Poetic Theology: Dante And The British Romantic Poets

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This dissertation follows the figure of Dante as a vehicle to chart a new literary history of poetic theology that discovers the Romantic revival of the Renaissance ideal of the poet-theologian. The Italian humanist conception of the poeta theologus, which retroactively named a tradition originating with Dante, sought to resolve the ongoing conflict between theology and poetry. Renaissance writers argued that theology is poetry about God, and that classical poetry, when read allegorically, is consonant with revealed Christianity. Like the humanists who turned to theology to justify poetry, the Romantics, responding to the Enlightenment imperative of truth, re-establish the model of poetic theology in order to defend poetry and its truth. This dissertation seeks to uncover a Romantic poetic theology that demonstrates the implicitly theological basis of late 18th and early 19th-century poetic form and theory. Each chapter begins with a conceptual link to Dante that frames an examination of poetic appropriation and implication of theological questions, including notions of form, language, inspiration, and allegory. Following a theoretical discussion of the function of poetic theology, Chapter One argues that Wordsworth's Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, while reiterating Dante's vernacular poetic program, conceives of the vernacularization of poetic language as an incarnational process mirroring the descent of the divine vernacular, Christ as Word-made-flesh. Chapter Two asserts Byron's use of exile, particularly in his neglected poem, "The Prophecy of Dante," as a biographical trope characterizing the human underside of the experience of poetic inspiration. Chapter Three contends that in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley emulates Dante's bold appropriation of the "allegory of the theologians," inscribing in the poem a fourfold allegorical structure. Chapter Four demonstrates Shelley's revision of Dante's poetic theology of love through his own figural Beatrice in The Cenci. Rather than viewing literary appropriations of biblical and theological resources as a simple process of secularization, this dissertation examines the very fact of poetry's consistent effort to draw itself alongside scripture to identify the working of poetic theology-poetry's self assertion as a theological modality.

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Romantic poets; poetry and theology; poetry and Bible; Dante


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Parker, Alan R.

Committee Co-Chair

Sawyer, Paul Lincoln

Committee Member

Goldstein, Amanda Jo
Gilbert, Roger Stephen

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

Degree Level

Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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