Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by Josephine Ward
John Henry Newman (18011890)
[John Henry Newman, the eldest son of a banker, John Newman, was born in London in 1801. Educated privately, and at Trinity College, Oxford, where he graduated in 1820. Elected Fellow of Oriel, April 12, 1822, to be joined next year by E. B. Pusey, while other Fellows during his terms were Hawkins, Whately, Keble, and Hurrell Froude. He was ordained a clergyman of the Church of England in 1824, and nine years later he and his friends published the (Anglican) Tracts for the Times. These were the printed expression of the so-called Oxford Movement; but in October, 1845, having two years earlier resigned the Vicarage of St. Marys, Newman was received into the Church of Rome. His Apologia pro vita sua was published in 1864, and many other works of Catholic theology, &c., preceded and followed it. In 1878 Pope Leo XIII made him a Cardinal on representations made by leading English Catholics, lay and clerical. In 1890 he died at the Edgbaston Oratory, where he had lived since 1859. He published anonymously, from 1834 onwards, many religious poems, most of which were in 1868 collected in Verses on Various Occasions; and two years before (1866) there appeared his one long poem, The Dream of Gerontius.]
IT is remarkable that whereas the work of Cardinal Newmans long life survives in some of the noblest prose in English literature, he is chiefly known wherever the English language is spoken as the author of one short and of one long poemLead, Kindly Light and The Dream of Gerontius. There can be no doubt that the popular choice of these two poems from among the slender output of the Verses on Various Occasions is justified, and that they are the finest among them. The Pillar of the Cloud, now universally called Lead, Kindly Light, belongs to the group of seventy poems written during his seven months journey to the Mediterranean (183233)that is, considerably more than half of the original poems produced in a life of nearly ninety years. Throughout this journey evidently his imagination was undergoing one of those sudden expansions of which he loved to analyse the psychological effects in later days. The best of his short poems were written then, including two studies in the style of the tragic Greek chorusThe Elements and The Jewish Race, of which Mr. R. H. Hutton wrote that For grandeur of outline, purity of taste and radiance of total effect, I know hardly any poems in the language that equal them.1
That Lead, Kindly Light was written in 1833, immediately before the Oxford Movement, is a fact that has great biographical interest. But that the value of the poem is not chiefly biographical is clear from its having proved of such universal appeal. It is not too much to say that Deep in the general heart of man (its) power survives.
Over thirty years passed and most of his greatest work in prose had been accomplished before Newman wrote The Dream of Gerontius. After a time of comparative inaction there was in 1864 a mighty stir in the creative faculty of the recluse at Birmingham, when he came forward at the challenge of Mr. Kingsley and produced the Apologia pro vita sua. In January, 1865, came The Dream. On the 17th of January, he wrote to a friend, it came into my head to write it, I really cant tell how, and I wrote on until it was finished on small bits of paper, and I could no more write anything else by willing it than I could fly.
It seems the more remarkable that this poem has so wide a reading public as it is singularly intellectual in treatment. It is surely rare to have so purely intellectual a conception of any form of existence. Hitherto had not dreams or visions of another life in great literature been given us with superabundant symbolism and imagery? The mere thought of Revelation, of Dante, or Milton, or Bunyan brings a crowd of splendid images before the imagination. But in Newmans vision there is no great white throne, no gates of pearl, no sea of glass, no sweet season, no light and darkness, no delectable mountain. Indeed, with the exception of one lightning flash of mysterious vision at the culminating moment of the poem, there is nothing but what seems to Gerontius to be sound, and that not the sound of harps or of rushing waters, but simply of the voices of spirits. I hear thee, not see thee, Angel, cries Gerontius, and the angel answers,
Nor touch, nor taste, nor hearing hast thou now;
Thou livest in a world of signs and types.
But lest so stern a solitude should load and break thy being dreams that are true are vouchsafed; and he proceeds to sketch some economy of presentation by means of which converse with the angel, and apparently with the angel alone, is possible. And as there is some mysterious method of communication which seems to the disembodied spirit to be that of speaking and hearing, so for a moment only there will be sight:
Then sight, or that which to the soul is sight,
As by a lightning-flash, will come to thee,
And thou shalt see, amid the dark profound,
Whom thy soul loveth, and would fain approach.
It is clear later on that in this vision the humanity of God made man is revealed. The loneliness of Gerontius before and after that vision is increased by the absence of any saint or hero amid the angelic choirs.
If there was nothing to appeal to popular taste in the imagery of the dream, neither was there anything to touch ordinary human affections. The angel faces of Lead, Kindly Light can at least be interpreted as human faces. There is not an allusion to any grief felt by Gerontius at parting from those who are still kneeling and praying round his bed, or to any thought of meeting again those who had passed before him. Yet this poem exercises a strong attraction for the uneducated as well as the educated. I know, writes Father Ryder, a poor stocking weaver who on his death-bed made his wife read it to him repeatedly.
If the work had been mainly intellectual in quality it would have appealed only to the cultured few. But the peculiarity of the poem is that despite its strange detachment it is full of passionate feeling: it suggests the austerity and transparency of a fine stained-glass window flushed with intense and glorious colour. It is indeed the one unreserved and passionate expression of the romance of Newmans life. It is the culmination of a life-long love story, the love of the soul for the All-Beautiful. Gerontius, as soon as he is able to speak to the angel, asks no question about his own fate, he asks only whether he will be able to see at once the Object of his love. What lets me now from going to my Lord? Then as suffering is the secret of romance we come to the drama of the willing agony.
In the fifteenth century Catherine of Genoa had explained the willing agony to her disciples. The soul, she told them, would not, if it could, forego the purgatorial painwhich alone, as she believed, can make it fit for the Divine union. The last word of Gerontius in the poem is to ask that his night of trial may not be delayed: