Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Article excerpt

READING ABOUT THE BEATIfiCATION CEREMONY for John Henry Cardinal Newman on September 19, 2010, inspired me to turn to a great poem by Newman that is best known today through performances of Edward Elgar's musical setting The Dream of Gerontius. Since Elgar's setting omits some portions of the text, I turned to Newman's poem as a whole. (1) The work provides an intense and luminous vision through which we can glimpse Newman's remark-able ability to present a theologically informed understanding of human life through vivid and powerful linguistic means, an ability that of course can be found as well in the prose works that form a much more prominent portion of Newman's intellectual legacy.

"The Dream of Gerontius" is a dramatic poem in which the etymologically named old man, Gerontius, completes a journey from the edge of life through death and then to a place and period of purgatorial suffering in which the consummation of the beatific vision is anticipated. The poem is dramatic not only by virtue of its action but especially because Gerontius even in the solitude of death remains in dialogue with others on both sides of the gate of death. The communal character of the dramatic poem is one of its most significant features, and it would be right to call this quality of the poem ecclesiological, establishing a dramatic vision of the completeness and continuity of the universal Church that extends across the boundary of death. In his dying moments, Gerontius hears a priest reciting portions of the "Litany for the Dying" together with others in the room joining in the prayers and called "Assistants" in the text. The vast community of the Church is presented through the words of the prayer:

All holy Disciples of the Lord, pray for him
All holy Innocents, pray for him.
All holy Martyrs, All holy Confessors,
All holy Hermits, all holy Virgins,
All ye Saints of God, pray for him.

Gerontius remains engaged with others throughout his dying, addressing those present collectively as "my dearest" and "my friends" (27-28). Moreover, the community of friends surrounding him in prayer as he is dying is envisioned as extending beyond death to a vast community awaiting him and assisting him in his journey.

Newman strongly emphasizes the continuity between the spiritual world and the material world out of which Gerontius is dying, and finds poetic means to make this usually imperceptible continuity mysteriously available to be sensed by him when, in the moment after his death, the soul of Gerontius narrates his dying and his after-death experience:

I had a dream; yes:--someone softly said
"He's gone"; and then a sigh went round the room.
And then I surely heard a priestly voice
Cry "Subvenite"; and they knelt in prayer.
I seem to hear him still; but thin and low,
And fainter and more faint the accents come,
As at an ever-widening interval.
Ah! whence is this? What is this severance? (179-86)

These questions, full of the urgency of suffering, are to receive answers, because there is an agent of continuity who is sensed for the first time by the soul of Gerontius as he struggles to determine his condition, a guardian angel in whose custodial care Gerontius has been throughout his life. The soul of Gerontius describes his first awareness of the angel's care:

Another marvel: someone has me fast
Within his ample palm; 'tis not a grasp
Such as they use on earth, but all around
Over the surface of my subtle being,
As though I were a sphere, and capable
To be accosted thus, a uniform
And gentle pressure tells me I am not
Self-moving, but borne forward on my way. (225-32)

The geometrical conceit brilliantly suggests the transformation of being and the transformation of the senses that mark the transition from the material world to the spiritual world, and in many ways the heart of the poem is its ability to articulate a vision of continuity that links the material and spiritual worlds and establishes death as a kind of homecoming. …

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