London is a place. It is a place full of fog, where bright ideas are always welcome, provided they come in under quota and fill out the proper forms.
London has never failed to extend its hospitality to important thinkers who hold transcendental theories in any of the major intellectual fields. The entrance requirements are a change of clothes, a change of accent, and a change of appetite.
Freedom of speech, in London, is amply bestowed on everyone, even the most slovenly. In London’s Hyde Park, a Communist is free to throw over the whole social order, provided he does not throw over any of the benches. In London’s Piccadilly Circus, any atheist may freely blaspheme provided he joins in the chorus of “God Save the King!”
There is, in London, in the lowest as well as the highest circles, one mysteriously profane word. It is the forbidden bloody. London, in its present fog, does not remember why this word was originally forbidden. It once stood in abbreviation for “By Our Lady,” before London began to forget.
London’s social life is a ritual of accepted codes of conduct, and tempered tones of voice; accurate amounts of whiskey and proper proportions of soda. Any gifted alien who is willing to submit to these restrictions, or, at least, admit their reasonableness, is welcome to air there the fruits of his genius. George Bernard Shaw, an apostate Irish Catholic, was one who took advantage of this privilege. And so did Max Beerbohm, an apostate Mediterranean Jew. And, likewise, T. S. Eliot, an apostate Harvard Puritan.
London is a place. It is a spot. It is a point. It is a point at which England may be studied geometrically, even geographically, and, perhaps, genealogically. But it is never a point at which the native genius of the English may be suitably observed. “How many angels on the point of a pin?” was a frequent question in medieval Paris. “How many Angles on the point of an opinion?” is the constant problem in modern London.
London is a place — but not a good place in which to study Englishmen. The English character in London is involved in too many Empire employments, which kill off its spontaneity. The quintessential English traits are best seen out of London, in the country, as the English poets always knew, and as the English novelists eventually discovered.
Possibly these English traits may also be clearly seen by contrasting them with what is generally known of the traits of their perpetual neighbors and ancient foes, the Irish.
Psychologically considered — or should I say, nervously? — the world divides itself into two groups, the sentimental and the emotional. The English are sentimental. The Irish are emotional. And that is a clue to their differences and antipathies more valuable than any you will discover by examining the skulls of their prehistoric ancestors.
Emotion, which is the Irish expression of feeling, explodes and dissipates in short order. Sentiment, which is the English expression of the same, simmers and lingers on. The Irish “adore you” in brief splurges. The English “are fond of you” over protracted intervals. The volume of love received is ultimately about the same in either case. The Irish pour it on with a pitcher. The English sprinkle it through a fine hose.
The Irish are intense, positive, assertive, with an infinite capacity for hatred. The English are restrained, reticent, evasive, with an infinite capacity for contempt. The Irish have a hatred for the English contempt, just as the English have a contempt for the Irish hatred. Each nation thinks its to be the virtue, and the other’s the vice. The Irish are, or imagine they are, a people of great pride. The English are, or fancy they are, a people of great modesty. But we shall see more about that as we go on.
The Irish make splendid soldiers; the English make splendid soldiers; the former by having inferior foes, the latter by having superior officers. An Irishman feels most like a soldier when he is shooting at an enemy. An Englishman feels most like a soldier when he is obeying a command. The Irish go forth to “die for their country” in a brief battle. The English enlist to “serve their country” for the duration of the war. The English usually win their wars, with the assistance of other nations. The Irish usually lose theirs, with the assistance of no one. The Irish “knocked the stuffings” out of the Black and Tans, and yet could not shake themselves free of England. The English managed “to relieve Mafeking” and thereby put an end to the uprising of the Boers. The English accuse the Irish of making continual fools of themselves in repeated rebellions known as “The Irish Cause.” The Irish accuse the English of making perpetual fools of themselves in a sustained siege known as “The British Empire.”
The Irish are a race of realists fighting for an ideal Ireland. The English are a race of idealists fighting for the England of the moment. The Irish want their country compact and undivided in one small island. The English want theirs multiplied and spread over the whole Earth. The Irish want Ireland to be little — but that is modesty! The English want England to be large — but that is pride! And a few paragraphs ago, weren’t we putting it the other way?
When an Englishman leaves England he refers to it as “going abroad.” When an Irishman leaves Ireland he refers to it as “leaving home.” The Irish have no king, but could use one. The English have a king, but cannot find much for him to do.
The Irish defy anyone else to be Irish, and yet are capable, in a particular case, of completely adopting as their own a full or partial stranger. The English insist that everyone else must be English, and yet are always annoyed with the household acquired by these forced naturalizations. DeValera is never a Spaniard to the Irish. But Lloyd George is always a Welshman to the English.
