Page 5, 23rd February 2001

23rd February 2001
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Page 5, 23rd February 2001 — Gerontius and the Victorians T he Dream of Gerontius is a

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Locations: Birmingham, Khartoum, Oxford


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Gerontius and the Victorians T he Dream of Gerontius is a

dramatic poem which portrays the death of an old man and what happens to his soul as he enters into eternity. It is therefore a poem that is powerfully coloured by the beliefs of the author.

John Henry Newman was born on 21 February 1801 and died on 11 August 1890. He was baptised soon after his birth, according to the rites of the Church of England, but was to die many years later as a cardinal of the Catholic Church. After a boyhood conversion at the age of fifteen, Newman went to Oxford, where he later became a Fellow of Oriel College, Vicar of the University Church and one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the aim of which was to renew the spirit of the Church of England along apostolic and Catholic lines. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1845, and settled in Birmingham, After ordination as a Catholic priest he founded the first English Congregation of the Oratory in Birmingham, and set up the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin and the Oratory public school in Birmingham.

He was created cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879 "for his services ... and for long years rendered to religion". He wrote extensively, both as an Anglican and as a Catholic — theological, philosophical, historical, controversial and literary works, in defence of Christianity and revealed religion; his Parochial and Plain Sermons were especially influential. He was therefore a Christian all his life, even though his spiritual pilgrimage led him to leave the Church of his boyhood and become a Roman Catholic.

Newman's Christianity influenced not only his writing of the Dream, but also the way it was received by the public. Since Newman's time there have been many changes in English society, and most of all in the beliefs of the citizens of this realm; but, in the nineteenth century, England could still call itself a Christian land. Throughout the century churches continued to be built and enlarged all over the country by Anglicans, Free Churchmen, and Roman Catholics alike. Along with this outward

manifestation of church life,

there went a number of Christian beliefs which were held by the commonality of men. Probably the strongest among these were: the existence of God, the fact of an afterlife, God's providential care of each one of us, and trust in the atoning death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

It was this common core of belief which helped to give The Dream of Gerontius such universal appeal when it was first published, and which gained for the author an equally general approbation, forgetful of the denominational rivalries of the period. However, when looked at closely, the whole poem is about the death of an old, practising

Catholic, surrounded at his deathbed by Catholic friends: they utter Catholic prayers culled from the prayers for the dying in the Roman ritual, they have called in the priest to administer the Last Sacraments, and they believe confidently in the intercession of Our Lady and all the angels and saints. The power of the poem, with its dramatic depiction of the passage of the soul from this life to eternity, is such that Christians of all persuasions felt and still feel at home with it.

The Christians

of the Victorian period likewise felt a similar sympathy with the author of the poem himself, because they knew him as a man who was prepared to follow the truth wherever it led him, regardless of the consequences and its effect upon his own personal prospects. He was a man whose greatness and his loyalty to Christ were such that he commanded the love and respect of men from all walks of life, all kinds of churchmanship, and all

persuasions of religious

belief, because of his undoubted integrity. The general public was particularly aware of this in 1865, when The Dream was written. 1864 had seen the production of Newman's spiritual autobiography, Apologia pro Vita Sua, in which his sincerity had stood out so clearly. Furthermore, because the Apologia had appeared in serial form in the press, this had gained for its author a much wider public recognition than might have been the case. Newman's name was still very much in the public mind when The Dream was first published. In our time The Dream of Gerontius has become popular and well-known through being set to music by Sir Edward Elgar: but in Newman's time it was as religious poetry that it compelled attention. Newman's own comments in a letter to Lady Chatterton of 18 September 1871 are to the point:

"As to my own Gerontius, it was not

the versification which sold it, hut the subject. It is a Religious subject which appeals strongly to the feelings of everyone. I heard of one farmer who was a most unlikely man to care about poetiy, who took to it when he was ill it was to him a prayer or meditation. It directed his thoughts to the next world, from no merits of its own, but from its subject.

One famous person who used it in this way was the Free Churchman General

Gordon, who died in 1884 at the taking of Khartoum. He used the poem in his very last moments, marking with a pencil all the passages which struck him as bearing on death and prayer. For instance, "Pray for me, 0 my friends"; " 'Tis death, 0 loving friends, your prayers 'tis he ..."; "Prepare to meet thy God"; "Use well the interval ... Now that the hour is come, my fear is fled". Newman was very touched to know about this incident, because he had himself been thinking about Gordon, and had cut a little map out of The limes newspaper and stuck it on his cupboard door to remind him of the campaign (the presscutting is still there to this day in Paradiso of Dante, and his less (but not very much less) wonderful Purgutorio."

The Presbyterian divine Dr Alexander Whyte said of it: "The Dream of Gerontius was the true copestone for Newman to cut and lay on the literary and religious work of his whole life ... there is nothing of its kind outside of the Purgatorio and the Paradiso at all equal to the Gerontius for solemnising, ennobling and sanctifying powers. it is a poem that everyone should have by

heart who has it before him

to die!"

But the comment that most enlightens us as to the general popularity of the poem among Christians is that of Newman's adversary in the period immediately before the writing of The Dream, namely Charles Kingsley. He wrote on 2 May, 1868 to Sir William Cope: "I read The Dream with awe and admiration. However utterly I may differ from the entourage in which Newman's present creed surrounds the central idea, I must feel that the central idea is as true as it is noble, and it, I suppose, is this: the longing of the soul to behold Deity, converted, by the mere act of sight, into a self-abasement so utter, that the soul is ready, even glad, to be hurled back to any depth, to endure any pain, from the moment it becomes aware of God's actual perfection and its own utter impurity and meanness."

Fr Winterton 's and Denis Riches' articles are extracted from the new edition (ISBN 1871217-32-6) of The Dream of Gerontius, published by Family Publications (tel 0)865 514408) at £4.99

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