination of his visionary reorientation of existing religious art, as a "probably unconscious recreation of the emphasis on two rather than three dimensions and the combination of word and pictorial image found in early Christian and Medieval religious art. Word has become image and, insofar as Blake saw himself as a fount of divine wisdom, word and image--God's word--have become God." Bentley and Butlin add to our historical knowledge of the apocalyptic and visionary art that Morton D. Paley categorized as the "apocalyptic sublime"; together, they make Blake the collection's shifting, elusive center. Although the main subject of only three essays, he remains a touchstone in many of the others‑the great visionary so similar to, yet different from, his Romantic and radical peers and acquaintances. Many of the essays here are brought into relationships with each other by their use of Blake as a reference point, even as they recontextualize his work by examining the art and politics of those who surrounded him. Joseph Viscomi, Robert N. Essick and Morris Eaves investigate the materiality of Blake's text, asking what modern media of reproduction tell us about the translatability of Blake's prophecies beyond the physicality of the books that he personally controlled in all their aspects. How does a virtual Blake, available on the world's computer screens, translate his visions at the start of a new millennium?
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