Night compassed Boaz’
slumber and Ruth’s dreams,
The sheep-bells vaguely tinkled far and near;
Infinite love breathed from the starry sphere;
’Twas the still hour when lions seek the streams.
Ur and Jerimedeth were all
The stars enamelled the blue vault of sky;
Amid those flowers of darkness in the west
The crescent shone; and with half open eye
Ruth wondered, moveless, in
her veils concealed,
What heavenly reaper, when the day was done
And harvest gathered in, had idly thrown
That golden sickle on the starry field.’
The rise of French symbolism towards the end of the ’seventies was a symptom of a changed temper of thought and feeling traceable in some degree throughout civilized Europe. Roughly, it marked the passing of the confident and rather superficial security of the ’fifties into a vague unrest, a kind of troubled awe. As if existence altogether was a bigger, more mysterious, and intractable thing than was assumed, not so easily to be captured in the formulas of triumphant science, or mirrored and analysed by the most consummate literary art.
Political and social conditions contributed to the change. France stood on the morrow of a shattering catastrophe. The complacency of mid-Victorian England began to be disturbed by menaces from the workshops of industry. And it was precisely in triumphant Germany herself that revolutionary Socialism found, in Karl Marx, its first organizing mind and authoritative exponent. The millennium was not so near as it had seemed; the problems of society, instead of having been solved once for all, were only, it appeared, just coming into view.
In the secluded workshops of Thought, subtler changes were silently going on. The dazzling triumphs of physical science, which had led poetry itself to emulate the marble impassivity of the scientific temper, were undiminished; but they were seen in a new perspective, their authority ceased to be exclusive, the focus of interest was slowly shifting from the physical to the psychical world. Lange, writing the history of Materialism in 1874, virtually performed its obsequies; and Tyndall’s brilliant effort, in 1871, to equip primordial Matter with the ‘promise and the potency’ of mind, unconsciously confessed that its cause was lost. Psychology, after Fechner, steadily advanced in prestige and importance from the outlying circumference of the sciences to their very centre and core.
But it was not merely particular doctrines that lost ground; the scope and validity of scientific method itself began to be questioned. In the most varied fields of thought there set in that ’idealistic reaction against science’ which has been described in one of the most penetrating books of our time. Most significant of all, science itself, in the person of Mach, and Pearson, has abandoned the claim to do more than provide descriptive formulas for phenomena the real nature of which is utterly beyond its power to discover.