The Irish are born dogmatists; they want things proved, and are thoroughly intolerant. The English are born diplomats; they want things discussed, and are thoroughly inconsistent. The Irish like their whiskey straight, get drunk, and then take the pledge for life. The English like their whiskey diffused in soda water, overindulge, and then make a New Year’s resolution. An Englishman looks most intoxicated before he has had anything to drink. An Irishman looks most sober when he has passed out of the picture.
The English, for centuries a ruling class, produce their best specimens in the form of servants — the English butler. The Irish, for centuries a servant class, produce their best specimens in the form of masters — the Irish squire. The English make splendid servants because they attach a sentiment to the function. The Irish make miserable servants because they attach none. The only time an Englishman ceases to be a good servant is when he becomes intimate with the family. The only time an Irishman ceases to be a bad servant is when he follows the same procedure.
If you want the English oozing out their sentiment in art, I offer James Hilton’s Good-bye, Mr. Chips, the story of a pedantic little sissy, gurgling with gulps, whom every Irishman must find thoroughly insipid. If you want the Irish fuming forth their emotion in art, I offer Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, the story of a raw-boned ruffian, blustering with oaths, whom every Englishman must find thoroughly revolting.
The Irish have a trick which drives me mad. It is their habit of saying a serious thing in a humorous way, and a humorous thing in a serious way. The English have a trick which exasperates me. It is their habit of saying an equally humorous or equally serious thing with exactly the same expression of face and tone of voice.
How these two races, the English and the Irish, ever managed to sprout on adjacent islands, for the life of me, I cannot understand. The event may be taken as history’s most flagrant example of a practical joke. Taken as groups, the English and the Irish are one hundred per cent incompatible. Yet, taken as individuals — so strange are the complementary requisites for romance — they can and do fall in love. Robert Emmet protested boldly that there never was a happy English-Irish political alliance. The late Cardinal Bourne declared he had never known of an unhappy English-Irish marriage. It was such a marriage that gave Robert Emmet to Ireland, and such a marriage that gave Cardinal Bourne to England.
But that will be enough about the British Isles. We must concentrate once more on London and London alone, for that is the theme of our study. And we must see if we cannot make the sun shine there, in some fashion, through some cloud, in some way, so as to illuminate the purpose, in God’s scheme of things, of this great and important city.
London’s highest altitude in religious aspiration is what is known as The Anglican Church. The term “Anglican” has come to denote the doctrinal content of this church. Its corporate title is “The Church of England.” Yet even in this, the most exalted of London’s religions, there are various levels of belief. The Church of England is a welter of Low Church duties, Broad Church doubts, and High Church devotions. The head of The Church of England is not too familiar with its tenets, and not at all familiar with its ceremonies. He is the King of England, whom the Bishops (the Episcopi) have relieved of all sanctuary duties, synod attendance, and theological study. It is for this reason that The Church of England is sometimes referred to as “The Episcopal Church.” Its monarch and its hierarchy avoid each other for the most part, and need dovetail in London only on elaborate occasions such as the dedication of a building, the betrothal of a duchess, or the burial of a queen.
I have said that London gives nothing racial or religious to any of its dependent territories. I should have added — except bad example. London’s racial depreciations I have already censured. Its religious disedifications I should now like to expose.
London’s religious roving is always in the form of some unholy unity revealing or concealing some unblessed trinity. London sustains a constant disdain for the Papal pattern of Church government established by Christ. London’s parodies of this pattern are perverse: its divisions of sheep into many folds and its hirings of many shepherds.
“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock … ” is Our Holy Father the Pope, whom London divorced and dismissed. In his place are the substitutes established under the ægis of London’s prestige: the bishops (“and upon these stones”) of the Episcopal Church of the midlands of England; the ministers (“and upon these pebbles”) of the Presbyterian Church of the highlands of Scotland; the pew-holders (“and upon these sands”) of the Methodist Church of the lowlands of Wales. It was not enough for London’s Anglican Church to be sectional within itself; it wanted to cause sections elsewhere. It was even eventually willing (one section of it) to become a section of the One and Holy Catholic Church, provided it could be incorporated into apostolic partnership with United Romans and Schismatic Greeks.
The Puritans fled from this London complexity and they pilgrimaged in search of a rock of their own. They found one in 1620, at Plymouth, and there they abandoned their boat. They later went north as far as Salem and Lynn, and then to Boston, where eventually they abandoned their beliefs. As complaining Calvinists they were excluded from England. In New England they developed into quiet Unitarians. Two memorials remain in Mayflower Boston of their former Puritan creed: a picturesque chapel named Trinity Church, and a railroad stop called Trinity Place.
