During the Romantic period, unique pressures were brought to bear on the Bible, which were to have long-term consequences for how biblical authority would continue to be construed. The scientific “Higher Criticism” was interrogating the Bible’s constituent parts, questioning its authorship and provenance, and breaking biblical narratives into fragments and pericopes. At the same time, from another angle, the Bible was coming to be seen as an exemplary part of World Literature, a text that stood as the fountainhead of literary excellence. The Enlightenment and Romanticism inspired and provoked one another in their treatment of biblical material. Although it is difficult to define the boundaries and periods of Romanticism, for the purposes of this article, and particularly to emphasize the influence of the new forms of Higher Criticism on the Romantics and how they conceptualized the Bible, I shall trace an intellectual genealogy from the writings of the biblical scholars Robert Lowth and Johann Gottfried Herder to the later poets. Although philological and critical studies on the Bible as a piece of ancient “Oriental” literature were part of the common intellectual currency of the period, Lowth and Herder provide the paradigms that inform the idea of the “Bible as literature.”

Defining Romanticism.

Much scholarly ink has been spilled in attempting to define the different religious persuasions, aesthetic philosophies, revolutionary spirits, and literary writings that are captured under the umbrella term “Romanticism.” Indeed, many introductions rehearse these complexities, often citing A. O. Lovejoy’s famous essay (1941) in which he argued that the word itself had been overused to the point of meaninglessness and should be retired. The literary critic René Wellek disagreed with this analysis and proposed three traits that he felt are shared between those European writers that are often termed Romantic: “imagination” for the perspectives on poetry, “nature” for the idea of the world, and “symbol” and “myth” for poetic style (1949b, p. 147). Many more elements are often added: a penchant for fragmentary literary forms, an aversion to Newtonian science as mechanistic, the rise of the subjective self as a sovereign entity, a sense of the sublime poetry of the (Christian) religion, history as progressive development sometimes juxtaposed with an apocalyptic millennialism, and so on.

Even the time span of the “Romantic Period” itself is open to debate: Should we take the period 1789–1832 as definitive, from the French Revolution and William Blake’s publication of Songs of Innocence to the English Parliamentary Reform Bill and the recent deaths of Shelley, Byron, and Keats? Or perhaps the period begins in 1798 with the publication of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, coinciding with the formulation of the Jena Circle? Or should the definitive starting point be placed even later, in 1812, when Byron becomes famous for his narrative poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (see Ferber, 2005)? In this article I take the period as roughly running between revolution and reform (1789–1832) and cite the literature accordingly.

Wellsprings of the Romantic Bible: The Bible as Sacred Literature.

The impetuses of Romanticism are only one side of the coin; Enlightenment thinking brought new pressures to bear on the Bible and its religious and cultural authority. Where the rise of the natural sciences in the seventeenth century had been seen as coterminous with divine writ, eighteenth-century thought pushed further. A proliferation of print material increased the availability of new ideas, such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687), and Denis Diderot and his group of philosophes were working hard on compiling the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, 1751–1772). The progression of enlightened thought would free vast swathes of humanity from their benighted religious and political oppressors with a great cry of Sapere Aude! (Dare to be wise!) from Immanuel Kant in 1784, encapsulating this spirit. But this revolutionary zeal spread over into militant violence. The American and then French Revolution divided opinion across continental Europe, Britain, and America as to the wisdom of a violent uprising that could result in Robespierre’s fanatical “Reign of Terror.” The poets and writers of the period were forced to wrestle with this dual legacy of freedom and terror.

Rationalizing historical-critical work on the Bible had begun in earnest across Europe in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. English Deist critics such as John Toland and Matthew Tindal were translating scripture from original documents and exercising their free-thinking faculties to expose some of the corruptions, contradictions and glosses they found there. The once familiar Bible started to be seen as concealing a textual history behind its writings; for a scholar like Johann Albrecht Bengel, who produced a German New Testament in 1734, mapping the corruptions and variants became a way of reconstructing a lost “original,” a critically acute form of theological time travel. As well as the textual scholarship that began to treat the biblical texts as historically contingent documents, there was also an increasing desire to utilize the literary criticism that had been applied to classical Latin and Greek texts in order to analyze the poetics and literary designs of the biblical material. One scholar’s approach in particular became the paradigm for much of the work that would follow—that of Robert Lowth.

The Bible becomes religious poetry.

Robert Lowth, Bishop of Oxford and, later, Bishop of London, was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford in 1740. Although by necessity hastily prepared (he may have had less than three weeks between his election and the commencement of his lectures), his 1741 Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum (Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, published in English in 1787) are an essential source for defining the Bible as a form of literature, a collection of well-wrought and sublimely poetic texts. For Lowth, accessing, understanding, and appreciating the sacred poetry evident in many biblical texts, and particularly in the Prophets, would allow the inspired reader to be transported and “feel them as a Hebrew, hearing or delivering the same words, at the same time, and in the same country” (2005, p. 56).

Lowth argues that historical scholarship studies those things that have existed within a time-bound purview, but poetry explores those things that are “infinite and universal.” For Lowth, poetry and philosophy share the same ends, poetry taking the winding and pleasant path to the same destination, adorning the philosopher’s truths in such a way that thought becomes an aesthetic pleasure as well as useful insight. However, Lowth is also a well-versed literary critic, and although he sets up an opposition between the Classical poetics of Homer, Pindar, and Horace and argues that Hebrew poetry is from a more sacred origin, his work on discerning the poetics of biblical parallelism positions the Bible as a text whose workings can be laid bare through theoretical understanding. By choosing biblical poetics as the subject of his first lectures as professor of poetry he was, in effect, placing the Bible alongside other “Oriental” and pagan texts, marking a place for nondoctrinal and anti-orthodox appropriation and rewriting of biblical material.

