Thursday, October 23, 2014

Robert Hugh Benson, RIP

I missed posting a notice of the anniversary of Robert Hugh Benson's death last Sunday (October 19; he died in 1914), but want to make up for it by noting his poetry today. A book of his poems was published in the U.S. by P.J Kenedy & Sons of New York soon after his death with an introduction by Wilfred Meynell.

Meynell noted first the purpose for which Benson published his poetry: as a fundraising effort:

Yet one may be named apart, the Homes of Mr. Norman Potter, since it was for their benefit that he put into the market the autobiographical and heart-searching poems here printed. They are very intimate; and as such are proper to poetry even in the case of a writer who had not specially studied the mechanism of poetry as his medium. Under cover of poetical convention, he is able to bare himself, equally in the lines written before he became a Catholic in 1903, and in "The Priest's Lament" of a later date. In "Christian Evidences" he gets back to his intuitions; to that which made him, ardent investigator though he was, ever in closer touch with the simple than with the scientific -- back to that witness within himself which Christ promises and gives to all His own; while in "Visions of the Night" we are at close quarters with that apprehensiveness which, while it imposed suffering, also conferred insight -- the insight by which others learned to see. One passage in "Savonarola Moriturus" is especially self-revealing, and that for a reason it is now no breach of decorum to set forth. A year or two before his death he talked with a neophyte on the sacrifices one might have to make for the Faith. "And are you sure you would make them all?" he was asked. His reply was that he would like to say "Yes," but that he dare not answer for what he might be made to yield under bodily torture. The first four lines of the second stanza of the Savonarola poem are the more poignant for this modesty of the author's own estimate of his powers of endurance, powers which he thenceforth put to sharp apprenticeship and test, passing out, not vanquished, but victor.

He then passes over Benson's novels with some comments:

Of his novels I do not here attempt an appreciation. As a ruthless writer, where ruthlessness comes into the scheme of a man's salvation, as it had been in that of his own, let him be ranked. In the spiritual warfare he gave no quarter. Whether he was cruel, besides, in the burning of The Coward, who makes indeed cowards of us all; whether he views woman as no more than an adjunct of man, an accident for the hindering or the helping of his salvation; whether Dorothy is properly killed so that Roger Mallock may prove his vocation; these, and many more, are the problems that palpitate in his pages, and that men and women, according to their varied experiences, will variously adjudge. Of his historical novels in general he was inclined to say very much what he said of "Come Rack, Come Rope": "I fear it is the kind of book which anyone acquainted with the history, manners, and customs of the Elizabethan age should find no difficulty in writing." If in this class, the author proved conspicuously his industry and his facility -- uncommon but not rare faculties -- then in "Initiation" and other studies of current life he was nothing if not individual. In these he was of his age and no other; he was himself and no other. Nor were the sensitivenesses of these books without their effect on the whole of his productions. When in historical romance he described a martyrdom, we have also his own comment on it: "It seems to me, who have never been on the rack, that I have succeeded pretty well in writing down what the rack must have felt like, and the mental states it must have induced. When I had finished writing that scene, I was conscious or very distinct, even slightly painful, sensations in my own wrists and ankles." Obviously there was an apprehension, necessary for one class of book, which greatly benefited the other; and the experience of the hero in "Initiation" could not have been conveyed, had not the author himself gone under an anaesthetic in a nursing home; and again endured another ordeal without an opiate, "to learn what pain really was" -- a sharp lesson of sixty hours. Similarly the description of the headaches of the hero (how real a hero!) in "Initiation," the most vivid description of its class in all English literature, could only have been written by one who had himself suffered them, and suffered them with a sensibility that is fortunately the iron crown conferred upon only the very elect.

Read the rest of the introduction here. You may peruse the poetry here, but here are a couple of samples:

AT HIGH MASS

Who hast made this world so wondrous fair; --
  The pomp of clouds; the glory of the sea;
  Music of water; song-birds' melody;
The organ of Thy thunder in the air;
Breath of the rose; and beauty everywhere --
  Lord, take this stately service done to Thee,
  The grave enactment of Thy Calvary
In jewelled pomp and splendour pictured there!


Lord, take the sounds and sights; the silk and gold;
  The white and scarlet; take the reverent grace
  Of ordered step; window and glowing wall --
Prophet and Prelate, holy men of old;
  And teach us children of the Holy Place
Who love Thy Courts, to love Thee best of all.


O DEUS EGO AMO TE

O God, I love Thee mightily,
Not only for Thy saving me,
Nor yet because who love not Thee
Must burn throughout eternity.
Thou, Thou, my Jesu, once didst me
Embrace upon the bitter Tree.
For me the nails, the soldier's spear,
With injury and insult, bear --
In pain all pain exceeding,
In sweating and in bleeding,
Yea, very death, and that for me
    A sinner all unheeding!
O Jesu, should I not love Thee
Who thus hast dealt so lovingly --
Not hoping some reward to see,
Nor lest I my damnation be
But, as Thyself hast lov├Ęd me,
So love I now and always Thee,
Because my King alone Thou art,
Because, O God, mine own Thou art!

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