Is Unitarianism the fruit of previous London influence? I shall give the answer in the form of a questionnaire. And I shall inflict it on a modern Bostonian, and in the best Unitarian manner.
Q. What is a Unitarian?
A. A Unitarian is one who believes in the unity of God and the trinity of enterprise.
Q. Can you give examples?
A. Shreve Crump and Low. Jones McDuffee and Stratton. Choate Hall and Stewart. New York New Haven and Hartford.
Q. Who and what are these?
A. Three prices in one pearl. Three stewards in one master. Three clients in one lawyer. Three journeys in one direction.
Q. What else are they?
A. An inevitable and rhythmic arrangement of names so proper as to make even commas between them superfluous …
A. Decoration Utensilization Litigation Transportation …
A. Shreve Crump and Low. Jones McDuffee and Stratton. Choate Hall and Stewart. New York New Haven and Hartford.
Q. Are all these, Unitarians?
A. Unitarianism is not a synthesis.
Q. What is it?
A. An interpretation.
Q. Weren’t its ancestors farmers, fishermen, and hunters?
A. Seed Weed and Feed. Hook Line and Sinker. Lock Stock and Barrel.
Q. In Boston, today, incorporated — what would they be called?
A. Farmsworth Fish and Huntington.
Q. You mentioned Jones McDuffee and Stratton.
Q. It is hard to remember what they sell.
A. Plates Cups and Saucers.
Q. And the Shreve people are jewelers …
A. And the Choate crowd are lawyers …
Q. And the rest is a railroad.
Q. The Gospel doesn’t make things quite so elemental.
A. Nothing is more elemental than sentimentality.
Q. But why such a blasphemous rejection of the beautiful processions in the Godhead? And why such a passion for partnerships that will blow to blazes on the Day of Doom?
A. These are extremely difficult questions to answer.
Q. Is Unitarianism a Revelation of its own? Is it an Illumination twirling all by itself in mid-ocean, like a solitary lighthouse, showing nothing, but itself, where to come, or go? Is it its own efficacious Grace?
A. These are extremely difficult questions to answer.
Q. Partnership is the weirdness of Anglicanism: High Broad and Low. Partnership is trying to sunder Catholicism: one root in three trees called The Branch Theory. Partnership is the horror of recent pray-as-you-enter projects: Dispersion Immersion and Conversion.
A. That is why a Unitarian prefers to remain …
Q. Like Emerson?
A. Like Shreve Crump and Low. Jones McDuffee and Stratton. Choate Hall and Stewart. New York New Haven and Hartford.
Q. You mean: minding his own kind of God?
A. Yes, and finding and founding his own kind of business.
This dialogue (now finished) with a Boston Unitarian may serve as an introduction to a London Jew. A Boston Unitarian and a London Jew have this in common: at neither end of the voyage does one discover a Christian; only pleasant remembrances of a household rejected; only happy acquaintances with a household refused.
The London Jew is, in points, identical with the Jew from all great capital cities. But comparisons of him come clearest when he is contrasted with the Jew from Berlin. The Jew from London is an idealist. The Jew from Berlin is an ideologist. The Berlin Jew has hopes for his thoughts. The London Jew has hopes for his investments. Neither is the original Jew from Jerusalem. And their defections can be put most neatly in a deliberate play on words. The one has stopped studying the Law and the Prophets. The other has started studying the Profit and the Loss.
One may ask who is responsible for what is known as the London Jew — is it London, or is it the Jew? I say it is London. I admit that London’s Jew is responsible for his own unrest — as a despiser of the Old and New Testaments for the sake of his old and new investments. But the Bank of England was not the escape the Rothschilds were looking for. It was the escape that London’s Calvinism provided. For though London’s liturgies are supported by Anglicanism, its morals are foundationed in Calvinism. And Calvinism is the Christian support of usury.
Lutheranism is the Christian support of totalitarianism; which is the obsession of the Jew from Berlin. When the Jew from the Holy Land went to the Rhineland, he found Christian corruptions there to ease his conscience and soothe his religious nostalgias. He found the Christian mind overplaying itself at the expense of Christian values. He found Luther’s super-theology — his “Faith without good works” — his belief in belief — his fatheadedness without performance — his frenzy without finesse. This gave the Jew from Jerusalem his chance to be a mental Messiah, and to start a procession of prophetic intellectualism that has lasted down to our day; and has included: Kant the super-philosopher; Hegel the super-ontologist; Heine the super-poet; Wagner the super-musician; Nietzsche the super-sociologist; Marx the super-economist; Freud the super-psychologist; Mann the super-Romanticist; Einstein the super-mathematician. All these Jewish versions of the Lutheran lead have contributed to the development of German intellectualism, and the collapse of German intelligence: The climax came when an apostate Catholic from Austria ran into Germany with a queer mustache, took over the militia, and out-Jewed the Jews. He became the super-German. And that was the end of Germany.