One of Lowth’s key contributions is his celebrated exposition of what he calls “parallelism,” citing the address of Lamech to his wives in Genesis 4:23–24 as his first example:

Hadah and Sillah, hear my voice;Ye wives of Lamech, hearken to my speech:For I have slain a man, because of my wounding;A young man, because of my hurt.If Cain shall be avenged seven times,Certainly Lamech seventy and seven.

According to Lowth, much biblical verse is divided into two halves—parallelism—which are semantically related. In his lectures, he observes that parallelism frequently occurs in Hebrew poetry in synonymous, antithetical, and synthetic forms. Although this systematic index has now been extensively critiqued (e.g., Kugel, 1981), Lowth goes to great lengths to demonstrate more of the subtleties and technicalities of Hebrew poetry, extending his work into examinations of allegory, parable, images from nature, and so on. Through such detailed analysis, however, Lowth is keen to prove that the origins of poetry are in religious enthusiasm and the sublimity of religious experience, be it through Job’s sorrows or Isaiah’s visions. Poetry, in its original form, is essentially religious.

Prophets as poets.

Lowth singles out the biblical prophets for special analysis (treating the books as single-authored entities), arguing that the parallelism in their writing forms an inspired structure where poets merge their own voices with the Voice of God. Although he admits to the ambiguity of the Hebrew word Nabi, explaining that it can mean prophet, poet, or inspired musician, he insists on regularly translating it in Latin as propheta. Thus his analysis of Hebrew poetry becomes a complex fusing of the prophetic and the poetic, a claim that has deep resonance with the poets and writers who read him. In his 1788 translation of Isaiah, Lowth claims this prophet in particular as the preeminent practitioner of sublime poetic style. It is this move that reinvigorates the notion that biblical prophecy is not essentially predictive but is a powerful poetic word that not only interprets the revolutionary signs of the times (something that enthused many Romantic writers, especially Blake) but also can participate in a quasi-divine creative mode of writing. Lowth sets up the style and imaginative perspicuity of the biblical prophet-poets as a model for many Romantics to emulate.

In Lowth’s work, the idea of the sublime poetic is also extended beyond the lyric or ballad into a notion of strong poetic prose. The book of Job is an example of sublime prose, Job’s “violent sorrow,” displaying all the affections and emotions of the soul (see 2005, p. 151). This newly poetic and aestheticized Bible is now to be read not only as a document that is run through with historical difference but as a poetic text where the ineffable resides on another, sublime, level.

Lowth’s Latin Lectures, edited and annotated by the biblical scholar Johann David Michaelis, were published in Göttingen, Germany, in 1758; these were also partially translated into German by C. B. Schmidt in 1793. His translation and commentary on Isaiah, also with extensive notes and additions by Michaelis, was published in German in 1778. The Lectures in particular were to be a major influence on a new generation of German biblical critics and historians such as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and, above all Johann Gottfried Herder, who took Lowth’s work and added a further Romantic twist to the appreciation of biblical poetry.

The “higher criticism” and the spirit of Hebrew poetry.

Johann Gottfried Herder opens his famous Vom Geiste der Ebräischen Poesie (The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry, 1782) with an acknowledgment of his indebtedness to Lowth but suggests that the Englishman had put too much emphasis on the literary technicalities of Hebrew poetry. Herder was concerned with entering the “spirit” of a people, a language, or an age, and the primary means of access was, once again, through a sense of the Bible as poetic literature. To Herder’s mind, because the Bible is poetic, religion is also poetic in form; he introduces the significant word Einfühlung (feeling into) to indicate an imaginative understanding and empathy as a way of entering the world and culture that produced such poetry. Like Lowth, it is through an aesthetic and empathetic understanding of Hebrew poetry that we can gain insight into primitive Hebrew cultures and “what were the objects of their affection and passion, the character of their atmosphere, their skies, the structures of their organs, their dances and their musick” (1833, p. 28).

Common Enlightenment-Romantic notions of the sublime animate Herder’s work, and, again like Lowth, it is the book of Job that gets special attention. As we shall see, William Blake is also attracted to this text and illustrates it with his enigmatic etchings, although his interpretation is quite different from both. Herder reads the book of Job as “the first impressions in relation to the incomprehensible Creator. Power, boundless power, is the attribute, that first fixes the attention of a feeble creature of the earth” (1833, p. 52). Herder’s depiction of the sublime becomes a way of framing the subject’s position within a political and religious system. When Job questions the ways of God, he is answered by a display of God’s overwhelming dominion over the created order. This poetry is not then simply read by a reading subject; this is divine authority mediated through the reading of the poetic Bible—the Bible’s poetry is active upon the sympathies and subjecthood of those who read it.

However, Herder does not simply leave the creative poet in this submissive position but argues that God has granted humankind the powers of language and poetic invention; thus poetry is a participation in the Divine gift. From his extensive studies into the origins of language, poetry, and folk songs, Herder had noted that all languages and cultures identify poets as seer, and thus, as with Lowth, to Herder’s understanding, the Hebrew prophets were inspired to “enthuse” their audience with their visions. But these were not necessarily predictions of future events; as Ian Balfour (2002) has shown, the idea of an especially prophetic writing flourished in British and German Romanticism through the intellectual and political turmoil of the eighteenth century, with the Bible being seen as a mythological and poetic resource to help interpret the signs of the times. This is a powerful extension of poetry’s ability to both interpret and shape reality, be it at the level of consciousness and feeling, of the political order, and of Nature itself.

