Tag: Romanticism

Deadly Angelism

Deadly Angelism posted in Eleison Comments on February 11, 2012

Discerning what made T.S.Eliot (1888–1965) “indisputably the greatest poet writing in English in the 20th century,” a conservative English writer of our own day, Roger Scruton, has some interesting things to suggest to Catholics hanging on to their Faith by their fingertips in these early years of the 21st century – briefly, in the pain is the solution! If we are being crucified by the world around us, that is the Cross we are meant to be carrying.

Eliot was in poetry an arch-modernist. As Scruton says, “He overthrew the 19th century in literature and inaugurated the age of free verse, alienation and experiment.” One may well question whether Eliot’s final combination of high culture and Anglicanism is a sufficient solution to the problems he was tackling, but who can deny that with his famous poem, the “Waste Land” of 1922, he blazed the trail for contemporary English poetry? The enormous influence of his poems demonstrated at least that Eliot had his finger on the pulse of the times. He is a modern man, and he tackled head on the problem of modern times, summed up by Scruton as “fragmentation, heresy and unbelief.”

However, the “Waste Land” could not be the masterpiece that it is if it did not make some sense out of the chaos. It is in fact a brilliant portrait in a mere 434 lines of the shattered European “civilisation” that emerged from the ruins of World War I (1914 -1918). And how did Eliot manage to do that? Because as Scruton says, Eliot the arch-modernist was also an arch-conservative. Eliot had soaked himself in the great poets of the past, notably Dante and Shakespeare, but also in more modern masters such as Baudelaire and Wagner, and it is clear from the “Waste Land” that it is Eliot’s grasp of the order of the past that enabled him to get a handle on the disorder of the present.

Scruton comments that if then Eliot blew away the great romantic tradition of 19th century English poetry, it is because that romanticism no longer corresponded to the reality of his age. “He believed that his contemporaries’ use of worn-out poetic diction and lilting rhythms betrayed a serious moral weakness: a failure to observe life as it really is, a failure to feel what must be felt towards the experience that is inescapably ours. And this failure is not confined, Eliot believed, to literature, but runs through the whole of modern life.” The search for a new literary idiom on Eliot’s part was therefore part of a larger search – “for the reality of modern experience.”

Now have we not seen, and do we not see, the same “serious moral weakness” inside the Church? One may call “Fiftiesism” that weakness of the Church of the 1950’s which was the direct father of the disaster of Vatican II in the 1960’s. What was it if not a refusal to look squarely at the modern world for what it is? A pretence that everything was nice, and everybody was nice? A pretence that if I just wrap myself up in an angelist sentimentality, then the problems of the Church in the Revolutionary world will just float away? And what is now the pretence that Rome really wants Catholic Tradition if not the same essential refusal of modern reality? As Eliot taught us that sentimentality is the death of true poetry, so Archbishop Lefebvre showed us that it is the death of true Catholicism. The arch-conservative Archbishop was the truest of modern Catholics.

Catholics, today’s reality may be crucifying us in any one of its many corrupt ways, but rejoice, again, says St Paul, rejoice, because in our own acceptance of our modern Cross today is our only salvation, and the only future for Catholicism

Kyrie eleison.

Sixpenny Art

Sixpenny Art posted in Eleison Comments on December 4, 2010

The French painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) repudiates modern society for the sake of art, yet the art he made himself free to create does not seem to have brought him peace (EC 175). The English novelist Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) writes a version of Gauguin’s life a few years later which seems to confirm both the repudiation and the lack of peace (EC 176). But why is the modern artist at odds with the society that he reflects, and that supports him? And why is the modern art he produces normally so ugly? And why do people persist in supporting ugly art?

The artist as rebel goes back to the Romantics. Romanticism flourished alongside the French Revolution, which merely broke out in 1789, but has been pulling down throne and altar ever since. Modern artists, reflecting the society in which they live, as artists cannot help doing, steadily more repudiate God. Now if God does not exist, then surely the arts should have flourished serenely in their new-found liberty from that illusion of God that has dominated men’s minds from time immemorial. Yet is modern art serene? Or is it not rather suicidal?

On the other hand, if God exists, and if the artist’s talent is a gift from God to be used for his glory, as countless artists from the past used to proclaim, then the godless artist will be at war with his own gift, and his gift will be at war with his society, and society will be at war with his gift. Is this not rather what we observe all around us, for instance the deep scorn of modern materialists for all the arts, beneath a pretence of respect?

