Preromanticism Overviews - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Margaret Sherwood (essay date 1934)

SOURCE: "Some Phases of Development of Thought in the World of Letters in the Eighteenth Century," in Undercurrents of Influence in English Romantic Poetry, AMS Press, 1971, pp. 28-113.

[In the following excerpt from a work originally published in 1934, Sherwood describes how eighteenth-century authors reacted against prevailing religious and scientific notions through a new emphasis on subjectivism.]

The great flowering of poetry in the so-called romantic period of the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries in England was not a sudden portent; growth was swift, but not sudden. More and more the student turns back to the eighteenth century to study origins, trace influences, search out undercurrents of thought, that he may better understand that rich, complex, modern product. Throughout a great part of this century groping for fuller life is revealed in the form and in the content of the poetry that is written; wandering in that world of letters of the mid-eighteenth century is like wandering in the forest when spring draws near, when one hears a faint murmur and rustle of life, everywhere an air of expectancy, of awaiting. As the century goes on there is increasingly a reaching out for fuller existence, a release of human nature from the bonds of convention, a slow liberation of emotion, imagination, and the deeper powers of the human mind. Such conditions prevail only when great ideas are stirring beneath the surface, waiting to emerge.

Today our thought and our imaginative insight are dominated by evolutionary conceptions; our tendency is to interpret all aspects of man's life in terms of growth and development; to think of the past as indissolubly bound up with the present; we are constantly questioning, in every department of thinking, how things came to be. Our literature, our scholarship, our philosophy, our psychology reflect these habits of mind. It is of singular interest to turn back to a period when these ideas did not prevail, to try to trace, in the minds of a few thinkers, incipient stages of these tendencies, to follow the deepening life of the thought of man as his very vocabulary changes from abstract rationalistic terms to terms of growth; fascinating to question whether the tendency which developed into the historical method in the humanities, into the evolutionary conception in science, may not have manifested itself in minor forms, in subtler ways; to question literature here and there to see in how far it reveals the slow changing of the very texture of man's thought, as a consciousness of process, of life opening out endlessly, replaces the desire for abstract finalities of judgment. Back of all the varied apprehensions of growth, of life in things, lies the ground idea of our modern thought, of the oneness of the universe, which finds its spiritual counterpart in the idea of the close interrelatedness of all human lives, society as one; as the idea of physical development, evolution, finds its counterpart in the idea of spiritual evolution. In searching for glimmerings of these ideas in the period to which we turn, no claim is made that the writers in question were the first to suggest them. This is a dangerous assertion to make in regard to any idea, and especially in regard to evolutionary ideas, which go back to the very dawn of man's thought, in Greece.

In the early eighteenth century certain reactionary tendencies begin to appear against the prevailing modes of thought of the preceding century. We of the complex present have difficulty in finding our way back into the simplicity and objectivity of seventeenth century thought, in its dominant trend. One knew where one was in that period; law was law, and conformity was expected of the right-minded citizen. The dogmas of church and of state had the authority of long tradition; science was establishing its creed of unquestionable law throughout the physical universe; kings were upon their thrones, the critics upon theirs, and absolute power in carrying out decrees was as evident in the world of literature as in the political world. It was not, outwardly, a world of perplexity, of mystery; all was clear and above-board. Whatever your private reserves, your duty was not to thread your way through intricate mazes of speculation in regard to the ultimate realities, or in regard to matters of right and wrong. Reason was adequate to reach the truth of things; duty was conformity, at least of one's outer or official self, to an objective standard; one gave official consent to creeds established by law. Wandering back to that world of hard, definite mountain outlines and unshaded plains, we should feel as lost in it as did Sir Thomas Browne, with that questioning mind: "I love to lose myself in a mystery; to pursue my reason to an O Altitudo!" …" Where there is an obscurity too deep for our reason, 'tis good to sit down with a description, periphrasis, or adumbration."

