"Everything mattered--except everything."
-- G. K. Chesterton ( 1905)
C hesterton's summation of Victorian metaphysical claustrophobia is as succinct as it is accurate. Nineteenth-century positivism pinched spirituality like a cop. The genius of the Religion of Humanity, as of utilitarianism, was ethical. But, in the 1910s, along came writers for whom religion was, and had to be, once again divine in essence--that is, inhuman, an experience of what is so deeply inside that it is also out there, so endless that it is everything. Several of the English-language modernists rediscovered the sacred as unlimited continuity, hence as immediacy, intimacy--a clear violation of the paltry pocket of socially convenient ideas and practical habits called the "human." D. H. Lawrence summoned back an old name: Pan. W. B. Yeats used newer old names: Plato's Sphere, Plotinus's There. T. S. Eliot spoke of the Absolute. These three, together with Ezra Pound, whose traffic with the sacred was more sporadic, were chief among the English-language modernist poets who reopened negotiations with the divine.
For the most part, English-language modernism was (and is) the wrestling back into human experience (imagined human experience, to be sure) of the sublime, what Longinus called the "too much" (too much for a steady heart rate or clear thought). The Great War (the title itself invokes sublimity) seemed to show, in a flare light, that the human cause was already lost. Which left the inhuman, something that the semicolonial poet Yeats, shying away from English humanism as from