[Barnes] Journey Through Despair 1880-1914 (Chapters 1&2)

Lester, John. Journey Through Despair 1880-1914: Transformations in British Literary Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968.

CHAPTER 1

Toward ‘Disillusionment

No generation has been at peace with its time. Faced with terrors and impending chaos there have always been those who found it bliss to be alive, and ancient voices too, prophesying war. At the first dawn of the “Victorian” age Thomas Carlyle wrote that his generation had “walked by the light of conflagrations, and amid the sound of falling cities; and now there is darkness, and long watching till it be morning.” But in the hubbub of the new London, Sam and Tony Weller were there too and found it “reasonably conwalessent” and “all wery capital.” When the experience of an age can be assessed so variously, one must be careful in extracting common denominators.

Yet the generation of the turn of the century was hyper-sensitive of its identity; it was inordinately fond of labeling itself. For this generation this was the “Age of Bovril,” an age of newness of all kinds, the “yellow nineties,” the “Beardsley period,” the fin de siecle. In a phrase that crops up recurrently in literature of the time, “We are those upon whom the ends of the world are come.”‘ Even in passing journalistic comment, one meets this consciousness that the age bore a special character and was deeply sundered from generations gone before. Grant Allen likens Burne-Jones’s painting to that of painters before Raphael, and yet it is unlike theirs too: it has the note of the nineteenth century in it, he says, “deep-questioning, mystic, uncertain, rudderless: faith gone; humanity left: heaven lost; earth realised as man’s, the home and sole hope for the future.”‘ The age was unanimously aware that it possessed an identity of its own; it is when we search for definitions of that identity that we find diversity and confusion.

At the risk of imposing arbitrary categories, we may best depict the cultural mood of these years as a drift from unrest to an intense excitement, from excitement to bewilderment, and thence to a darkening disillusionment. Obviously, no strict chronology will apply to these transitions. Different sensibilities respond to some stages more intensely than to others; the age at which a given author
enters the literary scene very significantly affects, may even determine, his response. But the steady drift toward disillusionment seems to have left its mark inescapably on all the creative artists of the time.

The causes of unrest lay partly in the facts of social history. New labor-saving machinery had been introduced, and prolonged agricultural and industrial depression in the 187os and ‘8os had shaken again the stabilities of economic and class status. “Whole classes or strata of society … pushed their way out of the inarticulate and into the articulate part of the community[;] a kind of upstart arrogance became vocal with them.”‘ New theories of social organization were advanced, and new socialist leagues were founded in the 188os. By 1889 George Bernard Shaw could announce that it was statistically proven that England’s civilization was “in an advanced state of rottenness.” Robert Blatchford had come forth with an inspiration drawn from his youthful reading of tales of knight errantry, and he did battle now on the social scene with the “fell dragons of privilege and prejudice.”‘

But the unrest had more than merely social causes. There was a new generation knocking at the door, and it demanded freedom from the old. It was an age of tension between father and son, an age of dreams and prophecies, an age of utopias. Unrest pervaded man’s material life, his thought, and his imagination. I have met with no single study of man’s spiritual condition in this period that does not openly recognize an instability which had entered into man’s inner life. It may be called a “restlessness … in our veins,” a “disquiet in the breasts of men,” or “a consciousness of unrest and anxiety, . . . a vague feeling of alarm.” The malaise touches the heart of every thinker and writer of the time.’

But one of the excitements of this culture is that, as in the Renaissance when a new philosophy, in John Donne’s words, called “all in doubt,” many early reactions at the turn of the century were not of frenzied despair, but of renewed vitality. Henry W. Nevinson gives the most concise record I have found of how such responses could come about: “For me, as for so many people in that
variegated age of English life, [it was] a period of strangely vivid interests and strangely diverse pursuits. We were simultaneously, and almost equally, attracted by the soldier, enthusiastic for the rebel, clamorous for the poor, and devoted to the beautiful. Some of us were moved most by one of these incitements, some by another; but many, like myself, were moved by all four together, and we recognised no contradiction in the objects of our admiration or desire. The apparent contradictions were reconciled in a renewed passion-a glowing intensity-of life as we issued from the rather chilly rationalism and moralising of former years.”‘ Intensity poured into all modes of life and thought and gave to each what seems in retrospect an energy and fervor in excess of its proper share.
London became, more than it had ever been before the literary Mecca of this time in Britain; artists and authors all converged on London. They met with the hackwork of Grub Street at the start-it was the heyday of the new journalism; but each author brought a hope that his own flair, his own individual accent of style and personality, might make its mark on the vibrant age.’ There was expectancy abroad that some new note would be struck in literature and the arts, something to catalyze and to express the strange new current mood. Each author newly arrived in London hoped that he might ride “on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition.” This could be “one of the world’s great mornings,” moving at once “on to great things and [he] could help it move.” “What uproar!” shouts Max Beerbohm. “Around me seethed swirls, eddies, torrents, violent cross-currents of human activity.”” With such electric excitement in the air it is small wonder that the period’s cultural pattern is hard to define, and small wonder that its literature IS fraught with so many seemingly conflicting trends.

Many motives of the late century partook of this new excitement. The New Hedonism-detected and named by Grant Allen-was one, bringing with it the extraordinary rage for Fitzgerald’s Omar. Activism was another, transformed from Ulysses’ will “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” to a rejoicing in vigorous action, in the struggle itself-as in Kipling and Henley and in Stevenson’s “brave gymnasium” of the world-rather than in striving toward a known end.” Professor J. H. Buckley has written well on this subject and has pointed out its forebears in Victorian literature: the pride of self-help in the captain of industry and the self-made man, Ulysses’ quest, Carlyle’s gospel of work.” Without question, the resort to action purely as an escape from doubt had been
a literary motif earlier in the century; one recalls Tennyson’s spokesman in “Locksley Hall”: “I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair.” But in the later century the motif is markedly more pervasive and intense, and more radical in its skepticism of the goal of action. In Carlyle and Tennyson there is often a tacit assumption that work lights the way toward truth-” ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee’ . … The second duty will already have become clearer”;” in the late century there is less confidence that a truth or a newly found moral obligation awaits. The activist’s immersement is rather in the action for its own sake. Intensity seems more and more a hallmark of this fin-de-siecle culture. It informs aestheticism-as in Pater’s resolve to “be present always at the focus where the greatest number of forces unite in their purest energy.”” It informs the heightened demand for tales of adventure and far-off lands, a demand met by the romances of Kipling, Hudson, Haggard, Stevenson, and of course Joseph Conrad, who became much provoked at his readers’ insistence on taking him as a writer of sea stories. There is an extraordinary intensity in the imperialism and socialism of the urn of the century; both became charged with an overplus of fervor which exalted each at times almost to religion. To G. K. Chesterton, socialism and imperialism seemed “the two great movements” of his youth. Stewart Headlam found that it is now the “main function of the Christian church…to carry out the principles of Socialism”; John Davidson, in his late vein of oracular dogmatism, could state that “poetry is the will to live and the will to power; poetry is the empire.” When Stephen Phillips wrote in r899 of the lack in contemporary poetry of “some great compelling … purpose,”
he had to make one exception-“the wave of emotion and enthusiasm which has visited us lately …roused by the splendour and the fact of empire.””

Embracing all such excitements was the motive simply to live life to the fullest, “to live life significantly-keenly and beautifully, personally and, if need be, daringly; to win from it its fullest satisfactions •.. and most exhilarating experiences.”” It is the self-reliance of Emerson and Whitman much heightened, intensified by influences of Max Stirner and Nietzsche, and by Villiers de’Isle Adam: “Become the flower of thyself!” Oscar Wilde strikes the same note: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly-that is what each of us is here for.”” To this theme the loud clamor in life and in fiction for the emancipation of women from the marital bond was closely related. If women were to achieve full self-development and self-realization, the societal contract which simply restricts and precommits must be done away with; the heart-“which signs no documents”” -must be free. The demand for women’s freedom was expressed in actuality in the Married Woman’s Property Acts of 1892 and 1893, and in fiction in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (r883), Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did (1895), Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), and in many novels of H. G. Wells and others.”

The intense drive toward life at its fullest pressed on into moods of uncertainty, bewilderment, decadence. This was not simply the Byronic exhaustion, where “the sword wears out the sheath,” nor the Swinburnean “too much love of living” (though Dowson’s poetry holds records of such moments). It was a hunger for experience such as that which prompted Wilde to announce that “sin is the only real color-element left in modern life,” or, even more poignantly, to his pathetic resolve, “I must go as far as possible. . . . Something must happen . . . something else.” It tempted Lionel Johnson to write that

. . . all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.

