Clouds Over London
We might begin with the parochial and plain sermons of John Henry Newman to justify the title of this chapter. Newman was a cloud over London. His parochial and plain sermons were his effort to become a clear day.
I call John Henry Newman a cloud to distinguish him from a fog. I believe he was a hindrance to the sunshine of London on the very days when the sun was shining. The sun in the sky can be likened, and not unfairly, to the light of Faith. This is what Holy Scripture calls it — the very Holy Scripture that explains to us how and why both sky and light were made. John Henry Newman was a delineated darkness in front of this sun. He was conspicuous only for the rays of sunlight that streamed around him.
John Henry Newman was in mind and in strength a Catholic. He was in heart and in soul an Anglican. To John Henry Newman, the Catholic Faith did not come from hearing. It came from quiet reading. He assented to the Pope; he sympathized with Pusey.
John Henry Newman spent most of his life justifying the values of Faith as they occur in the cold intellectual territories of what he considered to be the cultured mind. He makes a most disparaging distinction between Faith and Devotion. To every simple Catholic — and certainly to every saint — Faith without Devotion is dead Faith — Faith without life, a fides mortua — as opposed to a fides viva of the Latin theologians. To John Henry Newman, Faith and Devotion are distinct both in fact and in idea. “We cannot,” he says, “be devout without faith, but we may believe without feeling devotion.” His overt devoirs are addressed to Faith; his subtle disparagements directed towards Devotion.
John Henry Newman was resolutely a Catholic. He was also apologetically and regretfully so. It was regret, which, of course, he did not regret. His mind and strength would not allow him to do so. But it was regret for which he was constantly apologizing — defending it when it was attacked, proposing it when anyone started to forget it.
After entering the Catholic Church, and being ordained to the Catholic priesthood, and being bounteously empowered to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass each morning at a Catholic altar, John Henry Newman at evening could be expected to burst into tears at the remembrance of how beautiful Evensong sounded in the Vesper Service of the Anglican Church he had abandoned. One of his repeated utterances was that he was afraid he could never be a saint, because he loved the pagan classics so intensely.
John Henry Newman was constantly praised for the clarity of his English prose and the limpid lucidity of his style. That he possesses these qualities, no one can deny. But his is the cold clarity of clear water in a fish bowl, in which one looks in vain for the fish.
Newman achieved his clarity of style by a scorn for the following devices of expression: (a) the parable; (b) the proverb; (c) hyperbole; (d) litotes; (e) the syllogism; (f) the enthymeme; (g) the analogy; (h) the allegory; (i) aposiopesis; and (j) the periodic sentence. Most other writers have thought that human utterance at its best is full of divisions, distinctions, approaches, overstatements and understatements, strong and gentle comparisons, and a not-too-rigid adherence to etymology — so as to enable our almost-clear thoughts, ever mixed with feeling and frailty, to be conveyed lovingly and in human fashion to our kind and expressed to our kindred. Not so John Henry Newman.
John Henry Newman is constantly talking to the perfect citizen of Plato’s Republic, to an elected candidate for More’s Utopia — to Adam in the Garden of Paradise just after he ate the apple, and just before he covered himself with leaves.
The more you read Newman, the less you remember what he says. He is an author whom it is impossible to quote. What you recall, after you have finished reading him, is never what the clarity of his style was revealing, but some small, unwarranted queerness that it was almost concealing. You remember that Newman said that a chandelier “depends” from a ceiling; and if you look up “depends” in the dictionary, you will find that “hangs from” is exactly what it means. You remember that Newman felt entitled to mispronounce deliberately one English word, to show his proprietorship over the language. He pronounced “soldier” as sol—dee—err. You remember that Newman was perpetually fussing about Reverend E. B. Pusey, who seems, in some refined way, to have gotten under his skin.
You remember Newman was shocked that Catholics were giving Protestants the grounds for declaring that “the honor of Our Lady is dearer to Catholics than the conversion of England,” as though anything else could be the childlike truth. You remember that Newman particularly disliked the Marian writings of St. Alfonso Liguori, a Doctor of the Universal Church, and said of these writings, “They are suitable for Italy, but they are not suitable for England.” You remember that, with regard to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Newman insisted, in scholarly fashion, that “her case is essentially the same as St. John the Baptist, save for a difference of six months” — which is precisely the difference this dogma demands. You remember that though Newman was in favor of Papal Infallibility, he was not in favor of its being infallibly defined by the Pope.
And then, all of a sudden, you do not want to remember anything else you remember from Newman, not even the clarity of his style.
I have said in the last chapter that London poets had no certitudes; only theories, artistically phrased. I shall make two exceptions to this statement. They are the poets Thomas Hardy and A. E. Housman. Both of these poets had certitudes — the certitudes that go with despair. Their heyday was the very end of the Nineteenth Century. In the Twentieth Century they faded, in realistic fulfillment of their own disconsolate songs.
John Henry Newman always gave one the impression that he was — to use his own phrase — a “kindly light amidst the encircling gloom.” Hardy and Housman ambitioned to be unkindly glooms in the midst of a light that had vanished.
Hardy was at one time an architect’s apprentice in London. Housman, who was in early life a stupid boy in college, and at the end of his life a professor in a learned university, spent a good deal of his time in between these assignments being a clerk in a London patent office. There is, almost mystically, a melancholy architecture signatured in all of Hardy’s poems; and Housman seems to have his own gloomy thoroughness in uttering despair, patented. His lines are inimitable, no matter how simple and sad they may look.
There never were two poets who, in their own lifetimes, were more recognized and more appreciated than Hardy and Housman. Both spent their middle and later years in comparative wealth, surrounded with adulation. Both wrote their poems, even the most plaintive of them, at the period of England’s greatest material prosperity. It was long before our modern wars. It was a time when conviviality, good wages for all, and plenty of holidays were London’s regular routine. Neither Hardy nor Housman seems to have been tragically disappointed in love. At least, no particular woman seems to have been especially mean to either, as women were reported to have been to the drunken and drugged poets of the same era. Both Hardy and Housman, particularly Housman, made pretense to be heavy drinkers; but it is quite clear they were not. They were reflective drinkers — ale sippers — flavoring their own despairs with mouthfuls of light alcohol.
How did these two, Hardy and Housman, ever manage, in the midst of so much temporal well-being, to touch moods of such classic and perfect despair? The answer is that Hardy and Housman were the poets laureate of a London that had lost its soul. It was theirs to have tasted anticipated damnation and literal Hell on Earth.
An early London saint, the Venerable Bede, gives five reasons why God lets man suffer sickness on this Earth. (1) For an increase of merit, as in the case of Job. (2) For the preservation of humility, as in the case of St. Paul. (3) For the correction of sin, as in the case of Miriam, the sister of Moses. (4) For the glory of God, as in the case of the man born blind, whose miraculous cure is related in the ninth chapter of St. John. (5) For the beginning of damnation, as in the case of Herod, who slaughtered the Holy Innocents.
Housman and Hardy had a soul sickness that puts them clearly in Herod’s class.
Housman often mentions God: (a) for the sake of emphasis:
And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string
(b) to win sympathy for an interesting proverb:
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man
or (c) to support his own anger or bewilderment:
Oh, I have been to Ludlow Fair
And left my necktie God knows where.
But the dead showdown of Housman’s cold hatred of God is a line everyone knew was in his head, but few thought he would dare to write. He referred to the Divine Goodness as:
Whatever brute or blackguard made the world.
Thomas Hardy’s disdain of God, and his inordinate desolation — which is the sure symptom of incipient damnation — are put in a more tempered tone. But they are just as irreverent, and quite as blasphemous. Here is Hardy’s prayer at a Cathedral Service:
That with this bright believing band
I have no claim to be,
That faiths by which my comrades stand
Seem fantasies to me,
And mirage-mists their Shining Land,
Is a strange destiny.
This plaintive atheism, this irreverent disdain for the minds of those who believe in God, is the heart of Hardy in a nutshell. And as for his soul, it is cold as an English coast, full of treacherous rocks, and seething with surf-like sneers, inviting cheerful lighthouses to darken their towers and ships with cargoes of comfort to sail to other ports.
Because he tried with all his might to put one clear and golden cloud in this darkening sky which he saw was coming over his land, we may pay some small tribute here to that elaborately named poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was born in London, the son of an Italian scholar, an exile. Let it be quite clear, Rossetti was an Italian Protestant, and so his art, from its very start, was a sunset. But he tried once, in the midst of it, in a glorious western sky, with something of the poet Dante’s warmth and the Archangel Gabriel’s respect, to place a bright thought, still lingering from his tradition. It was of a pure Catholic girl, a child of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for whom he coined a London title, “The Blessed Damozel.” Here is how she looked as she leaned out from the gold bar of Heaven:
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.
And here is how she lisped when she spoke:
‘We two,’ she said, ‘will seek the groves
Where the lady Mary is,
With her five handmaidens, whose names
Are five sweet symphonies,
Cecily, Gertrude, Magdalen,
Margaret and Rosalys.’
These are purely Italian syllables and notes, wedded to purely English notions and names. And that was the last of Rossetti looking for a lady in the sky.
The next Rossetti we know is one who is looking for a lady in a London graveyard. It was the grave of his own wife he was seeking there, a young girl who made hats for London ladies. Rossetti fell in love with this pretty milliner, but because of her delicate health and his own penniless condition, he was unable to marry her until a few months before her tragic death. It was then he did as noble a thing as any poet could do. He buried all his poems in her grave. That was the true Italian in Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The artificial Englishman in him, one is not quite so proud of.
Influenced by a London cult to which he belonged, known as the pre-Raphaelite Movement, and weakened in character because of his association with such superficial æsthetes as William Morris, Burne-Jones, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and eventually that horrid hedonist, Hall Caine, Rossetti was persuaded, for the sake of art, to go back to the London graveyard one night by moonlight, find the coffin of the little milliner’s maid, and take out of it the poems he had put there — forever.
And this, I am sad to say, is the end of what I had, or will ever have to say, about D. G. Rossetti.
As I go on speaking of clouds over London, I do not want my reader to think that a cloud in itself is something I abhor. Studied in terms of its own exquisite fabric, it is an item of no small beauty in any sky. I once tried to pay it a tribute in the following soft-textured verse:
Song should come promptly when the eye beholds
A Himalaya floating off in folds,
In wayward vales of silent, plume-like lather:
Song should be swift the gist of that to gather,
Have fixed in snow-flame phrases and dispensed
This continent of quiet uncondensed,
Ere the explosion into forks of fire,
The crash and downpour of a frail empire
Whose trickling ruins the minnow shall be fond of
Soon, and paper boats sail on the pond of.
I am not complaining about clouds in their true nature, temporary assignments in the sky, waiting to fall in refreshing and pleasant rain. I am talking against them in the form of obstinate tapestries that do nothing but blot out the sun at those times when the sun was meant to prevail.
I have no particular interest, even, in metaphorical clouds, the kind Queen Victoria — who perpetually sat — looked up at when she saw the constant face of Benjamin Disraeli. I am not even complaining against his kind of face. Daniel O’Connell, an Irish member of Parliament whose specialty was casting reflections on the complexions of London peers — who said of one of them that he had “a smile like the glinting of sunlight on the name-plate of a coffin” — took extra care in describing the face of Benjamin Disraeli. O’Connell declared that Disraeli looked like “a lineal descendant of the impenitent thief.”
This kind of cloud over London was Queen Victoria’s concern, and I do not intend to make it mine. I prefer to go back to the clouds which obscured the pure rays of the sun of Revelation — always anxious to return to a land of instinctive elegance, where blue eyes and blue skies, blue birds and blue waters, are singly troubled when any one of these four is missing in central London, and in its outskirts, which are England.