His distinctive figure, standing in the market-place at Norwich, with a look of whimsical thoughtfulness upon his face, might well symbolize that human instinct that will not down, that is forever alert in periods of dogmatic certainties as in others, searching beyond the found. He was not alone in that seventeenth century in pursuing thought to an O Altitudo! but he and his like were not the dominant voices. The seventeenth century had its mystics; the outcast philosopher Spinoza had achieved that which would compel future generations to think more deeply; the thought of Plato and of Plotinus was creeping in through the influential Cambridge group, to become more and more potent in the minds of certain thinkers in later days,—the subtlest and the most pervasive influence helping bring about the romantic movement in literature and in philosophy.

But the dominant note was the note of outer authority. Periods of over-assurance are weather breeders; too clear a sky is a sure token of mysteriously dispersed clouds that gather quickly, and over-confident assertion is the mother of doubt. The coming of new moods, new mental attitudes, new inquiries that meant, in time, the breaking of the certainties, was but natural sequence; submerged currents of thought and feeling began to emerge; men reached out to new ways of conceiving and interpreting life; questioning of every kind of authority went hand in hand with search for deeper truth than any formula, political, scientific, philosophic had yet found. The slow approach of revolution in every department of thought ended, toward the close of the eighteenth century in a period that was revolution indeed. Contemplation of that outer world of illimitable spaces and certain movements that had been gloriously revealed by seventeenth century science was not enough; men became increasingly conscious of realities that the laws of physics did not reach. Reason was supreme, but, in the skepticism of Hume, reason began to doubt itself, inquiring into the nature of the instrument by which these outer facts were known. The trend of speculative thought turned from without to within. In philosophy came a curiosity and desire to probe the nature of the mind, a movement that, toward the end of the century, in the philosophy of Kant, transferred the seat of authority from outer law to the human mind itself. The drift of interest in the world of letters was from objective to subjective; many were filled with longing to explore their own inner experience and that of others, to make conquest of the world within. From that standard of impersonality in the pseudo-classic canon of literature, that endeavor to present, in rendering human experience, only the typical, that which is true of all men, men passed to a belief in the profound significance of the personal reaction to life, the interpretation of the world as individually possessed; passed, too, from a conception of a law of form, imposed from without, to a conception of individual shaping power, working, imaginatively, from within. In science itself came a movement that, toward the end of the century, brought, not abandonment of the idea of universal law, but discovery that man must dig more deeply into the hidden nature of things to find reality of law; and the static conceptions of the seventeenth century began to give way to a tentative conception of the dynamic, of law at work within the universe, in incessant activity and change, the beginning of the modern idea of evolution. Dogmatic theology trembled, as it trembles still, at the thought of God, changing from that of a power, sitting apart in a long seventh day of rest, to that of a power still mysteriously working within.

Yet seventeenth century philosophy, seventeenth century science alike had their own awe-inspiring sublimities, which stimulated the minds and imaginations of men in ways which we have only partially divined. The vast oneness of all that is was a dominant seventeenth century affirmation; in metaphysics as in science, philosopher and scientist were groping toward the infinite along different trails. Spinoza in his Ethic (1677), affirmed the one absolutely infinite substance, God, as the only existence; while the scientific discoveries, the Copernican-Galilean revelation of the vastness of the universe, and of the laws that govern it, stretched the mind of man toward the infinite of the world of matter. To Galileo's proved vision of a vast system, one in its working, in which earth was only an atom, no longer the center of the universe, was added knowledge more significant still. Men's thought was different after Newton discovered the law of gravitation and, in his Principia (1687), revealed the interdependence of all that is, body answering body by virtue of an inner bond, reaching from inmost center to inmost center, known in its working but not in its ultimate nature, every atom affecting every other atom. No more important idea was ever launched; it deeply influenced thought, and not scientific thought alone.