This is the response which mainly invokes the term decadent, a response succinctly described by Le Gallienne early in the 1890s: “To notice only the picturesque effect of a beggar’s rags, like Gautier; the colour-scheme of a tipster’s nose, like Mr. Huysmans; to consider one’s mother merely prismatically, like Mr. Whistler-these are examples of the decadent attitude.” The best description of all is still Arthur Symons’: “Late-century decadence has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity …. To fix the last fine shade, the quintessence of things; to fix it fleetingly; to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of the human soul: that is the ideal of Decadence.””‘

From intensity, relentlessly to disillusionment and despair-perhaps the result was inevitable. How can one insist on further and further extremes of experience without being pressed to the outre and the bizarre, and to the one step beyond what the human sensibility can bear? Wilde was compelled so: “We must always want the most tragic.” The same fatal elan may be hidden in Yeats’ conclusion: “We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy.”” The very knowledge that a century was ending seems to have contributed to the mood; and coupled with the urge toward maximal experience and beyond, there grew the widespread notion that mankind had lost vitality at the fin de siecle, had become hypersensitive, effete, run down, “ending in decrepitude.”” The notion runs through English and European literature of the period with startling persistence: “We are all of us just nothing but ‘Epigoni’l”; “les derniers fils d’une race epuisee”; and

Curs’ d from the cradle and awry they come,
Masking their torment from a world at ease;
On eyes of dark entreaty, vague and dumb,
They bear the stigma of their souls’ disease.”

The mood shapes characters as diverse as Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, Mann’s child Hanna, and Hardy’s Father Time.

Still another impulse toward disillusionment came from the realistic bent of much of the literature of this time. It is a further paradox of this culture that the intensity which led some to romantic adventure and escape from urban drabness led others to focus on the actualities of contemporary city life, and to reveal remorselessly its sordidness. Thus we find one author telling us, “The will to romance: that, in a phrase, was the motive philosophy of the ‘9os,” while another will state of the same decade, “We are wholly given up to realism …. Little by little, even our children are losing this happy gift of believing the incredible.””

Granted, the realist was able to find romance in the realism of London streets as well. Urban realism discovered beauty in London’s Thames and East End and in its mud and poverty that had not been found there before. But the groundnote of late-century realism was heavy and sorrowing, recording London as a city heaving and festering, aching and spiritless, where men “grow sickly, like
grass under a stone.”” Settings that once had been an evocative setting for romantic action became sordid and dehumanizing: “He would have preferred a more congenial spot, but, as usually happens, in place of a romantic field or solemn aisle for his tale, it was told while they walked up and down over a floor littered with rotten cabbage-leaves, and amid all the usual squalors of decayed vegetable matter and unsaleable refuse.”” Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London ( 13 vols., 1892-1903) dredged forth the mass of unappealing facts; Moore, Crackanthorpe, Hardy, Morrison, Whiteing, and Maugham exploited the vision in fiction. To the creative mind more often than not the brute facts of man’s physical nature and oppressive environment connoted “social Darwinism,” a world of determined circumstance and no escape.

These are the moods felt and seen in the literature of England from 1880to 1914. We must keep in mind H. Stuart Hughes’ caution against attributing these motifs directly to interinfluence among writers of this time, and against viewing authors of the period as a coherent “school.”” But the moods are there, visible on the surface; it is my purpose to discover a common cause which may give them coherence and intelligibility. In all their restlessness, vibrancy, excitement, and paradoxical contrariety,
these moods bespeak a malaise and loss of hope. The further one reads, the more one suspects that there was some fundamental cause of disillusionment at work a single challenge to which these varied moods were the response. There are moments of appalled awareness which intrude in this literature, opening a vista of man’s ultimate plight in the world he now saw, touched with the note of settled despair. John Eglinton catches that note in his Two Essays on the Remnant (1895), where he views civilized man of this time as wrapped in the memories of dreams: “The world is covered with the wrecks of his dream. The pyramid lies half sunken in the sands; the temple turns yellow on the capes of Greece; the cathedral is a grey presence above the trampling and trundling of the town; within, pictures glow from the roof. Poetry alone, the final art, survives fragmentarily in the slow settling of his mind to contemplation.” The contemplation may be wistful, or vacuous, or bitter. For some it brought an impulse to shore, against the ruins of the present, the fragments of a beautiful and believing past-Axel in his castle, Des Esseintes in his house at Fontenay, Oscar Wilde and his blue china.” G. K. Chesterton in his Victorian Age in Literature (1913), a book of extraordinary staying power for one written so soon after that age had passed, saw the disillusioned years of the fin de siecle as “like one long afternoon in a rich house on a rainy day.” To another sensibility the sadness is felt as a weariness of the world and of life:

We have lost
All hopes we had, all faiths or right or wrong,
We have been shaken, shattered, tempest-tost,
And we are weary, and the way is long.”

Through the period, in speculation and in literature, W. H. Mallock’s question recurrently arises, “Is life worth living?” In real life, for several poets and artists of the time, the response was “in the negative.” The hero of Francis Adams’s symptomatic novel, A Child of the Age, debates the point: “Was I never to have rest, peace, comfort, self-sufficiency, call it what you please,-that spiritual sailing with spread canvas before a full and unvarying wind? Why was it, why? Was it really because the strange shadow of Purposelessness played the perpetual-rising Banquo at Life’s feast for me? Or was it that I was one who could not lack the Personal Deity with impunity? I didn’t know, I didn’t know! I wished I were dead.”” A Child of the Age first appeared, under a different title, in 1884, nine years before the author’s death by suicide.

This was the generation which Yeats (thinking particularly of the 189os) called back to mind in “The Grey Rock” (1914) :

Poets with whom I learned my trade,
Companions of the Cheshire Cheese.

He tells them a tale to show that, though man is forever cut off from the gods, to the gods he will still be true: “I have kept my faith, though faith was tried.” In 1922 he
recalled this generation again and named it tragic, although he was not sure just what had made it so. Was it that they had lost the “Unity of Being” essential to the artist? Was it the influence of Pater, most of all, who “taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air,” leaving us “to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm”? Or was it “that we lived in what is called ‘an age of transition’ and so lacked coherence ? Beginning? End? Transition? I have already suggested that the British literary culture of the years from 1880 to 1914 was certainly not the end of an epoch, since too many of its moods and doubts are still ours. If it was a transition, the transit is not yet completed. In some larger sense, that age must in fact have been a beginning. I now turn to the main thesis of this book, that the unity among the myriad moods and motives of the period may best be found by viewing them as varied responses evoked by a single challenge which was posed to man’s imaginative life in that time. The following chapter seeks to sketch the nature of that challenge, and the succeeding three chapters suggest the general range of responses made to that challenge. Whether in the result the responses made by these authors were a move forward or a move back is a matter not fully resolved even in our own time. The question of whether beginning, end, or transition becomes
CHAPTER 1

Toward ‘Disillusionment

No generation has been at peace with its time. Faced with terrors and impending chaos there have always been those who found it bliss to be alive, and ancient voices too, prophesying war. At the first dawn of the “Victorian” age Thomas Carlyle wrote that his generation had “walked by the light of conflagrations, and amid the sound of falling cities; and now there is darkness, and long watching till it be morning.” But in the hubbub of the new London, Sam and Tony Weller were there too and found it “reasonably conwalessent” and “all wery capital.” When the experience of an age can be assessed so variously, one must be careful in extracting common denominators.

Yet the generation of the turn of the century was hyper-sensitive of its identity; it was inordinately fond of labeling itself. For this generation this was the “Age of Bovril,” an age of newness of all kinds, the “yellow nineties,” the “Beardsley period,” the fin de siecle. In a phrase that crops up recurrently in literature of the time, “We are those upon whom the ends of the world are come.”‘ Even in passing journalistic comment, one meets this consciousness that the age bore a special character and was deeply sundered from generations gone before. Grant Allen likens Burne-Jones’s painting to that of painters before Raphael, and yet it is unlike theirs too: it has the note of the nineteenth century in it, he says, “deep-questioning, mystic, uncertain, rudderless: faith gone; humanity left: heaven lost; earth realised as man’s, the home and sole hope for the future.”‘ The age was unanimously aware that it possessed an identity of its own; it is when we search for definitions of that identity that we find diversity and confusion.

At the risk of imposing arbitrary categories, we may best depict the cultural mood of these years as a drift from unrest to an intense excitement, from excitement to bewilderment, and thence to a darkening disillusionment. Obviously, no strict chronology will apply to these transitions. Different sensibilities respond to some stages more intensely than to others; the age at which a given author
enters the literary scene very significantly affects, may even determine, his response. But the steady drift toward disillusionment seems to have left its mark inescapably on all the creative artists of the time.

