Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Art of Newman

Early each Sunday morning we listen to Celtic Connections on EWTN Radio. Host Kathy Sinnott has some great guests and this weekend she featured Frank Cottrell Boyce on Blessed John Henry Newman as an artist and writer. The Catholic Herald also commented on the presentation Boyce made in October as the first Newman Lecture:

On the evening of Friday October 28 the award-winning screenwriter and acclaimed author Frank Cottrell Boyce delivered the Inaugural Newman Lecture.

The lecture, which was delivered at Notre Dame University in Trafalgar Square, London, was entitled “A footling little parson: The greatest of English prose writers” and focused on the craft of writing, exploring the source of a writer’s creativity and inspiration. . . .

The Newman Lecture is offered in support of the legacy of the 2010 papal visit to Britain and is an initiative of the bishops’ conference department for evangelisation and catechesis.

Bishop Kieran Conry, chairman of the department, said: “Cardinal Newman was a very imaginative writer whose works not only influenced theological debate but he also left a treasure for people of all faiths and none in his hymns, prayers and meditations. The aim of the first Newman Lecture is to affirm the craft of writing and stimulate reflection and discussion about what makes for good writing and where does creativity and inspiration find its source.”

Although Newman is so often praised as a master of English prose style, many find that very style difficult to read because of long periodic sentences. But Newman was an artist: a novelist, a poet, and a musician. You can find the text of Boyce's lecture here.

I like this excerpt: 

Newman too had strong ideas about where writing would take him - it would keep him safely cloistered in his beloved Oxford. And he was fairly sure about that definite purpose - he was going to reconnect the Anglican Church with its Roman roots - and maybe even possibly reconcile those two churches. It didn’t work out like that. After years of agonising he became a Roman Catholic and that meant saying goodbye to his friends, his living and hardest of all, to Oxford. This is what he wrote about leaving Trinity ...

“…there used to be much snapdragon growing on the walls opposite my freshman’s rooms there and I had for years taken it as the emblem of my own perpetual residence even unto death in my University.

On the morning of the 23rd I left the Observatory. I have never seen Oxford since, excepting its spires, as they are seen from the railway.”

That’s a brilliant, heart-stopping paragraph. I love the detail of the snapdragons. I love the way he smuggles in that epic, medieval atmosphere - emblem, perpetual, and that “even unto” and I love the way he puts the boot in to all of that with that blunt “the railway”. You can see there why Joyce said that no one had ever written prose to compare with Newman’s.

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