None of London’s original thinkers can take rank with the German ideologists. London has a horror of abstract thought. London’s philosophers are seekers of quick conclusions that will rationalize some form of London behavior. London turns out an original philosopher at the rate of about one a century. Its Seventeenth Century contribution was John Locke.
John Locke (1632-1704) was an experientialist. He believed that the proof of the pudding was in the repeating. This London empiricism caused a criteriological revolt in nearby districts. George Berkeley (1684-1753) an Irish conceptualist, maintained that the eating of the pudding was in the proof. David Hume (1711-1776) a Scotch phenomenalist, held that the proof of the eating was in the pudding. And that accounts for all the philosophic thought that occurred in the British Isles for two centuries.
In London’s out-of-town universities (Oxford to the north-left, and Cambridge to the north-right) abstract thought has always been treated with playful depreciation. Lectures are given with stately solemnity. But everything said before and after is a pleasant belittling of what has preceded or will follow. I once heard a Professor Durward from Cambridge lecture to the Oxford philosophical faculty on the subject, “Is Existence a Reality?” He decided during the lecture that it was not, and that all we could ever be sure of was this: at times there seems to be something, and at times it seems to be plural. But the lecture was only a prelude to a long evening of coffee drinking, during which time Professor Durward nearly exhausted himself trying pleasantly to assure us that he really was what he seemed to be, and that there was not, at the moment, more than one of him.
I once listened to some Oxford students discussing the theory of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) after having come from a lecture in favor of it by a noted Oxford don. These students, instead of being outraged, or at least saddened, at an immortality offered to them in such degenerate form, were speculating with pleasure as to the especial brute each would like to become after death. One young man had antelope aspirations. Another could not bear not being a bear. It can be seen from this unwarranted whimsicality just what is meant by a London idealist. He is one to whom it does not matter what any idea stands for, as long as he can concrete it in some small London terms. He is one who is willing to take anything tangible in London and make it a matter of meditation for the rest of the world.
After the swift blight of London’s crocus philosophers, the stage was set for England’s most fantastic century in the realm of thought — the Nineteenth. This was the century which produced in academic circles two subjects never before heard of — economics and evolution. Economics is the history of the future. Evolution is the prophecy of the past.
Economics got its start north of London in some stingy thinking done by a Scotchman named Adam Smith, who had been banished in kilts from the Garden of Edinburgh. Economics moved into dignified discussion when a Protestant nobleman began plotting more revenue for the rich, and a Protestant minister began planning less progeny for the poor. These names were, respectively, the Honorable John Stuart Mill, and the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus. What London’s evolution twins, Darwin and Huxley, contributed to the cultural thought of the Nineteenth Century was the destruction of remembrances of the origin of sin, and the construction of resemblances in the origin of species.
Once London had persuaded itself that truth was unchaste, its restless religionists and romanticists were invited to roam in the areas of disreputable thought, in the hopes of securing beliefs by way of blandishments, in the hopes of securing certitudes by way of seductions. The Romantic Movement followed; so did the Oxford Movement; and after that, almost every petulant mental mood possible to man.
London’s poets in the Nineteenth Century were not the best thinkers London had, but they were the most notable and quotable. Not one of London’s poets in the whole Nineteenth Century was a true poet — not one. Each was a theorist selfishly exploring a doubt; not an artist gracefully affirming a certitude.
There is a way of making a study of London’s Nineteenth Century poets. It is an unfair way, I admit, but it gets surprising results. It is to assume that every one of them is crazy.
Listen to Wordsworth:
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence …
The Child is Father to the Man …
Here is Coleridge:
A damsel with a dulcimer
In vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there, And all should cry,
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
And this is Robert Browning, gone stark mad:
Gr-r-r — there go, my heart’s abhorrence!
Water your damned flower pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God’s blood, would not mine kill you!
Like the skipping of rabbits by moonlight — three slim shapes
And a face that looked up … zooks, sir, flesh and blood,
That’s all I’m made of.
These London poets were not truly out of their minds. But they were truly out of their territories. They were looking for the secrets of eternal happiness in places where God had made no covenants, in the regions of æsthetic pleasure. And overstimulation by drink and overdepression by drugs are not the best moods for artistic creation. But most of London’s poets failed to realize this for the whole of the Nineteenth Century.
