Chapter 11. Newman's Chief Poem, and the Unity of His Life

{244} I HAVE but little left to say of Cardinal Newman, and that little will be best said in connection with his most remarkable poem, The Dream of Gerontius. Before the Vatican disputes, and shortly after the close of his controversy with Canon Kingsley, Newman had written a poem of which he himself thought so little, that it was, as I have heard, consigned or doomed to the waste-paper basket; and Mr. Jennings, in his very interesting account of Cardinal Newman [Note], credits the statement. Some friend who had eyes for true poetry rescued it, and was the means therefore of preserving to the world one of the most unique and original of the poems of the present century, as well as that one of all of them which is in every sense the least in sympathy with the temper of the present century, indeed the most completely independent of the Zeitgeist.

The Dream of Gerontius is intended to delineate Newman's conception of the last great change through which a faithful Catholic passes, when he exchanges this {245} world for the world of spirits. But it is not merely a poem on death, for it manages to give us in many respects a much more adequate impression of the true core of Newman's faith and life than any other of his works. None of his writings engrave more vividly on his readers the significance of the intensely practical convictions which have shaped his career. And especially it impresses on us one of the great secrets of his influence. For Newman has been a sign to this generation, that unless there is a great deal of the loneliness of death in life, there can hardly be much of the higher equanimity of life in death. To my mind, The Dream of Gerontius is the poem of a man to whom the vision of the Christian revelation has at all times been more real, more potent to influence action, and more powerful to preoccupy the imagination, than all worldly interests put together—of a man whose whole horizon has been so taken up by revealed religion that his career embodies a statuesque unity and fixity of purpose, standing out against our confused modern world of highly complex and often extremely petty interests, like a lighthouse shining against blurred and lowering masses of town, and shore, and harbour, and sea, and sky. The Dream of Gerontius, though an imaginative account of a Catholic's death, touches all the beliefs and hopes which had been the mainstay of Newman's life, and the chief subjects of his waking thoughts and most vivid impressions. It is impossible to read it without recognizing especially that Newman had always and steadily conceived life as a Divine gift held absolutely at God's will, not only in regard to its duration, but also in regard to the mode and conditions of its tenure. Death, even to the most faithful, brings home the thinness of the crust which {246} separates the personal consciousness from the utter collapse which follows the withdrawal of God's sustaining power. And death even to the most faithful is the signal for convincing them of their utter impotence, and of the constant guardianship of other mightier beings than ourselves, in the hollow of whose hand we lie as helpless as the chrysalis in the cocoon of silk. It opens with a delineation of that "strange innermost abandonment," that "emptying out of each constituent and natural force," which dismays the soul by fully realizing to it for the first time its utter incapacity even to cling fast to that which it supposed to be of its very essence—

"'Tis death—oh, loving friends, your prayers!—'Tis he.
As though my very being had given way,
As though I were no more a substance now,
And could fall back on nought to be my stay,
(Help, loving Lord, Thou my sole refuge, Thou),
And turn nowhither but must needs decay
And drop from out the universal frame
Into that shapeless, scopeless, blank abyss,
That utter nothingness of which I came."

Then the horror of this collapse abates sufficiently for Gerontius to make his last confession of faith, and give up his will with hearty fervour to God's; and then it returns, and in his dream he dies—but soon awakes to find himself, as he thinks, refreshed by a strange sleep, followed by "an inexpressive lightness and a sense of freedom."

"I had a dream. Yes, some one softly said
'He's gone,' and then a sigh went round the room;
And then I surely heard a priestly voice
Cry Subvenite; and they knelt in prayer.
I seem to hear him still, but thin and low,
And fainter and more faint the accents come,
As at an ever-widening interval. {247}
Ah! whence is this? What is this severance?
This silence pours a solitariness
Into the very essence of my soul;
And the deep rest, so soothing and so sweet,
Hath something too of sternness and of pain.
For it drives back my thoughts upon their spring
By a strange introversion, and perforce
I now begin to feed upon myself,
Because I have nought else to feed upon.
Am I alive or dead? I am not dead,
But in the body still, for I possess
A sort of confidence which clings to me,
That each particular organ holds its place
As heretofore, combining with the rest
Into one symmetry, that wraps me round
And makes me man; and surely I could move
Did I but will it, every part of me.
And yet I cannot to my sense bring home
By very trial, that I have the power.
'Tis strange; I cannot stir a hand or foot,
I cannot make my fingers or my lips
By mutual pressure witness each to each,
Nor by the eyelid's instantaneous stroke
Assure myself I have a body still.
Nor do I know my very attitude,
Nor if I stand, or lie, or sit, or kneel.
So much I know, not knowing how I know,
That the vast universe where I have dwelt
Is quitting me, or I am quitting it
Or I, or it, is rushing on the wings
Of light or lightning on an onward course,
And we e'en now are million miles apart.
Yet ... is this peremptory severance
Wrought out in lengthening measurements of space,
Which grow and multiply by speed and time?
Or am I traversing infinity
By endless sub-division, hurrying back
Front finite towards infinitesimal,
Thus dying out of the expansive world?"