Between them these scholars (and others working on similar projects) had produced a Bible that had been separated from doctrinal concerns through a dual emphasis; on the one hand, the biblical texts were seen to be of such an antique standing that their historical accuracy was dubious and they were best understood as a complex range of truths hidden in fiction, in sum, as mythological. On the other hand, and with a particular emphasis on Job and the Prophets, one could discern potent poetic voices that could become anti-classical models for the poet who wished to give voice to the Divine in a revolutionary and apocalyptic epoch. Although not always in agreement with the Higher Criticism, with this work on the Bible continuing, Lowth’s “discovery” of parallelism made it possible for poets like Coleridge, and later, Shelley, to think of “poetry” in terms of an intellectual fusion of thought and feeling rather than words arranged on page; the Romanticized Bible provides the locus classicus for such work (Prickett, 1986, p. 118).

The Early Romantics: Poet-Prophets and the Bible.

The reason for our excursion through the formulation of the Higher Criticism and the idea of the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews is to emphasize that critical work on the Bible was widely read in a number of languages and across different continental borders.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge certainly read Lowth, Herder, and J. G. Eichhorn (Herder’s colleague and an “oriental” philologist who coined the term “Higher Criticism”), scribbling furiously against Herder and recommending Eichhorn’s “biblical learning” to his son, Derwent, teaching him “to attach no more than supportable weight to these and such like outward evidences of our holy and spiritual religion” (see Balfour, 2002, p. 115).

However, Coleridge’s poetic and prose writings offer an intense engagement with a Bible that, for him, still communicates something of the Divine voice. From Herder, Eichhorn, and, later, the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Coleridge recognized that, although one could not neglect the literary problems and inconsistencies in the books themselves, through the power of an imaginative intellect and understanding (Verstehen), one could recreate and enter into (Einfühlung) an emotive and resonant sense of the Divine Word. Even with the Higher Criticism in mind, Coleridge can still say that “in the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together; that the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being” (1956, p. 43). These words come in the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (published in 1840, six years after Coleridge’s death). In these “confessions,” Coleridge takes on and critiques the idea of biblical inerrancy (what he calls “Bibliolatry”), suggesting that although the “Word of the Lord” came to Samuel, Isaiah, and others, the actual recording of these words in scripture does not necessarily imply any supernatural underpinning. For Coleridge, the ancient utterances have become texts and taken their place among the “phenomena of senses” and thus have to be interpreted with the “living educts of the imagination.”

Yet Coleridge is careful to keep his distance from a full reductive scientific method and separates the intellectual study of the Bible from his religiously committed reading. The Bible is a living text, a “glorious panharmonicon” (1956, p. 52), that both the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and the science of Higher Criticism are in danger of killing off. Instead, Coleridge relies on a complex philosophical conceptualization of the imagination that places it as an a priori necessity of perception in general. The imagination works to synthesize, within the individual reasoning mind, both experience and the perception of the natural world. This “synthetic reason” has what Coleridge calls an “esemplastic” power, a word he coins in an attempt to translate the nuances of Einbildungskraft, F. W. J. Schelling’s term for the poetic faculty of the imagination as able to overcome the dichotomies of philosophical and aesthetic thought.

Coleridge’s poetic hermeneutic.

An example of this esemplastic potential can be found in an early poem Religious Musings: A Desultory Poem, Written on the Christmas Eve of 1794. Along with the book of Job, Revelation is a particularly fertile text for the Romantics. With the social and political impact of the French Revolution still much in evidence, especially on those committed to radical politics in England, the oblique and complex symbolism of John the Divine’s prophet apocalypse could be interpreted in a myriad of ways. For Coleridge, this symbolism becomes part of his hermeneutic universe:

… Rest awhile,Children of Wretchedness! More groans must rise,More blood must stream, or ere your wrongs be full.Yet is the day of Retribution nigh:The Lamb of God hath open’d the fifth seal:And upward rush on swiftest wing of fireTh’ innumerable multitude of WrongsBy man on man inflicted!

(1912, p. 121, lines 320–327)

The violence of the revolutionary wars becomes a sign of the millennium, the prelude to the universal redemption in The Lamb.

Coleridge continues to explore the esemplastic power of the prophetic imagination in Kubla Khan (1816), which purportedly describes the poet’s famously fragmentary opium dream, and plays on the disordering of the senses and the visionary import of such poetry, ending with a warning:

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!His flashing eyes, his floating hair!Weave a circle round him thrice,And close your eyes with holy dread,For he on honey-dew hath fed,And drunk the milk of Paradise.

(1912, p. 298, lines 49–54)

Here, the wild-haired prophet suggests an image of John the Divine. By conflating the figures of John the Apostle with both the author of the Fourth Gospel and John of Patmos, the putative author of Revelation, Romantic writers such as Coleridge were able to find biblical precedent for a Christian-infused revelatory poetic genius. This was an idea of the epic different from classical modes, and in Coleridge’s notes on Eichhorn’s own rendering of Revelation as a dramatic poem (Commentarius in Apocalypsin Joannis, 1791), there is ample suggestion that the “fall of Jerusalem” was the last epic subject he felt the poet could turn to (see Shaffer, 1975, p. 19). Although never completed, the project again exemplifies a number of elements in the construction of the Romantic Bible: ideas around the sublime and mythologized poetic content of the material itself; the effects this aestheticized Bible is supposed to have upon a reader; and, with Coleridge, how a poetic approach to the texts becomes a necessary and synthetic hermeneutic possibility.

