Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by H. C. Beeching
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
 
[John Henry Newman, son of John Newman, a banker, belonging to a Cambridgeshire family said to be of Dutch extraction, was born in London, 21st February 1801. He went to school at Ealing, and when sixteen years old to Trinity College, Oxford, where he gained an open scholarship, but graduated without distinction. In 1822 he made amends by his election to an Oriel fellowship. E. B. Pusey was elected the year following, and R. H. Froude in 1826; Keble, the author of The Christian Year, was already a Fellow. To this knot of friends was due that revival of Church principles which is usually known as the Oxford Movement. Newman’s contributions to it were briefly as follows:—1. Poems in the Lyra Apostolica, written for the most part during a Mediterranean voyage (1832–3); 2. Sermons preached as Vicar of St. Mary’s Church (1828–63) and before the University, published in eight vols.; 3. Some third of the ninety Tracts for the Times, and articles in the British Critic and elsewhere; 4. Various works in apologetic theology, the most important of which were—The Prophetical Office of the Church viewed relatively to Romanism and Popular Protestantism (1837); Lectures on Justification (1838); and an Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1845). He joined the Roman Communion, 9th October 1845, and two years later introduced into England a branch of the “Oratorians,” a religious society founded in the 16th century by St. Philip Neri. In 1878 he was made Cardinal by Leo XIII. His chief writings after his conversion were:—Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1849); Lectures upon Anglican Difficulties (1850); a volume of lectures upon the Idea of a University, delivered as rector of the new Catholic University at Dublin (1854); the Apologia pro vita sua (1864), his most popular work, originally the last tract in a controversy with the Rev. C. Kingsley, who had charged him with a disregard for truth; and an Essay in aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870). Besides these must be mentioned his two tales, Loss and Gain (1848), and Callista (1856), and his most considerable poem, The Dream of Gerontius (1865). Two volumes of his correspondence were published in 1891. His home for the last forty years of his life was the Oratory at Edgbaston, near Birmingham, where he died 11th August 1890.]  1
 
