A Glance At A Great English Catholic Champion
By W. J. BLYTON
Ir is remarkable, when you come to think of it, whet Catholics have given to English literature. We will not fight over again the interesting battle, whether and how deeply Shakespeare was imbued with the Faith. But Chaucer, the morning-star of song here —as Dante was to Italy—was as joyously Catholic as a children's sung Mass! Even the grave Piers Plowman was Catholic, though he reminds one of Lent and selfexamination. Robert Southwell, S.J., the Elizabethan, did some lovely lyrics on the Blessed Sacrament, besides that famous one, " The Burning Babe." Crashaw's seraphic hymn to St. Teresa is a classic, and his contemporary Habington struck a noble note. Sir Thomas Browne, though not himself a Catholic, never heard the Ave Maria but with an exaltation of soul.
Great Catholic Writers
Soon came glorious John Dryden. a convert, who is my subject; and welcome, for in prose and sounding verse addressed to the reason he is unbeaten. Pope, a cradle Catholic, gave English poetry a point and brilliance never known before. It would be fine to be able to claim Edmund Burke, statesman-philosopher, on the strength of his superb championship of penalised Catholics, and the fact that he had a Catholic mother and married a Catholic wife, and was the friend of the French refugee priests during the Revolution; or Dr. Johnson, on the strength of his generous defence of the Catholic belief in the Real Presence; but while this is not possible, any more than one can enrol William Cobbett for his elaborate .fighting case for the Old Religion against the spoliation of the Reformation, we can claim our first calm, unprejudiced English historian in Lingard, who innovated by going to original sources himself. The two best religious poets of their century were Coventry Patmorc and Francis Thompson. And, of course, among the very greatest, Cardinal Newman, whose reception into the Church drew all eyes upon her and her claims. And conversions due to this step will continue as long as his perfect prose is read and men have an ear for unobtrusive beauty in writing. Pater, I believe, and Wilde and others of the later Victorians finally found with us their true spiritual home; the scholarly Lionel Johnson was steeped in the Faith; scientists like Romanes and St. John Mivart added their contribution; Frederick von Hugel had a profound appeal to others outside the fold. Joseph Conrad was a Catholic; and nearer our own day we all know of Belloc, G. K. C., Alfred Noyes, Christopher Dawson, Comp ton Mackenzie, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Evelyn Waugh and scores of others.
All this articulate body of art and opinion has told heavily on the writing and views of non-Catholics, so that it is easier for you and me to hold our religion as we move in contemporary society and discussion. The time was when it was forbiddingly hard.
The Hind and the Panther
Consider then what it meant to bluff honest Dryden in the stormy CromwellStuart period to leave the Protestantism which he had once defended in verse (good verse, too! even if there were lacunae in the reasoning, which he remedied later.) It was done at great risk and cost to himself. People then worked up, on religious questions alone, an excitement comparable to that which today is reserved for a national strike, a cup-tie, a prize-fight or an air race. It was not a necessary qualification to have thought about the matter at all. The main requisite was the power to shower opprobrious names. So, in the manly preface to that rich and vigorous poem on the Church and the sects around her, " The Hind and the Panther," he said: " The nation is in too high a ferment for me to expect either fair war or even so much as fair quarter, from a reader of the opposite party. All men are engaged either on this side or that and though Conscience is the common word, which is given by both, yet if a writer fall among enemies, and cannot give the marks of their conscience, he is knocked down before the reasons of his own are heard. . . .
Our physicians have observed that, in process of time, some diseases have abated their virulence, and have in a manner worn out their malignity, so as to be no longer mortal; and why may not I suppose the same concerning some of those who have formerly been enemies of kingly government as well as Catholic religion? I hope they have now another notion of both. as having found, by comfortable experience, that the doctrine of persecution is far from being an article of our Faith.
After a reference, evidently, to Dutch William, he turns to praise James II in that "he has taken measures more suitable to the spirit of Christianity," knowing that " those who are driven into the fold are, generally speaking, rather made hypocrites than con verts. Of the receiving this toleration thankfully, I shall say no more than that they ought, and I doubt not they will, consider from what hands they received it. It is not from a Cyrus, a heathen prince, and a foreigner, but from a Christian king, their native sovereign, who expects a return in kind for those of his own persuasion."
And so he launches into the full tide of his sounding verse, personifying the Catholic Church as "Me milk-white hind, immortal and unchanged." Many shafts, indeed, were aimed at her heart, and she was often forced to fly.
And doomed to death though fated not to die.