Just as light can beget light, so darkness can generate darkness. In order to know how cloudy was the thought of some noted London thinker, one is often required to wait and see how his sons went on thinking after their father’s death. The mind of that dingy London materialist, Thomas Huxley, is made most evident to the generation that came after him, not by what he said himself — either in agreement or disagreement with his associate, Charles Darwin, on points on which they were both monkey-minded — but rather in what his descendants, Julian and Aldous Huxley, inherited from their grandfather’s impulses in thought, and put into their own writings in the century that followed.
Aldous Huxley preferred licentious thinking to scientific speculation, and wrote books bearing proud titles like, Grey Eminence and Brave New World. Aldous Huxley was the sentiment of Thomas Huxley set forth by itself. Julian was his sediment, settling at the bottom of a chemistry test tube.
At the end of the world, when nations are judged, and all the true news is told, it will be made clear what a sinister force London, through Julian Huxley, has exercised in the fostering of all that is horrid in twentieth century Russia. Stalin, without British support, could never have stood on his feet. Pavlov, the Russian biologist, making serious sociological experiments in laboratories, would never have been generally accepted unless he had been auspiced by the academic, soft-brutal support of Professor Julian Huxley of England.
I once sat through the showing of a motion picture emanating from Moscow, and edited by London, entitled, “The Mechanics of the Brain.” The protagonist in the piece was Pavlov, experimenting on animals and children, and endeavoring to force his audience to see what slight difference there was between them. The experiments were not by way of showing an animal scratching its fleas, and a child saying its prayers. They were all made in the common areas of behavior that seemed to exist among brutes and babies. We were shown the startling similarities of their nerve reactions, saliva secretions, and cerebral tremors. The quiet London voice commenting on all this inductive enlightenment, and approving of it to the last detail, and making inferences which were not supposed to cause us dismay, was the voice of Evolution — Julian Huxley. Mr. Huxley is now in charge of the universal educational program conducted by the United Nations.
The loudest rumbling in large rebellion against the vagaries of the Victorian period was the voice of G. K. Chesterton.
Chesterton is a bulky subject, no matter how you take him. They say he wrote a hundred and fourteen books. I am not prepared to call him a cloud over London, but I think he was something of a cloak over it, and in terms of a cloak I once described him: “In person Chesterton was a large man who was something of a strain on his clothes. Tidiness he persistently ignored in favor of comfort. Everyone who got near him was tempted to rearrange him, or at least to giving thought as to how it could be done. Eventually Chesterton gave up the idea of expecting to be held together in ordinary attire by ordinary threads and buttons, and went around wearing a cloak. The simplicity with which one could secure a sort of stylish seclusion by the tying of a single knot or the fastening of a single hook appealed to Chesterton. A cloak was a garment calculated to reveal not how he was fashioned, but where he was to be found.”
Chesterton, though he makes constant protest of needing the supernatural in moral life, never gives any indication of needing it in dogmatic thought. He gives the definite impression that he could have reached most of the revealed values of the Gospel with his own powers of discovery, and have written them down to his own satisfaction with his own vast abilities of utterance. Almost everything he quotes from Holy Scripture he does so by way of improving on it. He says in one place that even if he never heard of original sin, he could have discovered it for himself.
G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics in 1904, in which he disavowed all attachment to Protestantism. He wrote another book called Orthodoxy in 1906, in which he affirmed his allegiance to Catholicism. It took him sixteen more years — until 1922 — before he lifted himself from an overcomfortable armchair, and walked, puffing, into a Catholic chapel to make the required profession of faith and submit to the ceremony of conversion. This scandalous delay, in coming into the fold of Christ, never seems to have caused Chesterton any regrets. He seems glad to have given the impression that he did not allow himself to be rushed.
Chesterton’s style of thinking and writing was far too colossal for Christianity. I put him in parody, once, on the nursery rhyme, “Rock-a-bye Baby.” Here is the colossal way in which he would commence:
He sways on the topmost branches,
Encradled in purple gloom,
The child too high for the hilltop
The child too large for the room.