William Wordsworth: Between prophecy and apocalypse.

Wordsworth’s famous extended preface for the 1802 publication of Lyrical Ballads betrays its roots in both Lowth’s lectures and the lectures On Rhetoric and Belles Lettres given by Hugh Blair, professor at the University of Edinburgh in 1783; the latter indebted to the former, both emphasize the roots of Hebrew poetry as an “authentic” recourse to the simple life of ancient hunters and shepherds where the beginnings of poetic composition might be found. In addition, Blair distinguishes poetry from prose as the language of passion and “enlivened imagination.” Wordsworth, in his turn, noted that “the earliest Poets of all nations generally wrote from passion excited by real events; they wrote naturally, and as men: feeling powerfully as they did, their language was daring and figurative” (1802, n.p.). Wordsworth wants to use everyday incidents and plumb them for their profound philosophical content, informed, like Coleridge, with the impassioned imagination. Poetry is both an inaugural “natural” language, unencumbered with style and rhetoric, “close to the language of men,” and a complex form of epistemological searching. Poetry is, in fact, the “breath and finer spirit of all knowledge.”

In his 1815 Preface to Poems, Wordsworth explains that it is the prophetic and lyrical parts of the Bible (along with works of Milton) that are “the grand store-houses of enthusiastic and meditative imagination.” Yet it is hard to trace specific biblical texts in his writing. Deanne Westbrook (2001) traces Wordsworth’s “biblical ghosts,” arguing that, rather than specific rewritings of scriptural text, the Bible haunts and informs the very structure of the poet’s thought and poetic. For example, by likening his fear of poetic failure to the Lukan parable of the False Steward (Luke 16:1–13), “who hath much received / And renders nothing back” (Prelude, 1850, Book 1, line 260), Wordsworth invokes a more than secular world, implying that the everyday surface of things is tied up with a total metaphysics. The poet’s mind becomes a problematic parable of itself, something to be turned and turned for hermeneutic potential (Westbrook, 2001, p. 3).

Milton casts a long shadow over Wordsworth’s sense of vocation and his use of scripture (as it does with all the British Romantics); Paradise Lost, almost a national epic in Wordsworth’s eyes, elevates the poet to that of an inspired interpreter of sacred truths. In The Prelude; or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind; An Autobiographical Poem (or in its untitled form, “Poem to Coleridge”), Wordsworth self-consciously takes on the role of poet-prophet. In the famous account of crossing the Simplon Pass in the Swiss Alps, the Imagination irrupts into Wordsworth’s writing; Mind and Nature fuse in a revelatory moment:

… The unfettered clouds, and region of the Heavens,Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—… all like workings of one mind, the featuresOf the same face, blossoms upon one tree,Characters of the great Apocalypse,The types and symbols of Eternity,Of first and last, and midst, and without end.

(1850, Book VI, lines 635–641)

Addressing Coleridge, Wordsworth speaks of the “animating faith / That Poets, even as Prophets, each with each / Connected in a mighty scheme of truth, / Have each his own peculiar faculty / Heaven’s gift …” (1850, Book XIII, lines 299–303). One can detect here M. H. Abrams’s famous dictum that, in their work, the Romantics were creating a “natural supernaturalism,” secularized versions of traditional theological concepts, imagery, and design (1971). How far this secularization might be, in fact, a religious revival has been debated (e.g., Prickett, 1986), but it is clear that the poet-prophet interprets the characters, types, and symbols of the Book of Nature and the Book of Books together, within the esemplastic power of the poet’s mind, speaking to and having the power to recreate the world after the apocalypse of revolution.

William Blake: The Bible as the “great code of art.”

The poet, artist, and bookmaker William Blake is overt in taking on the mantle of poet-prophet. In one of his last illuminated works (1826–1827), he depicts the well-known classical sculpture of Laocoön and His Sons and surrounds it with his own commentary on art, religion, and commerce: this is where we find his famous aphorism, “the Old and New Testaments are the great code of Art” (see Frye, 1982). In his preface to Milton: A Poem, he attacks the influence of Latin and Greek literature and philosophy, which are set up “by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible” and curb the prophetic spirit of the true artist. The preface also contains the short poem “And did those feet in ancient time,” lines that would become the hymn Jerusalem with its final stirring call to build Jerusalem in “England’s green and pleasant Land.” Blake cites Numbers 11:29, a story where Moses, away from camp with the 70 elders round the tabernacle to receive the gift of prophecy, hears of Eldad and Medad prophesying back with the Israelites and says, “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” For Blake, as with some of the other Romantic voices here, the biblical prophets are the original, divinely enthused poets. He notes that both the “Jewish & Christian Testaments are An original derivation from the Poetic Genius” (2000, p. 41), and as self-appointed heir to this Poetic Genius, Blake could thus dine with Isaiah and Ezekiel and talk of the “firm perswasion” that in “ages of imagination … removed mountains” (2000, p. 77).

Beyond simply predicting events, however, the prophetic vision is part of the quasi-divine genius of man. Again, the imagination is that faculty that goes beyond a reductive explanation of events and alludes to deeper creative tensions between the oppositions of Heaven and Hell, or “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). In his Prophetic Books, of which Milton forms a part, Blake expands his imaginary vision to unveil the apocalyptic import of the American Revolution (America: A Prophecy), the French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars (Europe: A Prophecy). Inspired by the biblical prophecies against the nations, he unravels the meanings of contemporary events, placing his writing in continuity with the Prophets, rather than merely providing commentary upon them.