The lines were in Macaulay's mind when he called her " the unsinkable Church," after every European inundation. There follows the grand exclamation: What weight of ancient witness can prevail, if private reason hold the public scale? But, gracious God! how well dost Thou provide, For erring judgments an unerring guide! Thy throne is darkness in the abyss of light, A blaze of glory that forbids the sight. 0 teach me to believe Thee thus concealed, And search no further than Thyself revealed; But her alone for my director take Whom Thou hast promised never to forsake!
My thoughtless youth was winged with vain desires; My manhood, long misled by wandering fires, Followed false lights; and, when their glimpse was gone, My pride struck out new sparkles of her
Such was I, such by nature still I am; Be Thine the glory, and be mine the shame.
Good life be now my task; my doubts are done; What more could fright my faith than Three-in-One?
There speaks a ripe and experienced man. That extract, with what follows, upon the Incarnation and the Real Presence, are moving speech; and we might do worse than have them off by heart.
Could He His Godhead veil with flesh and blood, And not veil these again to be our food? His grace in both is equal in extent— The first affords the life; the second, nourishment.
Compression could not go further. It is epigram, truth and devotional appeal together. Necessarily he digresses into argument at times, and then Dryden's blows are heavy but never ill-natured, Speaking of the Anglican formula about the Sacrament, he says— A real presence all her sons allow— And yet 'tis flat idolatry to bow. Because the Godhead's there, they know
not how The literal sense is hard to flesh and blood, But nonsense never can be understood.
Her position was distressing : For how can she constrain men to obey
Who has herself cast off the lawful sway? No help from Fathers or Tradition s train: Those ancient guides she taught us to disdain.
. . Some forms, and ceremonies some You kept, but stood in the main question dumb.
Deeper into the great issues Dryden dives, a strong and easy swimmer, proving that " all the promises are to the guides," and showing how in the sects that abounded Ruled by the Scripture and his own advice Each has a blind bye-path to Paradise.
The Rule of Faith has been put lucidly many a time since in prose; but never so effectively in the abiding form of verse. And Dryden had the ear of the whole nation whenever he wrote; and generations since have had to read " The Hind and the Panther " as part of their education in the humanities. Without doubt he has insensibly influenced many a scholar and unknown reader. Dr. Johnson, for instance: " He finds the passes of the mind; we read with turbulent delight." And Gray: " Admire Dryden; pray be blind to all his faults." Cowper, similarly. Byron idolised him; Scott wrote his life; Wordsworth and Keats studied him for versification. Burke formed his incomparable style on him. And Newman, most refined and mellow master of prose, placed him very high.
Splendid Satire Here is a hint. If any reader has a nonCatholic friend who, though book-minded and intellectual, is yet prejudiced against any current pamphlet of apologetic, put Dryden's masterpiece into his hands. Its fervour, wit, and passion for truth and souls blot out a lot of the blame which Dryden knew (penitently) he bore for occasional license in his plays. Honest John told his fellow-countrymen his mind without a tremor, ending one bit of candour with this— For. with my country's pardon be it said, Religion is the least of all our trade.
To objectors against our later devotions or formulated doctrine: 'Tis said with ease, but never can be proved, The Church her old foundations has removed, And built new doctrines on unstable sands: Judge that, ye winds and rains; you proved her, yet she stands We claim no power, when heresies grow bold, To coin new faith, but till declare the old.
It is as refreshing as a west-wind blowing into our hesitations and finessing. One wishes that some of these memorable couplets clinched Our talk and speeches today. And every l now and then, he becomes as eloquent as a Bossuet, Fenelon or Lacordaire:— Awake, and open your Owilling eyes: God hath left nothing for each age undone, From this to that wherein He sent His Son: Then think but well of Him, and half your work is done.
The pages arc studded with witty sayings—" benefices twinkled from afar "; " quit the cassock for the ting-coat "; Two magnets, heaven and rth, allure to bliss; The larger loadstone that, nearer this;
but it is beauty and force, rather than satire, which remains in the memory— Then add thy teers For a long race of unrepenting years: 'Tis nothing yet, yet all thou hest to give; Then add those may-be years thou hast to live; 'Tis nothing still, Then poor and naked come, Thy Father will receive his unthrift home, And thy blest Saviour's blood discharge the mighty sum.
Dryden was one of our giants, and it is only grateful to remind ourselves of him, and to read him. It is not so often that English masterpieces can give Catholics the dual delight, literary and doctrinal. Controversy today is, perhaps wisely for our times, conducted when possible in white kid gloves; but once, Dryden lets himself go, when there crosses of path a notorious contemporary foe of religion, and thereupon he raises 'his titanic bludgeon with the following result— Prompt to assail, and careless of defence, Invulnerable in his impudence, He dares the world; and eager of a name, He trusts about. and jostles into fame, So fond of loud report, th4 not to miss Of being known (his last andutmost bliss) He rather would be known ffir what he is.
It is one of the great " straight lefts " of literature.