Newman the poet

Denis Desert on Newman’s ability to use poetry to convey spiritual understanding

Matthew Arnold, the literary critic, in spite of not sharing John Henry Newman’s theological perspective, held him in considerable regard. While Arnold admired Newman from an early stage it was not until May 1880 that he had the opportunity of meeting the older man who had recently become a Cardinal. Arnold records, ‘Newman took my hand in both of his and was charming.’ A further meeting took place between the two men in 1882 in the home of Chief Justice Coleridge. Coleridge’s son records, ‘they talked together as a pair of ripe scholars… Matthew Arnold never for a moment departed from the sort of attitude of a favourite pupil discoursing with an honoured master.’

Civilizing effect of culture

I would suggest that, in spite of not sharing a common theological understanding, their main point of agreement may have been Newman’s ability to use poetry in order to convey spiritual understanding. An American academic underlines this point: ‘Newman sees poetry as providing something for mankind which even the harsher aspects of society cannot destroy.’

Arnold strongly emphasized that society needed the civilizing effect of culture, of which poetry is an important part, if it is not to descend into anarchy. Arnold expressed his appreciation of Newman in a letter to the Cardinal, ‘Ihere are four people… from whom I am conscious of having learnt… Goethe, Wordsworth, Sainte-Beuve, and yourself.’

Lead Kindly Light

Newman’s poetic output was considerable. One of his first poems is expressed in the hymn Lead Kindly Light. In 1832, with his friend Richard Hurrell Froude, he went on a European tour. In Sicily he was taken seriously ill and, during convalescence, found considerable solace in the church buildings. His experience was expressed in a poem reflecting both appreciation of church interiors and his distrust of the Roman Church. He wrote,

‘Oh that thy creed were sound!
For thou dost soothe the heart, thou Church of Rome,
By thy unwearied watch and varied round
O service, in thy Saviour’s holy home.’

On the way back to England the vessel became becalmed for a week in the Straits of Bonifacio. In his own words he records, ‘it was there that I wrote the lines, Lead Kindly Light, which have become so well known.’ The poem was set to music to be sung as a hymn in 1865.

The Dream of Gerontius

It was in 1865 that, at the age of sixty-four, Newman began to turn his mind toward death: he was to live for another twenty-five years. He began to write down thoughts and poetic lines on many scraps of paper, possibly with no clear pattern in mind. It is noted that the author felt so dissatisfied with the work that he threw it into the waste paper basket where a friend retrieved it. Gradually this material began to take shape in the form of an epic poem The Dream of Gerontius. It tells of the dying of an old man, possibly a monk, assisted by his guardian angel, passing into the afterlife. The work, first published in the Catholic magazine The Month, became a success. The poem contained two sections eventually to become popular hymns, Firmly I Believe and Praise to the Holiest.

This narrative poem is a perfect example of Newman’s ability with words and the power of the poetic form to convey spiritual truths. In part two Gerontius expresses the experience of ‘passing over’ in thesemoving words,

‘I went to sleep; and now I am refreshed.
A strange refreshment: for I feel in me
An inexpressive lightness, and a sense
Of freedom, as I were at length myself,
And ne’er had been before.’

Profession of faith

Possibly the poet identifies himself with Gerontius who, when surrounded by the priest and assistants, he makes the profession of faith in the words ‘Firmly I believe and truly.’ Newman in his early day as an Oxford academic and the leading light of the Oxford Movement struggled to arrive at a clear definition of faith. He became editor of Tracts for the Times but became disillusioned at the reaction to Tract 90 in which he attempted to reconcile the Articles of Religion with the ancient faith of the Church. The five verses from this part of the work were included in the English Hymnal in 1906.

At the end of the work the soul passes into purgatory with the words,

‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep
There let me be,
….
There will I sing my absent Lord and Love:
Take me away,
That sooner I may rise, and go above,
And
see Him in the truth of everlasting day.’

Finally the Angel assures the soul,

‘Soofly and gently, dearly ransomed soul,
In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And
o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
I poise thee, and lower thee, and hold thee.’

The piece ends with the choir of Angelicals singing, ‘Praise to the holiest in the height.’ These verses were put to music to be sung as a hymn by J.B. Dykes, precentor of Durham Cathedral, in 1868 and included in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Newman’s poetic style, expressed in both the written and spoken word, impressed Matthew Arnold and others over the years. I would suggest that the Cardinal’s works are well worth the study for those of us who are called upon to proclaim the Faith today in an age in which language has become impoverished and prosaic. ND

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