For Blake, Ezekiel and the book of Revelation are favorite texts to mine for imagery and the symbolism integral to his complex mythology. In the unfinished illuminated poem, The Four Zoas, Blake references Ezekiel and John of Patmos, the zoas being the “likenesses of the four living creatures” that arrive out of the whirlwind in Ezekiel’s vision and who reappear in Revelation 4:6–9 as Ezekiel’s chariot becomes the throne of Christ sitting in judgment. In the final “Night the Ninth” (the book is divided into nine “nights” or sections), Los, one of the four zoas and the embodiment of divine imagination and creativity, witnesses a vision of Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of Urizen, another of the zoas, a white-bearded lawmaker who constrains the universe in a mix of Newton-like mechanics and religious convention. This Last Day is a portent for the overturning of all evil and oppressive politics:

Then fell the fires of Eternity with loud & shrillSound of Loud Trumpet thundering along from heaven to heavenA mighty sound articulate: “Awake, ye dead & comeTo Judgement from the four winds. Awake & Come away!”Folding like scrolls of the Enormous volume of Heaven & Earth,With thunderous noise & dreadful shakings, rocking to & fro,The heavens are shaken & the Earth removed from its place.

(2008, lines 10–16)

Blake and the book of Job.

Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826) is the paradigm case for how he uses the Bible. For example, in Plate Two (titled “Satan before the Throne of God”), the images framed by billowing clouds inform the reader that this vision is taking place in Job’s imagination. The angel of the divine presence sits on a throne, the book of the Law open in his lap, mirroring Job at the bottom of the picture, who holds the book open on his knee. The angel is a close resemblance to Job, a highly significant point in Blake’s theology. Invoking Genesis 1:27 and Psalm 17:15, Blake adds in the top left and right margins the words “We shall awake up in thy likeness.” For Blake, if man is created in God’s image, there is no difference between the face of God and the face of man or, in this case, the face of the earthly Job and his true divinity. However, between these two contrasting images of Job, one on the higher plane and one on the lower, Satan (the ego or selfhood, in Blake’s framework) enters, dancing in the flames of error and ignorance. He does not merely provide illustrations for the biblical text; in his hands, Job becomes an Everyman undergoing a Last Judgment, a graphic example of the spiritual journey a man’s soul must take from prideful ignorance and false religion, enduring trials and terrifying visions of a devil-god, to finally arriving at an enlightened divine humanity.

In his work, Blake refuses to be chained to either the biblical texts themselves or the orthodox interpretations that have clustered around them. He reformulates the very idea of the biblical, investing his own poetry and visuals with something of its divine authority but, ultimately, invoking the prophetic imagination as the Poetic Genius, able to participate in the Divine Godhead (see Laocoön).

The Jena Circle and the “eternal gospel.”

It is through the influential “Jena Circle” that Romanticism comes into view as an aesthetic philosophy, one construed in less overtly revolutionary ways than Blake, but that still sees art as bearing a prophetic vocation.

One of the most significant thinkers and founder-members of the Jena Circle, Friedrich Schlegel, the driving force behind Athenaeum, the short-lived journal in which the group published their work, wrote in his Critical Fragments: “The whole history of modern poetry is a running commentary on the following brief philosophical text: all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one” (Fragment 115, 1991, p. 14). The poetic power of literature generates Einfühlung, an imaginative understanding that unites poetry and philosophy, science and art, chiming with the work of Lowth and Herder, and greatly influencing the British Romantics. There is also a sense here of the invention of literature as a total subject, where poiesy is not so much poetry but, through its etymology, production. This is a much broader project than a mere literary “genre” and sets outs to question the truth of creative production itself.

The Jena Circle itself was constituted by a remarkable flowering of literary and intellectual talent. The Idealist philosophers Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were all intermittent members of the group, and Eichhorn lectured at the university. Close associates to the Schlegels included the poet Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg), the theologian Schleiermacher, the poet and novelist Tieck, and, more distantly, the poet Hölderlin. Herder and the polymath Goethe (whose novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship [1795–1796] was held up by Friedrich Schlegel as the most important work of the age) were working at nearby Weimar.

The group’s philosophical aesthetics were heavily influenced by Kant, particularly his Critique of Judgment (1790), where he explores how the faculties of the imagination and understanding, especially when presented with art objects, engage in a “free play” where the imagination synthesizes sense perceptions rather than necessarily applying cognitive concepts to objects in a one-to-one relation. For the Romantics, this third Critique hints at how art can participate in forms of epistemological production that are not bound to pure or practical reason. And where better to explore this imaginative aesthetic than in reading and rewriting that “Great Code of Art,” the Bible?

Biblical fragments and fragmentary art.

The fragment becomes a key artistic and philosophical tool for the Jena Romantics. This essential rather than contingent incompleteness carries over into how the Bible is used and written with. The Higher Criticism had created historical fragments out of a previously theologically unified narrative; for the Romantics these fragments were also seen as hints at the spiritual and poetic depths of our ancestors in need of contemporary reanimation. As Schlegel writes in fragment 95 of his Ideas:

"The new eternal gospel that Lessing prophesied will appear as a bible: but not as a single book in the usual sense. … Is there some other word to differentiate the idea of an infinite book from an ordinary one, than Bible, the book per se, the absolute book? … In a similar way, in a perfect literature all books should be only a single book, and in such an eternally developing book, the gospel of humanity and culture will be revealed." (1991, p. 102)

The Bible is now the Book of Books in a nonorthodox yet still quasi-divine sense. It is like an infinite literature, a system that contains all things while paradoxically fragmentary and part of the “eternally developing” gospel of humanity and culture. For Schlegel, Romantic poetry is also in this eternal state of becoming, never finally complete in and of itself. As Schleiermacher puts it in one of his contributions to the Athenaeum Fragments: “No poetry, no reality. Just as there is, despite all the senses, no external world without imagination, so too there is no spiritual world without feeling” (Schlegel, 1991, p. 216).

