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Christianity and ‘the World’, by David Martin

15 May 2020

Alison Shell reviews an interdisciplinary adieu

“THE Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, . . . But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar.” These lines from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” epitomise for many the loss of belief experienced by many of Arnold’s Victorian contemporaries, and retreats from Christianity since. But their reception also shows how plangent poetic phrases can adversely affect scholarly enquiry.

Tides come in again — making Arnold’s metaphor problematic in the first place — and no one charted the ebbs and flows of faith more astutely than David Martin. A sociologist with broad interests in history, theology, and literature, he regularly warned against facile, one-way notions of secularisation. His career spanned half a century, and this book, which appears posthumously, is his swansong. Highly interdisciplinary, highly personal, it gives an alternative history of English literature from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day, tracing how writers depict both Christianity’s resistance to the world and its adjustment to it.

Broad shifts to and from secularism are identified between historical periods, but also within them. For instance, pace Arnold, the Victorian era is rightly characterised as a period when writers were much concerned with religious experience from the inside. Nearer our own time, the preoccupations of poets such as Geoffrey Hill and Michael Symmons Roberts problematise the common assumption that we are living in a post-Christian era. Such a broad timespan entails dependency on other people’s research, but the synthesis is utterly original, and the delivery, too, is very much Martin’s own.

A more interventionist editorial hand might have deleted the copious information on writers’ schools. Yet this also adds to the feeling that one is eavesdropping on an unusually interesting high-table conversation, full of quotable nuggets on topics both general and particular: of the early-20th-century quasi-religion of Englishness, “One has only to think of the intense feelings about Gloucestershire in poets and musicians alike”; of poetry itself, “its illuminations are not guarded by the exercise of responsibility.” As this suggests, the book alternates between aerial perspectives, showing the patterns of ordinariness in which sociologists tend to be most interested, and close alertness to complexity and quiddity: after all, great writers are likely to be atypical of their age.

Professor David Martin (Obituary, 15 March 2019)

As someone who teaches in an English department, I found this book a learned and passionate view of my discipline, all the better for coming from someone who was not primarily a literary critic. That said, there is a touch of the Leavises about Martin’s bracingly iconoclastic pronouncements on canonical demigods: for instance, he describes Thomas Hardy’s “fundamental misapprehension of Christianity as a failed scheme of secular improvement that makes possible easy observations about the lack of progress after two thousand years of it.” He is sharp, too, on how the perceived irrelevance and pastness of Christianity affects the canonical reception of even such titanic presences as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden: they are selectively read, and the unread material is, more often than not, Christian.

Martin’s study may come over as too idiosyncratic to be widely noticed among literature specialists — but, if so, that would be a shame. Literary studies and the sociology of religion are complementary fields, and the common ground between them is less traversed than it should be, given the profound effects of socio-historical criteria on the literary canon. But those who do venture on to the terrain will find this book a rich and provocative vade-mecum.

Dr Alison Shell is Professor of English at University College London.


Christianity and “the World”: Secularization narratives through the lens of English poetry, 800 AD to the present
David Martin
Cascade Books £21
Church Times Bookshop £18.90

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