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The first great Lucretian moment in Britain was the end of the seventeenth century, with Thomas Creech’s 1682 translation as its centrepiece. Perhaps because the impact of this moment was so thoroughly absorbed, no new translation appeared until near the end of the eighteenth century; but at its close four appeared within fourteen years of each other: by John Nott (Book 1 only, 1799), John Mason Good (1805), William Hamilton Drummond (Book 1 only, 1808) and Thomas Busby (1813). These were part of what deserves to be called the second British Lucretian moment, from about 1790 to 1820. The exceptionally turbulent period normally tagged with the simplifying label ‘Romantic’ was marked not only by its partial attempts to transcend the aims of Enlightenment rationalism, but also by many efforts to bring those aims about. In this spirit, ‘all that Epicurus and Lucretius have so greatly and convincingly said’ was invoked in justification of the first manifesto for atheistic materialism openly published in Britain, Matthew Turner’s Answer to Dr Priestley’s Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever of 1782. Though not all Romantic Lucretians were such complete unbelievers as Turner, the DRN’s role as a scourge of religious orthodoxy was well understood on both sides of an increasingly acerbic debate.
This religious debate cannot be separated from a political context in which Enlightenment ideas were increasingly associated with the French Revolution, whose broad welcome in 1789 was soon followed by horrified revulsion and the declaration in 1793 of an Anglo-French war which continued almost uninterrupted for twenty-two years. For supporters of the increasingly embattled British Enlightenment, this was partly a civil war in which the embrace of progressive rationalism at home was coming under ever more furious attack as godless, pro-French and unpatriotic.
When Julian Symons published his classic study Bloody Murder in 1972, his forecast of a 'declining market' for straightforward detective fiction seemed reasonable. The once pre-eminent formula of crime, false trails and triumphant solution by a brilliant detective either looked very old-fashioned or had started to be replaced by other sources of interest, such as espionage or psychological suspense. At the time of writing, 2002, things look different. Detection is once more flourishing and, without sacrificing its traditional complement of early-discovered corpses, red herrings and surprise solutions, now enjoys a critical esteem in the 'respectable' marketplace that would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Books have also at least doubled in length: from the 200-odd pages which remained statutory up to the 1970s, many detective novels now weigh in at around 500.
The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction covers British and American crime fiction from the eighteenth century to the end of the twentieth. As well as discussing the detective fiction of writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler, it considers other kinds of fiction where crime plays a substantial part, such as the thriller and spy fiction. It also includes chapters on the treatment of crime in eighteenth-century literature, French and Victorian fiction, women and black detectives, crime on film and TV, police fiction and postmodernist uses of the detective form. The collection, by an international team of established specialists, offers students invaluable reference material including a chronology and guides to further reading. The volume aims to ensure that its readers will be grounded in the history of crime fiction and its critical reception.
Until quite recently, the words 'Cambridge Companion' and 'Crime Fiction' would have seemed mutually exclusive. Crime fiction was certainly written about, but on the assumption that readers and author were already dedicated fans, happy to ponder together the exact chronology of Sherlock Holmes's life-story or the mystery of Dr Watson's Christian name. Where the authors claimed some academic credentials, their love for the genre was owned up to as a guilty pleasure - W. H. Auden called it 'an addiction like tobacco or alcohol' - or juxtaposed to the world of 'proper' culture with tongue a fair way into cheek, as in Dorothy L. Sayers's demonstration that when writing the Poetics, what Aristotle desired 'in his heart of hearts . . . was a good detective story'.
Since the 1960s, however, the presumed barriers between ‘high’ and ‘low’ literature have been progressively dismantled. If only – at first – as indicators of a great many readers’ needs and anxieties, crime texts were increasingly seen as worthy of close analysis, and by now there are thousands of carefully argued, well-researched, elegantly written studies of the crime genre available and awaiting further comment. Like any new development this emergence has a specific history, any given intersection of which is likely to reveal different terminologies as well as different critical preoccupations. Up to the early 1980s, study of the form was still focused mainly on ‘detective’ or ‘mystery’ fiction, and nodded back to the half-serious ‘rules’ which had been drawn up for the genre in the inter-war period and stressed the figure of the detective and the author’s fair handling of clues. This tradition is well discussed in Stephen Knight’s chapter on ‘the Golden Age’ in the present book.
The core idea of this book is simple: to explore the links between the development of explicit atheism in the period 1780—1830 and the simultaneous emergence of much important new poetry. There is no single currently available book which aims to bring home to a reasonably wide readership at once the vigour, flexibility, coherence and popular appeal of anti-religious arguments from the late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth, and the engagement in or response to them of a significant range of the poets of the time. The emergence of declared atheism into common discourse has been traced by such historians of ideas as J. M. Robertson, Iain McCalman and David Berman, the last of whose A History of Atheism in Britain from Hobbes to Russell (1988) dates ‘the birth of avowed atheism’ from 1782. Such histories of thought, however, have had no particular brief to look at poetry as a special kind of discourse and have hence overlooked it except when it transparently overlaps with philosophy or polemic.
In literary studies, conversely, even some of these moments of transparent overlap have tended to be overlooked: either the issue has been avoided in various ways, or treated as obvious, or only related to one or two writers at a time. As a topic, the full-bodied presence of atheism in Romantic literature has been seen either as barely conceivable or as somehow crudely beside the point, in a context where ‘Romantic poetry’ itself still constitutes a kind of religion.
