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Newman’s Poetry: The Heart of a Victorian Renaissance Project 

La poésie de Newman : un projet victorien de renaissance
Dampi Somoko


Cet article examine la poésie de John Henry Newman (1801-1890) dans le cadre du mouvement de renaissance qui a marqué l’époque victorienne. Même si la poésie ne représente pas la majeure partie de ses écrits, elle permet un retour à des sources littéraires classiques mais selon des modalités renouvelées. Il s’agit notamment d’explorer The Dream of Gerontius, songe poétique qui emprunte les caractéristiques à la fois du poème anonyme en vieil anglais The Dream of the Rood et de La Divine Comédie de Dante. Newman s’inspire fidèlement de ces sources littéraires et esthétiques mais sa créativité s’exprime également à travers les phénomènes de porosité, d’hybridité et de subversion, notamment lorsque le personnage de Gerontius suit le chemin de la dé-personnification à la kénose. Le voyage poétique ainsi que le passage de la vie à la mort sont donc selon une approche poétique renouvelée.

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1Although John Henry Newman (1801–1890) is no longer a central figure in today’s literary canon, his poetic work, by blending tradition and renewal, can still be remembered as an essential contribution to the intellectual and religious debate that characterized the Victorian era. Newman’s main poetic piece, The Dream of Gerontius (1865), is a poetic dream about the death of an old fictional character called Gerontius. When Edward Elgar turned the poem into an oratorio in 1900, he popularized this work which has enjoyed great success ever since, mainly for its refreshing tone in dealing with the issue of death. For Rebecca Rainof, ‘The Dream of Gerontius, Newman’s poem about an old man’s journey to the afterlife, became one of the best-known and best-loved Victorian consolation poems about death. Some scholars place it second to Tennyson’s In Memoriam’ (Rainof 227). Among the several medieval sources of Newman’s work is the anonymous Old English alliterative poem, The Dream of the Rood. Moreover, the theme of the poetic journey recalls a poem from the same period, The Wanderer. The use of angelic and demonic choirs by Newman brings to mind the dramatic conventions of the 15th-century mystery plays (still present a century later in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus) and express the individual experience of the modern subject faced with death. Finally, the narrative theme of the accompaniment of the subject-character, in his passage from one world to another, by a character-guide (here, an angel) echoes the role that Dante ascribes to Virgil and Beatrice in the Divine Comedy. Through all these modalities, Newman thus carries out a typically Victorian re-appropriation and rewriting of the poetic heritage of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, borrowing formally from sometimes distant literary and aesthetic sources.

2In line with the original principles of the Oxford Movement he had been originally involved with, Newman sought more generally to restore in his work the lost correspondence between the aesthetic and the religious which characterized the medieval era and that of the first modernity. Thus, this relatively little-known poetic work aims to return to artistic and intellectual roots, just as his widely studied writings did in the fields of theology, patristics and ecclesiology. Far from constituting a nostalgic reaction, the founding element in Newman’s thought is that of a Renaissance which, by repeating old modalities, fosters the deployment of new ideas and creative form.

The Poetic Dream: A Return to Medieval Roots

3In 1833 was founded the Oxford Movement, also known as the Tractarian Movement because of the use of Tracts by its members to spread their ideas. The key figures were John Henry Newman (1801–1890), John Keble (1792–1866), Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800–1882), and Richard Hurrell Froude (1803–1836) all fellows at Oriel College, Oxford. Newman played a key role in the launching and the success of the Movement, contributing a large number of Tracts. The main purpose of the Movement was to go back to religious sources while setting out on a new intellectual journey. Indeed whether in his theological writings or in his conception of the education of young people through his Idea of University (1852), Newman advocates this re-foundation. It means reconnecting with one’s origins and then infusing the necessary changes. Getting back to the sources is considered essential. Even though the Movement aimed first at the rehabilitation of the Anglican Church which was going through an institutional drift in Victorian society, the artistic, cultural and poetic fields were gradually included.

4To compose his long poem The Dream of Gerontius, Newman turned to the medieval poetic dream genre, of which The Dream of the Rood was ‘the first dream vision poem in a vernacular language in Western Europe’ (Williamson 207). The Cross narrates to a dreamer its experience and sufferings during Christ’s crucifixion. Written in Old English, the poem, dating from around the 10th century and whose author is unknown, is a monument of religious poetry in English literature. The dream itself but also the narrative of the talking Holy Cross, the liturgical metonymy around the cross and its function in salvation have received much critical attention

5To avoid what could appear as lengthy explanatory passages, several narrative techniques are used in the poem. Inanimate objects are brought into action and speech partition. As Craig Williamson puts it,

[T]he formal heart of the poem is the device of endowing an inanimate object with consciousness and feeling and enabling the object to speak. This tradition is partly derived from the classical tradition of prosopopoeial, ‘discourse by inanimate objects’ and partly from the medieval riddling tradition. (Williamson 208)

6The theme of transformation and metamorphosis is central and runs throughout the poem. In the dreamer’s narrative perception, there is a shift and paradox between the gilded and bejewelled cross, and the cross moist with blood. They are two faces of the same reality, two key moments that point towards two different interpretations. It comes to a climax through the complete reversal of the rood, from a terrible torturer during crucifixion to a tower of glory after the resurrection.

7All those features and literary devices lay the foundation of Newman’s poem about an old man (‘gerontion’ in Greek) who dreams of the very last moments before his death. The poem opens with an invocation to Jesus and Mary by the old man when he has an intimation of his approaching death. His friends (Assistants) pray for him and the priest eventually says the last prayers just before his passing away. Then his soul parts with his body and starts its journey in the afterlife.

8The poem is written in the form of a dramatic monologue, an eminent Victorian genre. Through dramatic monologues, characters deliver speeches that reveal their thoughts and provide insights. There are also dialogues between some characters, for instance that of the Soul of Gerontius and the Angel. Furthermore, they are accompanied by lyrical passages made of Litanies, prayers and hymns sung by choirs of Angels and Demons in a highly musical tone.

9Phase 1 ends with is a poetic gap in the narration, that of Gerontius’ death. The narration fails to relate this moment, only suggesting it as an ellipsis. Nothing shattering or upsetting happens, which contrasts with the speaking cross and its consciousness and feelings in The Dream of the Rood. The change is only made known at the beginning of Phase II through the dramatic mode of the poem. The character ‘Gerontius’ in Phase I is replaced by ‘the soul of Gerontius’. The shift in characterization stages the mutation that has been subtly operated. The poem then gradually expands through a kenotic movement as the protagonist Gerontius undergoes a process of de-personification. The dramatis personae mutes from ‘Gerontius’ to ‘Soul of Gerontius’ (between line 170 and line 171) and then to ‘Soul’ (between line 257 and line 258) simply without any further reference to the name ‘Gerontius’. Whereas The Dream of the Rood endows speech and feelings to an inanimate cross, in The Dream of Gerontius, the character Gerontius endures a progressive metamorphosis as he loses what made him an individual.

10Yet, Newman’s poem faces a challenge dealing with time when narrating events occurring in the afterlife. Out of the seven Phases of the poem, only the first one takes place on earth. The remaining six are situated in the invisible and spiritual universe. Beside the shift in characterization, the Purgatory sets another tone and approach to time. Though Purgatory is considered to be a process of gradual change and maturation, it is at the same time out of temporality. In that type of narration, the time scale tends to get blurred. In order to counter that effect, Newman stages dramatic monologues and adds musicality through choirs—both elements that operate a form of progression in a universe otherwise characterized by the suspension of time. The soul of Gerontius himself confirms it:

  • 1 All the passages quoted from The Dream of Gerontius are from Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontiu (...)

And ne’er had been before. How still it is!
I hear no more the busy beat of time,
No, nor my fluttering breath, nor struggling pulse;
Nor does one moment differ from the next (175–78)1

11In that universe, the stillness of time seems to contrast with the heavily rhythmed changing time on earth as shown in the alliteration of ‘busy beat’. Litanies and songs from Catholic rituals for the dead are performed. According to Rebecca Rainof,

The Dream may be understood a part of this renewed interest in ritualism, but it is also something more. In brief, the poem is evidence of Newman’s ability to navigate the shifting terrain of the 1860s and to make death consolation literature the site of his own brand of subversive orthodoxy. (Rainof 229)

12If Rebecca Rainof considers Newman’s death consolation literature as subversive orthodoxy, it is due to his quotations from Catholic rituals at length in the poem, and also his conception of Purgatory that was less appealing to that of his Anglican friends he had parted with in 1845 when he joined the Roman Catholic Church. Newman’s subversion resides in the Catholic tone of the rituals displayed in his poem. The Anglican rituals for the dead in The Book of Common Prayer highlight the brevity of life on earth, unlike the Roman Catholic ones that insist on Purgatory as an essential step. For instance, prayers such as Profiscere, Litanies, and Profession of faith are elements of Roman Catholic rituals meant to intercede for the dead and accompany them throughout their journey in the afterlife. That major difference is visible in the Catholic accents of The Dream of Gerontius in terms of theological dogma and appears rather subversive from an Anglican point of view. Before moving to the Roman Catholic Church, Newman had performed Anglican rituals. But the theological ideas expressed in The Dream of Gerontius clearly depart from the Anglican ones. It seems that Newman made a choice, that of rejecting Anglican conceptions and of owing allegiance to Catholic rituals. Furthermore, when he makes use of the medieval trope of the poetic dream, Newman even exceeds it by reconfiguring it, so as to make it more palatable to his modern readership or audience:

The Dream exemplifies Newman’s ability to craft a ‘poetics of conciliation’, or rather, a poetic form that accommodates Catholic liturgy and secular verse, temporal suspension and narrative progression, as well as sensory description and portrayal of disembodiment. (Rainof 228)

13In particular, conciliation is at the heart of Newman’s poetry. In Catherine Burns’s view, Newman uses ‘the skill of a theologian as well as . . .  the imagination of a poet’ (Burns 1922, 138). While showing his faithfulness to some ancient literary modes, he uses them in a renewed way, more in line with Victorian ideas. The fertility of that combination between the old and the present seems to be the driving force of Newman’s poetic project.

A Renewed Approach to Death and the Afterlife in the Victorian Era

14In The Oxford Handbook of English Literature and Theology, Tina Pippin points out that

[d]eath lyrics in poetic or prose form have a long history. These lyrics were popular in the Middle Ages in England, especially in the fifteenth century. Everyone will eventually die, and death treats all social classes equally. Since all humans sin, all are in need of repentance, and death lyrics brought an understanding to the mystery. (Pippin 710)

15The fear of Judgement stems from the idea of the inevitability of death and the need of repentance. That feeling is highlighted in the liturgy for the dead through the 13th-century Latin sequence of the Requiem Mass, ‘Dies Irae’. That hymn (meaning ‘The day of wrath’) stresses terrible aspects such as wrath, severity, punishment, turning the world into ash and causing tear and pain.

16As a medieval theme, the trope of death and the afterlife was dealt with by Newman in a refreshing way. Differing from the medieval literary treatment close to the mood of the ‘Dies Irae’, Newman rather approaches it in a celebratory way. His key contribution is brought out through a combination of musicality (high quality of lyrics in the hymns performed by angelic choirs), the dramatic monologue alleviating the tragic aspect of death by the use of in-depth theological explanation and the gradual shift of the narrative mode from the temporal world to the spiritual one. That poetic technique distils a sense of hope with a radical change in tone, highlighted by the key idea of rest and desire for the encounter with the divine and contemplation. The poem was set to music by Elgar, who made this oratorio a refreshing piece of music still appreciated by a modern audience. Instead of arousing fear, Newman’s poetry brings about confidence, longing, and all aspects that align his work with the Consolation literature popular in the Victorian period. Death no longer appears as a tragic end of all human power, but rather as a crossing toward another form of existence. Even in agony, Gerontius still manages to pluck up enough courage to act: he asks his friends to pray for him and he even talks to himself: ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ (line 42). The verb ‘play’ can either be understood in its theatrical meaning, or as the expression of vitality which Gerontius is still capable of showing.

17The characters in The Dream of Gerontius move from dramatic monologue to literary polyphony. That polyphonic characterization shifts the focus away from Gerontius, the protagonist. The mystery that cannot be handled by only one character is shared between different characters like different parts of a piece of music meant to be performed in a symphony. Through that music score, the mystery is partaken and made accessible to everyone. Therefore, in the musical version, all voices participate on an equal level. The musical version also seems to unite below and above, unlike what is operated in the single melodic lines of psalms. The diversity of voices and the richness of their blending combine to form a beautiful harmony in the expression of the mystery.

18Musicality runs through the poem in the forms of litanies, hymns by Choirs of Angels and Choirs of Demons. Newman was sensitive to musical art. After his admission into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845, he joined the order of Philip Neri and founded the first English Oratory in Birmingham. Oratorians have a great musical tradition attached to their spiritual life. Here is what Michael Wheeler writes about Newman’s experience of music:

The musical references in the Dream reflect the fact that Newman was himself an accomplished amateur musician. He enjoyed playing the violin in trios and quartets into old age, encouraged young Oratorians to work towards Beethoven, and attended public concerts, which he often found profoundly moving. (Wheeler 96)

19The poem also received special reception through the oratorio of Edward Elgar that testifies to its musical qualities:

With its numerous musical references, Newman’s verse drama seems almost to invite a musical setting, and today the work is known principally through Elgar’s oratorio of 1900, perhaps the greatest single piece of English Victorian music. (Wheeler 89)

20Newman’s poetry is also characterised by its porosity and hybridity. A line may be half in Latin, half in English: ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ (line 147). Moreover, some lines in Latin may be followed by lines in English, the translation of the Latin text:

Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!
Go forth upon thy journey, Christian soul!
Go from this world (150–52)

  • 2 ‘Vernacular’ is used here to designate the English language as opposed to Latin. Until the Second V (...)