Swiftly on the trail of the scientists' "what" followed, as usual, the speculation and affirmation of those who must know "why." Contemplation of the working of the laws of the universe revealed to certain thinkers that the old conception of God, inherited from the Hebrew people, was not great enough for the God manifest in the laws ruling through infinite space. These laws had been clearly demonstrated; the Deists, holding their reason adequate to solve all problems, imagined that they could demonstrate as clearly the God who made the law. Working back to the creator from the created, they claimed that no further revelation of him was necessary than that made manifest in his works. Out of questions regarding the nature of the universe, ruled, in both scientific and in theological thought, by power from outside, developed fierce debate. There was consternation in theological circles over the newly-discovered truths of science; in England the Deist controversy made up an important part of the thought of the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth centuries, centering in the question of a God revealed through nature, versus a God revealed through Scripture; natural law versus supernatural happenings. Hard blows were given and received; and, as in "battles long ago," "much slaughter was of people on both parties"; "and either smote other in middes of their shields." "Then they stood together and gave many sad strokes on divers places of their bodies, and the blood brast out on many sides and places." The theologians were rather the victors, but, as is usual in the irony of life, their victory was loss; in grasping the weapons of their opponents, in over-rationalizing the religion they were defending, they went far toward deadening the very springs of faith in the Church they served. Out of the perplexity and turmoil of these troubled times emerged thought and feeling which were to have vast consequences in the literature of a later period….

Bertrand H. Bronson (lecture date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Retreat from Reason," in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, edited by Harold E. Pagliaro, The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972, pp. 225-38.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1971, Bronson examines the eighteenth-century attack on reason as it led up to Preromanticism.]

Lest I stumble, and because the time is short, I will state at once the propositions I would try to illustrate in what follows. As generalities, they are unlikely to excite disagreement, and the interest must lie in the fluctuations of thought and feeling that differentiate those generations, chronologically viewed.

1. At the opening of the eighteenth century there is a weakening of conviction of the importance of man's personal relation to God the Father.

2. There is a depersonalizing of external nature, from the cooperative universal Mother to universal, unalterable physical laws.

3. There is a shrinkage of assurance of the potency of man's rational powers, no longer seen as "infinite in faculty," yet a keener sense of reliance on them.

As the century passes its meridian, values are gradually rescaled and redefined, roughly as follows:

4. Nature in a "state of nature" is preferred to nature domesticated.

5. Irregularity enforces a lawless appeal that surpasses rational ordering.

6. Sudden irrational conversion and conviction of salvation by faith returns to religion.

7. Emotional assurance tends to supplant the appeal to reason as expressed in logical trains of thought.

It may be laid down as an axiom, as Dr. Johnson would say, that everything had already begun before we realized. In the context of the moment, this truth if pursued would take me back straightway into the seventeenth century, where I have no wish to go, further than to acknowledge that the beginnings are there, Pyrrhonism and all.

About 1700 there was an unusually pervasive sense of the opening of a century as a true beginning: almost the birth of a "brave new world." The shadows and superstitions of the past were being dispersed by Newton's universal light, swept away like ghosts:

'Tis well an Old Age is out,
And time to begin a New.1

As Newton had disclosed the laws of celestial mechanics, Locke had found a key to the inner world, which could open the mechanics of the mind—or a clue, a method, if not a key. The new revelations, fortunately, did not require the sacrifice of cherished beliefs. Locke and Newton were devout. God was still Creator and Lord of all, and the natural universe bore witness to His power and glory: "The works of Nature everywhere sufficiently evidence a Deity," declared Locke. "The spangled heavens proclaim their great Original," sang Addison. But now the old ideal system of orders, each hierarchically ascending, and bound together in mutual cooperative obedience to divine command, needed reformulation in less spiritual terms—the political order in Britain having already been reconstituted by the simple stroke of an ax. The new world-view still assumed a Divine Author, but shifted the focus of attention, in Tuveson's phrase, from why to how He did it.

