‘Romanticism is spilt religion’ is a famous phrase from the writings of T. E. Hulme (1883-1917), who has been described as the first modernist poet writing in English and whose prose writings – on modern poetry, politics, and modern art among other things – are among the most important early essays and manifestos for modernism in the English language. But what did Hulme mean when he declared that ‘romanticism is spilt religion’?
To answer this question, we need to go to the source for Hulme’s statement: his essay, ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, which was posthumously published as part of the 1924 collection Speculations (Hulme having been killed during the First World War) but probably written in 1911-12. This essay is an important attack on romanticism in art and poetry, and was an influential defence of the ‘philosophy’ (though that may be too grand a word for it) underpinning much modernist poetry in English.
In ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, Hulme states that there are two basic positions to adopt in relation to humanity: the romantic and the classical.
The romantic position is ‘that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress.’
The classical position, by contrast, sees man as ‘an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant. It is only by tradition and organisation that anything decent can be got out of him.’
Hulme uses the metaphor of the well and the bucket to illustrate these two concepts: romanticism is like a well, because there is a limitless faith in human potential and achievement; by contrast, classicism is the bucket. You can only fill up a bucket with a limited amount of water, whereas a well could, in theory, go on filling your bucket time and time again.
Romanticism is about limitless possibility; classicism is about limitation and restraint. Hulme is firmly on the side of classicism, arguing that the romantic impulse has dominated poetry for too long, and it’s time for a return to classical values.
It is not that Hulme is against progress per se (though he was a conservative in his views, politically if not culturally), but, as the ironic capitalisation ‘Progress’ suggests (‘and you will get Progress’), that he is against the romantic notion that progress (or ‘Progress’) is easily attainable. On the contrary, Hulme is less optimistic about humanity.
It’s also not quite true that when Hulme uses ‘romanticism’ he means the Romantic movement: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and the rest of it. Although this tendency towards flight, limitless possibility, and ‘Progress’ is something that was often embraced by the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century, Hulme’s romanticism does not strictly and perfectly equate to ‘Romanticism’, that historical period or movement in English literature and art.
Indeed, when citing some writers who embody the classical spirit, Hulme names ‘Horace’ and ‘most of the Elizabethans and the writers of the Augustan age’, and when providing examples of authors whose work embodies the romantic impulse, he names ‘Lamartine, Hugo, parts of Keats, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Swinburne’.
Note that he writes ‘parts of Keats’: Keats was a Romantic poet but not all of Keats’s writing embodies romanticism. Some of it, to Hulme’s mind, is classical. Elsewhere in ‘Romanticism and Classicism’, Hulme comments on ‘verse strictly confined to the earthly and the definite’ (i.e., classical verse), going on to add, in parentheses, ‘Keats is full of it’.
So how does all this relate to the idea that ‘romanticism is spilt religion’? Hulme writes:
It would be a mistake to identify the classical view with that of materialism. On the contrary it is absolutely identical with the normal religious attitude. I should put it in this way: That part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity. This should be as fixed and true for every man as belief in the existence of matter and in the objective world.
This makes sense: if classicism is about man acknowledging his limitations, then it follows that there is something higher than man, something that keeps him in check – and we may as well call that something ‘God’. But if the instinct to worship a deity is suppressed, this instinct must find some other outlet. It’s not unlike Freud’s idea, from only a few years earlier, that man must ‘sublimate’ his true desires and find some other socially acceptable outlet for them. But for Hulme, this suppression isn’t a good thing:
The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don’t believe in a God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don’t believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in a heaven on earth. In other words, you get romanticism. The concepts that are right and proper in their own sphere are spread over, and so mess up, falsify and blur the clear outlines of human experience. It is like pouring a pot of treacle over the dinner table. Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.
Romanticism is ‘spilt religion’, then, because it is the religious impulse, but not poured neatly and properly into the correct channel (i.e., pointing upwards, towards God). Instead, the religious impulse is rather messily applied to everything around us, including ourselves: we come to see ourselves as ‘gods’. Of course, in some ways Hulme’s argument is too binary and reductive (he wanted to get people’s attention).
But in other ways, perhaps he foresaw the horrors to come as great dictators set themselves up as gods in an increasingly secular world, gaining power over multitudes as people sought a new ‘god’ to believe in. Or as G. K. Chesterton is rumoured to have said, when a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.
Dr Oliver Tearle is the author of T.E. Hulme and Modernism, the first book-length study of Hulme’s poems, which is out now in paperback.