Love of Liberty is ingrained in the English temperament. Hence it is that the English could not servility follow for any length of time the neo-classical rules. Englishmen are too individualistic for any slavish imitation. An under-current of liberalism is noticeable even at a time when neoclassicism was at its height.
This temperamental leaning towards liberalism was fed and nourished by Longinus whose essay, “On the Sublime”, had been translated into French towards the close of the 17th century and was widely read in England. His emphasis on “transport” and enthusiasm had a far reaching impact both on creative and critical literature.
The French Revolution and the American War of Independence fostered the spirit of free thinking. Love of political independence lea to the rise of the spirit of free inquiry. The pseudo-classical rules were questioned and their limitations exposed.
Writers liked to create unhampered by rules and conventions, and the critics to judge according to their own light.
The medievalisation movement about the middle of the 18th century, led to a revival of interest in old English masters.
There was also the growth of a new historical outlook following the publication of Gibson’s monumental work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Literature, ancient, medieval and modern, was viewed as a whole. This enlarged the horizon and widened the outlook. The rise of romantic criticism was also helped by the Reviews.
The Reviewers judged works of literature on the basis of their own likes and dislikes and not on the basis of rules. No doubt, much of their criticism is prejudiced, but they paved the way for the rise of impressionism and individualism which is the keynote of romantic criticism.
Increasingly men of genius, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, voiced their protest against Neo-classicism and through their critical pronouncements laid the foundations of romantic criticism. They gave a definite programmed and consciousness to the Romantic Movement.
Thus under the superficial calm of the 18th century, new forces were brewing, an undercurrent of change was flowing, which burst into life with the publication of Wordsworth’s preface to the Lyrical Ballads. Hence it is true to say, as Atkins points out, that the foundations of 19th century criticism were laid in the 18th century.