The Confessional Imagination
The idea of Romanticism, particularly in its Wordsworthian variety, as a secularization of Protestant piety is no new thing, of course, among critics of the age. But it has not been sufficiently noticed that radical Protestantism itself, particularly the great movements of the Society of Friends and the Methodists, is a first, highly subtle and self-conscious version of exactly this secularizing process. The progressive rejection by the Friends and the Methodists of sacramental and liturgical forms of worship, and their resolute insistence on an inward Kingdom of God in this world, is one of the most crucial and least-examined phases in the transformation of the post-Renaissance English mind. And the distinctive art form of these men, the art of confession founded upon the ideal of Augustinian piety, may well prove to be an even more vital force in the genesis of the Romantic imagination than the philosophy of Locke or Berkeley or the poetry of Cowper or Smart.
In religious confession the central narrative impulse is best described in that favorite term of the confessants themselves, justification. It is possible for the confessant to own his past only because thee plot of his past is a divinely ordained plot manifesting the grace of God; the confessant experiences a sense of being written by the divine Author Himself. Confession, then, is to be distinguished from the less specifically determined art of autobiography, as we find it in Gibbon, Hume, or even—despite the title—the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It is, most centrally, a self-ratifying statement of election. 'Is it better to call upon you, to know you, or to love you?' Augustine asks his God on the first page of the Concessions. What he discovers—and what largely characterizes all Protestant piety since Luther—is that these three acts are indistinguishable from each other. The movement of heart, will, and intellect is, for the true Protestant confessant, a single act of speech; and if it fails to become such, if it fragments itself into 'head-knowledge' as opposed to 'heart-knowledge,' then the confessant knows that something is wrong, that his election is not yet complete. Eschewing the more conservative, sacramentally tinged quest for 'evidences of election' in the outer world (as with Donne or Vanghan), the confessant leaves himself nowhere to look for his proof of salvation except within his own heart or—most crucially—within the language of his own heart. Such English confessants as John Newton, William Nelson, and Silas Told were capable, indeed, of extraordinarily bad writing and sometimes extraordinarily off-putting pietism. But they were also capable of a truly astounding language which arises, surely, from the exigencies of their chosen form—one of the most demanding, murderously self-critical forms of religious writing we know.
The fundamental similarity between the general shape of confession and the concerns and procedures of The Prelude is striking. It becomes even more striking as one realizes that this cannot be a matter of Wordsworth's consciously copying the techniques of the Protestant confessions; rather, the similarity springs from a shared concern, a psychic isomorphism between the radical Protestants and this most radical of poets. Anyone who has taught Wordsworth's poetry to undergraduates has had to face the widespread cliche (or prejudice) about Wordsworrh as 'nature poet.' He is a 'nature poet' only in the most difficult, most contradictory way: the same way in which we might choose to call George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, a 'churchman' or a 'minister.' Wordsworth's attempt to redeem nature—to integrate it with the rhythms of his own consciousness—finally led him to a vision of self-in-nature which all but obscures the conventional imagery and existence of the natural world, turning that world rather into an almost abstract principle of otherness, of alternate resistance and support to the life of the mind, whose sensory qualities are important mainly for their function ing within this eternal give-and-take. It is the same deeply motivated response which the confessants have to sacramental 'evidences of election,' turning them to use only as elements in the inner tension between the mind, the heart, and the memory.