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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN was born in London on the 21st of February, 1801. He was the eldest of a family of six children, of whom Francis William, afterwards Professor of Latin at University College, London, was the youngest son. John was educated at a private school, conducted by Dr. Nicholas, at Ealing, and was entered at Trinity College, Oxford, on the 14th of December, 1816. In 1818 he gained a Trinity scholarship, and in 1820 graduated B.A. He was elected fellow of Oriel in 1822, and ordained deacon in 1824, after which he became curate of St. Clement’s Church, Oxford. In 1825 he was appointed by Dr. Whately vice-principal of Alban Hall, an appointment which he resigned on becoming tutor of Oriel in 1826. In 1827 he was appointed one of the preachers at Whitehall, and public examiner in the final examination for honours. In 1828 he became vicar of St. Mary’s, the University church; in 1830 he served as pro-proctor, and in 1831–2 as one of the select preachers of the University. In 1832 he visited the south of Europe with Archdeacon and Hurrell Froude, making the acquaintance of Dr., afterwards Cardinal, Wiseman, at Rome, where, in conjunction with Hurrell Froude, Newman began the “Lyra Apostolica.” In 1833 the party broke up, the Froudes visiting France, and Newman returning to Sicily, where he suffered a dangerous illness at Leonforte. En route from Palermo to Marseilles, the vessel in which he travelled became becalmed for six or seven days, during which Newman wrote the most popular of all his poems, “Lead, Kindly Light,” at a time, it has been said, when the ship lay motionless “amid the encircling gloom” of sea mist. In July 1833 he arrived in England, a few days before his friend Keble preached his famous Assize sermon on National Apostacy. Then followed the Oxford tractarian movement, Keble, Newman, and Pusey taking the lead. Theological study and polemical discussion now occupied his mind, which underwent great changes during the following years. In September 1843 he resigned the vicarage of St. Mary’s, and on the 9th of October, 1845, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After visiting Rome, he resided successively at Maryvale, Old Oscott; St. Wilfred’s College, Cheadle; and Alcester Street, Birmingham, where he established the Oratory, afterwards removed to Edgbaston. In 1850 he founded the London Oratory, of which Faber afterwards became the head. In 1854 Newman became Rector of the new Catholic college, which had been recently founded at Dublin, where he resided for four years. In 1877 he was elected an honorary fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and on the 12th of May, 1879, he was created Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII. He died at Edgbaston on the 11th of August, 1890.

Newman’s poetry is chiefly preserved in his “Verses on Various Occasions,” first published in 1834, and frequently reprinted with additional poems from time to time. The “Lyra Apostolica” consisted of poems contributed to the British Magazine (1832–4) by Newman, Keble, and others, and afterwards published separately under the same title. Beyond this Newman translated a number of Latin hymns, of which his “Nunc Sancte nobis Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Ghost, Who ever One”), has been, perhaps, the most often used. “The Dream of Gerontius,” his longest poem, is chiefly known by the fine hymn “Praise to the Holiest in the Height,” which is taken from it, and which with “Lead, Kindly Light,” represents the poet in most modern hymn books. “The Dream of Gerontius” describes the vision of a dying Christian, and is the most powerful and imaginative of his poems, though, curiously enough, it was not composed until late in life. The selected passages given here are sufficient to show its beauty and power, and the poem, as a whole, is enough to make one wish that Newman had taken himself more seriously as a poet. He had an easy command of verse forms, and a true sense of the sublime; and the lover of poetry may well regret that so much of his time and thought were absorbed by polemical discussions. As it is, his poetic work is correctly described by the title of his volume “Verses on Various Occasions,” to which might have been added “and in various moods,” of the outcome of the lighter of which, we may quote here the trifle “Opusculum” written at Brighton in April 1829 “for a very small album”—

  • Fair Cousin, thy page
  • is small to encage
  • the thoughts which engage
  • the mind of a sage,
  • such as I am;
  • ’Twere in teaspoon to take
  • the whole Genevese lake,
  • or a lap-dog to make
  • the white Elephant sac-
  • -red in Siam.
  • Yet inadequate though
  • to the terms strange and so-
  • -lemn that figure in po-
  • -lysyllabical row
  • in a treatise;
  • Still, true words and plain,
  • of the heart, not the brain,
  • in affectionate strain,
  • this book to contain
  • very meet is.
  • So I promise to be
  • a good Cousin to thee,
  • and to keep safe the se-
  • -cret I heard, although e-
  • -v’ry one know it;
  • With a lyrical air
  • my kind thoughts I would dare,
  • and offer whate’er
  • beseems the news, were
  • I a poet.