When the Victorian era began in London, shyness and coyness became the required manners in wedded women and courtable girls. Humility and modesty were no longer admired. Men made big bows to delighted dames for the sake of graceful exercise, and paid large compliments to flattered females for the flow of rhetoric it caused. Rhetoric was most of what a lady listened to; poetry was most of what she was permitted to read. She read Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” a pre-natalist’s belittling of her at birth. She read Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” a pantheist’s dismissal of her in destiny. She read Keats’ “Ode to Autumn,” a serenade to the sound of cider lingeringly oozing from a jug, a sensualist’s appraisal of her powers of appreciation. For if
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” — that is all
Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know
and if a Georgian jug and a Grecian urn will alternately and adequately serve its purposes, it is no wonder that this Keatsian recipe for rapture had many a beautiful Victorian woman confused, and that she turned for solace to other pursuits than the polite perusal of poetry.
The Victorian woman was allowed to write a little poetry herself, provided she had a brother (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) or a husband (Robert Browning) who could write it better than she could. If she did not have a gifted man to sponsor her, she had to go anonymous and assume a man’s name. She had to become Acton Bell, Currer Bell, and Ellis Bell, whom nobody suspected for a long time were the Brontë sisters — Ann, Charlotte and Emily. She had to become George, for a change — George Eliot or George Sand. An aunt and a niece (Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper) went unfeminine in unison, and called themselves Michael Field.
But perhaps the saddest of all the suppressed women in London’s Nineteenth Century was little Emily Tennyson, who never wrote for publication, but followed her husband all around the house with a notebook and took down as apocalyptic everything he had to say. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, became famous for his Arthurian legends, in which he voyaged in verse in search of the Holy Grail (the cup that held the Precious Blood of Jesus) in the hopes of finding it empty. Emily Tennyson’s notebooks were discovered after her death, and were found to be full of nothing worth remembering.
I have said before that more than one poet tried to escape from London, from its mental slavery and environmental fog. Some of the tragic escapes I have mentioned. A picturesque escape was that of bibulous John Masefield, who, after having dealt immoral London some metrical blows it will never forget, ran off to the United States and became a bartender in New York City. Here is what he wrote before he boarded the boat, in a poem called “London Town,” of which I shall give three telling stanzas:
Oh, London Town’s a fine town, and London sights are rare,
And London ale is right ale, and brisk’s the London air,
And busily goes the world there, but crafty grows the mind,
And London Town of all towns I’m glad to leave behind …
Oh, London girls are brave girls, in silk and cloth o’ gold,
And London shops are rare shops where gallant things are sold,
And bonnily clinks the gold there, but drowsily blinks the eye,
And London Town of all towns I’m glad to hurry by …
Oh, London tunes are new tunes, and London books are wise,
And London plays are rare plays, and fine to country eyes,
But wretchedly fare the most there and merrily fare the few,
And London Town of all towns I’m glad to hurry through.
London diplomats voted to recall this dangerous Masefield, and made him poet laureate of England, so that his earlier (his bartender) verse which was all in reproof of London, might be overembroidered with some official laudatory verse from a gifted Masefield drinking in more quiet places. But Masefield, as London’s official poet, has written nothing, since he left the ranks of those who fare wretchedly in Soho for those who fare merrily in Mayfair.
In any piece of poetry, when its origins are being studied, we may consider three things: the poet himself, the theme of his poem, and the art with which he expressed himself poetically. And we may call these three: the singer, the song, and the singing. And one is tempted, when the singing is agreeably good, to have pity on a poet whose self and whose song are not. And I think this pity is shared at times by God. For, out of the ranks of London poets, more than out of any other London group, have come conversions to the Catholic Faith in the last one hundred years.
Oscar Wilde was a London poet who died in the bosom of the Catholic Church. He did so after a life of riotous perversion and sin. He breathed his last in exile. It was in Paris, in a lonely garret, in direst poverty. Some Paris friend, full of French pity, brought him champagne to drink just before he died. As he feebly sipped and relished it, he made one last Wildean witticism. He said, “I am dying beyond my means.” Applied to the undeserved gift in his hand, this final remark could have one significance; applied to the undeserved gift in his soul, it could have even a deeper one.
Among these eleventh hour conversions to the Catholic Faith, were two brilliant poets, who died in their early thirties — Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. Both became Catholics after their popularity as writers was established, and had almost begun to wane.
Lionel Johnson was educated at Winchester, and at Oxford. His family for generations had been producing military men for London. But London, with its cheerful disillusionment and its impenitent lust, produced no inspiration for him. And, as poet, he tells it so in some burning stanzas addressed to it as to a dark angel. “Because of thee,” he says, “no thought, no thing, abides for me undesecrate.” And, he adds:
Through thee, the gracious Muses turn
To Furies, O mine Enemy!
