Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Richard Holt Hutton (1826–1897)
IN ‘A Library of the World’s Best Literature,’ Cardinal Newman—though all his writings were more or less closely connected with religion, even the lectures on University Education being chiefly intended to show that no university education could be complete which did not treat the knowledge of God as the keystone of all human science—cannot be denied a very important place; for it was in great measure the form and grace and variety of his literary gifts that secured for him the attention of all English-speaking peoples, and that made him one of the princes of the Church before he died. Cardinal Newman himself fixes on one of the most striking of his literary gifts,—the delicacy of his feeling for words, and for the fine distinctions between related words of the closest affinity,—when he attributes to the influence of Dr. Hawkins (subsequently provost of Oriel) and of Dr. Whately (subsequently Archbishop of Dublin) the habit of delicate discrimination which he acquired under their guidance, and for which he was at one time censured as though it had been in him a latent Jesuitism. As a matter of fact, however, if Newman owed this faculty in any degree to the training or suggestion of Hawkins and Whately, he soon far surpassed his teachers. For undoubtedly Newman founded a literary school in Oxford; the school of which in later days Matthew Arnold, with totally different religious convictions, was one of the most distinguished members. The avowed admiration of the great poet for Newman’s style,—for its lustre, and clearness, and grace, for the “sweetness and light” of its manner, the beauty of its rhythm, and the simplicity of its structure,—drew the attention of numbers of less distinguished men to the secret of its charm; and from that time onwards the Oxford school, as we may call them,—men like the late Principal Shairp and the late Lord Bowen,—have more or less unconsciously imbued themselves with its tenderness and grace. Matthew Arnold himself, however, never really rivaled Newman’s style; for though in his prose works he often displayed his wish to approach the same standard, his hand was heavier and more didactic, and his emphasis too continuous and laborious. And in his poetry Matthew Arnold deviated even more widely from Newman’s manner; for though displaying many qualities which Newman had not, for the greater elegiac verse, he missed the exquisite lightness of Newman’s touch and the deeper passion of Newman’s awe and reverence. Indeed, Arnold in his nobler poems is always greatest in bewailing what he has lost, Newman in gratefully attesting what he has found.  1
  Before I come more particularly to the nature of Newman’s influence on English literature, we must just pass lightly over the story of his life. John Henry Newman was born in London on February 21st, 1801, and lived till August 11th, 1890,—more than eighty-nine years. He was the son of Mr. John Newman, a member of the banking firm of Ramsbottom, Newman & Co., which stopped soon after the peace of 1815, but which never failed, as it discharged every shilling of its obligations. His mother’s maiden name was Fourdrinier. She was a member of one of the old Huguenot families, and a moderate Calvinist, from whom Newman derived something of his early bias towards the evangelical school of theology, which he studied in works such as those of Scott, Romaine, Newton, and Milner. He early adopted Scott’s axiom that holiness must come before peace, and that “growth is the only evidence of life”; a doctrine which had a considerable influence on his later adoption of the principle of evolution as applicable to theology. He early read, and was much influenced by, Law’s ‘Serious Call.’ At the age of sixteen his mind was first possessed with the conviction that it was God’s will that he should lead a single life,—a conviction which held its ground, with certain intervals “of a month now and a month then,” up to the age of twenty-eight, after which it kept its hold on him for the rest of his life. He was educated at a private school, and went up to Oxford very early, taking his degree before he was twenty. He took a poor degree, having overstrained himself in working for it. In 1821 he is said to have published two cantos of a poem on St. Bartholomew’s Eve, which apparently he never finished, and which has never been republished. He tells us that he had derived the notion that the Church of Rome was Anti-Christ from some of his evangelical teachers, and that this notion “stained his imagination” for many years. In 1822 Newman was elected to a fellowship in Oriel; where, though “proud of his college,” which was at that time the most distinguished in the University, he for some years felt very lonely. Indeed, Dr. Copleston, who was then the provost of his college, meeting him in a lonely walk, remarked that he never seemed “less alone than when alone.” Under Dr. Hawkins’s influence, Newman took the first decisive step from his early evangelical creed towards the higher Anglican position. Dr. Hawkins taught him, he tells us, that the tradition of the Church was the original authority for the creed of the Church, and that the Scriptures were never intended to supersede the Church’s tradition, but only to confirm it. Combining this with his early belief in definite dogma as underlying all revealed teaching, he entered on the path which led him ultimately to Rome. But it was not till after he had formed a close friendship with Richard Hurrell Froude, the liveliest and most vigorous of the early Tractarians, which began in 1826 and lasted till the latter’s early death in 1836, that his notion concerning the identity between Rome and Anti-Christ was thoroughly broken down. His book on ‘The Arians of the Fourth Century’ was finished in July 1832, and marked for the first time Newman’s profound belief in the definitions of the Nicene Creed.  2
