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Christianity and the Romantic Movement

The revival of religion that followed the French Revolution was not confined to any one country or to any single Church. It was common to the Latin and Germanic peoples and to Catholic and Protestant countries. Indeed it made itself felt far beyond the limits of organized Christianity and imparted a religious tendency to social and intellectual movements of the most diverse kinds, even though they were apparently in revolt against everything orthodox and traditional, whether in the sphere of religion or morals. Christianity, which had been relegated by Voltaire to the stables and the scullery, was brought back to the court and the salon.

This revival of belief in religion, or at least a respect for religion, is the more remarkable when we contrast it with the external losses that religion had suffered during the preceding period. In sheer material destruction of monasteries and churches, in confiscation of property and abrogation of privileges, the Age of the Revolution far surpassed that of the Reformation; it was in fact a second Reformation, but a frankly anti-religious one. Throughout Europe the old regime had based itself on a union between Church and State so close that any revolt against the political system involved a corresponding revolt against the established Church. But underneath this corruption in high places the faith of the masses remained as strong as ever.

Thus the Revolution, which was the child of the Enlightenment, also proved to be its destroyer. The philosophic rationalism of the eighteenth century was the product of a highly civilized and privileged society which was swept away by the catastrophe of the ancien régime. In the salons of Madame de Pompadour, Madame du Deffand, or Madame Geoffrin, it was easy to believe that Christianity was an exploded superstition which no reasonable man could take seriously. But the same men and women felt very differently when the brilliant society that had worshipped at the shrine of Voltaire was decimated by the guillotine and scattered to the four winds. Many of them, like Chateaubriand, recovered their faith in Christianity by the stress of personal suffering and bereavement, but even those who did not recover their faith in God, lost that faith in man and in the law of progress that had been characteristic of the previous age. Rationalism flourishes best in a prosperous age and a sheltered society; it finds few adherents among the unfortunate and the defeated.

No more terrible answer could have been given to the facile optimism of the age of Louis XVI than the twenty-five years of revolution and war from 1790 to 1815, and it is not surprising that the more sensitive minds who contemplated this long drawn out spectacle of human misery were led not only to surrender their illusions but to question the principles which had been the foundations of their whole thought. There were some who found in the disillusions and tragedies of the Revolution the key to a new philosophy of society dramatically opposed to those of the Enlightenment.

Behind the change in literary taste and aesthetic appreciation there lies a profound change of spiritual attitudes: an attempt to enlarge the kingdom of the human mind by transcending the limits of ordinary consciousness. Human consciousness is a little circle of light amidst the surrounding darkness. The classicist and the rationalist keep as close to the centre of the circle as possible and order their life and their art as though this little sphere of light was the universe. But the romantic was not content with this narrow sphere. He sought to penetrate the secret of the great reality that is hidden behind the veil of darkness and preferred the twilight regions that fringe the verge of consciousness to the lighted house of reason. Thus the most profound expression of the romantic spirit is to be found, not in the Byronic cult of personality or the aesthetic gospel of Keats' Ode to a Grecian Urn, but in Novalis' Hymns to the Night with their mystical exaltation of death. There is in fact a definite connection between romanticism and mysticism, for religious mysticism tends to express itself in the form of romantic poetry, as in the poems of St John of the Cross, while literary romanticism at its highest aspires to the ideal of religious mysticism, as in the case of Novalis and Blake.

extracts from Religion and the Romantic Movement by Christopher Dawson, 1937

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