And all the things of beauty burn
With flames of evil ecstasy.
Because of thee, the land of dreams
Becomes a gathering place of fears:
Until tormented slumber seems
One vehemence of useless tears.
It was no wonder that this lonely Londoner, who first began to be fond of the Irish, and then fond of their Faith, later found in both the purity of heart for which he was seeking.
Ernest Dowson was a London poet who entered the Catholic Church just in time to appreciate the beauty of its Last Sacraments. This weak-willed genius who had only this to say to his first love:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion
and all of this to say to his false love:
Life is a masque that changes.
A fig for constancy!
No love at all were better,
Than love which is not free
found strength, by God’s grace, to say to his last love, this:
Yet, when the walls of flesh grow weak,
In such an hour, it well may be,
Through mist and darkness, light will break,
And each anointed sense will see.
And so did the soul of Ernest Dowson soar through the mists of London’s fog into the clear sky of redemption for which it was created.
I have never been able to make much sense out of Dowson’s short play, The Pierrot of the Minute. But I do know that the artist-poet who illustrated it, Aubrey Beardsley, who came into the Catholic Faith along with Ernest Dowson, died when he was only twenty-six, just in time to profit by the Sacrament of Extreme Unction to which Dowson had paid such loving tribute. And that was worth being a smart boy for, in any one of the arts.
I think it can be seen from this brief summary of the convert Catholic poets of London — who were many more than the three I mention — that my heart is all in sympathy with them. I do not excuse their moral aberrations; but it was something to have repented of these in terms of the strict amendment of life required by the Catholic Church before one can enter it. Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, were not the three musicians referred to by young Beardsley when he wrote:
Along the path that skirts the wood,
The three musicians wend their way,
Pleased with their thoughts, each other’s mood …
The morning’s work, a new found theme, their breakfast,
and the summer day.
But Baptism could be called “the morning’s work”; and Faith “a new-found theme”; the Eucharist “their breakfast”; and Grace “the summer day” of Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson, by way of their being Aubrey Beardsley’s “The Three Musicians.”
The London Catholic poets who have ruined what chance the Catholic Faith might have had in England by way of æsthetic overture, were not the converted sinners who repented of their previous Protestant poetry. They were those who were either born in the Faith, or converted to it before they began to write their best work. They were such poets as Francis Thompson, Coventry Patmore, Alice Meynell and Gerard Manley Hopkins. These supposedly full-fledged Catholics sang songs which have been given to the world as specimens of what true Catholic poetry should be. But such is not the case.
The collected poems of Francis Thompson are like a shoe factory full of stained-glass windows. I know of no poet in whose work are combined so unpleasantly the machinery of verse and the embellishment of utterance. Here is a fair example:
Once — in that nightmare-time which still doth haunt
My dreams, a grim, unbidden visitant —
Forlorn, and faint, and stark,
I had endured through watches of the dark
The abashless inquisition of each star,
Yea, was the outcast mark
Of all those heavenly passers’ scrutiny;
Stood bound and helplessly
For Time to shoot his barbed minutes at me;
Suffered the trampling hoof of every hour
In night’s slow-wheeled car;
Until the tardy dawn dragged me at length
From under those dread wheels; and, bled of strength,
I waited the inevitable last.
Thompson writes a poem like a Turk weaves a rug. Even when he has only something trifling to say, it has to be plotted, schemed and indented like this:
I saw thee only once,
Although thy gentle tones
“Come hither oft.”
How any Catholic poet, after Our Lord’s invitations — “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” — could conceive of eternal salvation as man, in the form of some ubiquitous fox, being chased by God in the form of a frothing “Hound of Heaven,” is more than my generosities towards metaphors can find excuse for.
Francis Thompson’s devastation of all other women, and his depreciation of the Mother of God, is his tribute to Alice Meynell.
Whose body other ladies well might bear
As soul, — yea, which it profanation were
For all but you to take a fleshly woof,
Being spirit truest proof;
Whose spirit was lineal to that
Which sang Magnificat.
Of London’s Alice Meynell it is difficult to speak. She came into the Catholic Church, and called herself a Catholic. But what she believed in, I do not know. Perhaps the salvation of the solar system, for Christianity seems to have meant to her a series of celestial incarnations. She wrote:
… in the Eternities
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
Alice Meynell had a superabundance of Christian affection for stars of any kind, particularly artists and poets. Her list of Babylon admirers included John Ruskin, George Meredith, Robert Browning, E. V. Lucas, Matthew Arnold, Algernon Charles Swinburne, W. E. Gladstone, Neville Lytton and John Singer Sargent. Her Jerusalem associates were, of course, Coventry Patmore, Francis Thompson and Wilfrid Meynell.