The prevailing optimism of the age rested in the conviction that the physical universe was based on natural laws which could be discovered—gradually—by man, and understood as being fixed, regular, unalterable procedures; not beyond the capacity of human mentality to grasp as principles, though too vast to be comprehended as a whole, and too complicated to be known except piecemeal; but not supernatural, not outside or alien to intellectual process as we know it. Underlying this confidence is faith—faith in the Creator, faith in the stability of Nature, and faith in rationality as humanly conceived. The supreme expression of this confidence is paragraph IX of the first Epistle of Pope's Essay on Man, beginning:

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.

Because of its very lack of philosophical originality, Pope's statement is a paradigm of its century's characteristic attitude toward the Cosmos; it was so widely accepted as to be translated into twenty languages, and into some of them many times. Catholics, Protestants, and deists could join in adopting it, punctuating or footnoting to suit themselves.

But when God said, "Let Newton be!" a part of His meaning perhaps was, "If undisturbed, he will look after things so competently that I can afford to relax." If, in other words, the physical universe was so perfectly organized as Newton had made manifest, it needed no divine tinkering to keep it going—had needed, did, and would need none. This thought, of course, had far-reaching implications that could be chilling. How could man know that he was an object of any concern or interest to a God so impalpable and aloof? It was easy to believe in a divine original, a causa causons; but revelation might be essential to convince us any longer of our own importance. On the other hand, the deist position was a great simplifier, liberating those who embraced it from a load of worrying theological dogma. The climate of optimism, an inherited feeling-tone common to the age, and not directly subverted by the new world-view, remained emotionally operative.

If there was a slackening in man's communion with a personal God as the Age of Enlightenment began, two concomitants—and perhaps, partly, consequences—were: (1) the elevation of Nature as a surrogate for a present, immanent Deity; and (2) a closer scrutiny of the thinking process. Descartes had failed to break out of the octopus-like stranglehold of seventeenth-century Pyrrhonism to any objective truth ("I thought, then perhaps I was," in Pierre-Daniel Huet's wicked paraphrase of 1689). But Locke had begun to collect the evidence of what seems normally to be going on in our minds, and this appeared to be a hopeful method and a stimulating exercise. Perhaps God had, after all, provided us with the necessary tools for acquiring knowledge suited to existence on this "isthmus of a middle state."

Following the hopeful track, Shaftesbury, Locke's too-bright pupil, discovered that man is naturally virtuous, sociable, beauty-loving. And why not? For proof, one need only consult one's uncorrupted responses to the positives and negatives of experience, and find where one's instinctive preferences lie. For Shaftesbury, to cultivate and possess the social affections completely is, in his words, "to live according to Nature, and the Dictates and Rules of supreme Wisdom. This is Morality, Justice, Piety, and natural Religion." It is only necessary, for everyone's good, to restrain the "selfaffections." Shaftesbury, Basil Willey declares, is the typical English moralist of the "Enlightenment"; and Hume notices that he first occasions the distinction between two theories of morals, "that which derives them from Reason, and that which derives them from 'an immediate feeling and finer internal sense.'"

Already, then, in the century's first decade, the breeze is setting toward "immediate, undefmable perception" as a more dependable criterion than reason, in moral discriminations as in questions of art. This tendency picks up strength from the academic authority and respectability of Hutcheson, who systematized Shaftesbury's elegant rhapsodizing. Sorley has neatly summarized his work in a sentence: "Hutcheson maintained the disinterestedness of benevolence; he assimilated moral and aesthetic judgments; he elaborated the doctrine of the moral sense…; and he identified virtue with universal benevolence: in the tendency towards general happiness he found the standard of goodness."2