Interestingly, the Athenaeum group themselves did not produce much of the new literature they professed as coming into being. One poet who attempted to bring together the classical and modern Protestant traditions (as per Schlegel’s schematization of appropriating that which was “romantic” in pre-Renaissance literature) was Friedrich Hölderlin.

Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Schleiermacher: The Romantic Bible’s philosophical essence.

In “Brod und Wein,” Hölderlin traces the heritage of the Greek gods, the inspiration of the ancients, who have departed for the heavens, even as poets still write hymns of praise to Dionysus, the “wine-god.” But bread and wine are also the material elements of the Christian Mass, and it is the “Son of the Highest,” the “Syrian,” who “into our gloom bears his torch.” This fusion of ancient and modern religious practice as part of the universal underpinning of all religion carries over into Patmos, Hölderlin’s own reimagining of that most popular of Romantic biblical texts, Revelation. With the Higher Criticism’s philological focus, the “Orient” becomes a mythological epoch of origins for Western intellectual and spiritual development, a middle space between the old religions and philosophies and modern Romantic thought that attempts both novelty and the assimilation of these rich traditions. The island of Patmos lies in this “uncertain plain of the sea” between Asia and Europe, and the poet desires to visit. The arrival prompts his own meditative vision of the last days of Christ, alongside the composite character of John, the “seer who in blessèd youth / Had walked with / The son of the Highest [ … ] Saw the face of the God Exactly” (1966, p. 469). The themes of visibility and invisibility continue throughout the poem, and, on Christ’s death, the community is broken and God Himself averts his face. With God’s face withdrawn, a theme in many of the biblical prophet’s discourse, Hölderlin’s prophetic voice creates an absence that has to be lived through, a constant apocalypse where “a quietly shining strength falls from holy scripture” (p. 475) that demands that “the solid letter / Be given scrupulous care, and the existing / Be well interpreted” (p. 477). The gods are absent from the contemporary world, but the inspired poet now takes on a different prophetic role—preserving the memory of the gods until they return.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s approach to the Bible was also part of this complex philosophical aesthetic. In his Über die Religion: Reden an die Gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, 1790), he directly addressed the “cultured despisers” epitomized by his friends and interlocutors in Jena. He argues that, beyond both “revealed” and “natural” religion, the essence of religion is to be understood through the intuition of the action of the ultimate on the self. Thinking through the fragmented and contending parts of experience toward an inexpressible and religious whole, Schleiermacher was able to argue that religion has a symbolizing function similar, though not always irreducible to, the arts. In his biblical scholarship, particularly in his work on the New Testament, he was keen to argue against H. S. Reimarus’s controversial claims about the Gospel writers’ deliberate falsification of the life of Jesus (see the Wolffenbüttel Fragments published anonymously by G. E. Lessing between 1774 and 1778). For Schleiermacher, the Gospels are the human records of the individual author’s experience of the presence of Christ; this is the very reason for their production. From a philosophical-theological perspective, the Bible’s overarching narrative shows the basic intuition of Christianity as one of rebellion and reconciliation, fallen fragments that have lost their original harmony. A properly religious consciousness can mine the books of the Bible for their religious insights that, paradoxically, once discovered can exist independently of the texts themselves (see Sheehan, 2005, p. 229).

Schleiermacher’s influence over the early British Romantics, especially Coleridge, was profound. The later Romantics, however, sought to distance themselves from these earlier theological outworkings.

The Later Romantics: Blasphemous Prophets.

The later Romantics, especially Byron, Shelley, and Keats, defined themselves explicitly against the “Lake Poets” and some of their more conservative religious underpinnings and metaphysical systems. Keats lambasts them for their “pedestrian prosiness” (Jeffrey, 1961, p. 69), and Byron specifically dedicates Don Juan to the poet laureate Robert Southey: “You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know, / At being disappointed in your wish / To supersede all warblers here below, / And be the only Blackbird in the dish” (1837). However, there is some shared ground, especially in the continuing trope of the biblically grounded poet-prophet.

In his Defence of Poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley famously asserts that “Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters (1904, pp. 19–20).” However, Shelley’s sense of the prophetic abilities of the poet is not necessarily tied to orthodox religious conviction. Shelley published a pamphlet titled “The Necessity of Atheism” (1811), a move that got him expelled from Oxford University but which remains part of the debate over Shelley’s own perspective on the relationship between theism, deism, and atheism (see Shelley, 1994); the tract opens with the statement “There is no God. This negation must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit coeternal with the universe remains unshaken (1915, p. 1).” In his “Essay on Christianity,” Shelley separates the genius of Jesus Christ from the superstitions that were piled upon him and recasts him as the preeminent philosopher-poet of Western culture. This Jesus had an imagination (notably not a “divine inspiration”) suffused with the “boldest imagery” from the “sublime dramatic poem titled Job” and the solemn ethics of Ecclesiastes.