Anyone looking for the Babe of Bethlehem at Christmas time — either by way of regal wisdom or rural simplicity, as a king following a star, as a shepherd listening to a song — had better avoid the books of G. K. Chesterton. There is altogether too much of Christianity in them, and altogether too little of Christ. If I may reverse a proverb of Omar Khayyam, Chesterton was one who “took the credit and let the cash go.”
Hilaire Belloc, whose favorite recreation all during middle life was riding on the top of London busses and looking at cloudy skies, had good reasons for this forlorn form of recreation. His has been an almost lifelong loneliness, caused by the loss of a young wife, only a few years after he married her.
Her death put in him a heartache that never let him love again.
Hilaire Belloc is a Londoner in looks, a Londoner in walk and talk, and a Londoner in stubbornness. But he is the only London writer I know — with the possible exception of Philip Guedalla — who is not a Londoner in soul. Belloc has a Continental soul — a perfect sympathy with things French, Austrian and Italian, and a perfect shrewdness for everything that is German. Belloc never lost his Continental kinship with soldiers (he once served in the army of France), nor did he ever lose his sense of comradeship with the spirits of Continental saints, nearly every one of whose shrines he has at some time visited, making the journey on foot. His is also a Continental thirst for wine.
Belloc refuses to drink any liquor discovered or invented since the Protestant Reformation. The odors of brandy, sherry and port delight his Catholic sense of smell, but whiskey is a word one must never utter in his presence. I am almost afraid to put it in a paragraph where the name of Belloc is mentioned.
As I write these lines, Hilaire Belloc is himself in a cloud. He is now an old man, older, as he once remarked, than the Little Flower of Jesus would be were she still alive. Belloc has now a bent back, is helpless, is unshaven, is unreliable in all his remembrances, and faithful only to his memories. He sits by the fireside in some hidden country place, and waits for the tap on the shoulder that is to be his summons to the Particular Judgment.
When Belloc goes to Purgatory — I am positive Our Lord will never send him to Hell — I know he will be required to purge his soul of some of the interests collected there during life, by reason of too much association, even in the heat of conflict, with some of the heretics of his time. But I also believe he will be promised high rewards in Heaven for the clear courage with which he proclaimed all central Catholic truths, fearless of what would be the consequence to himself.
Two or three of Belloc’s poems are already assuredly immortal, and this is a good deal to have achieved in any single lifetime.
I think perhaps the poem of Belloc’s which deserves to be best known, after his death, is that knightly masterpiece written in defense of a little serving-maid, who, in her disgrace, was being curtailed by the cruelty of a Queen. This little serving-maid is the type of England’s perpetual girl, when left to her own longing. She is lonely for Our Blessed Lady. She is figuratively buried from the kitchen of a palace where she has drooped and died of heartbreak.
Great lords carried her,
And proud priests prayed,
And that was the end
Of the little serving-maid.
The last four poets laureate of England have been named, respectively: Alfred, Alfred, Robert and John. It was after the regime of the first and second Alfreds — Alfred Tennyson, who was all poet and no laureate, and Alfred Austin, who was all laureate and no poet — that an enterprising young Londoner named Alfred Noyes made an overture for the job himself. It was by way of writing London an epic poem, called “Drake,” which purported to be in the nature of a Virgilian laudation of the British Empire, somewhat in the manner in which Æneas has been used as a symbol of the anticipated glories of Rome.
Unfortunately, however, Alfred Noyes failed to impress the committee that chooses London’s poet laureate, and the award was made to Robert Bridges, who wrote, while in office, a long, tiresome poem called “A Testament to Beauty,” and left orders in his will that his body be cremated and no biography of himself be written. So, perhaps I had better leave him immediately, and get back to the rejected candidate, Alfred Noyes.
I do not know any poet in modern London who was more entitled to the award of poet laureate than Alfred Noyes. His lighter lyrics, such as “The Highwayman” and “Come Down to Kew in Lilac Time,” have been as charming and memorable as any recent verses I know. When Noyes found that London did not like him as much as he wanted it to, he emigrated to America in 1913, and taught English literature at Princeton University.
