She asked for my help in studying for her English exam. She is an accountant and does not get poetry. It gave me an opportunity to reacquaint myself with English poets of the 18th and 19th centuries.
This was the era of “Romantic Poetry.” This poetry was not about courtship between men and women but part of an important and often underestimated philosophical and cultural phenomenon called the Romantic Movement. It was a movement focused on nature and emotion. To a large extent, it was a reaction against the Enlightenment with its focus on reason and the rise of science with its emphasis on rational investigation and proof. Romantics did not approach nature to catalogue and investigate it as scientists did. They did not approach nature to exploit it as the capitalists of the Industrial Revolution did. They did not approach nature to see the hand of the Creator God behind it. They approached nature to commune with the divine spirit within nature. The religion of this movement was Deism, which sees God as being part of nature rather than as a conscious Being behind nature.
William Wordsworth was one of the central poets in this movement. He wrote “There is a spirit in the woods” (“Nutting”) and “To her fair works did Nature link the human soul that through me ran” (“Lines Written in Early Spring”). He described “a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts…a motion and a spirit, that impels all thinking things…and rolls through all things” (“Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”).
Matthew Arnold wrote about “The Scholar Gypsy,” a university student who grew tired of the academic rat race and went off into the countryside, where he became a sort of ghostly presence fused with the spirit of nature. In contrast to this seeking of a deeper meaning in nature, Arnold described the “languid doubt” of the nominal Christianity of his day, the empty ritual of the established church. He described Christians as “light half-believers of our casual creeds…who hesitate and falter life away” instead of really living. Most famously, in “Dover Beach,” Arnold described Christian faith as a belief that was receding like an ebb tide: “The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full…But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating.”
The impact of the Romantic Movement is often overlooked and underestimated. It is the foundation of the modern environmental movement. Its ripples can be felt in the charismatic movement in churches, which is strong on emotion and weak on systematic theology. In popular culture, it can be found in the music of John Denver and “the force” in Star Wars.
And yet that is not all that was going on in the 18th and 19th centuries. While the established church was dying, this was also the era of the evangelical revivals and the Great Awakening, which brought tens of millions of people in England and the United States to faith in Jesus and sparked reforms that profoundly changed society for the better.
And there was also the poetry of Robert Browning, particularly “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician.” This long narrative poem is supposedly a letter from a first-century scientist traveling through the Middle East and sending specimens and observations back to his colleague and mentor, Abib. In his travels, Karshish comes across a man who was raised from the dead by a traveling Jewish holy man. We, of course, recognize this man as Lazarus. Having experienced eternity, Lazarus has a profoundly altered understanding; he is almost indifferent to physical danger but highly alert to spiritual danger. In encountering Lazarus, Karshish unexpectedly encounters the reality of God, and it astounds him: “So, the All-Great were the All-Loving too—So through the thunder comes a human voice.”
As we ponder the decline of Christian faith in our own modern Western world, this is a helpful reminder that the tides of philosophy and culture do not all flow in one, inexorable direction. Underneath, there are unseen and unsuspected undercurrents, flowing in ways we cannot predict. God is at work, often in times and ways we do not expect.