What virtue allowed her to do never interested Alice Meynell. Her fascination was what virtue forced her to forego. Here is the graceful expression of her tyranny over herself:
I must not think of thee; and, tired yet strong,
I shun the thought that lurks in all delight —
The thought of thee — and in the blue Heaven’s height,
And in the sweetest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the fairest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But I must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away,
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart.
G. K. Chesterton, after she had said, “Were I a man, I had been Chesterton,” called Alice Meynell “a message from the sun.”
I think that Alice Meynell was, rather, a fascinating bird, whose shadow here and there, on far too many windowpanes, obscured, at intervals, the message from the Son of God.
Coventry Patmore was a London poet who, while laboring in the British Museum, became enamored of the illustrative possibilities of love. Here is one of his early epigrams:
He does not rightly love himself
Who does not love another more.
Patmore’s first declarations concerning love were put in a set of poems called The Angel in the House. In this book what is secret about married love he revealed. After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, he wrote a book about God, called The Unknown Eros, in which what is revealed about Divine Love he endeavored to conceal.
Coventry Patmore married, successively, three times. He was blissfully happy in each betrothal, tenderly tearful at each bereavement. He was continually going from a wedding to a wake, from a candle to a cake. Each of his wives was let know in verse that his love for her was not his love of God. She was also metrically informed that his love for God would not interfere with his love for her, not even if she were in Heaven, and he in Hell.
After his conversion to the Catholic Faith, Coventry Patmore came to know a maiden too singular for any of his theories. She was the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
Patmore began with a distaste for the way Our Lady is loved by simple Catholics. He was chilled and revolted at what seemed to him the excess of many forms of devotion to her. He could not abide the Rosary. He endeavored to correct this defect by submitting to the mind of the Church, and by disciplining himself with a pilgrimage to Lourdes.
After his visit to Lourdes, Coventry Patmore felt equal to the task of writing poems in praise of Our Lady. He wrote many of these. They are full of skillful metaphors and exuberant phrases. But even after the most astute studies of her value, he found her not too singular, not even in her virginity. All virgins, he believed, experienced in their own way what Our Lady experienced in hers.
In a poem addressed to her as Regina Cœli, he wrote:
True Virgin lives not but does know
(Howbeit none ever yet confess’d)
That God lies really in her breast,
Of thine He made His special nest!
Simple Catholic devotion makes the presence of God in a virgin’s breast no Incarnation. It calls the Incarnation the presence of the God-Man in a Virgin’s womb. There was only one such Virgin-Mother.
In another of Patmore’s Marian poems the pragmatic value of Our Lady is appraised. He calls her:
Our only Saviour from an abstract Christ.
I do not want to dismiss harshly any poet who has spoken, even vaguely or in vanity, concerning the Mother of God. And so I shall say that after a long life of erotic anguish which did not, because of its quality, truly include the Blessed Virgin Mary,
One day in autumn when foliage was falling
And colors were coming to a close,
When warmth was turning into winter
And skies were turning into snows
there was no more Patmore admitting into poetry the unfitting improprieties of prose.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was born at Stratford, a suburb of London. After his conversion to the Catholic Church and entrance into the Society of Jesus, he later served for a while as a Jesuit priest in London. His life was spent teaching outmoded subjects and writing poems no one was ready to read.
Gerard Manley Hopkins is, on his own admission, an odd poet. Everything in his technique is odd, even his rhymes, of which rhymes he remarks that they are the kind which “malignity may munch at, but the Muses love.”
Modern critics are wont to refer to Father Hopkins as an obscure poet. It is my belief that he is odd, but not obscure.
The obscurity one finds in Father Hopkins is surface obscurity: curious arrangement of words, omissions and ellipses, use of outmoded verbs and nouns and, above all, a constant confusion of his reader’s mind by a willful, almost wicked, employment of homophones. Father Hopkins’ obscurity might well be called “jig-saw puzzle obscurity.” But once you have the clue and know how to decipher him, even the most difficult lines come clear. This decoding of a poet’s message is, may I add, not aesthetic pleasure. It is mere curiosity pleasure. And there are times when Father Hopkins gives his reader altogether too much of it.
