Joseph Pearce

Joseph Pearce is Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and the author of books on Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton and other Christian literary figures.

Writing for Faith & Culture

We welcome the submission of articles of between 600 and 1,500 words on topics related to Catholic faith and culture. Articles should be emailed as Word attachments to Joseph Pearce.

AFTER SHAKESPEARE: English Literature from 1616 to 1800

AFTER SHAKESPEARE: English Literature from 1616 to 1800

For more than a thousand years England shone like a beacon of Catholic truth, its light penetrating to the farthest corners of Christendom. In the third century, during the Roman occupation, England’s first martyred saint, St. Alban, was put to death in the Hertfordshire town that still bears his name. After the Roman’s left England, or Albion as it was then called, in the fifth century, vestiges of Roman Christianity remained, particularly in the north of the country, in spite of the influx of pagan Germanic tribes. In 596, Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine of Canterbury to England to evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. The success of his mission was such that England became one of the major Christian nations of mediaeval Europe. Churches sprung up across the land, in every village, and shrines such as Walsingham and Canterbury became major pilgrimage destinations, attracting pilgrims from across Europe. This springtime of the Faith in England saw the flowering of Old English poetry, such as Beowulf, “The Dream of the Rood”, “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer”, and the emergence of a host of saints, from Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede to an array of female saints as formidable as their names suggest: Etheldreda, Withburga and Alkelda!

The Norman Conquest of 1066 caused major upheavals to the political structure of England but did nothing to diminish the Christian fervour of its people. In the centuries that followed, great works of literature such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Canterbury Tales exhibited the Catholicism at the heart of mediaeval English culture. Nothing, it seemed, could separate the English from their age-old Faith in Christ and His Church.

And then came the totalitarian tyranny of Henry VIII who declared himself head of the church in England, in defiance of not only the Pope but of the wishes of the vast majority of his subjects. He put dissidents, such as St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, to death, systematically desecrated the shrines of the saints, and destroyed the many monasteries that graced the English landscape. For the next 150 years saints were put to death in England for no other crime than defiantly practicing their Catholic Faith. There are now forty canonized martyrs of England and Wales, eighty-five beatified martyrs, and hundreds of other martyrs who have not been officially recognized by the Magisterium of the Church. In the midst of this anti-Catholic pogrom, the giant figure of William Shakespeare emerges as a witness to the horrors that surrounded him and his fellow Catholics. Much has been written about Shakespeare’s Catholicism, both in terms of the evidence discernible in the facts of his life and the evidence to be gleaned from the meaning of his plays. Yet it is often thought that he represents, paradoxically, not only the zenith of English Catholic literary achievement but, at the same time, the setting of its sun. It is almost as though Shakespeare is a supernova, a star that is brighter than all the others because it is dying. He is an explosion of brilliance followed by utter darkness. 

Yet is this so? 

It is certainly the case that the centuries following Shakespeare’s death represented a new dark age in which God was declared dead, or dying, and Man was declared god, or, at least, in which Man had declared himself the measure of all things and the master of his own destiny. The theological pride at the darkened heart of this age can be seen by the supercilious names that it gave itself. It declared itself the Age of Reason, thereby snubbing the truly philosophical ages that had preceded it, thumbing its nose at the towering influence of Athens (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), and the definitive position of Rome (St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas etc.). The Age of Reason had no need of these true pillars of Reason. Like a restless adolescent, it turned its back on its parents, and the wisdom of its elders, and declared itself independent. 

Another name that the so-called Age of Reason gave itself was the Enlightenment, declaring, in effect, that the world had been in the dark until it came along with its “enlightened” views. Truly such an age, characterized by priggishness and pride, should be more truly called an endarkenment, an age that prides itself in shutting itself off from the light of wisdom, from the authoritative gravitas of tradition, and from the indissoluble marriage of fides et ratio.

Clearly the “Age of Reason” and the “Enlightenment” are misnomers. They are names that the age gave itself in an act of precocious chutzpah. They are names that carry more than a suggestion of self-justification, self-righteousness and snobbishness. They are purely subjective terms, as inaccurate in the service of objective discourse as would be the riposte of calling the age the “Endarkenment”. These labels are all very well from the perspective of rhetoric but what is needed is a term that both sides can agree upon, a term that the protagonist and antagonist can accept as objectively accurate. Objectively speaking, the age should really be called the age of Disenchantment. The word, enchantment, derives from the Latin, cantare, to sing, or cantus, song, and the disenchantment of the Enlightenment was the shift from seeing nature as creation, i.e. as a beautiful work of art sung into existence by God, to nature as something merely mechanical and, later, merely meaningless. 

In the age of Disenchantment, the wholeness and oneness of Christendom is lost in a progressive fragmentation of thought that continues to this day. From its earliest manifestation in the decay of the Christian humanism and neo-classicism of the Renaissance, and its coming of age in the pride of the self-named Enlightenment, to its self-defeating victory in the nihilistic nonsense of deconstructionism, the age of Disenchantment represents the triumph of barbarism over civilization. On the assumption that civilization is preferable or superior to barbarism, it could be said that the age of Disenchantment represents a move in the wrong direction.

Although the culture has become fragmented and disintegrated in the age of Disenchantment, destroying the unity of the age of Christendom, the presence of Christendom within the age of Disenchantment can be seen in the magic or miracle of Re-enchantment. Many of the greatest works of art in recent centuries are not the products of disenchantment but of re-enchantment. The works of Shakespeare, Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, Waugh and T.S. Eliot, to name but an illustrious few, are inspired by a rejection of disenchantment and a desire for re-enchantment. And what is true of literature is true of painting (the Pre-Raphaelites), architecture (the Gothic Revival), and music (Bruckner, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Messiaen, Arvo Pärt etc.). This disillusionment with disenchantment represents a refusal to believe that reality is only the cold mechanism of the materialist or the meaningless mess of the nihilist; it is an awakening to the enchantment of reality, perceiving it as a miraculous harmony of being, a song, a Great Music, the Music of the Spheres. Hence the employment of “disenchantment” as the operative description of the process that calls itself the Enlightenment.

One other misconception that needs addressing is the presumption that the period from Shakespeare’s death, in 1616, to the genesis of the English Romantic movement at the turn of the nineteenth century represents a period of utter Disenchantment, in which cold rationalism had eclipsed the enchanting power of beauty and faith. It is often believed that the Romantics represented a sense of Re-enchantment that the previous two centuries had seemingly lost. Although there is an element of truth in such a belief, and although the Romantic movement would give birth to various manifestations of neo-mediaevalism, such as the Gothic Revival, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Oxford Movement, it would be an unjust over-simplification to assume that there was nothing but disenchanted darkness in the two centuries following Shakespeare’s death. The period from 1616 to 1800 included the heyday of the Metaphysical Poets (Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, etc.), the dark and disturbed genius of Milton, the satirical orthodoxy of Dryden and Pope, and the sheer wit and wisdom of Samuel Johnson. As an age that exhibited the perennial power of re-enchantment in a culture dominated by disenchantment, it is not dissimilar to our own. 

Shakespearean England passed away with the passing of the Bard, but it did not signal the death of England, or the death of her Faith. The age of Dryden was followed by the age of Pope, and these were followed by the age of Johnson. Yes, there is life after Shakespeare, and it’s a life worth celebrating.    


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