Princeton University has a way of attracting Englishmen on visits, which Harvard and Yale never seem to be able to acquire. I think Englishmen feel that Harvard and Yale are competitors in New England of Oxford and Cambridge in the England that is old. Princeton, they feel, is quite out of the running, and therefore a safe place to visit and condescend to.
However, Princeton University, on one occasion, gave London a snub, which was more than well warranted. It was given by two young Princeton students standing one evening in the University’s railroad station. The story is a classic, and deserves to be put into imperishable archives.
London has had, in its history, two men named Walter Raleigh. The one was a knight in Queen Elizabeth’s time. The other has been knighted in our present day. The former was knighted for his courtesy, and the latter for his competence at letters. This second Sir Walter Raleigh, the knight of our own day, was traveling down to Princeton one evening from New York, to give a lecture. He arrived on the train after the one he had been expected to take. There was no kindly lecture committee waiting in the station to receive him — only two Princeton students, who had not the slightest notion who he was, or even that he was expected to come there at all.
Sir Walter Raleigh, upon getting off the train, and finding no one to meet him, went up to these students and said:
“Could you please tell me where is Princeton University? I am Sir Walter Raleigh.”
“Oh, good evening, Sir Walter,” said one of the students, as he made a profound bow. “And this,” he said, pointing to his companion, “is the Earl of Essex. And I,” he said, pointing to himself, “am Sir Christopher Blount. And you will find Queen Elizabeth, at the moment, smoking cigarettes in the men’s room.”
Alfred Noyes soon grew tired of Princeton, and returned to London. He soon grew tired of everything Anglican, including the Anglican Church. It was then that he was converted to the Roman Catholic Church. His conversion he kept quiet for nearly two years, perhaps so as to see if it were genuine. I have suspicions that it was not. Not because of the two years in which he failed to profess his Faith, but because of two books he has written since openly admitting his religious allegiance. The one is called The Unknown God, in which, it is claimed, that Jesus Christ, with arms outstretched on the Cross, is the fruit of Evolution as it reached the summit of the progress for which it was intended; and the second, is a sympathetic biography of that French blasphemer, Voltaire.
Elsewhere, in London’s sky, on sunny days (which I call the days when poets are being inspired — even Robert Browning said, “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there!”) — are (a) a family of poets called the Sitwells, and (b) a clique of poets which I may call the “W. H. Audenites.”
The Sitwells are two brothers and a sister — Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith. The best of the three, I am pleased to say, is Edith; just as the best of New York’s poetic family, the Benéts — William Rose, Stephen Vincent and Laura — is Laura, the one still living, for whom, because of some almost Mary-sweet utterances in her earlier work, I constantly pray.
The Audenites are more of a problem. In a poem called “Song for a Listener,” I combine Spender, Auden and Eliot into a single name. I call him “Spoundel.” And here is the verse I have on him:
Because his lyre was newly strung,
Because the poet still was young,
One read some lines that Spoundel sung;
And found that what he thought untoward
He wallowed in, and thanked the Lord
He was not bored with being bored, —
And made elliptical allusions
To obfuscate his own confusions
And ostracize his own exclusions.
Roy Campbell, a kind of a cowboy Catholic poet, now living in London, thought this idea of grouping the obscurantists into one name a good one. By way of sheer plagiarism from me, he called Louis MacNiece, Stephen Spender, W. H. Auden and C. Day Lewis, grouped into one man, “MacSpoundey.” Under this name we may dismiss them.
The one poet in this list above who is going, not merely to be damned for his beliefs, but to receive extra punishment in Hell for abusing his abilities, is W. H. Auden. Two slight flashes of his latent powers are enough to indicate his responsibility for his talent. They are (a) by way of putting Horace’s censure upon an overpraiser of the past in this form:
Let us honor if we can
The vertical man,
Although we value none
But the horizontal one
which is the wisest geometry I know; but also (b) for saying in another stanza of three lines more than many a thriftier poet says in three hundred.
Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places
which means you would rather meet your next-door neighbor in Buckingham Palace, than meet Mahatma Gandhi in your bath.
T. S. Eliot is not a cloud over London. He is a cloud in it. He does not hide the light of the sun there. He confuses those who are looking for it.
T. S. Eliot is a Royalist in politics, a Classicist in literature, an Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a London taxpayer by request. He was formerly an American. He was born and bred in St. Louis, Missouri, and acquired later cultivation in Boston, Massachusetts. It is hard to imagine more alienation, snobbery, heresy, disloyalty — in a word, more mongrelism in any one man’s credentials. He is a synthetic surprise no country can fully claim, no culture be fully blamed for.
The sapient sutlers of the Lord
Drift across the window-panes
is T. S. Eliot’s unintelligible way of saying that bugs on windows are rapid breeders. Murder in the Cathedral is his mid-Western American manner of referring to the martyrdom of a London saint.
I once sat opposite T. S. Eliot at a dinner, where he made a sincere effort at being sincere, and a modest effort at being modest, all during the meal. I later put this sapient sutler in a verse, which I entitled, “Reflection on a Flea.” I shall omit its beginning and its end. Here is how it continues:
I loathe the æsthetic attitude,
The literary languish,
The anguish after anguish,
The hunger for hunger, not for food,—
The joy that is not jolly,
The making tears a trade,
The professional melancholy,
The fear of being afraid.
I hide my whole head under
The sheets when I hear thunder.
Things, and not theories,
Frighten and make me freeze.
And, by the way,
Speaking of how to pray,
Dogmas come first, not liturgies.
The dilettante hand,
That took art seriously,
That outlawed fairyland
And stripped the Christmas tree
Now tries another trick,
And has revived Our Lord
To go with the candle-stick
It has so long adored.
Of faith it finds a clue
In hyphenated points of view,
Whose novelty is never new,
And whose waste-land has got
A penny watering-pot
Filled up with drops of dew.
A doubt is still a doubt,
Even turned inside out.
I may speak, at this point, of a distant cloud that has lately tried to descend on London from the northwest. It has come down from the cold mountains of Northern Ireland, where the doubters dwell. His name is C. S. Lewis.
C. S. Lewis begins his theology, not with Heaven and God, but with Hell and Lucifer. He pretends that this Lucifer is a theological distillation of what one finds in the whole field of Christian dogma, when it is carefully studied.
C. S. Lewis has taken upon himself the task of helping the Protestant heresies to get rid of their nostalgias. He ends up by declaring in favor of some Catholic dogmas, but not any Catholic dogmatists; against all Protestant heresies, but very much for some Protestant heretics. His purpose is always a super-clear conclusion. He considers the clarity of focus in attention to be the covenanted clarity of the Faith. He has no vision, but most intense powers of observation. He notes with especial care, what large victories the Devil is scoring in unbelieving England by way of gluttony. His glutton is a little English spinster, altogether too fussy about her tea, and wanting too much butter on her toast.
Lewis does not dislike snakes. He is a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for which he has written doctrinal treatises. His is a cosmological theology, in which angelology and zoology are given appropriate and proportionate attention. He has one sentence to say about the Queen of Angels. She is referred to as the one “who presumably conceived Christ without sin.”
A charming and competent American woman, Clare Boothe Luce, who has had experience at writing plays, was invited a few years ago to collaborate with C. S. Lewis in the making of a motion picture on the subject of the Devil. It was to be called Screwtape. It was to be all Lucifer, and no Blessed Lady. All snake, and no precious heel — promised to crush him, in the third chapter of Genesis.
I wrote to Clare Boothe Luce, to protest against this partnership, and against this picture. My protest may or may not have been the reason why the project was abandoned. But here is what I said to Clare when I urged her to give Lewis the gate:
If Lucifer were a Lewis affair,
Do you think C. S. would take
Such charming, literary care
Of a snake?
And if Lucifer were a Luce affair,
Do you think Clare Boothe would feel
Afraid to step on him head and hair
With her heel?
And now for two or three more clouds coming down on London from the north, and then I am through with London clouds.
Monsignor Ronald Knox is the son of an Anglican bishop and the brother of an Anglican minister. He severed his own connections with Anglicanism so as to acquire the central assurances and valid orders of Rome. His change of religious allegiance was managed without any apparent ruffling of his relatives, and he entered the Church, pipe in hand. That pipe he has not since put down, not even in photographs. Nor has he put aside any of his former canniness and nimble ability to amuse. Chesterton paid him a compliment for this in a quatrain:
Mary of Holyrood must smile indeed,
Knowing what grim, historic shade it shocks,
To see wit, laughter and the Popish creed
Cluster and sparkle in the name of Knox.
One day, in a room full of beer fumes and tobacco smoke, a young university student said to Monsignor Knox, “Ronnie! What is a good definition of an egotist?”
“An egotist,” Monsignor Knox replied, puffing away at his pipe, “is one who won’t let you talk about yourself.”
Monsignor Knox is famous for such witticisms. And here is a specimen of his spiritual wisdom.
Life, says Monsignor Knox — by way of proposing a parable — may be compared to an examination we all must take in order to get into Heaven. The saints are taking this examination for honors, the rest of us for pass degrees. And God will be glad to pass all of us, provided we do not disturb the saints while they are taking their examinations.
This Knoxian version of “The Laborers in the Vineyard” might be called “The Loafers in the Classroom.”
Ronald Knox is a great one for knowing the boundaries of things, both in behavior and in thought. And he has a shrewd way of keeping the apostle and the apologete in a priest distinct. One is in doubt at times as to whether he wants England to come back to the Church, or the Church to come back to England. I once heard him say, when he was the Catholic chaplain at Oxford, that his purpose there was not to make conversions, but only to minister to those who already had the Faith. His own reasons for becoming a Catholic — his previous wide reading and proficiency in the humanities, his spiritual indebtedness to Virgil’s Æneid — most of the students were familiar with, thanks to his many books and articles on the subject. Some of the students, however, thought Monsignor Knox’s logic too tactful to be innocently true, and they felt that if he stopped his affirmative arguments for a moment, and polished up his negative premises, he might easily win on the other side.
Monsignor Knox, by way of revising the bad English of the Church he entered, recently loaned it his vocabulary, and issued an edition of Holy Scripture known as “The Knox Bible.” In this Bible, Ronald Knox figuratively puts wristwatches on all the Evangelists, and invites them to dinner in a don’s refectory, where, in the midst of revelation and refreshment, they may be colloquially introduced, and may receive academic credit for being the excellent and inspired authors they are.
Monsignor Knox has also lately written a doctrinal divertissement, a light piece, known as The Mass in Slow Motion. In it we learn, among other things, the reason why the priest turns round at the Offertory to say the Orate Fratres. It is to wake up the altar boys who have been sleeping while his back was turned. There being now no Chesterton to add a quatrain to this incident, I should like to add one of my own.
Mary of Holyrood must weep indeed
Knowing what immemorial saints it shocks,
To see Mass measured at a movie speed
And offered to Hollywood in the name of Knox.
At Oxford, in England, when I visited it, Monsignor Knox was first among the Roman Catholic intellectuals. His closest competitor was a member of a religious order, a semicelebrity whose name, though simple, is easily misspelled, and which I therefore avoid, but whose studiously uncut hair and studiously oversized clothes I still loosely remember, and who has always reminded what is undergraduate in me of a turkey in profile, gargling a golf ball, and clerical-collared with a quoit.
Among Monsignor Knox’s non-competitors, but on the list of his recurrent callers, was Mr. Evelyn (pronounced Evil-in) Waugh, whose father, a London publisher, supplied his sons with early printing privileges in pornography, before one of them (Evelyn) turned to hagiography, and whitened his sepulchre with the life of a saint.