Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Last Great Homilist

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Last Great Homilist

Article excerpt

THE LAST GREAT HOMILIST June 2017 Ronald Knox: A Man for All Seasons EDITED BY FRANCESCA BUGLIANI KNOX PONTIFICAL INSTITUTE OF MEDIEVAL STUDIES, 416 PAGES, $65

The greatest writer of English prose in the last century, P. G. Wodehouse excepted, was not Lytton Strachey or Logan Pearsall Smith or the E. M. Forster of Pharos and Pharillon or Hugh Trevor-Roper. It was certainly not John Updike or William Faulkner, who did not always write English. It was not, alas, Evelyn Waugh. Nor, one is forced to admit, somewhat reluctantly, was it Dom David Knowles, the golden-voiced singing-master of monastic history. It is Msgr. Ronald Knox who must take the silver medal.

Why this is not more widely acknowledged is difficult to say. "Every word you have written and spoken has been pure light to me," Waugh once told his friend, and it was Waugh who came closer than anyone to explaining the difficulty of assessing a fellow writer who did not "employ a single recognizable idiosyncratic style" or stick to a single genre. "No major writer in our history," he said, "has ever shown such an extent of accomplishment" as this author of essays, parodies, apologetics, criticism, light verse, and memoirs; scholar and author of detective fiction; ecclesiastical historian; translator; and homilist of genius. He was not entirely right about Knox's style, though one begins to see what he means. Knox had an unrivaled ear; he could imitate any writer in Greek, Latin, or English. But he was not one of those authors like Trevor-Roper-or Waugh himself during the writing of his memoirs-who gives one the impression of having composed with Gibbon or another exemplar open on his lap. Like Newman's, his style is at once high-solemn, Augustan, elegant, periodic, musical-and low-breezy, chatty, colloquial- without the slightest hint of discord. It is identifiable and wholly singular.

Waugh once complained that Knox's books could only be purchased at "a shop that specializes in rosaries and missals." Today very few of them are in print. (The slapdash print-on-demand editions, like the one of God and the Atom I acquired from a firm based in New Delhi, with its blurry type, irregular margins, and missing pages, do not count.) Those that remain widely available are a hodgepodge: a few volumes of sermons, the detective novels, his translation of the Bible, Enthusiasm. The initiate must hunt down the Sheed & Ward originals with their pink boards, floral motifs, and decorated endpapers. One can say without exaggeration that the present volume, a bundle of appreciative essays, correspondence, and unpublished and uncollected writings, will be loved by everyone who opens it. But one also hopes that its appearance, at the centenary of Knox's reception into the Church, will inspire a wider interest in his life and works.

Born in 1888 into a clerical family, Knox had an extraordinary childhood. His first Latin play was composed at the age of eight; a year later, he told a lie, something he would never do again. When his father, the decidedly low-church bishop of Manchester, was widowed, Ronald and his brothers-Edmund, Dillwyn, and Wilfred-"began to resemble . . . savages," as his niece Penelope Fitzgerald once put it, running about the tumbledown episcopal residence in shabby clothes speaking only Greek and Latin. All the boys were in love with the minutiae of railway travel; one of their favorite games involved reciting in turn from Bradshaw's Railway Guide and Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, annotating the timetable with apposite lines from the latter. Wilfred, aged three, glossed the litany of stops for cattle trains between Kibworth and Birmingham with "And wounded horses kicking / And snorting purple foam: / Right well did such a couch befit / A Consular of Rome."

By the time he took Anglican orders in 1912, having won a fellowship to Trinity College and carried away prize after prize for classics, Knox was high church, indeed "papalist," in outlook. …

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