Surely in all literature there has been no more effective effort to realize the separation of soul and body, and the thoughts which might possess a soul separated from the body, than this. But soon the {248} spiritual sense opens out. Gerontius becomes aware of the presence of his guardian angel, in the hollow of whose hand he is being borne to judgment, and a conversation ensues in which he is told that in the immaterial world intervals are no longer measured by "the swing this way and that of the suspended rod," but only by the intensity of the living thought. "It is thy very energy of thought which keeps thee from thy God." Then Gerontius becomes aware of evil beings who are hungering after him, and trying to renew in him the old spirit of rebellion, and he is told by his guardian angel that—

"It is the restless panting of their being;
Like beasts of prey, who, caged within their bars,
In a deep hideous purring have their life,
And an incessant pacing to and fro."

I know no more powerful conception anywhere of impotent restiveness and restlessness. Though these assailants are now impotent, pain is still before the soul of Gerontius—the pain no longer of temptation and fear, but of what we may perhaps call the fiery and purifying despair of love at finding itself so unworthy of God. The whole scenery of redemption is brought before Gerontius in the songs of the angels, through whose hosts he is borne, till at last he hears once more the prayers of those kneeling around his death-bed, which are borne into the very presence of God; and the Angel of the Agony, who was sent to strengthen our Lord in Gethsemane, intercedes for the shortening of this fresh penitent's suffering. Then we learn how the eager spirit has dashed from the hold of its guardian angel— {249}

"And, with intemperate energy of love,
Flies to the dear feet of Emmanuel;
But ere it reach them, the keen sanctity,
Which, with its effluence, like a glory clothes
And circles round the Crucified, has seized,
And scorched, and shrivelled it; and now it lies
Passive and still before the awful Throne."

The dream virtually ends with this passionate expression of heart-rending anguish and heart-healing hope—

"Take me away, and in the lowest deep
               There let me be,
And there in hope the lone night-watches keep,
               Told out for me.
There, motionless and happy in my pain,
               Lone, not forlorn,—
There will I sing my sad perpetual strain
               Until the morn.
There will I sing and soothe my stricken breast,
               Which ne'er can cease
To throb and pine and languish, till possest
               Of its sole Peace.
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."

The Dream of Gerontius seems to me to contain the happiest summary we could have of the ideal which has pervaded and constituted the significance of the remarkable life I have been trying to review—a life that has fed itself from beginning to end on the substance of Divine revelation, and that has measured the whole length and breadth and depth of human doubt without fascination and without dread—a life at once both severe and tender, both passionate and self-controlled, with more in it perhaps of an ascetic love of suffering than of actual suffering, more of {250} mortification than of unhappiness, more of sensibility and sensitiveness than of actual anguish, but still a lonely and severe and saintly life. No life known to me in the last century of our national history can for a moment compare with it, so far as we can judge of such deep matters, in unity of meaning and constancy of purpose. It has been carved, as it were, out of one solid block of spiritual substance, and though there may be weak and wavering lines here and there in the carving, it is not easy to detect any flaw in the material upon which the long indefatigable labour has been spent.

As I am correcting the last proof-sheets, the news reaches me that the long and gracious life of which I have been writing has suddenly terminated. Cardinal Newman died at the Edgbaston Oratory on Monday, 11th August, 1890, after less than two days' illness, from inflammation of the lungs, and was buried at Rednal by his dear friend Father Ambrose St. John, on Tuesday the 19th. No more impressive testimony could have been afforded to the power, sincerity, and simplicity of the great English Cardinal's life, than the almost unanimous outburst of admiration and reverence from all the English Churches and all the English sects for the man who had certainly caused the defection of a larger number of cultivated Protestants from their Protestant faith, than any other English writer or preacher since the Reformation. Such a phenomenon as this expression of heartfelt English sentiment for a good Roman Catholic would have been impossible a quarter of a century ago; and that it is possible now is due certainly to the direct influence of Cardinal {251} Newman's life and writings. And the honour and reverence paid to him are justly due. In a century in which physical discovery and material well-being have usurped and almost absorbed the admiration of mankind, such a life as that of Cardinal Newman stands out in strange and almost majestic, though singularly graceful and unpretending, contrast to the eager and agitated turmoil of confused passions, hesitating ideals, tentative virtues, and groping philanthropies, amidst which it has been lived.



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Cardinal Newman, the Story of his Life, by Henry J. Jennings. Birmingham: Houghton & Company. London: Simpkin & Marshall.
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Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
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