Thursday, February 22, 2018

GKC on "The Style of Newman"

G.K. Chesterton seems to have written about almost everything and everyone. I found the text of his book A Handful of Authors online. His secretary and friend Dorothy Collins edited this book in 1953 from among many essays and reviews Chesterton had written and it was published by Sheed & Ward. Here's part of what Chesterton says about the prose style of John Henry Cardinal Newman (Blessed John Newman):

A FINE style is not a narrow or fastidious or aristocratic thing, as many think. On the contrary, style is the truly democratic thing, since it touches all common things with the same fairy wand. A man who loves all men enough to use them rightly is a democrat. A man who loves all words enough to use them rightly is a stylist. Style comes out, as the fraternal human sentiment comes out, pre-eminently and most definitely in dealing with coarse or everyday things. An eloquent outburst from Carlyle about the stars and the heroes is, in its own way, fine style. But a page of Newman's Apologia which merely describes how he left off living at some college and went to live in some settlement is also fine style. The ideal lover of mankind would linger over a postcard to his washerwoman, transposing words and modifying adjectives until it was as perfect as a sonnet.

The one weakness of Newman's temper and attitude as a whole was, I think, that he lacked the democratic warmth. This had nothing to do with his religion; for in Manning, who was a far more rigid and central Catholic than he, democracy roared like a bonfire. It had something to do with his character and something to do with his training. But in this matter of a fine style Newman was not doing anything precious or exclusive; he was doing something entirely human and sociable. Good style treats verbs and particles as good manners treats chairs and tables, easily but in the proper way. There is no such thing as being a gentleman at important moments; it is at unimportant moments that a man is a gentleman. At important moments he ought to be something better. So while we can consent to receive some poignant message or violent and sudden sincerity in any language that the man chooses to use, we feel that the finest instinct of geniality is to speak of common things with some dignity and care. No man has ever done this so well as Newman. A magic that is like a sort of musical accompaniment changes and heightens the most prosaic fragments of personal biography or scholastic explanation. And in this, as I say, he achieves for a time that awful and beautiful thing which is the dream of all democracy, the seeing of all things as wonderful, the thing for which Whitman strove and which he did not perfectly attain. In this respect Carlyle and Walt Whitman (that immeasurably greater man) are even the aristocrats compared to this classical embroiderer. They spoke in a tongue not understanded of the people. They were bold and boisterous and personal, as the better kind of aristocrats are always bold and boisterous and personal.

"The Style of Newman" was first published in The Speaker in 1904.

He demonstrates some knowledge of Newman's works, comparing him to Gladstone in some respects. Anticipating the great Newman biographer Father Ian Ker, Chesterton comments on Newman's use of humor:

The truth was, as I fancy, that it was very fortunate for Newman, considered merely as a temperament and a personality, that he was forced into that insatiably fighting thing, the Catholic Church, and that he was forced into it in a deeply Protestant country. His spirit might have been too much protected by the politeness of our English temper and our modern age, but it was flayed alive by the living spirit of "No Popery". The frigid philosopher was called a liar and turned into a man. We might also dwell upon that one outburst of wild and exuberant satire in which Newman indulged: I mean his comparison (in the first lecture on "The Position of English Catholics")* of the English view of the Catholic Church to the probable Russian view of the British Constitution. It is one of the great pages of fierce English humour. Why he thus once exploded into fantastic derision I do not know. But I suspect that it was because Birmingham was full of "No Popery" rioters and his back was to the wall. This man, when he was in the sweet but too refined atmosphere of the Oxford High Churchmen, had shed many tears. But, like all brave men when he first saw the face of battle, he began to laugh.

*Of course, Chesterton means The Present Position of Catholics in England!

More about A Handful of Authors from Dale Ahlquist and the American Chesterton Society.

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