Victorians in Purgatory: Newman's Poetics of Conciliation and the Afterlife of the Oxford Movement

Article excerpt

Why was John Henry Newman's The Dream of Gerontius so popular with Victorian readers? Our ingrained historicist instincts tell us that this should not necessarily have been the case. After all, The Dream is a poetic vision of purgatory, one of the most Catholic of subjects, and it was published in 1865, little more than twenty years after Newman caused tremendous upset by proposing the possibility of an Anglican purgatory in Tract 90 (1841), the most inflammatory document of the Oxford Movement. Given the outrage that followed, it seemed impossible that a few years later his devotional poem on the subject would be warmly embraced rather than hotly disputed.

And yet, embraced it was. The Dream of Gerontius, Newman's poem about an old man's journey to the afterlife, became one of the best-known and, moreover, best-loved Victorian consolation poems about death. Some scholars place it second to Tennyson's In Memoriam. (1) By 1888, indeed, the poem's twenty-four published editions had made their way into numerous Victorian households. General Gordon carried it with him on his campaign in Egypt prior to his death in Khartoum and Edward Elgar turned it into a successful choral opera. Poets and professors alike bestowed their stamp of approval. Algernon Charles Swinburne praised its "genuine lyric note" (2) and Francis Hastings Doyle, Oxford Professor of Poetry, devoted a lecture to the poem in which he said it deserved "high commendation." (3) Taking his commendation a step further, he urged the Oxford community to stop being "envenomed" by "the spirit of these religious differences" (p. 123). The piece de resistance is that no one better gratified Doyle's wish than Newman's nemesis, Charles Kingsley, who wrote in a private letter that he "read the Dream with awe and admiration. However utterly I may differ from the entourage in which Dr. Newman's present creed surrounds the central idea, I must feel that that central idea is as true as it is noble." (4) These statements, oddly enough, came from the same man who had proclaimed Newman "worse than dead to Englishmen" in Fraser's Magazine a few years earlier. (5) Although Kingsley later tempered his praise with poison in a public review of the poem, he still backhandedly admired "the wonderful beauty of its poetry," thereby initiating a reviewer tradition of separating the poem's "poetry" from its overt Catholic theology. (6)

Although no longer the critical favorite that it was in the late nineteenth century, The Dream of Gerontius remains of vital relevance in illuminating the role devotional poetry played in conflict resolution after the Oxford Movement. (7) As the poem in recent times is rarely considered outside of its theological and religious-historical interest, it has been bypassed by a contemporary tradition of literary scholarship focusing on the political work of Victorian poetry. Newman's prose is often included in considerations of the relation between poetry and politics, such as Isobel Armstrong's seminal Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics, which discusses how Newman's sermons and tracts illuminate the political concerns of poets like Arthur Hugh Clough and Matthew Arnold, but his poetry is itself overlooked in such studies, (8) Despite The Dream's many potential critical points of interest--including the lingering mystery of its success, its controversial content, and the political turnaround it helped achieve--Newman's most popular poem has received little literary critical attention in our time. As a result, its popularity has yet to be addressed as a phenomenon firmly enmeshed in Newman's poetics.

This essay shows how Newman's devotional poetry shaped public perception of the Tractarian Movement, and in particular Tract 90, a generation later. Situating The Dream within the context of Victorian theological disputes, it explores the often underestimated political potential of devotional poetry and death consolation literature in the years following the Oxford Movement. …