Shelley certainly read Lowth and was attracted to those portions of the Bible that could provide compelling poetic imagery. Paradoxically, the rationalist and philological critiques that emphasized the texts as human productions could elevate the human poet to the level of prophet or psalmist. In “Ode to the West Wind,” the poet plays on the connotations of the Hebrew ruach (wind, spirit, breath) to invoke a quasi-divine element that he can address (“Hear, O hear!”) and that he wishes would scatter his words across the world (Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy!). In “The Triumph of Life,” still unfinished at the poet’s death in 1822, Shelley’s dream vision inverts biblical imagery in order to show the triumph of veiled “Life” over all man’s too-human efforts. In a rewriting of Ezekiel’s prophetic scene, here “All the four faces of that charioteer / Had their eyes banded” and the driver is “A Janus-visaged Shadow”; for this prophet, blindness and darkness are part of a troubled and negative “vision” (see Balfour, 2012, n.p.).

Blasphemy and the Romantic Bible.

Both Shelley’s and Byron’s publishers were charged with atheism and blasphemous libel in an age when this was punishable by severe fines and imprisonment, atheism being linked with the revolutionary and radical politics of France. When Mary Shelley published her husband’s Poetical Works in 1839, several “atheistic” sections of the long poem Queen Mab were removed; when Edward Moxon published a second edition with the offending sections replaced, he was prosecuted. Byron, friend and intellectual confidant of Shelley, also utilized and revised biblical tropes in the name of political and poetical progress. His play Cain: A Mystery was pirated and published by Richard Carlile in 1822 (three years after he had been tried and convicted for publishing Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason) as a provocative act of Republican political dissent. The preface betrays some of Byron’s thinking about the status of the Bible; on the one hand, he states that when he quotes from scripture, he is careful to make little alteration—if the content seems seditious, his answer is to “Behold the Book!” and read the words printed there. On the other hand, Byron is aware that the Bible can no longer be read typologically, with any of the corresponding theological conclusions. As he notes, there is no reference to a “future state” in any of the “Books of Moses” and that to add such exposition is an anachronism. Byron rewrites the story of Cain and Abel to question the politics of paradise and the meaning of the imposition of mortality on man is a key theme of the play. In Act I, Scene I, Adam, Eve, and Abel are praising God, but Cain remains silent. When questioned, he responds that has no words of praise because he shall die whatever; he laments that his parents should have eaten from both the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life in order to live in defiance of God: “The snake spoke truth; it was the Tree of Knowledge; / It was the Tree of Life: knowledge is good, / And Life is good; and how can both be evil?” (1901, p. 215). Cain knows nothing of death and is educated by Lucifer (a character with very clear underpinnings in Milton’s Satan), who offers an apocalyptic vision of extinction. Without the final redemptive death of Christ as in Paradise Lost, the play recasts both “Milton and the holy scriptures,” those two literary influences that, for the earlier Wordsworth, seemed equally sacrosanct. In the terms of the Romantic Bible we have been tracing, both canonical texts deal with the Fall as their organizing trope. In Cain as in Don Juan (the “epic satire” as Byron called it), Byron is committed to inverting traditional conceptions of the Edenic myth and offering alternative visions of Romantic consciousness and freedom.

The Ghost of Abel: A Revelation in the Visions of Jehovah, seen by William Blake was Blake’s last illuminated poem and specifically dedicated “To Lord Byron in the Wilderness,” recasting Byron as the prophet Elijah and asking “Can a Poet doubt the Visions of Jehovah?” Critics have seen this as Blake positioning Byron in the tradition of poet-prophet, a high distinction he granted none of his contemporaries. By invoking 1 Kings 19, where Elijah confronts Jezebel’s false prophets on Mount Carmel and receives the “word of the Lord” at Horeb (1 Kgs 19:9), Byron becomes an Elijah who has vanquished the false prophets around him with his iconoclastic vision of Cain (see Tannenbaum, 1975, p. 351). The poet-prophet has now become the Byronic hero, overturning the pieties of the day and revising the political structures of society.

The Legacy of the Romantic Bible.

During the Enlightenment-Romantic period, the Bible was reconfigured away from theological orthodoxy as both a historical document and a piece of world literature. This way of reading the Bible as literature has had a major influence over a number of interrelated approaches. This can be seen, from one angle, in a work such as Robert Alter’s and Frank Kermode’s edited collection The Literary Guide to the Bible (1990), where the biblical texts are read in their final form as exhibiting a distinctive literary poetics. For a Bible seemingly constantly beleaguered by secular pressures and especially amid the oft-quoted decline in biblical literacy, invoking its literary excellence and authority (as was seen in the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Authorized, or King James Version) is a direct link back to the tumultuous period of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism.

From another perspective, the Bible and Cultural Collective use critical and cultural theory in their Postmodern Bible (1995) to deconstruct these literary unities and question the cultural power of canonical biblical texts. Both approaches have their roots in the Romantic fusion of philosophical critique and the arts. Within biblical studies itself, there is now a keen focus on the cultural history of biblical material, including its reworking through artistic practices.

Of course, treating the Bible as a piece of literature to be appropriated and rewritten, and elevating the poet to a secular prophet, has cast a long shadow over contemporary literature, impossible to trace in its entirety: Walt Whitman’s poetry mirrors the cadence and content of biblical material; Allen Ginsberg writes from within a Blakean tradition of mystical and mythological vision; and Israeli poets like Yehuda Amichai wrestle with their religious and linguistic biblical inheritance. Within literary practice in general, it is the Romantic Bible that lives on.



