Is English literature naturally secular or has the canon been designed to marginalize religion?
The most startling aspect of the canon of English literature that has come down to us is how, from the earliest times, it questions, marginalizes and ignores religion. If we include Beowulf (C.9th?) in the canon (rather than seeing Anglo-Saxon literature as a separate tradition that had little impact on what came after), we find a confused mishmash of pagan monsters, Wyrd and an Old Testament God who is clearly hands-off in His approach to humanity.
The next major work in the canon is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1380s?). Here the protagonist is a keen believer in the power of the Virgin Mary, though this belief is undermined in our eyes by the coexistence in his world of magic. In other words Christianity may be explicit but it is hardly confirmed by being placed in a fairy-tale context.
The great canonical work in English of the Middle Ages is The Canterbury Tales (1400). Chaucer offers us a cast made up of a crusader knight, a prioress, a monk, a friar, a pardoner and a summoner (among others). However, these are brilliantly sardonic portraits, which thoroughly question each of these overtly Christian characters’ true adherence to the faith they profess. The crusading knight is in fact a mercenary; the prioress is viciously antisemitic coquette who shows more compassion for little animals than for the poor; the lecherous monk dedicates his time to hunting, and so on.
The Middle Ages came to an end with the Reformation and from then on, authors could not count on there being a single set of religious beliefs that their audience shared. Indeed, with a spectrum of beliefs ranging from the Puritan to the Anglican to the Roman Catholic, most authors opted for marginalizing religion. For instance, Shakespeare wrote one religious sonnet out of 154. However, Shakespeare goes further and when he does present religious characters they are ineffectual (Friar Laurence), hypocritical (Angelo), ignorant (Oliver Martext) or corrupt (the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely). When Shakespeare includes a saint in his work – Joan of Arc – she is portrayed as a witch: La Pucelle. His most impressive creations are nihilistic worlds (such as the Albion of King Lear or the Scotland of Macbeth) or ones ruled by magic (such as the Island in The Tempest or the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream). It is true that it was illegal to mention God on stage after 1603 but Shakespeare made no serious attempt to incorporate religion into his plays even before that.
The exception to the rule should be the towering work of the 17th Century: Paradise Lost. Here we have an epic poem entirely dedicated to recounting the foundational stories of Christianity. However, even here the canon undermines9 religion, albeit unwittingly. Despite Milton’s best intentions, later generations have found Satan by far the most interesting character in the poem, and in a formal sense he is the central character. The Romantics went further and saw Satan as the hero of the piece.
The Rise of the Novel
The 18th Century saw the rise of the novel and here again religion was marginalized and stories tended to be morally ambiguous. Where religious figures do appear they tend to be hypocritical buffoons like Collins in Charlotte Brontë’s Pride and Prejudice or Seth Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) or hypocritical villains like Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre (1847) or Reverend Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House (1853).
By the 20th Century the UK was one of the least religious countries in the world and the literature reflected the marginal place of organized faith in British society.
An Alternative Canon
What is fascinating for me is how artificial this focus is. Religious and moralistic literature has gradually been expunged from the canon over the last 70 years. In fact, most surviving Anglo-Saxon poetry is religious. The ‘other’ great work of the 14th Century was William Langland’s Piers Plowman, a poem entirely dedicated to how to lead a god-fearing life. Earlier generations studied George Herbert and John Bunyan as essential parts of 17th-century literature. Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) used to be considered an integral part of the rise of the novel. Only the religious poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins survives within the canon as a testament to the long tradition of religious literature in English that existed alongside the modern canon.
I comment on all this not because I have any interest in restoring religious literature to its ‘rightful’ place in the canon but rather to show how what we study as great literature is determined by contemporary tastes rather than objective merit.
Indeed, the process of secularizing English literature has been reversed somewhat in recent years. This has not been because of a renewed interest in religion but because of a wish to rediscover women writers. As a result, the religious writings of Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Locke and Christina Rossetti are all being read again.
 startling – surprising, shocking
 to come down to (come-came-come) – reach, be inherited by
 rather than – as opposed to, instead of
 mishmash – mixture
 Wyrd – a pagan Germanic concept similar to destiny
 hands-off – non-interventionist
 approach – (in this case) attitude
 keen – enthusiastic
 to undermine – weaken, debilitate
 hardly – not really
 to place – put
 fairy-tale (adj.) – magical, fantastical
 cast – (in this case) a group of protagonists
 to be made up of – consist of
 knight – mediaeval soldier who fought on horseback
 prioress – woman who manages a priory/convent (directly subordinate to an abbess)
 monk – religious man who lives in a monastery
 friar – member of a mendicant order such as a Dominican or a Franciscan
 pardoner – sb. licenced to sell papal pardons and indulgences
 summoner – an officer for a mediaeval ecclesiastical court
 portrait – (in this case) description
 thoroughly – effectively, exhaustively
 viciously – fiercely
 the poor – poor people
 lecherous – lascivious
 hunting – chasing and killing animals for pleasure
 and so on – et cetera, etc.
 from then on – after that
 count on there being – assume that there was
 to share – have in common
 indeed – (emphatic) in fact
 to range – stretch, span, vary
 out of – from a total of
 does present – (emphatic) presents, creates
 in Romeo and Juliet
 in Measure for Measure
 in As You Like It
 in Henry V
 to portray – present, depict
 witch – woman who practises black magic
 to rule – govern, control
 towering – (in this case) exceptional, supreme
 albeit unwittingly – even though this is not intentional
 by far – unquestionably, easily
 rise – (in this case) emergence, appearance
 do appear – (emphatic) appear
 to expunge – erase, delete, eliminate
 to lead (lead-led-led) – (in this case) live
 god–fearing – devoutly religious
 an English Jesuit
 within – in
 but rather – (in this case) I comment on it
 rather than – as opposed to, instead of