Secular Scriptures

Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante

William Franke

Literature, Religion, and Postsecular Studies


LITERARY CRITICISM / General LITERARY CRITICISM / American / General LITERARY CRITICISM / European / French LITERARY CRITICISM / European / Italian LITERARY CRITICISM / European / English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh
272 pp. 6x9

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“In a series of dazzling essays taking Dante as their starting point, William Franke finds the trace of religious meaning throughout different forms of modern poetry, whose gaps and discontinuities he claims point to the ineffable beyond language. The book will prove an immense provocation and stimulus to all those who thought they had sorted out the relation of theology to modern poetry.” — Jeremy Tambling, University of Manchester

“In twenty-five years of teaching a ‘great books’ curriculum, I have rarely read a study so finely attuned to the spiritual resonances of classic texts. I will be consulting William Franke’s Secular Scriptures for as long as I continue teaching and writing about the religious dimension of literature, and its enduring relevance to our ‘secular age.’” —Paul J. Contino, Pepperdine University

“In Secular Scriptures, William Franke rejects the received wisdom that sacred and secular are essentially opposed to one another. He does this by asking us to think about where these alleged oppositions in fact converge—in a venerable Western literary tradition. Surveying a broad spectrum of works written ‘in the wake of Dante,’ he argues that ‘self reflexivity,’ subjective human experience and reflection, has become for modern poets the locus of revelation, a form of scripture. Building on his extensive previous explorations of ineffability, ‘on what cannot be said,’ he uncovers the richness—both literary and philosophical —of inventive language that speaks in order to reveal ‘the spiritual mysteries of the letter,’ to gain access to what ultimately lies beyond the reach of words.” —Peter Hawkins, Yale Divinity School

“I read Secular Scriptures almost without putting the work down. Readers in fields from fin-de-siècle decadence to ‘post-postmodernism’ in poetry, especially those with interest in religion and literature studies, will be delighted by the way Dante is recast here to preface twentieth- and twenty-first-century developments. Franke’s way of thinking backwards from recent postsecular theory is beguiling and transformative; the movement forward in the final chapter, via Dante’s emerging again at the end as at the beginning, is really rather beautiful.” —Romana Huk, University of Notre Dame

“William Franke has written, in a luminous prose, an enthralling book about a pivotal issue in literary studies: the esthetics of visionary literature. The questions Franke raises—philosophy of language, the nature of mystical insights, their modes of representation, and the revelations of poetic knowledge— find in Dante, in the Romantic poets of Europe, and in the radical philosophical speculations of the twentieth century a fascinating articulation through which the reader can experience the depths of the high culture of the West.” —Giuseppe Mazzotta, Yale University

With Secular Scriptures: Modern Theological Poetics in the Wake of Dante, William Franke reexamines the role that literature plays in theological revelation. In the modern world, secularism typically means the exclusion of God from the world. Yet Franke, recognizing that secularity itself is built into religion and revelation, argues that theologically sensitive poetry has driven secularization throughout the modern period. The essays in this volume construct a trajectory through modern poetic literature as it struggled with the sense of a loss of the very possibility of theological revelation. Can literature replace religion? Can it do so triumphantly or only mournfully? Is this literary transmogrification of revelation the death of religion or its rebirth in a vital new form?

Secular Scriptures examines, through its own original speculative outlook, some of the most compelling exemplars of religious-poetic revelation in modern Western literature. The essays taken as an ensemble revolve around and are bookended by Dante, but they also explore the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Leopardi, Baudelaire, Dickinson, and Yeats. Looking both backward and forward from the vantage of Dante, Franke explores the roots of secularized religious vision in antiquity and the Middle Ages, even as he also looks forward toward its fruits in modern poetry and poetics. Ultimately, Franke’s analyses demonstrate the possibilities opened by understanding literature as secularized religious revelation.

William Franke is Professor of Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University and Professor of Philosophy and Religions at the University of Macao.