Be it therefore for the future remembered, that in London in the kingdom of England, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-one, a man has publickly declared himself an atheist.
This declaration was made by someone calling himself William Hammon, introducing a pamphlet called Answer to Dr Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever, Part I (1782). An unpacking of some of its context will help to set out the terms on which an ‘atheism debate’ was initiated in Britain in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. First, its authorship: the otherwise unidentified ‘Hammon’ claims to be merely the editor of the main body of the pamphlet, whose anonymous author was subsequently identified as Matthew Turner, a ‘physician at Liverpool: among his friends a professed Atheist’. The situation of a respectable figure known personally as an atheist but unable to put their name to such views in print is one we shall encounter again repeatedly. The murkiness surrounding ‘Hammon’ – whether a pseudonym for Turner or the real (or indeed false) name of someone else publishing his views as a partial cover for their own – is also of a piece with the often crooked routes through which atheist ideas gradually came to be aired at this time.
Romantic Atheism explores the links between English Romantic poetry and the first burst of outspoken atheism in Britain from the 1780s onwards. Martin Priestman examines the work of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats in their most intellectually radical periods, establishing the depth of their engagement with such discourses, and in some cases their active participation. Equal attention is given to less canonical writers: such poet-intellectuals as Erasmus Darwin, Sir William Jones, Richard Payne Knight and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, and controversialists including Holbach, Volney, Paine, Priestley, Godwin, Richard Carlile and Eliza Sharples (these last two in particular representing the close links between punishably outspoken atheism and radical working-class politics). Above all, the book conveys the excitement of Romantic atheism, whose dramatic appeals to new developments in politics, science and comparative mythology lend it a protean energy belied by the common and more recent conception of 'loss of faith'.
Wordsworthian ‘Nature-worship’ is so often assumed to be a harmless expansion of our poetic vocabulary whose absence now seems unthinkable, that we are in danger of forgetting how crucial the substitution of ‘Nature’ for ‘God’ was in atheist discourse. A roll-call of the great founding texts – On the Nature of Things, The System of Nature, The Ruins … to which is added, The Law of Nature, The Temple of Nature – may help us to reposition the coded significance of any heavy stress on this word at a time when the 1793 French constitution had recently been celebrated round ‘a colossal statue of the Goddess Nature, spurting water from her breasts into an ornamental pool, on the site of the Bastille’. At the same time, ‘Nature’ clearly also does have a place in Christian discourse, so long as it is seen as a series of signs of God's handiwork: hence such titles as Paley's Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature. In many of his most striking uses of the word, Wordsworth is simply silent on any such signifying function; one of the greatest difficulties his work presents is in the interpretation of these silences.
Coleridge wrote obsessively about atheism in his prose outpourings and it haunts his poetry, whether in such explicit embodiments as ‘the owlet Atheism’ unable to see the sun in ‘Fears in Solitude’, or in the more subtextual perturbations of his great symbolic poems ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere’. In an understandable oversimplification, this obsession has sometimes been presented as a betrayal of his youthful ‘Jacobinism’, a belated turning to a religiose and German-inspired interest in metaphysics to cover his retreat into political reaction. Hence in Thomas Love Peacock's parodic Nightmare Abbey (1818), the Coleridge-figure Mr Flosky reels from disappointment with the French Revolution to the conclusion that
the overthrow of the feudal fortresses of tyranny and superstition was the greatest calamity that had ever befallen mankind; and that their only hope now was to rake the rubbish together, and rebuild it without any of those loopholes by which the light had originally crept in. To qualify himself for a coadjutor in this laudable task, he plunged into the central opacity of Kantian metaphysics, and lay perdu several years in transcendental darkness, till the common daylight of common sense became intolerable to his eyes.
This neat reversal of Coleridge's image of the sun-blind ‘owlet Atheism’ is not quite accurate, in that he was passionately and ‘metaphysically’ Christian from his most outspokenly radical phase (around 1793 to 1796) to his most conservative; nonetheless, the nature of his Christianity itself changed dramatically, and many of his writings on the subject before and after that change constitute an enthralling catalogue of the positions available at the time that could be charged with atheism, within the psychodrama of self-accusation and self-exculpation staged by a brain exceptionally alert to the resonances of the word.
In identifying the strongest infidel currents in the poetry of Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, I stopped short around 1800. Of course all produced much major work thereafter, but in trying to trace ‘Romantic atheism’ through the poetry of the Romantic period as a whole, it makes sense to home in now on the new generation of poets who emerged in the 1810s, with only an occasional glance at the continuing work of the older generation. Shelley, Byron and Keats all fit easily into almost any definition of infidelism, and actively and unashamedly declared as much. The simplest task of this chapter, then, will be to produce and discuss some of the abundant evidence for this. A somewhat more challenging one will be to try to trace the lines of this infidel development, not just from the earlier poets already discussed but from some others who also deserve a place in the jigsaw, and from or alongside the contemporaneous works and activities of some of the protagonists of the previous chapter.
To begin with some of the abundant evidence: in Shelley's Queen Mab (1813) the spirit of a sleeping young woman relates how her mother took her as a child ‘to see an atheist burned’, forbidding her to weep since he ‘Has said, There is no God’.