  In 1832 Hurrell Froude fell ill, and Newman consented to accompany him and his father on a Mediterranean voyage, undertaken in the hope of re-establishing his friend’s health. He traveled with them for four months to the African, Greek, and Italian coasts, and then for three months more, alone, in Sicily; where he caught malarial fever, and was thought to be dying by his attendant, though he himself was firmly convinced that he should not die, since he had “a work to do in England.” It was during this journey and the voyage home that he wrote most of the shorter poems first published in the ‘Lyra Apostolica,’ and now collected in his volume entitled ‘Verses on Various Occasions.’ During the return voyage in an orange-boat from Palermo to Marseilles, when becalmed in the straits of Bonifazio, he wrote the beautiful little poem, so well known now to all English-speaking peoples, beginning “Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on.”  3
  On reaching home he entered at once on the Tractarian movement; of which indeed he was always the leader till his own faith in the Church of England, as the best representative of the half-way house between Rome and the theory of “private judgment,” began to falter and ultimately perished. It was he who elaborated carefully the theory of a via media, a compromise between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant view of Revelation; though he himself was one of the first to surrender his own view as untenable. In 1841, having been often hard pushed by his own followers as to what he could make of the Thirty-nine Articles, he published ‘Tract 90,’ the celebrated tract in which he contended that the Articles were perfectly consistent with the Anglo-Catholic view of the Church of England. Bishop after bishop charged against this tract as a final desertion of Protestantism—which it was; and also as a thoroughly Jesuitic explaining away of the Articles—which it was not, for the Articles were really intended as a compromise between Rome and the Reformation, and not by any means as a surrender to the views of the Puritan party. The tract was saved from a formal condemnation by convocation only by the veto of the proctors, Nobis proctoribus non placet; and thenceforth Newman’s effort to reconcile his view with Anglican doctrine began to lose plausibility even to his own mind, though he still preached for two years as an Anglican clergyman, and for another two years of silence hesitated on the verge of Rome.  4
  On October 8th, 1845, Newman was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Within two or three years he founded the English branch of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, and took up his residence in Birmingham; where in 1863 he received the attack of Canon Kingsley, accusing him of having been virtually a crypto-Romanist long before he entered the Roman Catholic Church, and while he was still trying to draw on young Oxford to his views. To this he replied by the celebrated ‘Apologia pro Vitâ Suâ’; which made him for the first time popular in England, and built up his reputation as a sincere, earnest, and genuine theologian. In 1870 he was one of the greatest of the opponents of the Vatican dogma of the Pope’s infallibility; not because he thought it false, but because he thought it both inopportune and premature, not believing that the limits within which it would hold water had been adequately discussed. This attitude of his made him very unpopular at the Vatican while Pio Nono was still at the head of the Church. But in 1878 Pio Nono died; and one of the first acts of the present Pope, Leo XIII., was to raise Dr. Newman to the rank of Cardinal,—chiefly I imagine, because he had taken so strong a part in insisting on all the guarantees and conditions which confined the doctrine of the Pope’s infallibility within the limits for which the more cautious Roman Catholics contended. For eleven years he enjoyed the cardinalate; and died, as I have said, in August 1890.  5
  Except the poems written during his Mediterranean journey, and the sermons preached in St. Mary’s,—ten volumes of them, containing many of Newman’s most moving and powerful appeals to the heart and mind and spirit of man,—the volumes published after he became a Roman Catholic show his literary power at its highest point; for the purely doctrinal works of his Anglican days (those, for example, on ‘The Arians of the Fourth Century,’ ‘The Via Media,’ and ‘Justification by Faith’) are often technical and sometimes even frigid. Not so his chief efforts as a Roman Catholic; for Newman seemed then first to give the reins to his genius, and to show the fullness of his power alike as a thinker, an imaginative writer, a master of irony, and a poet. His chief literary qualities seem to me to be the great vividness and force of the illustrations with which he presses home his deepest thoughts; the depth, the subtlety, and the delicacy of his insight into the strange power and stranger waywardness of the human conscience and affections; the vivacity of his imagination when he endeavors to restore the past and to vivify the present; the keenness of his irony; not unfrequently the breadth and raciness of his humor, and the exquisite pathos of which he was master.  6
  In relation to the first of these characteristics of his style, the power which he displays to arrest attention for his deepest thoughts, by the simplest and most vigorous yet often the most imaginative illustrations of his drift,—every volume of his sermons, and I might almost say nearly every sermon of every volume, furnishes telling examples. He wants to show his hearers how much more the trustworthiness of their reason depends on implicit processes, of which the reasoner himself can give no clear account, than it does on conscious inferences; and he points to the way in which a mountaineer ascends a steep rock or mountain-side,—choosing his way, as it would seem, much more by instinct and habit than by anything like conscious judgment, leaping lightly from point to point with an ease for which he could give no justification to a questioner, and in which no one who had not trained his eye and his hand to avail themselves