The causes of unrest lay partly in the facts of social history. New labor-saving machinery had been introduced, and prolonged agricultural and industrial depression in the 187os and ‘8os had shaken again the stabilities of economic and class status. “Whole classes or strata of society … pushed their way out of the inarticulate and into the articulate part of the community[;] a kind of upstart arrogance became vocal with them.”‘ New theories of social organization were advanced, and new socialist leagues were founded in the 188os. By 1889 George Bernard Shaw could announce that it was statistically proven that England’s civilization was “in an advanced state of rottenness.” Robert Blatchford had come forth with an inspiration drawn from his youthful reading of tales of knight errantry, and he did battle now on the social scene with the “fell dragons of privilege and prejudice.”‘

But the unrest had more than merely social causes. There was a new generation knocking at the door, and it demanded freedom from the old. It was an age of tension between father and son, an age of dreams and prophecies, an age of utopias. Unrest pervaded man’s material life, his thought, and his imagination. I have met with no single study of man’s spiritual condition in this period that does not openly recognize an instability which had entered into man’s inner life. It may be called a “restlessness … in our veins,” a “disquiet in the breasts of men,” or “a consciousness of unrest and anxiety, . . . a vague feeling of alarm.” The malaise touches the heart of every thinker and writer of the time.’

But one of the excitements of this culture is that, as in the Renaissance when a new philosophy, in John Donne’s words, called “all in doubt,” many early reactions at the turn of the century were not of frenzied despair, but of renewed vitality. Henry W. Nevinson gives the most concise record I have found of how such responses could come about: “For me, as for so many people in that
variegated age of English life, [it was] a period of strangely vivid interests and strangely diverse pursuits. We were simultaneously, and almost equally, attracted by the soldier, enthusiastic for the rebel, clamorous for the poor, and devoted to the beautiful. Some of us were moved most by one of these incitements, some by another; but many, like myself, were moved by all four together, and we recognised no contradiction in the objects of our admiration or desire. The apparent contradictions were reconciled in a renewed passion-a glowing intensity-of life as we issued from the rather chilly rationalism and moralising of former years.”‘ Intensity poured into all modes of life and thought and gave to each what seems in retrospect an energy and fervor in excess of its proper share.
London became, more than it had ever been before the literary Mecca of this time in Britain; artists and authors all converged on London. They met with the hackwork of Grub Street at the start-it was the heyday of the new journalism; but each author brought a hope that his own flair, his own individual accent of style and personality, might make its mark on the vibrant age.’ There was expectancy abroad that some new note would be struck in literature and the arts, something to catalyze and to express the strange new current mood. Each author newly arrived in London hoped that he might ride “on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away the Victorian tradition.” This could be “one of the world’s great mornings,” moving at once “on to great things and [he] could help it move.” “What uproar!” shouts Max Beerbohm. “Around me seethed swirls, eddies, torrents, violent cross-currents of human activity.”” With such electric excitement in the air it is small wonder that the period’s cultural pattern is hard to define, and small wonder that its literature IS fraught with so many seemingly conflicting trends.

Many motives of the late century partook of this new excitement. The New Hedonism-detected and named by Grant Allen-was one, bringing with it the extraordinary rage for Fitzgerald’s Omar. Activism was another, transformed from Ulysses’ will “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” to a rejoicing in vigorous action, in the struggle itself-as in Kipling and Henley and in Stevenson’s “brave gymnasium” of the world-rather than in striving toward a known end.” Professor J. H. Buckley has written well on this subject and has pointed out its forebears in Victorian literature: the pride of self-help in the captain of industry and the self-made man, Ulysses’ quest, Carlyle’s gospel of work.” Without question, the resort to action purely as an escape from doubt had been
a literary motif earlier in the century; one recalls Tennyson’s spokesman in “Locksley Hall”: “I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair.” But in the later century the motif is markedly more pervasive and intense, and more radical in its skepticism of the goal of action. In Carlyle and Tennyson there is often a tacit assumption that work lights the way toward truth-” ‘Do the Duty which lies nearest thee’ . … The second duty will already have become clearer”;” in the late century there is less confidence that a truth or a newly found moral obligation awaits. The activist’s immersement is rather in the action for its own sake. Intensity seems more and more a hallmark of this fin-de-siecle culture. It informs aestheticism-as in Pater’s resolve to “be present always at the focus where the greatest number of forces unite in their purest energy.”” It informs the heightened demand for tales of adventure and far-off lands, a demand met by the romances of Kipling, Hudson, Haggard, Stevenson, and of course Joseph Conrad, who became much provoked at his readers’ insistence on taking him as a writer of sea stories. There is an extraordinary intensity in the imperialism and socialism of the urn of the century; both became charged with an overplus of fervor which exalted each at times almost to religion. To G. K. Chesterton, socialism and imperialism seemed “the two great movements” of his youth. Stewart Headlam found that it is now the “main function of the Christian church…to carry out the principles of Socialism”; John Davidson, in his late vein of oracular dogmatism, could state that “poetry is the will to live and the will to power; poetry is the empire.” When Stephen Phillips wrote in r899 of the lack in contemporary poetry of “some great compelling … purpose,”
he had to make one exception-“the wave of emotion and enthusiasm which has visited us lately …roused by the splendour and the fact of empire.””

Embracing all such excitements was the motive simply to live life to the fullest, “to live life significantly-keenly and beautifully, personally and, if need be, daringly; to win from it its fullest satisfactions •.. and most exhilarating experiences.”” It is the self-reliance of Emerson and Whitman much heightened, intensified by influences of Max Stirner and Nietzsche, and by Villiers de’Isle Adam: “Become the flower of thyself!” Oscar Wilde strikes the same note: “The aim of life is self-development. To realize one’s nature perfectly-that is what each of us is here for.”” To this theme the loud clamor in life and in fiction for the emancipation of women from the marital bond was closely related. If women were to achieve full self-development and self-realization, the societal contract which simply restricts and precommits must be done away with; the heart-“which signs no documents”” -must be free. The demand for women’s freedom was expressed in actuality in the Married Woman’s Property Acts of 1892 and 1893, and in fiction in Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (r883), Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did (1895), Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), Forster’s The Longest Journey (1907), and in many novels of H. G. Wells and others.”

The intense drive toward life at its fullest pressed on into moods of uncertainty, bewilderment, decadence. This was not simply the Byronic exhaustion, where “the sword wears out the sheath,” nor the Swinburnean “too much love of living” (though Dowson’s poetry holds records of such moments). It was a hunger for experience such as that which prompted Wilde to announce that “sin is the only real color-element left in modern life,” or, even more poignantly, to his pathetic resolve, “I must go as far as possible. . . . Something must happen . . . something else.” It tempted Lionel Johnson to write that

. . . all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.

This is the response which mainly invokes the term decadent, a response succinctly described by Le Gallienne early in the 1890s: “To notice only the picturesque effect of a beggar’s rags, like Gautier; the colour-scheme of a tipster’s nose, like Mr. Huysmans; to consider one’s mother merely prismatically, like Mr. Whistler-these are examples of the decadent attitude.” The best description of all is still Arthur Symons’: “Late-century decadence has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity …. To fix the last fine shade, the quintessence of things; to fix it fleetingly; to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of the human soul: that is the ideal of Decadence.””‘

From intensity, relentlessly to disillusionment and despair-perhaps the result was inevitable. How can one insist on further and further extremes of experience without being pressed to the outre and the bizarre, and to the one step beyond what the human sensibility can bear? Wilde was compelled so: “We must always want the most tragic.” The same fatal elan may be hidden in Yeats’ conclusion: “We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy.”” The very knowledge that a century was ending seems to have contributed to the mood; and coupled with the urge toward maximal experience and beyond, there grew the widespread notion that mankind had lost vitality at the fin de siecle, had become hypersensitive, effete, run down, “ending in decrepitude.”” The notion runs through English and European literature of the period with startling persistence: “We are all of us just nothing but ‘Epigoni’l”; “les derniers fils d’une race epuisee”; and

Curs’ d from the cradle and awry they come,
Masking their torment from a world at ease;
On eyes of dark entreaty, vague and dumb,
They bear the stigma of their souls’ disease.”

The mood shapes characters as diverse as Huysmans’ Des Esseintes, Mann’s child Hanna, and Hardy’s Father Time.

Still another impulse toward disillusionment came from the realistic bent of much of the literature of this time. It is a further paradox of this culture that the intensity which led some to romantic adventure and escape from urban drabness led others to focus on the actualities of contemporary city life, and to reveal remorselessly its sordidness. Thus we find one author telling us, “The will to romance: that, in a phrase, was the motive philosophy of the ‘9os,” while another will state of the same decade, “We are wholly given up to realism …. Little by little, even our children are losing this happy gift of believing the incredible.””

Granted, the realist was able to find romance in the realism of London streets as well. Urban realism discovered beauty in London’s Thames and East End and in its mud and poverty that had not been found there before. But the groundnote of late-century realism was heavy and sorrowing, recording London as a city heaving and festering, aching and spiritless, where men “grow sickly, like
grass under a stone.”” Settings that once had been an evocative setting for romantic action became sordid and dehumanizing: “He would have preferred a more congenial spot, but, as usually happens, in place of a romantic field or solemn aisle for his tale, it was told while they walked up and down over a floor littered with rotten cabbage-leaves, and amid all the usual squalors of decayed vegetable matter and unsaleable refuse.”” Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London ( 13 vols., 1892-1903) dredged forth the mass of unappealing facts; Moore, Crackanthorpe, Hardy, Morrison, Whiteing, and Maugham exploited the vision in fiction. To the creative mind more often than not the brute facts of man’s physical nature and oppressive environment connoted “social Darwinism,” a world of determined circumstance and no escape.

These are the moods felt and seen in the literature of England from 1880to 1914. We must keep in mind H. Stuart Hughes’ caution against attributing these motifs directly to interinfluence among writers of this time, and against viewing authors of the period as a coherent “school.”” But the moods are there, visible on the surface; it is my purpose to discover a common cause which may give them coherence and intelligibility. In all their restlessness, vibrancy, excitement, and paradoxical contrariety,
these moods bespeak a malaise and loss of hope. The further one reads, the more one suspects that there was some fundamental cause of disillusionment at work a single challenge to which these varied moods were the response. There are moments of appalled awareness which intrude in this literature, opening a vista of man’s ultimate plight in the world he now saw, touched with the note of settled despair. John Eglinton catches that note in his Two Essays on the Remnant (1895), where he views civilized man of this time as wrapped in the memories of dreams: “The world is covered with the wrecks of his dream. The pyramid lies half sunken in the sands; the temple turns yellow on the capes of Greece; the cathedral is a grey presence above the trampling and trundling of the town; within, pictures glow from the roof. Poetry alone, the final art, survives fragmentarily in the slow settling of his mind to contemplation.” The contemplation may be wistful, or vacuous, or bitter. For some it brought an impulse to shore, against the ruins of the present, the fragments of a beautiful and believing past-Axel in his castle, Des Esseintes in his house at Fontenay, Oscar Wilde and his blue china.” G. K. Chesterton in his Victorian Age in Literature (1913), a book of extraordinary staying power for one written so soon after that age had passed, saw the disillusioned years of the fin de siecle as “like one long afternoon in a rich house on a rainy day.” To another sensibility the sadness is felt as a weariness of the world and of life:

We have lost
All hopes we had, all faiths or right or wrong,
We have been shaken, shattered, tempest-tost,
And we are weary, and the way is long.”

Through the period, in speculation and in literature, W. H. Mallock’s question recurrently arises, “Is life worth living?” In real life, for several poets and artists of the time, the response was “in the negative.” The hero of Francis Adams’s symptomatic novel, A Child of the Age, debates the point: “Was I never to have rest, peace, comfort, self-sufficiency, call it what you please,-that spiritual sailing with spread canvas before a full and unvarying wind? Why was it, why? Was it really because the strange shadow of Purposelessness played the perpetual-rising Banquo at Life’s feast for me? Or was it that I was one who could not lack the Personal Deity with impunity? I didn’t know, I didn’t know! I wished I were dead.”” A Child of the Age first appeared, under a different title, in 1884, nine years before the author’s death by suicide.

This was the generation which Yeats (thinking particularly of the 189os) called back to mind in “The Grey Rock” (1914) :

Poets with whom I learned my trade,
Companions of the Cheshire Cheese.

He tells them a tale to show that, though man is forever cut off from the gods, to the gods he will still be true: “I have kept my faith, though faith was tried.” In 1922 he
recalled this generation again and named it tragic, although he was not sure just what had made it so. Was it that they had lost the “Unity of Being” essential to the artist? Was it the influence of Pater, most of all, who “taught us to walk upon a rope, tightly stretched through serene air,” leaving us “to keep our feet upon a swaying rope in a storm”? Or was it “that we lived in what is called ‘an age of transition’ and so lacked coherence ? Beginning? End? Transition? I have already suggested that the British literary culture of the years from 1880 to 1914 was certainly not the end of an epoch, since too many of its moods and doubts are still ours. If it was a transition, the transit is not yet completed. In some larger sense, that age must in fact have been a beginning. I now turn to the main thesis of this book, that the unity among the myriad moods and motives of the period may best be found by viewing them as varied responses evoked by a single challenge which was posed to man’s imaginative life in that time. The following chapter seeks to sketch the nature of that challenge, and the succeeding three chapters suggest the general range of responses made to that challenge. Whether in the result the responses made by these authors were a move forward or a move back is a matter not fully resolved even in our own time. The question of whether beginning, end, or transition becomes
one to be asked, not of the period itself, but of the long years since, and of ourselves.

CHAPTER 2

Putting the physiological and the barely psychological aspects
of the matter aside, what keeps a man alive? What
is it that man in his present condition-“too extremely developed,”
wrote Thomas Hardy in r889, “for [his] corporeal
conditions, the nerves being evolved to an activity
abnormal in such an environment”-what is it that man
insistently needs to live by?’ Is it the assurance, which
Tennyson and others so often longed for earlier, of something
after death? An assurance of some enduring reality
“out there” and “not ourselves” to which man can imaginatively
or spiritually attach himself? Or is it, more simply,
the assurance Jennet Jourdemayne longs for in Christopher
Fry’s comedy, the

… wish to have some importance
In the play of tinre ?’

Studies of the nineteenth century do not often touch
directly on this question, yet the question demands an answer.
It must be out of the intellectual and imaginative
demands which the Victorians and late-Victorians made
on life that many of the moods of the period-skepticism,
doubt, anxiety, world-weariness, despair-came into being.
Professor Barbara Charlesworth’s recent study of the fin
de siecle suggests that, to stay alive, man’s imagination

must have a “belief which will give significance to the moment.”
Professor Buckley, on the other hand, sees the matter
more cheerily, observing that “the late Victorian found
that, by a few psychological adjustments, he might continue
to live quite comfortably without the support of
religion.”‘ The late-century crisis was more severe than •’
Professor Buckley’s observation suggests. Even in our own
time “the problems that the Decadents faced have still no
generally accepted solution,” and we are still seeking “to
discover how literature can become again purposeful and

exuberant.”

One might argue, along with the behavioral psychologist,
that the question is in fact not a matter of intellectual,
spiritual, or imaginative needs at all, but simply one
of positive reinforcements not given and psychic rewards
not received. But the present study takes its evidence from
the literature of the time, and the authors of that literature
did not feel the crisis in terms of psychological adjustment.
It is plain that, in the imaginative life, these decades
were felt to be a time of severe deprivation.

The deprivations most keenly felt were two, and they
struck at axioms which had long been assumed to be vital

if existence was to have significance. The first axiom held
that somewhere within or behind or beyond the world of
observable experience there was an eternal and credible
truth, a truth accordant to, at least consistent with, the
human spirit and its aspirations. The second axiom held
that man possessed a faculty capable of at least dimly perceiving
that truth. If the predicament which faced the new
age can be stated in its simplest terms at the outset, it
can be said in th·e words of E. M. Forster: “Both assumptions
are false: both of them must be accepted as true if
we are to go on eating and working and loving, and are to
keep open a few breathing holes for the human spirit.”
Man’s environment seemed less and less to reflect man’s
humanity and to grow more and more hostile to it, while
at the same time man’s ability to comprehend his environment
seemed to decrease. And “unless man have a
natural bent in accordance with nature’s,” wrote Charles

S. Pierce, “he has no chance of understanding nature at
all.”‘
To know that there is an eternal truth consonant to
man’s being, and to know that man is gifted with a faculty
capable of perceiving at least a glimmer of that truth
-these were the necessary axioms, and both were, or appeared
to be, substantially demolished in the years be

tween 188o and 1914.
To the first axiom the challenge came primarily from
the advance of science and its implied cosmology. The

story has been often told, of the work of Lyell in geology,
Strauss and Renan in the higher criticism of the Bible,
Wallace and Darwin in biology, and the rest. By the end
of the century the main features of the challenge were
manifest to every observant mind. There had been a crescendo
of scientific observations and theories which seemed
to prove finally that man was not a special creation, that
he was rather a product of external and predetermined
terrestrial forces, and forever cut off from a heaven or a
haven of absolutes corresponding to human aspirations.
Doubt and ambiguity as to man’s position in the scheme
of things had been felt keenly enough in the earlier decades.•
In the late century the assaults of scientific theory
on human dignity and spiritual aspiration had become
more closely coordinated and more devastating, seemingly
linked into a single refutation of all which man’s imagination
had lived by:

Which was it of the links
Snapt first, from out the chain which used to bind
Our earth to heaven . . • ?’

