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Sunday Night Journal — February 17, 2008

Newman’s Dream of Gerontius

I mentioned a week or two ago that one of my aims for Lent is to get to know Elgar’s oratorio The Dream of Gerontius (not Gerontion, as I keep mistakenly saying—that’s Eliot), based on Newman’s poem of the same name. Thinking I ought to familiarize myself with the poem first, I hauled out my ancient (1955) Poetry of the Victorian Period and sat down with it. (I was not, by the way, precocious enough to have been reading Victorian poetry in 1955, at the age of seven. This is a college textbook and was still in use in the mid-‘60s when it belonged to my college roommate, from whom I seem to have stolen it.)

I was, to be honest, expecting the poem to be a little on the dull side, and hoping the music would make up for it—after all, Newman’s reputation doesn’t rest on his poetry. Well, I was quite wrong about that. This is a very fine work, vividly imagined and skillfully executed in a variety of forms. Weighing in at around 900 lines, it could serve as a sort of miniature substitute for Dante’s Purgatorio. It describes the journey of a soul from death to purgatory, with just the barest hints about the eventual destination of heaven, and the hell which was escaped. Newman was sixty-four years old when he wrote it, and I suppose must have thought he was describing something he might soon face, although as it turned out he had to wait another twenty-five years to discover whether his vision was accurate or not.

And I do wonder whether it was based on a vision. I suppose it need not have been, as there is really nothing in it that imagination and Catholic faith could not provide, but it certainly is convincing, particularly the description of the process of dying. It is not the physical symptoms as such that dismay Gerontius, but

‘Tis this new feeling, never felt before…
That I am going, that I am no more.
‘Tis this strange innermost abandonment,…
This emptying out of each constituent
And natural force, by which I come to be…
As though my very being had given way
As though I was no more a substance now,
And could fall back on naught….

The poem is in two sections, a short opening of 170 lines which brings Gerontius to the moment of death, and the longer remainder which describes what he experiences between death and the moment when he is taken by his guardian angel to Purgatory, which Newman, interestingly, conceives as a lake. There are a number of passages which would be of interest to those who followed the speculations here over the past week or so about the condition of the soul after death. In particular, there is a passage, too long to quote here, in which the angel tries to explain to Gerontius how he can be a disembodied soul and yet experience perceptions: it’s a sort of trick, akin to phantom pains in an amputated limb, provided so that the soul will not be in total isolation.

Although Gerontius must still be purified, he is on his way to heaven, and when he wonders if it’s proper for him to ask questions of the angel, the angel replies, in a few words that sum up what it might be like to be no longer fallen man:

…You cannot now
Cherish a wish which ought not to be wished.

What a happy state that would be. And I can’t think of many more sweetly hopeful lines of poetry than the closing quatrain in which the angel bids farewell to Gerontius until his time in purgatory is done:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.

I come away from the poem convinced that although the details are imaginary and conjectural, something like it must be true. I say that not only, in fact not even firstly, because it accurately renders Catholic doctrine, but because it simply feels too perfectly an extrapolation of the evidence in every human heart. Considered coolly, the desire of the heart and the consciousness of our own faults do not suffice as evidence of heaven and purgatory, but yet there is something to be said for the argument.

The more I reflect on these things, the more it seems to me that our longing is at the very least a very odd fact. If we are truly the products of a purely physical process, how does it come about that we see things which are far more than that? And make no mistake: we all see them, every one of us. Some of us believe they are real, some believe they’re imaginary products of our emotions, but all of us are aware of them—aware, for instance, of love, to pick only one example. How can chemical processes come to dream of something beyond chemical processes?

Some hold that as a theologian Newman is a bit muddled, but no sensible person will argue that he is not a genius, one of the finest minds of the 19th century. Among other things, he is a supreme master of English prose whose work is studied for its literary value alone. Does the fact of his genius hold any weight as an argument for the truth of his beliefs? Not necessarily; genius is no guarantee against error. But it is another very odd fact about the world that there is a long line of geniuses—looking backward from Newman I think immediately of Pascal, Dante, Aquinas—who believed the Christian faith with all their hearts, not as an insignificant passing notion held without much thought, but as the object of lifelong close attention. Is there any system of thought, I wonder, that is now generally considered to be false, but has been held in substantially the same form by many of the world’s greatest minds over a period of two thousand years? I can’t think of one. That doesn’t prove it’s true, but it’s a point worth pondering.

Here is the poem, if you care to read hundreds of lines of verse online. The site which hosts the poem looks like a great resource.



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