of every aid within their range, could, however keen their intelligence, pretend to follow him without disaster. Or again, let me recall that happy and yet sad name which he gave to our great theological libraries, “the cemeteries of ancient faith,”—a name which suggests how the faith which has been the very life of a great thinker often lies buried in the works which he has left behind him, till it re-excites in some other mind the vision and the energy with which it had previously animated himself. Or, best of all, consider the great illustration which he gives us of the “development” of given germs of living thought or truth in the minds of generation after generation, from the development of the few tones on which the spell of music depends, into the great science and art which seem to fill the heart and mind with echoes from some world far too exalted to be expressed in any terms of conscious thought and well-defined significance. Newman’s illustrations are always impressive, always apt, and always vivid.  7
  Of the second point, which is more or less at the root of Newman’s power as a preacher, the Oxford Sermons, and the ‘Sermons addressed to Mixed Congregations’ after he became a Roman Catholic, contain one long chain of evidence. Let me refer first to the remarkable Oxford sermon on ‘Unreal Words,’ which should be taken to heart by every literary man, and has, I believe, been taken to heart by not a few; though it would certainly tend as much to impose severe restraints on the too liberal exercise of many great literary gifts, as to stimulate to their happiest use. Newman preached this sermon when his mind was thoroughly matured,—at the age of thirty-eight,—and he probably never preached anything which had a more truly searching effect on the consciences and intellects of those who heard him. In it he takes at once the highest ground. He denies altogether that “words” are mere sounds which only represent thought. Since Revelation had entered the world, and the word of God had been given to man, words have become objective powers either for good or for evil. They are something beyond the thoughts of those who utter them; forces which are intended to control, and do control, our lives, and embody our meditations in action. They are “edged tools” which we may not play with, on pain of being injured by them as much as helped. Truth itself has become a “Word”; and if we do not lay hold on it so as to be helped by it to a higher life, it will lay hold on us and judge us and condemn all our superficial uses or abuses of thoughts and purposes higher than ourselves. He shows us how hypocrisy consists just as much in making professions which are perfectly true, and even truly meant by us, but which do not correspond to our actions, as in making professions which do not represent our interior mind at all. “Words have a meaning whether we mean that meaning or not; and they are imputed to us in their real meaning, when our not meaning it is our own fault.” Then he goes on to give a curiously searching analysis of the hollow and conventional use which men make of great words, from the mere wish to satisfy the expectations of others, and perhaps from a sort of pride in being able to show that they can enter into the general drift of thoughts which are beyond them, though they do not really even try to make them the standard of their own practice. He points out how glibly we shuffle our words so as to make a fair impression on our teachers and superiors, without ever realizing that we are demonstrating the shallowness of our own lives by the very use of phrases intended to persuade others that we are not shallow. The reader will find two passages in these collected sermons—one from the Oxford sermon on ‘Unreal Words,’ the other from one of the ‘Sermons addressed to Mixed Congregations’—that are an illustration of Newman’s pungency of style, the most striking evidence of what I have called “the depth, the subtlety, and the delicacy” of Newman’s studies “in the strange power and the stranger waywardness of the human conscience and affections.” Both of them might be used equally well for the purpose of illustrating the keenness of his irony. Yet the most serious drift of each is the insight it shows into the power of the human conscience, and the waywardness and sophistries of human self-deceit.  8
  Passing to the vividness and vivacity of Newman’s imagination when he endeavors either to restore the Past, or to realize for us with adequate force the full meaning of thoughts which pass almost like shadows over the mind, when they ought to engrave themselves deeply upon it, may be cited the wonderful picture which he has given us in ‘Callista’—his tale of Christian martyrdom—of what happened in the north of Africa during the Decian persecution of the third century. The passage in which he describes the plague of locusts is, even alone, a sufficient proof of the singular power of his vision in realizing to his readers what he himself had never seen. And I give it without further comment, because it speaks sufficiently for itself. But, impressive as that is, it goes a very little way towards illustrating Newman’s great, though discontinuous, imaginative power. It was a much more difficult feat to throw himself as he did into the mind of a Greek girl, devoted, with all the ardor of a lively and eager race, to the beautiful traditions and aspirations of her own people, and to show the unrest of her heart, as well as the craving of her mind for something deeper and more lasting than any stray fragments of the more spiritual Greek philosophy. He makes us see the mode in which Christianity at once attracts and repels her, and the throes of her whole nature when she has to choose between a terrible and painful death, and the abandonment of a faith which promised her not only a brighter and better life beyond the grave, but a full satisfaction for that famine of the heart of which she had been conscious throughout all the various changes and chances of her fitful, impetuous, and not unspotted life. I know nothing