THE REVOLUTIONARY AGE
THE movement in English literature which we call variously the Romantic Revival, or the Return to Nature, or the Renascence of Wonder, according as we think chiefly of Scott or Wordsworth or Coleridge, was an eddy in a far wider movement which affected the whole of Western Europe. We have reached a stretch in the stream of Time which is broken by the cataract of the French Revolution. Everything within that stretch seems to be either sweeping towards the cataract or issuing from it. We cannot understand the work of Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, or later of Byron and Shelley, till we know something of the ideas which led up to the French Revolution or arose from its effects.
When we look back over the eighteenth century we see many signs of impending change. All these years Orthodoxy was fighting a drawn battle with Deism; many English Presbyterians had gone over to Unitarianism, which the orthodox considered little better than Deism; and beyond the left flank of the Deists lay adversaries still more dangerous, sceptics and infidels like Hume and Gibbon in England, Voltaire and Diderot in France. The climate of opinion thus created in the upper classes of society, though it suited satire and didacticism well enough, was very unfavourable to the poetry of the imagination and the higher emotions. It is a strange, and perhaps a significant, fact that of the English poets who are looked on as the precursors of the Romantic Revival, Cowper, Collins, and Smart were all at times mad, Blake can scarcely be regarded as at all times sane, and Gray, though in no sense insane, was deeply melancholic.
And yet this so-called Age of Reason was also the great age of English hymnology. Beneath its cold, rationalistic surface a warmer current flowed, something that its dispraisers called 'enthusiasm.' The essence of 'enthusiasm' was simply personal religion, resting on the belief that man could know God. Its great practical mani-