-so Br~wning could ask in 1887. But well before this time
the scientists had gathered confidence that with them lay
the answer; their voices became more strident and dogmatic,
as did John Tyndall’s toward the close of his famous

Belfast Address ( r874) : “The impregnable position of
science may be described in a few words. We claim, and
we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological
theory. All schemes and systems which thus
infringe upon the domain of science must, in so far as
they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all
thought of controlling it.” By the r88os the theologian
himself might well be driven to capitulate: “There is a
sense of solidity about a Law of Nature which belongs to·
nothing else in the world.”‘ A net of fixed laws and consequences
already seemed to be closing around man’s
existence, moving in from the Newtonian universe to inanimate
nature on earth, and now, through the laws. of
political economy and biology, to the life of man himself.’
Earlier phases of Victorian doubt had been read as
transitional, the darkness before a dawn which was cer-·
tain to break.” Carlyle’s “universe … all void of Life, of
Purpose, of Volition, even of Hostility” was torment

enough-but a firm A page Satana! could at last dispel the
demon.” By the late century the web of circumstance had
drawn in with finality. Man had been asked to sit down
before the fact like a little child; he had for decades
viewed with acquiescence and respect, and at times with
exhilaration, the triumphs of science in the industrial age.
Now the cosmology implicit in the new science began to
assume coherence and came starkly into view. It revealed
man helplessly enmeshed by inhuman and impersonal
forces in a world he never made and could not control,
caught up in a life of no purpose, neither human nor ethical
nor divine-

While the sad waters of separation
Bear us on to the ultimate night.

The scientist’s description of the newfound reality becomes •’

explicit and exclusive: “[We are) convinced . . . that

truth unadulterated is only to be found in the temple of

the study of nature …”; ” … It ought to be known and

avowed that the physical philosopher, as such, must be

a pure materialist”; and “… Science ..• as habitually

taken .. , is identified with … the belief that the hidden

order of nature is mechanical exclusively.”” The truth
had proved to be radically inhuman. Man’s existence had

become “an accident, his story a brief and transitory epi·
sode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets.”” •

More than this, the new view of man’s cosmos struck
just as directly at the second axiom of man’s imaginative
life. It proposed that empirical observation and inductive
logic were man’s only sure routes toward this ultimate,
inhuman truth, and it would admit no other cognitive
faculties than these. Again let the voices of the new science
speak: “… Physical theories which lie beyond ex·
perience are derived by a process of abstraction from
experience”; ” … That dry light of reason .•• is the sole
human test of truth”;”•.. Logic, after all, has always the
last word here below”; and “Emotion has nothing what·
ever to do with the attainment of truth.””

Statements like these may seem relatively innocuous, but
I believe they point to a sharp constriction of the faculty
of reason in this generation from that conceived in earlier
years of the nineteenth century. When Mattliew Arnold
speaks of reason, he is thinking of d}e-,J:~ason:o£.~ &reat
hum~nistic tradition; ~e indicate~l:miich expliclt!~}ii-_A.is
occasiOnal phrase, “nght reasap;.~· _When John M~rfey
argues for “mental detachmen~ Q:e-~Rrr!>~:d~es §llp~·.
taneously “the supreme clairri.aOf the individual·~-~science,”
again implying a nec~aly-alliance of ip,~ct

with other modes ·of cognition.” Even with Mill the rea

son bears the dignity of a faculty which can enlighten

morals and conduct as well as physical phenomena and

laws. Professor Houghton wisely engages extensively, in

his Victorian Frame of Mind, with the Victorian reliance

upon reason, for the early and mid-Victorian shapers of

culture had a high confidence in that faculty-hedged

around as it was with appeals to the intuition, the “illa

tive sense,” the Aberglaube.

What happened in the late century was that reason be

came narrowed, hardened, crystallized out into a single,

rigorously disciplined faculty-crystallized out, in short,

into the scientific method as the sole source of “a sound

view of the world.” Little wonder then that as human

reason was thus trimmed down to such a constricted and

efficient method, it should have been felt more and more

that spiritual aspirations fell “quite outside the province

of rational belief.” Worse than this, and completely un

percpye!;L_.byl1lost .mJn?s of the time, the faculty of rea

so~1Ji~-limited, stepp~ into a trap and was hoist with

itS’-0\Vn petard. “Reas9~is:naturally monist,” as Unamuno

:( ….. ,..,_ ‘ …….

•W<!;itq_ ~~-.t\·s.ttle’:-reas<;!P.:Was reduced to a method which cO:afd > cieal only with.~ ~sible, quantifiable experience
.,1>’,-.. -..

w1l1Jjh..a single sys~cm~f laws that were assumed to be
entirhy-predictabte; the reality behind phenomena to
~hich it could~ttain was simultaneously confined to a
reality inducible from material sensations and operating
within a closed field ,of cau~es and predictable effects. “The
Eye altering alters all,” perversely to quote William
Blalce.” ·

In its capitulation to “that dry light” of scientific inquiry,
the human mind haplessly abandoned both axi-~
oms at once; by placing all faith in such a narrow faculty
of cognition, it accepted in advance an inhospitable
and deterministic view of the ultimate truth, the only
view, by definition, to which such a method could lead.
The shades of monism drew in. With remarkable prescience,
Dostoevsky’s man underground foresaw this result
in r86.4: “After all, if desire should at any time come
to terms completely with reason, we shall then, of course,
reason and not desire ….”” With the mechanical monism
of Ernst Haeckel and his allies, Dostoevsky’s fears would
appear to have come true.
In such a line of reasoning, the needs of the ·aspiring
imagination were frontally thwarted by a triumphant scientific
method and a bleak ultimate reality-a conflict
rendered none the more pleasant by its being a war not
between good and evil, but between two goods, man’s
spiritual and imaginative life and “the truth.” As Haeckel
saw it-speaking here of the Catholic faith in particularit
was a war to the death: “The modern papacy, true to
the despotic principles it has followed for the last sixteen

hundred years, is determined to wield sole dominion over
the credulous souls of men; it must demand the absolute
submission of the cultured State, which, as such, defends
the rights of reason and science. True and enduring peace
there cannot be until one of the combatants lies powerless
on the ground.” Havelock Ellis provides a characteristic
record of the impact of the conflict on a sensitive mind in
the r87os and ‘8os: ” … I had the feeling that the universe
was represented as a sort of factory filled by an inextricable
web of wheels and looms and flying shuttles, in a
deafening din. That, it seemed, was the world as the most
competent scientific authorities declared it to be made.
It was a world I was prepared to accept and yet a world
in which, I felt, I could only wander restlessly, an ignorant
and homeless child.”” One might well cry out
with Kent in King Lear, “Is this the promised end?” One
can lind empathy at least for the diagnosis offered by
Thomas Hardy’s doctor on the murders and the suicide
committed by the young Jude Fawley: “… It is the beginning
of the coming universal wish not to Jive.””

Now Ernst Haeckel’ s was a clear mind, a confident and
a consistent mind; yet to our twentieth-century view, as
we look back on this forthright solution to the riddle of
the universe, it seems most surely to have been a superficial
mind. Its bleak conclusions could hardly seem more
dated than they seem now. And it is when we ask why
they seem so dated that we come to the second major

phase of the challenge posed to the culture of the years
between 188o and 1914. One reason for the antique air of

Haeckel’s thought is that such arrant determinism simply
contradicts our daily experience of purposive action.
Haeckel fits perfectly Whitehead’s caricature of the scientist
who “has patiently designed experiments for the
purpose of substantiating his belief that animal operations
are motivated by no purposes.”” But much more than
this, Haeckel’s datedness stems from the fact that, even
as he wrote, the nature of science and the world it revealed
were radically changing. The Roentgen ray, natural
radioactivity, the Fitz..Gerald contraction, the special
theory of relativity, and the quantum theory were all discoveries
and hypotheses of the 189os and early 1900s.