NEWMAN’S prose style may be compared in its distinguishing quality to the atmosphere. It is at once simple and subtle; it has vigour and elasticity; it penetrates into every recess of its subject; and it is transparent, allowing each object it touches to display its own proper colour. The comparison holds also in two further points, the apparent effortlessness of its successes, and the fact that, in consequence, its virtue attracts little notice. That this appearance of inevitableness and spontaneity is nevertheless not entirely a result of chance or happy instinct we may learn, if we need the lesson, from a letter of Newman’s (ii. 477) in which he says—  2
  “It is simply the fact that I have been obliged to take great pains with everything I have written, and I often write chapters over and over again, besides innumerable corrections and interlinear additions. I am not stating this as a merit, only that some persons write their best first, and I never do…. However, I may truly say that I have never been in the practice, since I was a boy, of attempting to write well, or to form an elegant style. I think I have never written for writing’s sake, but my one and single desire and aim has been to do what is so difficult, viz., to explain clearly and exactly my meaning; this has been the whole principle of all my corrections and re-writings.”  3
  It is a passing fashion to speak of the seventeenth-century manner, with its stiff brocades and “gorgeous embroidery,” as more artistic than that of the century that followed; but to do so is unjustifiable. The two styles pursued different ideals, but with equal pains and equivalent success. While the one aims at producing a picture so life-like that it gives a single vivid impression, the other works in mosaic, where it is allowable to be attracted by the parts as much as the whole, for the whole is seldom more than an aggregate of parts. But apart from this difference in aim, which manifests itself also among the writers of our own age, who are heirs of old traditions rather than originators of new ones, there has manifested itself from the first dawn of literature in England a distinction among writers in regard to the ease of their movement, some elect spirits both in verse and prose possessing as by birthright a certain exquisite flow and limpidity which others lack. Among the poets Chaucer has it pre-eminently; Shakespeare has it, but not Milton; Collins, but not Gray; Shelley, but not Keats. Among prose writers of the century Thackeray has it and Newman in double portion.  4
  Newman’s style being in its lowest terms an effort after a clear and exact representation of his thought, it follows that not a little of the fascination it exercises is the influence of the writer’s beautiful and subtle mind, which it clothes in light and transparent vesture. It is beyond dispute the personal note in the sermons that constitutes their charm, and where this is present it is made more effective by their studious reticence which is more than dignity or good taste, by the baldness of the language in many places, and the restriction of illustrative quotation to Scripture, and by a general lowness of key; so that at their best they are unlike anything that the English Church has ever produced, though in their intensity they sometimes recall Donne without his quaintness. Where, however, the personal note is wanting, as it occasionally is for nearly a whole sermon, they sink to the level of Tillotson. By the presence of a personal note is not meant that the author is speaking of himself, which he very rarely does; even when the experience is plainly the preacher’s own, he follows the convention of giving it as his hearers’; what is meant is that he lets you see through his eyes, and see things as no one else could show them to you. It is this personal note, this sense of a personal experience which, when the experience is familiar, redeems it from commonplace. Take, for example, a few lines in which Newman treats that familiar topic with preachers—the vanity of the world—  5
  “The world in which our duties lie is as waste as the wilderness, as restless and turbulent as the ocean, as inconstant as the wind and weather. It has no substance in it, but is like a shade or phantom; when you pursue it, when you try to grasp it, it escapes from you, or it is malicious, and does you a mischief” (iv. 215).  6
  That sentence has the indescribable touch of style, and of Newman’s style. Or, take the following, in which he speaks of the certainty, yet the delay, of the end of all things:—  7
  “As, when a man is given over, he may die any moment, yet lingers; as an implement of war may any moment explode, and must at some time; as we listen for a clock to strike, and at length it surprises us; as a crumbling arch hangs, we know not how, yet is not safe to pass under; so creeps on this feeble, weary world, and one day, before we know where we are, it will end” (vi. 262).  8
  Among the more obvious features of his preaching method may be mentioned a way he has of accumulating homely illustration, as in the passage last quoted; a careful discrimination of states of mind superficially alike; and a very effective caution not to overstate his case, which reminds one of William Law. Very rarely does he allow himself what would be called a poetical image, but occasionally his imagination works in a very poetical way. One instance will show what is meant:—  9
  “There will be no need of shutting your eyes” to this world when this world has vanished from you, and you have nothing before you but the throne of God, and the slow but continual movements about it in preparation for the judgment” (iv. 106).  10
  Above all must be noted in the Anglican sermons what Matthew Arnold called their “religious music—subtle, sweet, mournful.”  11
  In passing to the Roman sermons we find the personal note changed. It is no longer “sweet” or “mournful”; it is no longer reticent; and the literary charm has evaporated. One must, of course, remember that Newman’s audience at Birmingham was a very different one from that at St. Mary’s; and his weapons to be effective needed to be less delicate; but when the compositions are judged, not as sermons, but as literature, they must take a much lower place. They present the spectacle of a reserved mind flinging off reserve, of a poetical mind revelling in the crudest colours; even at the best their over-blown elaborateness and forced fervour are distressing to anyone who comes to them from the Oxford volumes. We may admire both George Herbert and Crashaw, but not Herbert masquerading as Crashaw.  12
  As an essayist Newman impresses the reader with the versatility of his mind. He sees all sides of a subject, and lets you see that he sees them, without obscuring the one side which it is his immediate purpose to present. In one paragraph are sometimes collected a number of loose clauses, some no doubt being the interlineations of which he tells us, all pointing in different directions, which, when the paragraph has been traversed, are seen to meet in a single point. Perhaps his most remarkable merit as a man of letters is this clear and exhaustive presentation of a mood or a position; and the ease and directness with which he puts into words “what oft was thought but ne’er so well exprest.” A sentence or two from the well-known definition of a “gentleman” in the Idea of a University will supply a good illustration:—  13
  “It is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain…. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort; he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets everything for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out” (p. 204).  14
  As a controversialist Newman’s success has perhaps been exaggerated. The success of the Apologia, for instance, was very little due to its merits as a contribution to the question immediately at issue in the Kingsley dispute; those who were interested in that question knew that there were stronger invectives to be found against the unscrupulousness of Roman methods in Newman’s own writings than in the offending words of Kingsley; nor again was its success in any degree theological—probably no single person of average intellect was ever converted by reading it; it was a purely literary success, due in the first place to its engaging frankness, when the public mind was anticipating vulgar subterfuge; and secondly to the lucidity with which it set forth the writer’s two positions as a member, first of the English, and afterwards of the Roman communion. The two points of view are admirably portrayed, but the passage from one to other has about as much controversial value as the passage from one picture to another in a dissolving view. Newman once spoke of himself disparagingly as a rhetorician, rather than a thinker; and there is this much truth in the charge, that he seems to choose his positions in the first place largely by the imagination, and only afterwards brings up his logical forces to defend them. When once, however, he has determined upon his principles, no one is more ready to push them further without compromise, and no one more adroit in exposing whatever in those on the other side there may lurk of popular prejudice, which cannot give an intelligible account of itself.  15
  One book of Newman’s—The Present Position of Catholics in England—stands by itself as the expression of a passing mood. The lectures were delivered soon after his conversion, and they are written with all the reckless zeal and something too of the bad taste of a neophyte. They require mention here for the very remarkable powers of humour and irony, mordant wit and broad farce that they display, an illustration of which will be given. In regard to the specimen passages generally, it should be said that few authors fare so ill in selection as Newman. He does not patch with purple. The bearing of a paragraph may depend a good deal on what has gone before, and (especially in the sermons) the whole virtue of a passage may seem to lie in a particular sentence, which when it is isolated loses all force and colour.  16
 
 
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