To make the emotions a basis of ethics is something like inverting Pope's dictum to read, "Passion the card, while Reason trims the sail." To accept it, one must have faith in natural instincts, must believe in the morality of Nature, and that human nature, as servant of that divinity, is most moral when likest to her. Shaftesbury's impassioned invocation exemplifies the faith: "O Glorious Naturel supremely Fair, and soveraignly Good! All-loving, and All-lovely, All-divine! … Ï mighty Nature! Wise Substitute of Providence! impower'd Creatress! … Thee I invoke, and Thee alone adore."3 The date of this outburst is 1709. It could be part of the youthful Goethe's pantheistic hymn "Ganymed" ("Wie im Morgenglanze Du rings mich angliihst, Friihling, Geliebter!"), the pitch of exaltation is so close. How wholeheartedly Thomson would have endorsed this natural morality I must leave to Professor Cohen to determine. The Seasons is descriptive rather than prescriptive; but in general, Nature and God are not indistinguishable in Thomson, however harmonious; and I suspect that he would not have subscribed to the ethics of cultural primitivism. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the moral sense, as taught by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, was potent, both at home and abroad. It suited an age of sensibility, and increasingly as the century wore on. Anyone who has leafed through the amazing compilation of Margaret Fitzgerald, First Follow Nature, and the equally surprising survey by Lois Whitney of primitivistic popular fiction must realize how inescapable the sympathetic theme of rural felicity soon became.4

In contrast, Johnson placed the Golden Age firmly in pre-lapsarian days. His suspicions of hypothetical subsequent golden ages in conditions of pastoral life were confirmed by sociological enquiry in the Highlands and Western Islands, of which he gave a remarkably fair-minded and dispassionate report. Apart from human hardships and deprivations, his reaction to wild Nature deserves to be recalled in this connection:

Regions mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited, and little cultivated, make a great part of the earth, and he that has never seen them, must live unacquainted with much of the face of nature, and with one of the great scenes of human existence…; the imaginations excited by the view of unknown and untravelled wilderness are not such as arise in the artificial solitude of parks and gardens, a flattering notion of self-sufficiency, a placid indulgence of voluntary delusions, a secure expansion of the fancy, or a cool concentration of the mental powers. The phantoms which haunt a desert are want, and misery, and danger; the evils of dereliction rush upon the thoughts; man is made unwillingly acquainted with his own weakness, and meditation shews him only how little he can sustain, and how little he can perform.5

Very different was the purely aesthetic response of Gray to untouched natural grandeur. Extremely different were the sentiments and operations on Nature of the landscape gardeners of the age, whether Pope, or Shenstone, or Jago, or Capability Brown, or Repton. Pope had said,

But treat the Goddess like a modest fair,
Nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare;
Let not each beauty ev'ry where be spy'd,
Where half the skill is decently to hide.6

In fact, for such as these nature was something of a commodity to be altered at will and exploited to suit man's immediate taste and enjoyment. The point of view was not, any more than Johnson's, indicative of union with Nature. Rather, it was basically utilitarian, and exclusive of objectionable society. Only that part of external Nature was required that could serve as the club-house grounds. There were members privileged to use the grounds for health and pleasure, and others who worked on them for a livelihood, furthering thereby the aesthetic enjoyment of the members.

It is clear that the aesthetic tastes of the members were changing rapidly as the century proceeded. There was a growing appetite for more challenging, more esoteric, excitements than domesticated nature could supply. A clear preference was developing for the irregular—even the disorderly and wild.

A. R. Humphreys makes a startling generalization in his admirable little book on Shenstone: "The attack on geometry is perhaps the most significant fact of eighteenth-century aesthetics."7 Certainly, the statement could be amply illustrated in the arts of gardening, architecture, and interior decoration. As the decades pass, we can observe everywhere a relinquishing of mathematical rule, exact equations, right lines; and everywhere a liberation of fancy. There is nothing serpentine—or even symmetrical—about a subterranean grotto: "Would not this, Dr. Johnson, make a pretty, cool place in summer?" "Madam, I think it would—for a toad." Crudely put, the movement is from reason to imagination, from rational to whimsical. Simultaneously, the temperature gradually rises, the pitch of excitement increases—more often to hot tears than to laughter.

The signs of a will to escape from common daylight are everywhere. Into the Past, through Gothicizing (Strawberry Hill, Abbotsford, Fonthill Abbey) and bogus ruins in landscaping (Sanderson Miller,...

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