much more pathetic, nothing which better reveals Newman’s insight into the yearnings and hopes and moody misgivings of a heart groping after a faith in God and yet unable to attain it,—partly from intellectual perplexities, partly from disappointment at the apparent inadequacy of the higher faith to regenerate fully the natures of those who had adopted it,—than Callista’s reproaches to the young Christian who had merely fallen in love with her, when she was looking to find a heart more devoted to his God than to any human passion. I give the passage to which I refer, in order to show how truly Newman could read the mind of one weary of the flattery of men, and profoundly disheartened by finding that even in the faith which she had thought to be founded in Divine truth, there was not mastery enough over the heart to wean it from the poorest earthly passion, and fix it on an object worthy of true adoration.  9
  For another, though a very different, illustration of the same kind of power, I may refer to a passage in ‘Loss and Gain’: the story of a conversion to Rome, in which Newman describes the reception of his Roman Catholic convert by his mother,—the widow of an Anglican clergyman,—when he comes to take leave of her before formally submitting himself to the Church of Rome. The mixture of soreness of feeling,—the distress with which the mother realizes that his father’s faith does not seem good enough for the son,—and of tenderness for the son himself, is drawn with a master hand. Newman did not often venture into the region of fiction; but when he did, he showed how much of the poet there was in him by painting a woman even better than he painted a man. The curiously mixed feelings of this scene of leave-taking have never received adequate recognition. Imbedded as it is in a story which is hardly a story,—a mere exposition of the steps by which the craving for a final authority on religious questions at last leads a humble and self-distrustful mind to submit itself to the guidance of the Church which claims an ultimate infallibility in all matters of morality and doctrine,—very few have come across it, and those who have, have not succeeded in making it known to the world at large. The tenderness and pathos of that passage seem to me almost as great as that of the preceding one. Newman’s most intimate college friend used sometimes after his marriage, we are told, to forget whether he was speaking to his wife or to Newman, and to call his wife Newman and to call Newman “Elizabeth,”—a mistake very significant of the pathetic tenderness of Newman’s manner with those dear to him, and of the depth of his feelings. Another very touching illustration of Newman’s tenderness will be found in the poem on the gulf between the living and the dead, however dear to each other, the last twelve lines of which were added after the death of his dear friend, Richard Hurrell Froude.  10
  Of the raciness of his humor, many of the ‘Lectures on Anglican Difficulties’ bear the most effectual evidence; but the passage which has the greatest reputation in connection with this quality is that in which, just after the panic on the subject of what was then called “the Papal aggression,” in 1850, Newman ridiculed in the most telling manner the screams of indignation and dread with which the restoration of the episcopal constitution to the Roman Catholic Church in England had been received. I doubt whether a real invasion of England by the landing of a foreign army on our soil would have been spoken of with half the horror which this very harmless, and indeed perfectly inoffensive, restoration of Roman Catholic bishoprics to England inspired. It was evident enough that the panic was more the panic with which the appearance of a ghost fills the heart of a timid person, than the panic with which the imminence of a physical danger impresses us. Against physical dangers the English show their pluck, but against spiritual dangers they only show their weakest side; and the great panic of 1850 was certainly the most remarkable outburst of meaningless dismay which in a tolerably long life I can remember. The result has, I think, proved that the actual restoration of the Roman Catholic episcopacy did more to remove the ghostly horror with which the English people were seized in anticipation of that event, than any sort of reasoning could have done. We have learned now what Roman Catholic bishops are, and on the whole we have found them by no means terrible; indeed, often very excellent allies against irreligion, and in social emergencies very earnest friends. But when in 1850, Newman in his lectures on ‘Catholicism in England’ described with such genuine glee the “bobs, bobs royal, and triple bob majors” with which the English Church had rung down the iniquitous Papal aggression, there was absolutely no caricature in his lively description. If Newman had not been a theologian, he would probably have been known chiefly as a considerable humorist. Some of his pictures of the high-and-dry Oxford dons in ‘Loss and Gain’ are full of this kind of humor.  11
  I have said nothing, of course, of Newman as a theologian,—a capacity hardly appropriate to a book on the world’s best literature. I have always thought that he regarded the Christian religion as resting far too exclusively on the delegated authority of the Church, and far too little on the immediate relation of the soul to Christ. But that is not a subject which it would be either convenient or desirable to enter upon here. Say what you will of the conclusions to which Newman comes on this great subject, no one can deny that he discusses the whole controversy with a calmness and an acuteness which is of the greatest use even to those whom his arguments entirely fail to convince. But my object has been chiefly to show how great an impression he has made on English literature; an impression which will, I believe, not dwindle, but increase, as the world becomes more and more familiar with the literary aspects of his writings.  12

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.