Each in its own way called into question the fixed certainties
of Haeckelian science; with the full authority of
the scientific method, each found flexibility and uncertainty
lurking in the Victorian’s concepts of time and
space, motion and matter, and the predictability of scientific
laws. In retrospect we can see that the age of relativity,
of statistics and probabilities, of symbols and uncertainty
principles was beginning to set in. A strikingly
clear and early voice to express the new direction in
science is found in Karl Pearson, whose Grammar of Science
appeared in 1892. We can catch the accent of the
work most succinctly in the response of Henry Adams,
on whom it had strong influence: “Pearson shut out of
science everything which the nineteenth century had
brought into it. He told his scholars that they must put
up with a fraction of the universe, and a very small frac

tion at that-the circle reached by the senses, where sequence
could be taken for granted-much as the deep-sea
fish takes for granted the circle of light which he generates.”
Provided with such a striking clue from the theorist
of science, we become aware that the same notion
was entering the literary consciousness as well. George
Gissing had concluded seven years before that “it is ill to
have been born in these times, but one can make a world
within a world.” Conrad was later to announce that “in
truth every novelist must begin by creating for himself a
world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe.””

To measure the distance we have traveled from earlier
views of “the truth,” consider this from one born about
two decades before Gissing and Conrad: “They who tamper
with veracity, from whatever motive, are tampering
with the vital force of human progress …. Anything that
turns the edge of reason fatally blunts the surest and m0st
potent of our weapons.”” More and more toward the
close of the 188o-1914 period, literary minds sensed that
science had moved into a new phase. The certainties had
become .uncertain; man was called on to live not so much
with a world of materialistic determinism, as with a

world of chance and change within which man had now
to grope his way in uncertainty. Edward Carpenter could

ask in 1916, “Where are the airy fairy laws and theories
of the Science of the last century? … All gone into the
melting-pot-and quickly losing their outlines.” The real
world in whieh man lived became more remote and difficult-
perhaps impossible-to know. “Chance now became
the basis of a new scientific logic,” wrote Stow Persons.
“The individual particle or person was thus left partial! y
undetermined as to the laws of its behavior.” We have
moved to the world of which Max Planck could say, “As
the view of the physical world is perfected, it simultaneously
recedes from the world of sense.””

One thought that appalled the imagination of this time
was that behind all the phenomena perceptible to human
senses there might lie-NOTHING. Perhaps all the world
man knew was blank and void at the heart. James (B.V.)
Thomson had had his own inferno to endure and had
faced the specter of nothingness:

To a later and better
informed synthesizer of literary culture, Planck’s statement may
suggest a distinct new trend in the literary imagination of the
twentieth century; the scientist’s cosmology may have receded so
far from the layman’s comprehension that l’homme moyen litthaire
is left with no “real” cosmology at all on which to draw
or rely. Perhaps Professor J. Hillis Miller’s excellent study of “the
disappearance of God” in the nineteenth century may be matched,
one day in the future, by a study of “the disappearance of the
universe” in the twentieth.

The sense that every struggle brings defeat
Because Fate holds no prize to crown success;
That all the oracles are dumb and cheat
Because they have no secret to express.

The Cyrenaicism of Pater’s Marius also “had left off in
suspense of judgment as to what might really lie behind
. . . the flaming ramparts of the world.” Oscar Wilde
wrote of the timelessly wise sphinx-without a secret.
Baudelaire and Dowson sensed a nothingness at the heart
of things; Conrad’s Kurtz was revealed horribly to be
“hollow at the core”; and John Davidson found nothing
at the root of life, which made it “an inexorable irony.””
One might pursue the theme closer to our time when
the hero of Zamiatin’s We looks up to the heavens: “The
ancients ‘knew’ that the greatest, bored skeptic-their
god-lived there. We know that crystalline, blue, naked,
indecent Nothing is there.” Hemingway encountered his
nada, George Orwell his “deadly emptiness … at the
heart of things,” and Jean-Paul Sartre his awareness that
behind all appearance “there is nothing.”” The percep

tions prompted by the stress of these years at the turn of
the century are prophetic of moods familiar to us today. •

Such changes in the nature of the physical world also
meant the revision of man’s view of his faculties of cognition.
Karl Pearson and Arthur Balfour foresaw the needed
revision early in the 189os; Balfour himself suggested that
the mind, on naturalistic terms, be regarded “as an instrument
for securing a flexibility of adaptation which instinct
alone is not able to attain.” But the best description of the
role of the mind in the new world of science is that given
by Hans Vaihinger: “It must be remembered that the object
of the world of ideas as a whole is not the portrayal
of reality-this would be an utterly impossible task-but
rather to provide us with an instrument for finding our
way about more easily in this world . … [The logical
function] … provisionally substitutes for the correct constructs
others which do not directly correspond to reality
. … [Thus these constructs] … deliberately substitute
a fraction of reality for the complete range of causes and

facts.”

The human mind on these terms moves like the groping
tentacle of the snail probing into the darkness, coming
somehow to terms with the task of survival in its environment.
It moves not by the light of knowing the nature
of a cause-and-effect universe in which it lives, but
experimentally, pragmatically, and by chance. Once this

new conception of the human mind has been detected, one
can see that it was indeed weaving its way into the thought
and culture of this period and of the decades that followed.
As early as r893 F. H. Bradley concluded that “my
external sensations are no less private to myself than are
my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience
falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside….
In brief … the whole world for each is peculiar
and private to that soul.” Santayana picks up the motif
in his early poetry-“Truth is a dream, unless my dream is
true”-and in his later speculations in Scepticism and
Animal Faith of man “blindly labouring in a blind
world.” The way has been paved for Mrs. Ramsay’s question
in To the Lighthouse: “How then,” she had asked
herself, “did one know one thing or another thing about
people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee ….” And,
still closer to our time, the motif leads to the closed field
of Samuel Beckett’s world: “Murphy’s mind pictured
itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the
universe without. . .• Nothing had ever been, was or
would be in the universe outside it but was already present
as virtual, or actual, or virtual rising into actual, or actual
falling into virtual, in the universe inside it.””

So it is manifest, turning back to our r88o-I9I4 period,
that Darwinian evolution, which had seemed so deterministic,
contained after all “suggestions of a way of

viewing events quite at variance with the mechanistic
root-metaphor of the scientific revolution.” And the most

that our noblest spokesman for human reason in recent
years will grant to that faculty is “an asymptotic approach
to the truth.””

But the point needs now to be made that these new
views of the cosmos and of man’s faculty of cognition
posed a challenge to his spiritual and imaginative life
which was scarcely less severe than that posed by the earlier
materialism. This new view of a world of flux locked
man within his own world of sense impressions, with no
hope at all of a real or credible world behind sensed
phenomena and, even if there were such a world, no
means-not even the scientist’s logic-which co,”,ld perceive
or envision it. The two basic axioms were denied
again. Life came to be like that described with extraordinary
prescience and influence by Walter Pater in r868:
“Experience, already reduced to a group of impressions,
is ringed round for each one of us by that thick wall of
personality through which no real voice has ever pierced
on its way to us, or from us to that which we can only
conjecture to be without. Every one of those impressions
is the impression of the individual in his isolation, each
mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its own dream of a
world.””

Having glanced ahead to the later consequences of this
estimate of human consciousness, we must recognize that

there had been premonitions of it before in Victorian
literature-in Tennyson’s “Palace of Art,” in William
Morris, and notably in D. G. Rossetti: “All my life I have
dreamt one dream alone.”•• But the characteristic earlier
response to this view was to subdue the artist’s dream and
to return to the realm of duty, work, and action. Pater
himself, by withdrawing his “Conclusion” from the second
edition ( r877) of The Renaissance, demonstrated his
own uncertainty as to whether his concept of human
consciousness was the true one or the right one for his
age. But Pater’s disciples and successors accepted it with
confidence and as a shaping force in the aestheticism of
this period. Pater’s judgment had its value and sustenance,
and its dangers. Professor Charlesworth’s perceptive study
of the period sees the view as becoming solipsistic and imprisoning
to the creative artist, an invitation to decadence:
“… The poets of the nineties perished there, not
because they ‘found a haven in the world’ but because in
the specious haven of their own imaginations they slept
away their days. They desired moments of heightened
consciousness, of imaginative insight, ‘simply,’ as Pater
advised· in the ‘Conclusion,’ ‘for those moments’ sake.’
By doing so, they robbed such moments of all significance,
narrowed them into the circle of the individual consciousness,
and, destroying the possibility of vision, brought
them wholly into the realm of dream.'”‘

In later literary culture it might be argued that this second
phase of the challenge, premised on flux rather than
on fixity, on probing in the darkness rather than on the

cold logic of the empirical-inductive method, was less
devastating. The writings of William Butler Yeats and
James Joyce show what heights literature could achieve
on the new terms. Yet the dubious battle still continues.
Perhaps, as there has always been Platonist versus Aristotelian,
there will always be those who seize avidly on
the loopholes in a materialistic system and regard each
loophole found as an affirmation of man’s spiritual life.
What emerges clearly in the culture of this period is the
conclusion that if deterministic materialism left no room
for the human imagination and spirit, the new vistas of
relativity offered little better. Walter Houghton observes
of the earlier Victorians that they “might be, and often
were, uncertain about what theory to accept or what faculty
to rely on; but it never occurred to them to doubt
their capacity to arrive at truth.”” By the close of the period
we are considering, the moment of ultimate doubt
had arrived. The world of “truth” had become shadowy
and fluctuating at best; man’s ability to perceive it had
diminished toward the vanishing point.
It will help to clarify and extend our picture of this
complex two-part, two-phase challenge of the years at the
turn of the century if we consider one major example of
that challenge at work-the Darwinian theory of evolution
by means of natural selection. Few people now, it
may be hoped, think of Charles Darwin as the discoverer
and “onlie begetter” of the theory of evolution. What he
did was to gather into focus much existent speculation on
the subject, theories that seemed to “float like rumours”
in the air at mid-century. With meticulous care and method,
and marshaling vast amounts of data, he moved “over

the subject with the passionless strength pf a glacier.””
In the result he convinced the world less of the validity
of his main point-mutational development of species by
natutal selection-than of the whole concept of evolution
upon which that thesis was based. That concept, in its
large outlines, has not been widely or seriously questioned
since Darwin’s time.

It is hard for us to recapture now the devastating impact
of The Origin of Species in r859 and the years just
after. To the speculative mind it seemed the final intrusion
of mechanistic science into the sanctum sanctorum
of man’s inner being. It caught up living man in the
meshes of the cause and effect of the physical world. To
the literary imagination the concept of evolution clung
with the additional tenacity of a central metaphor, something
like that of the great chain of being in the neoclassical
tradition or the concept of organism with the Romantics.
There was scarcely any mode of thinking, ethical,
spiritual, or aesthetic, which did not have to reckon now
with the fact and the metaphor of evolution. Evolution
was one of several theories which drew the literary mind
of ·this period to dwell recurrently on the ultimate nature
of human life, to brood upon the cosmos, and to view
man’s condition sub specie aeternitatis.

The first effect of The Origin of Species was to precipitate
and dramatize the clash between science and religion.
This is the impact most often recorded in social
and intellectual histories dealing with this time-Huxley’s
masterly retort to Bishop Wilberforce in the Oxford de

bate of June r86o, or Disraeli in the Punch cartoon, be-
winged and self-admiring, repeating his Oxford conten-•
tion, ” … I am on the side of the angels.””

As early as r853 the Goncourts had written in their Journal,
“Chaque jour, la science mange du Dieu.” The scientists
themselves often longed wistfully for the higher faith
and for the ethical process which had been exiled from
their materialistic cosmos, but which Darwinism seemed
finally to have cast out. Darwin’s consolation in the The
Origin of Species-“! see no good reason why the views
given in this volume should shock the religious feelings
of any one”-must itself be taken in conjunction with his
later view: “The mystery of the beginning of all things
is insoluble by us; and I for one must be content to remain
an Agnostic.”” The scientific work of Tyndall and Huxley
was marked also by a longing for a higher truth and
a basis for ethics, and deep qualms of conscience lest the
new science may have eroded such ground away.” As evidence
that the fear of science’s assault on religion was
widespread and deep in the popular conscience toward the
close of the century, witness the nearly 2,ooo correspond

ents who engaged in the controversy, “Is Christianity
Played out?” which ran in the columns of the London
Daily Chronicle from January 14 to January 31, r893, at
which date it had to be terminated by editorial command.
The agnosticism to which Darwin resorted-and
Huxley, and Leslie Stephen, and others-brought little
real spiritual consolation; it is difficult to muster fervency
in the worship of the Unknowable. Beatrice Webb quickly
sensed that agnostic philosophy “destroys all our present
grounds for believing in immortality, in any being higher
than humanity …. There is little doubt that at present
this philosophy darkens the life of man.”” And lest we
regard this whole “Darwin vs. religion” controversy as so·
hackneyed now that it must have been the result of a
misconceived metaphysic or an antiquated terminology,
it is well to recall Julian Huxley’s words, spoken on the
eve of the Darwinian centenary: “… If evolution is accepted
as a fact, much of the theological framework of
the world’s major religions is destroyed….””

The dark response to Darwinism ran quickly beyond
theological bounds to cosmic pessimism and “through
Science· to despair” in the later century.” It appears even
in such passing comments as a reviewer’s judgment of

Jude the Obscure: “If these men and women and their
companions are to be taken as true to modern life, we may •
as well accept a cage full of monkeys as a microcosm of
humanity.”” Man was now thought of as the helpless
pawn of the Malthusian biological drives of sex and hunger
and caught up, in defiance of the first axiom, in a
“reality” utterly inhuman and wholly unresponsive to
his spiritual or imaginative aspirations. Hardy describes
in this fashion the attraction which Arabella holds for
Jude Fawley: “In short, as if materially, a compelling arm
of extraordinary muscular power seized hold of himsomething
which had nothing in common with the spirits
and influences that had moved him hitherto. This seemed
to care little for his reason and his will, nothing for his
so-called elevated intentions ….””

Darwin left no room whatever for purpose in the world,
human or divine, or for any free will to pursue such a
purpose if there was one. He posited only, in the infinitely
remote past, an initiating First Cause. Thereafter, the impersonal,
predetermined, external forces of the material
world shaped all that man has become and can be. There
was no room for humanity, only brute struggle for survival,
and survival only of the fittest. “From such beginnings,”
wrote Balfour, “famine, disease, and mutual
slaughter, fit nurses of the future lords of creation, have
gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience
enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence
enough to know that it is insignificant.” Since the im

plications of Darwinism invaded all regions of human
thought, the “gladiatorial theory of existence” invaded
man’s social thinking as well and, in the form of social Darwinism,
gave Karl Marx “a basis in natural science for
the class struggle in history,” and gave Herbert Spencer
grounds for seeing “a large, far-seeing benevolence” in
the “poverty of the incapable, … the starvation of the
idle.”42

There were attempts to counter and reverse the pressure
of Darwinism toward a pessimistic view of man’s

condition. Darwin himself, with characteristic utter caution,
proposed that “man may be excused for feeling some
pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions,
to the very summit of the organic scale; and the
fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally
placed there, may give him hope for a still higher
destiny in the distant future.”” Optimism of this sort

had been associated with evolution in earlier decades,
viewing “the history of animal life as a great progressive
development from the amoeba up through fishes to reptiles,
to birds, to mammals, culminating … in man. But
need it· stop there?”” But such optimism lost much of
its force in the later century. Of Darwin’s own statement, ,:
one might well ask how man is to take pride in advances

achieved “not through his own exertions”? If it is spiritual
exaltation Darwin means to offer us, we are once again •
confronted with the difficulty of worshipping a First
Cause present soo,ooo,ooo years ago and absent ever since.
A more fully articulated case for optimism in evolution
was advanced by the neo-Lamarckians, best expressed in
literature in the works of Samuel Butler and George
Bernard Shaw. This line of reasoning and the course it
followed at the turn of the century will be discussed in
more detail later (pp. Sr ff.) when I consider the responses
of the mind to the challenge of this time. At present, only
two things need be said. Neo-Lamarckianism based its
argument on the inheritance of acquired characteristics;
if new and higher characteristics could be acquired by one
generation and then transmitted to the next, then man
could once again seize some control of his own destiny
and assist the Life Force on its upward course. But it became
clear, even during the r88o-1914 period, that the
findings of science were moving steadily against the neoLamarckians
and demonstrating that acquired characteristics
cannot be inherited, and that any notion of an elan
vital as a separate force ran counter to science’s commitment
to mechanistic monism. As Thomas Huxley wryly
observed, those who ascribe evolution to an elan vital
might as well speak of an elan locomotif to explain the
workings of a steam engine.” By 1914, Darwinian evolution
had clearly won the day and had retained its force as
prime mover in science’s shaping of a materialistic, de

terministic, blindly purposeless world.
But here, just as with the challenge of science as a

whole, there is a change in the direction of Darwinian
controversy in the later years of the r88o-r914 period. Exactitude
in chronology does not apply here; the responses
to Darwinism vary in date and intensity largely in accordance
with the cast and perceptivity of the individual
imagination. Yet even in the r89os there are signs of a
perplexing pause and a waning of intensity in the sciencereligion
conflict itself. Was it simply what Esme Wingfield-
Stratford calls “the influence of boredom on the

course of history”-had man simply talked himself out on
the subject of Darwinism?” Or must we settle for H. G.
Wells’s cryptic acceptance of the time as “full of the ironical
silences that follow great controversies”? Whatever
brought it about, there was an impression abroad that
“the long-standing feud between theology and science
was at last practically ended.””

somewhat kinder: “The sudden vogue of … a key-idea is due

to the fact that all sensitive and active minds turn at once to ex~
plaiting it; we try it in every connection, for every purpose, e;x~
periment with possible stretches of its strict meaning, with gen·
eralizations and derivatives. When we become familiar with the
new idea our expectations do not outrun its actual uses quite so
far, and then its unbalanced popularity is over.”