If God exists, at any rate the questions asked above are easy to answer. Firstly, the artist is at odds with modern society because the breath of God within him that is his talent knows that his society is despicable insofar as it is godless. The fact that society supports him despite his scorn makes it merely more despicable. As Wagner once said when his increased orchestra meant eliminating a row of seats in the theatre, “Fewer listeners? So much the better!” Secondly, how can a gift from God that is turned against him produce anything harmonious or beautiful? For anyone to find modern art beautiful he must reverse the meaning of words: “Fair is foul and foul is fair” (Macbeth) – yet when did even a modern artist mistake ugliness for beauty in a woman? And thirdly, modern people will persist in their reversing the meaning of words because they are making war on God, and have no intention of letting up. “Rather the Turk than the tiara,” said the Greeks just before the catastrophic fall of Constantinople in 1453. “Rather Communism than Catholicism,” said American Senators after World War II, and they had their wish.

In brief, Wagner, Gauguin and Maugham and thousands of modern artists of all kinds are right to scorn our sixpenny Christendom, but the answer is not to make even more war on God with modern art. The answer is to stop making war on God, to give him again the glory due to him and to put Christ back into Christendom. How much more ugliness will it take for men to turn back to the tiara and to choose once more Catholicism? Will even World War III be enough?

Kyrie eleison.

God’s Grandeur

God’s Grandeur posted in Eleison Comments on February 21, 2009

To celebrate the return of a native to his English homeland after 35 years of wandering abroad, let us take a brief look at a famous sonnet of the 19th century English Jesuit priest and poet, Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins. Most suitably the sonnet commemorates the greatness of God. Let anyone who has never met with Hopkins prepare for a bumpy ride, but let him stay with it, because the ride is worth it. Here is “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins was born in 1844, the first of nine children of a High Anglican couple. A bright schoolboy, he obtained a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he became the star scholar in classical studies. Coming under the influence of John Henry Newman, famous Oxford convert to Catholicism 20 years earlier, Hopkins became Catholic one year before leaving Oxford, and at the age of 23 entered the Society of Jesus. In the course of his studies he came across the theology and philosophy of Duns Scotus which revived his interest in writing, and there rose up from within him a wholly personal vision of unchanging nature and English poetry. In 1877 he was ordained priest and did parish work in England. In 1884 he was moved to Dublin, where in 1889 he died of typhus, saying, “I am so happy.”

Therefore Hopkins’ life was wholly framed within the 19th century, hey-day of English Liberalism and Romanticism. However, that within him which made him convert to Catholicism and become a priest made his Romanticism quite different from that of his contemporaries, who could mostly hear only “the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of faith, of God, of hope. “God’s Grandeur” is full of God, and full of hope.

Cast in classic sonnet form, the poem’s first four lines tell of God’s greatness flashing and oozing forth from all Creation. Then how (line 4) can modern man be paying him so little attention? The answer (l.5–8) is that centuries of living for money (“trade”) have cut man off from nature (“nor can foot feel”), and stripped both man and nature (“soil is bare”) of God. Yet (l.9–14) God is still there, deep within natural things, as ever. Man may be putting out the lights of Western civilisation, still God is constantly recreating the world with brightness and warmth.

On a first reading, the originality of Hopkins’ language and imagery may be off-putting. Who ever heard for instance of the Lord God being compared to tin-foil or to oil? But inside Hopkins is a new wine which will not go into old bottles. To get his message across, the lifelessness of modern man, he resorts to repetitions (“trod . . .trod . . .trod”: “seared . . . bleared . . .smeared”), and in 12 of the 14 lines he uses old-fashioned alliterations (“smudge,smell,”“foot, feel,”etc.).

As for the rhythm, instead of the classic English iambic pentameter (te-tum,te-tum,te-tum,te-tum,te-tum), we have a variety of feet and a varying number of beats to a line, from three (L9,13), to five (l.10), mostly four (e.g. the first line).

However, let nobody think Hopkins is indisciplined. He has chosen the Petrarchan sonnet form which allows of only four different rhymes for the 14 lines (here:— od, – oil, – ent and – ings), which for an English poet is quite demanding. And notice how carefully crafted is the last line of the sonnet, its climax:— “World broods” matches “warm breast” and balances “bright wings” (wb, wb, bw), while the spondees (tum, tum) “World broods” and “bright wings” at each end frame two anapaests (te-te-tum) “with warm breast” and “and with ah!.” Read the line slowly aloud, and see if you do not get a kick out of Fr. Hopkins!

Clearly he has no interest in being original for its own sake. Rather from within the liberal 19th century, decadent and growing tired, the convert-priest has a fresh vision of Creation and its Creator which calls for fresh language and rhythms. In truth, whoever recovers God will recover originality!

Could weary men but once more find their way

To God, how light and fresh would dawn the day!

Kyrie eleison.