Newman: “One of that small transfigured band, Which the world cannot tame”

The sermons — high poems of an inspired singer

As I prepared to work through another Newman Advent sermon, I consulted Wilfrid Ward’s marvelous two volume Life of John Henry Cardinal Newman (London, 1912) and I found some personal descriptions and accounts of Newman by those who encountered him at Oxford. I must share them with my readers.

Newman was a legend in his own time among the undergraduates at Oxford, as a great teacher and a spiritual presence. “In Oriel Lane light-hearted undergraduates would drop their voices and whisper, ‘There’s Newman,’ as with head thrust forward, and gaze fixed as though at some vision seen only by himself, with swift, noiseless step he glided by. Awe fell on them for a moment almost as if it had been some apparition that had passed. . . . What were the qualities that inspired these feelings? There was, of course, learning and refinement. There was genius, not, indeed, of a philosopher, but of a subtle and original thinker, an ‘unequaled edge of dialectic’ and these all glorified by the imagination of the poet. Then there was the utter unworldliness, the setting aside of all the things which men most prize, the tamelessness of soul which was ready to essay the impossible. Men felt that here was: ‘One of that small transfigured band/ Which the world cannot tame.'”(Ward, vol. 1, p. 64)

Tamelessness, now there is a great quality of a great man in a great age. We bemoan mediocrity of our age, but isn’t it really the tameness of man that so worries us. Who is willing to stand up to the madness of the day, who is ready to stare the petty tyrants of  bureaucracy in the face and exclaim, you are quite mad sir, and I refuse to fall for your drivel. Instead we get “go along to get along,” tamed souls to keep quiet or to voice an obsequious affirmation. Newman was not tamed, and the establishment feared him. The denunciation of Tract 90 knocked him out of the pulpit and out the lecture hall, but it certainly did not tame him. That passage sets us up for the next one in Ward’s book that emphasize his asceticism.

The following lines from Aubrey de Vere’s ‘Reminiscences’ give a vivid picture of Newman’s appearance and manner at this time: “Early in the evening a singularly, graceful figure in cap and gown glided into the room. The slight form and gracious address might have belonged either to a youthful ascetic of the middle ages or to a graceful high-bred lady of our own days. He was pale and thin almost to emaciation, swift of pace, but when not walking intensely still, with a voice sweet and pathetic, and so distinct that you could count each vowel and consonant in every word. When touching on subjects which interested him much, he used gestures rapid and decisive, though not vehement.” (Found in Ward, Vol. I: p. 66)

I find that appealing to my imagination — gestures rapid and decisive, though not vehement. Newman got up in the pulpit and he punctuated the air with gesture and word– his words, too, are rapid and decisive, not vehement. And of course his critics did not say he was effeminate, but the “high bred lady” may shock, unless you have met one. They are rare these days. Charles Kingsley dared to challenge Newman’s manliness and honor (and that of the Church) and he received an intellectual pummeling entitled Apologia pro vita sua. He read the dispatches of the Duke of Wellington in his spare time.

And now for the grand fianle, we can hear John Campbell Shairp, a Scottish Presbyterian, who did not get drawn into the Tractarian movement or the Roman church; but he knew greatness when he saw, or rather heard it:

Through the silence of that high Gothic building . . .

Of the ever-memorable sermons and of the evening service at St. Mary’s at which they were delivered, Principal Shairp writes as follows:

The centre from which his power went forth was the pulpit of St. Mary’s (at left) with those wonderful Sunday sermons. Sunday after Sunday, month by month, year by year, they went on, each continuing and deepening the impression the last has made. . . . About the service, the most remarkable thing was the beauty, the silver intonation of Mr. Newman’s voice, as he read the lessons. It seemed to bring new meaning out of the familiar words.  . .  . Here was no vehemence, no declamation, no show of elaborated argument . . . the delivery had a peculiarity which it took a new hearer some time get over. Each separate sentence, or at least each short paragraph, was spoken rapidly, but with great clearness of intonation; and then at its close was a pause. It took some time to get over this, but, that once done, the wonderful charm began to dawn on you. The look and bearing of the preacher were as one who dwelt apart, who, though he knew his age well, did not live in it. From the seclusion of study, and abstinence, and prayer, from habitual dwelling in the unseen, he seemed to come forth . . . he touched into life old truths, moral or spiritual, which all Christians acknowledge, but most have ceased to feel . . . As he spoke how the old truth became new! How it came home with a meaning never felt before! He laid his finger – how gently, yet how powerfully – on some inner place in the hearer’s heart, and told him things about himself he had never known till then. Subtlest truths, which it would have taken philosophers pages of circumlocution and big words to state were dropt out by the way of a sentence or two of the most transparent Saxon. What delicacy of style, yet calm power! How gentle, yet how strong! How simple, yet how suggestive! How homely, yet how refined! . . . To call these sermons eloquent would be no word for them; high poems they rather were, as of an inspired singer, or the outpourings as of a prophet, rapt, yet self-possessed. And the tone of voice in which they were spoken, once you grew accustomed to it, sounded like a fine strain of unearthly music. Through the silence of that high Gothic building the words fell on the ear like the measured drippings of water in some vast dim cave. After hearing these sermons you might come away still not believing the tenets peculiar to the High Church system; but you would be harder than most men, if you did not feel more than ever ashamed of coarseness, selfishness, worldliness, if you did not feel the things of faith brought closer to the soul.’  (Ward, vol. I, pp. 64-66).

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