Let me take as an example of Father’s obscurity, what is reputedly one of his most obscure pieces. The poem to which I refer is called:
upon the Unemployed
and it runs as follows:
Tom — garlanded with squat and surly steel
Tom; then Tom’s fallowbootfellow piles pick
By him and rips out rockfire homeforth — sturdy Dick;
Tom Heart-at-ease, Tom Navvy: he is all for his meal
Sure, ’s bed now. Low be it: lustily he his low lot (feel
That ne’er need hunger, Tom; Tom seldom sick,
Seldomer heartsore; that treads through, prick-proof, thick
Thousands of thorns, thoughts) swings though. Commonweal
Little I reck ho! lacklevel in, if all had bread:
What! Country is honour enough in all us — lordly head,
With heaven’s lights high hung round, or, mother-ground
That mammocks, mighty foot. But no way sped,
Nor mind nor mainstrength; gold go garlanded
With, perilous, O no; nor yet plod safe shod sound;
Undenizened, beyond bound
Of earth’s glory, earth’s ease, all; no one, nowhere,
In wide the world’s weal; rare gold, bold steel, bare
In both; care, but share care —
This, by Despair, bred Hangdog dull; by Rage,
Manwolf, worse; and their packs infest the age.
This is tortured expression, if there ever was any. It is neither prose nor poetry. It is not even English.
Let me take the poet’s thought out of the uncomfortable jargon in which it is enmeshed, and see what he is trying to say in straightforward language. Here is what “Tom’s Garland” means. (The subtitle, may I add, is not a censure on those who are out of work, but on those who will not work, even when work is offered, by employing their talents, however simple and blunt they may be, for the common good.)
Tom the day laborer has a garland just the same as a king has.
Tom’s garland is not a gold crown on his head, but steel nails in his boots (squat and surly steel).
When the day’s work is done, both Tom, and that boob (that fallowbootfellow) who works alongside of him all day, throw down their picks and shovels, and as they walk home for supper, the nails in their boots make sparks on the stone pavement; in other words, they “rip out rockfire homeforth.” Dick, Tom’s fellow workman is, by the way, a brawny man (sturdy Dick).
Tom is carefree when his day’s work is over, Tom the workman.
And he has a good appetite for supper.
And after supper he is practically ready to go to bed.
I grant you that Tom’s lot is a low one; but he never needs to starve (food being his main concern), and he lives through his low lot with a gusto. One seldom finds him sick, and almost never depressed.
His mind is immune (prickproof) to worrisome thoughts. No matter how many thousands of thoughts try to worry him, as they would you or me, Tom easily throws them off.
When it comes to giving all we have by way of talent to the common good (Commonweal), the fact that one man has few talents and another has many, is no true hardship, provided everyone has enough to eat.
It is satisfaction enough for each one to know that he can work for the common good; whether he be a king, whose head is crowned with gold, and whose brilliance is mental and heavenly, or whether he be a big-footed yokel who tills the earth and lives all with his muscles.
But those folk who will do nothing for the common good, neither through brains nor brawn, what about them? Are they crowned like a king with dangerous honors? No. Nor do they get the comforts of the workingman with his big boots.
They have no home amongst us, and they get neither Earth’s glory nor Earth’s ease. They are practical nobodies, with no purpose serving the common good. They have neither the king’s gold crown nor the navvy’s steel-nailed boots. And they get the worst out of both avocations.
They get bored as kings do, without being kings; and they become full of rage and resentment like the laborer on a strike (an even worse affliction).
And there are plenty of these nobodies (these unemployed) in our midst today.
The above is a hurried paraphrase of what the poem means. We now see what is being said, but not because the message was essentially obscure. The poem is full of the most commonplace statement. The devices of expression, however, are so helter-skelter and queer, that the poem looks obscure when one first reads it. By no authentic test can this hodgepodge be called a poem. There are not two successive lines in it that one could — or would want to — remember. There is nothing of the obscurity of mystery in it; there is only the obscurity of problem. And once the problem is solved, one wants nothing so much as never to bother with the thing again.
No one can deny that there are in the poems of Father Hopkins phrases of jewel-like beauty, indeed diamonds. But poets are supposed to offer all jewels — not unquarried fields of thought in which the reader is invited to dig.
When Gerard Manley Hopkins died, no one in the English Province of the Jesuit Order thought his poems were truly Catholic or Ignatian. And so a group of British Protestants were allowed to edit and annotate his work. Robert Bridges was given his poems; Humphry House presided over his diaries; and Claude Colleer Abbott took charge of his letters. Father Hopkins was born in 1844 and died in 1889.
To indicate the extent of his dislocation during life, he wrote: “I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any other man’s living. And as he is a very great scoundrel, this is not a pleasant confession.”
It is merely a pleasant lack of contrition and very little purpose of amendment.
London is a place. It is a place full of fog — as its poetic expressions, psychological confessions, and weather reports will agree.