Just as the larger challenge in this culture shifted its
direction in the later years of the period between r88o •
and 1914, leaving us with a sense that a sea change had
occurred in man’s view of his place in the world, so a
fundamental change occurred in the interpretation of
Darwinian evolution. The responses to Darwin before this
pause seem distinctly dated to us now. When Hardy
speaks in 1895 of children’s “coming universal wish not to
live,” and we see children around us now as vibrantly
alive as ever, we are perplexed and aware that some factor
must have been overlooked in the first wave of response
to Darwinism.. Today we hear philosophers telling us
that “evolutionary metaphysics is dead” and “…. evolutionary
philosophy is out of fashion.”” Why?

Evolutionary science itself produced at least partial answers
to such questions. Darwin, perhaps at a loss for a
more precise solution, had located the source of evolutionary
change in chance variations. On these the process of
natural selection could then capitalize, new forms of life
could evolve. But was it really pure accident which brought
about the productive variations? Gregor Mendel’s work”
published” in 1866 but rediscovered only in I90o–suggested
no. Darwin’s theory of chance variation proved to
be less a solution to the problem of evolutionary change
than an incentive to the new science of genetics, which
sought to reveal the nature and the cause of mutations.
“Evolutionary metaphysics” has waned, in part, because

the center of scientific inquiry has shifted from the metaphysical
to the specific, from speculations on chance mutation
to a probing of the evidence of genetics.
Much more important to the literary culture of these
years was the shift of primary interest from the Darwinian
theory in general to a particular, almost “passing” element
in that theory-chance. Here the responses to Darwinism
were linked with the findings of other sciences which were
revealing an unoertain, relativistic world. More and more
the mind fixed upon the element of chance, which, after
all, lay logically at the root of all evolution in Darwinian
terms. In Darwin’s deterministic cosmos,, changes somehow
did occur, but seemingly without cause and at random.
Man could on!y choose from the changes flung in
his path. He and nature might select what variations were
to survive, but the forces that caused the variations themselves
were forever beyond his reach. As far as man could
tell, the prime movers of evolutionary development lay in
the realm of “crass casualty,” coincidence, and random
death. In that world of chance and chaos the imaginations
of such poets as Hardy and Housman were forced to find
their way.
By this very preoccupation with chance, chance itself
came to outweigh determinism. What matters in man’s
world is not inevitability, but flux. All truths of ethics,
history, and experience become relative. In place of man’s
age-long search for the truth, read now his shrewd dodge
to survive by native wit; for abstract ideas, read pragmatism;
for “the best that is known and thought in the
world” and for seeing “things as they really are,”” read

“learn by doing.” Indeed John Dewey claimed it as Darwin’s
great achievement that he first laid “hands upon the
sacred ark of absolute permanency, … [and] introduced
a mode of thinking that in the end was bound to transform
the logic of knowledge, and hence the treatment of
morals, politics, and religion.”” The challenge of. Darwinism
here becomes a demand, not for capitulation to a
predetermined world, but for learning somehow, gropingly,
to survive in a wilderness of chance and change.

Just as we found in our general view of the challenge
posed to the imagination of this period, so a Darwinian
world of chance and flux had its direct effect on man’s
view of the human faculty of cognition. Man’s mind ceases
to be an instrument of logic for the perception of truth;
rather, “like fur or fang, swiftness or ferocity, or the opposable
thumb … ,”” it is one more earthbound organ
evolved in the struggle for survival, to enable us to adapt
to the world in which we live but can never clearly know.
Our minds reach out but not to fixed certainties; we merely
project blind guesses and follow the ones that seem to
work best. Such a conception leads us back again to what
Professor Buckley wisely calls “the revolt from reason”
at the turn of the century. Many retreated from scientific
inquiry out of horror at the cosmology it revealed; the
later phase of Darwinian influence suggested that, to

our evolving species, the reasoning faculty was at best a
candle to help us to stumble less, and, in our blindness,
to survive a little more securely.” This second phase was
hardly less forbidding than the first, and, along with
Rainer Maria Rilke, we are left with the stark question,
“How is it possible to live, when the very elements of this
life are wholly incomprehensible to us?'”‘

Today, with the hindsight of half a century, we can see
that this altered view of man’s cognition has a brighter
aspect. It releases the mind and the imagination from the
clutch of determinism; it frees man’s imagination to create
a world in its own best image, to project and to live by
what Frank Kermode has so brilliantly defined for us as
the “romantic image.” Some imaginations bred in this
period-Yeats and Joyce come first to mind-proved perceptive
enough and tough enough to see what triumphs
now lay open to the poet and the artist. Their prescience is
confirmed in the thinking of scientists themselves in more
recent years. The speculative reason, says Alfred North
Whitehead, “is the special embodiment in us of the disciplined
counter-agency which saves the world …. One
main law which underlies modern progress is that, ex
cept for the rarest accidents of chance, thought precedes
observation [italics mine].””

But to most men writing between r88o and 1914 the
prospect was less happy, and the spectacle of an impercipient
mind groping in a world of darkness and flux was
scarcely more bearable than that of a mind held fast in the
clutch of materialistic circumstance. Haeckel brought few
rays of hope to the human heart, but he thought he knew
the nature of the world he lived in-and surely his shade
would tell us he knew he knew the truth. The new view
lacked this confidence of knowledge. To touch again on
the perspective of Professor Houghton’s study: “The Victorians
were certain that truth existed and the mind could
discover it”; “Doubt never reached the point of positive or
terminal skepticism.”” In the last phase of the challenge
of the years between r88o and 1914, doubt did reach that
point.

In the impact of this two-phase challenge we can begin
to see the source of the moods of malaise and pessimism
which pervaded the culture of this period. First the scientist
claimed that the scientific method was “the sole gateway
to the whole region of knowledge.” The imagination
responded, “If Rationalism be the truth, then all literature

is simply lunacy, and all the world of arts must go into
the region of mania.” Then the scientific world began to
lose its seemingly fixed bearings, and to move farther
away from the reach of man’s intelligence; the scientific
world has become a world where “all melts under our
feet.” “I cannot put faith in the light you hold to me,”
writes George Gissing to his sister Margaret in r883; “it
appears to me an artificial reflection of man’s hopes.”
Sensitive, thinking, aspiring man acutely feels his Joss and
isolation, “each mind keeping as a solitary prisoner its
own dream of a world.””

Conrad saw it as an age “in which we are camped like
bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel.”” To
Edith Sitwell the age trod “a thin matchboard flooring
spread over a shallow hell,” and was able to escape the
pit only by dancing a perpetual cancan.” In religious
thought an ominous spread of secularism and disbelief
continued. “God hath died,” spake Zarathustra, and the
theme reverberates through the fin de siecle. “Religion is
done for-any sort of religion”; we are “dying slowly
and sure! y of Unbelief-and there can be no deadlier dis

ease.”” With the collapse of known faiths came an impulsive
search for new ones, and a desire to learn “in many
shrines … to worship the Divinity which is revealed
entirely at none.”” In r875 the Theosophical Society was
founded and Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health provided
the textbook for Christian Science; in r878 the
Salvation Army was founded, the Society for Psychical
Research in r882, the Ethical Culture Society in r888 (the
American Society had been founded in r876)-the list
could go on to include Esoteric Buddhists, Hermetic societies,
and the rest.

In literature, too, the hectic search was on, for a new
abode, “a new habitation for the imagination of men,”
“for thoughts woven into our subjective life, but which
refuse to be mechanically defined.”” Responses to the

central challenge posed to the culture of this age took
diverse directions. In Part II, I will attempt to pursue and
to clarify these responses in three modes-as they were
evoked in the emotions, in the mind, and in the imagination.