Primary Sources

  • Abrams, M. H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1971. A core text for the argument that Romanticism is essentially a secular religion.
  • Balfour, Ian. The Rhetoric of Romantic Prophecy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Essential and detailed study of the myriad historical and intellectual elements that constitute the prophetic strain in Romanticism.
  • Balfour, Ian. “Shelley and the Bible.” In The Oxford Handbook of Percy Bysshe Shelley, edited by Michael O’Neill, Anthony Howe, and Madeleine Callaghan, pp. 411–426. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Important article to render Shelley as a poet-prophet in a more subtle guise than Blake.
  • Blake, William. “All Religions Are One.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, Vol. 2, p. 41. New York and London: Norton, 2000.
  • Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” In The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt, Vol. 2, pp. 72–84. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000.
  • Blake, William. “The Four Zoas.” In The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, edited by David V. Erdman, pp. 300–407. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.
  • Byron, Lord. Don Juan. Halifax, Nova Scotia: Milner and Sowerby, 1837.
  • Byron, Lord. The Works of Lord Byron: Poetry. Vol. 5. Edited by Earnest Hartley Coleridge. London: John Murray, 1901.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. 1. Edited by Earnest Hartley Coleridge. Oxford: Clarendon, 1912.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. 1: 1785–1800. Edited by Earnest Leslie Griggs. Oxford: Clarendon, 1956.
  • Ferber, Michael. “Introduction.” In A Companion to European Romanticism, edited by Michael Ferber, pp. 1–9. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. An overview of some of the main issues in defining “Romanticism” and the themes that are often used to make such definitions.
  • Frye, Northrop. The Great Code: The Bible and Literature. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. A classic literary-critical account of the influence of the Bible on the Western literary canon.
  • Herder, Johann Gottfried. The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry. Vol. 1. Translated by James Marsh. Burlington, Vt.: Edward Smith, 1833.
  • Hölderlin, Friedrich. Poems and Fragments. Translated by Michael Hamburger. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
  • Jeffrey, Lloyd N. “Keats and the Bible.” Keats-Shelley Journal 10 (Winter 1961): 59–70. A useful article that traces the biblical texts that Keats alludes to in some of his work.
  • Kugel, James L. The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981. A key study that takes Lowth as a central figure but critiques the importation of “poetry” into analyses of ancient Hebrew writings.
  • Lovejoy, A. O. “The Meaning of Romanticism for the Historian of Ideas.” Journal of the History of Ideas 2, no. 3 (June 1941): 257–278. Widely engaged (and refuted) but an interesting polemic on how to define Romanticism and its epoch.
  • Lowth, Robert. Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews. Translated by G. Gregory. London: Elibron Classics, 2005.
  • Prickett, Stephen. Words and The Word: Language, Poetics and Biblical Interpretation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986. Essential reading to gain insight into the fortunes of biblical interpretation itself, especially during the Enlightenment-Romantic period.
  • Schlegel, Friedrich von. Philosophical Fragments. Translated by Peter Firchow. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
  • Shaffer, Elinor S. “Kubla Khan” and “The Fall of Jerusalem”: The Mythological School in Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature, 1770–1880. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A thorough analysis of how the Higher Criticism and Romantic poetry interact and overlap.
  • Sheehan, Jonathan. The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005. An invaluable study of how maintaining biblical authority becomes a fragmented “project” during the Enlightenment-Romantic period.
  • Shelley, Bryan. Shelley and Scripture: The Interpreting Angel. Oxford English Monographs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A useful study of Shelley’s appropriation of gnostic and heterodox thought, and an important challenge to the “Shelley-as-atheist” hypothesis.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. A Defence of Poetry. Edited by Mary Shelley. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1904.
  • Shelley, Percy Bysshe. Selected Prose Works of Shelley. Edited by Henry S. Salt. London: Watts, 1915.
  • Tannenbaum, Leslie. “Lord Byron in the Wilderness: Biblical Tradition in Byron’s ‘Cain’ and Blake’s ‘The Ghost of Abel.’ ” Modern Philology 72, no. 4 (May 1975): 350–364. An interesting article that shows the relationship between the later Blake and Lord Byron through the comparison of their usage of biblical material.
  • Wellek, René. “The Concept of ‘Romanticism’ in Literary History I: The Term ‘Romantic’ and Its Derivatives.” Comparative Literature 1, no. 1 (Winter 1949a): 1–23. A very detailed exposition of the concept of Romanticism, directly refuting Lovejoy’s argument that the term has become useless.
  • Wellek, René. “The Concept of ‘Romanticism’ in Literary History II: The Unity of European Romanticism.” Comparative Literature 1, no. 2 (Spring 1949b): 147–172. The second part of the long article that nuances the Romantic movement across the European spectrum.
  • Westbrook, Deeanne. Wordsworth’s Biblical Ghosts. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Taking the angle that Wordsworth’s work does not merely allude to biblical texts but is embedded within their purview, this useful book analyzes the poet through his work’s intertextuality, poetics, and metaphysics.
  • Wordsworth, William. “Appendix to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads: ‘By what is usually called Poetic Diction’ ” 1802. www.english.upenn.edu/~mgamer/Etexts/lbprose.html#appendix.
  • Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind. London: Edward Moxon, 1850.

Further Reading

  • Bloom, Harold. Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. With insightful analysis across the history of Western literature, Bloom makes the provocative argument that making any literature more sacred than others is a cultural and political act.
  • Prickett, Stephen. Origins of Narrative: The Romantic Appropriation of the Bible. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. An invaluable study of many of the key themes in the Romantic use of the Bible, with particular detail on poetry and the novel.
  • Roston, Murray. Prophet and Poet: The Bible and the Growth of Romanticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1965. A key text for how the trope of the poet-prophet marks the use of the Bible and poetry in Romantic self-envisioning.

Samuel Tongue