The third in this year’s series of English Literature seminars was delivered by the Centre for the History of the Book’s director, Dr. Tom Mole, on the topic of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s religious reception in Victorian Britain. That authors and poets can be received differently in their own time than in subsequent decades or centuries is a familiar idea for students of literature. But what was immediately surprising and fascinating about Dr. Mole’s lecture was just how extreme he claimed Shelley’s transformation to have been between the Romantic and late Victorian periods. According to Mole, Shelley, in his own time an infamous atheist, was transformed in the Victorian age into a Christian teacher and prophet. Using Shelley and his poetry for their own evangelical purposes, four religious commentators in particular – Clara Lucas Balfour, George Gilfillan, Richard Armstrong and Stopford Brooke – had spread their Christianised idea of Shelley through speeches and public lectures, thus reaching a wide audience of Victorians who were likely unfamiliar with Shelley’s writing.
Dr. Mole went on to describe how the religious commentators had used various rhetorical strategies to make Shelley a more acceptable figure to a religious audience. The commentators excused his atheism by arguing that he had come to his views not through reason, but through mistreatment, oppression and adversity. Shelley’s status as an unbeliever was, they argued, a result of a turbulent upbringing. Shelley was also immature and still in the juvenile phase of his life when he died, so, Balfour argued, would likely have matured and developed a religious conscience had he lived longer. The commentators also minimised the importance of Shelley’s atheism, Mole explained, by praising Shelley’s poetry purely in formalist terms for its melodiousness and musical qualities, thus ignoring and minimising the ideas which the poems contained, and with which they disagreed.
Finally, the commentators took one step further and, rather than just minimising Shelley’s atheism, found ways of denying it altogether. Finding hidden Christian dimensions in his poetry, they worked to separate these from any clear statements of atheism that could be found in his prose. They claimed that Shelley had revealed the true nature of his religious beliefs in his poetry because it was when writing that he had been least conscious of them. That Shelley had proudly proclaimed his atheist status when signing his name on the hotel register at the Vale of Chamonix, for Gilfillan, signified merely ‘the climax of his madness’, Mole explained. For the commentators, though ‘atheist in prose’, Shelley was ‘Christian in poetry’.
Through these strategies, Mole concluded, the commentators managed to present Shelley as not just Christian, but actually as a kind of prophet. They used Shelley’s detachment from organised religion to their advantage. His poetry and therefore he, channelled the essentials of Christianity, without being tainted by connection to corrupt religious establishments. He could ‘command the hearts of those the pulpits did not reach’ and therefore help the commentators in their labours towards a more liberal theology, which believed Christianity was not static but changing, and could benefit from poetic influences. To be more like the poet Shelley, then, was to be more Christian.
In this way Shelley, a renowned atheist in the Romantic period, had become a contributor to liberal theology by 1880. These revelations, Mole argued, can complicate our ideas of Shelley’s reception history in three ways. Firstly, the importance of orality in Shelley’s reception history must be acknowledged, as it was primarily through speech that the four commentators’ ideas reached their audience. Secondly, the commentators’ ideas reveal how truly strange and complex the Victorian understanding of Shelley was. Finally, Matthew Arnold’s notion of Shelley as detached from and exerting little influence over the real world, is revealed to be only one Victorian notion of the poet. There was clearly another Victorian concept of Shelley that allowed him agency, through God and religion, to change and influence people’s minds (though in ways the real Shelley never would have intended). Indeed, Dr. Mole claimed, ending the seminar on an intriguing a note as it began, there would have been some Victorians who only ever encountered the Christian version of Shelley. What, the seminar couldn’t help but make you wonder, would the radical poet and proud atheist have made of this?
Report by Emma Raymond, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture at the University of Edinburgh.