21Newman’s poetry reflects his refreshed literary project. The use of the vernacular2 in liturgy was one of the main demands of the Reformers, not only to get rid of the dependence on Latin and break away from the Roman Catholic tradition, but also to make sure the celebrations were performed in the language spoken and understood by the people. As the rites celebrate mysteries not easy to be grasped, the use of Latin accessible only to clerics and other privileged people further increase the difficulty for everyone to participate and understand. Thus, the popularization of the content of the Latin text makes the liturgy intelligible to all, but it is also an attempt at re-appropriation, with every member of the congregation able to understand what is celebrated and fully participate with their whole person and their culture through colloquial language.

22Hymnology was a key element in that language shift. Since the Reformation, Latin hymns were gradually translated or paraphrased into English on the same tunes or were simply replaced by modern hymns composed in English. As a number of Tractarian Movement leaders were clergymen-poets, they played an important part in the composition of hymns. Very often, poems would be transformed into hymns because of their musicality and lyrics. As poetry gained in musicality, hymns also became more poetic. That reciprocal influence between verse and hymns also became an important aspect of Tractarian aesthetics in its quest for a general renewal and betterment, as Harper puts it:

Poetry and music, in hymnody, psalmody and anthems as a symbiotic chemistry, lent themselves to the expression of the indefinable, and their appeal to the senses and emotions acted as a foil to post-Enlightment sensibilities concerned with reason and science. (Harper 30)

23That symbiosis between poetry, theology and hymnody was one of the key points of the Oxford Movement in its revival project. Harper carries on stating that ‘the many themes conceived and adopted by the Tractarian poets provided a major source of texts for Victorian composers in the 1850s and 1860s. . . .’ (Harper 152). Highlighting the important role played by Tractarian poetry, Harper thinks that it ‘was . . . an important form of inspiration for a new kind of hymn tune which aspired to prise itself away from the phraseological slavery of the old metric structures inherited from the seventeenth-century psalmody’ (Harper 152).

24When Newman wrote his poem ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ in 1833 during a perilous voyage from Rome, he could not guess it was to become his most famous hymn. Through a series of publications, the title kept changing, but the text remained the same. According to Joshua Taft, Newman’s most famous hymn underwent a series of title changes despite remaining otherwise unchanged—it was originally published in the British Magazine as ‘“Faith”, republished in Lyra Apostolica as “Light in Darkness”, and again retitled “The Pillar of the Cloud” in Verses on Various Occasions’ (Taft 85). The poem was known as ‘The Pillar of the Cloud’ but, as a hymn, it was remembered through the first line of the lyrics ‘Lead, Kindly Light’.

25A dramatic element borrowed from medieval and Elizabethan dramatic poetry in The Dream of Gerontius is the choir of demons singing liturgical parodies of holiness:

            What’s a saint?
One whose breath
            Doth the air taint
Before his death;
            A bundle of bones,
Which fools adore,
            Ha! ha! (453–59)

26With rhyming antonyms (saint/taint; breath/death), the consideration commonly given to holiness is deconstructed by the choir of Demons. Moreover, the veneration of the dead is disregarded while sainthood is reduced to ‘a bundle of bones’ and the worshippers are labelled ‘fools’.

27Furthermore, the Demons attempt at persuading the soul of Gerontius to join them instead of carrying on with his journey toward the angelic choirs and divine presence:

Virtue and vice
            A knave’s pretence
                        ’Tis all the same;
            Ha! Ha!
                        Dread of hell-fire,
            Of the venomous flame,
                        A coward’s plea.
Give him his price
                        Saint though he be. (504–12)

28Here again, there is no difference between virtue and vice, considered alike. Even the fundamentals that are used to recognize sainthood are questioned. The images attached to flames of hell-fire are viewed as mere conceptions of cowardice.

29Among the characters of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, Good Angel and Evil Angel are also battling to try and get Faustus on their side. This could be viewed as the inner conflict between good and evil in the human mind. Only the use of free will can help sort out the crucial issue. Hence a contrasting dialogue between the two angels concerning the repentance of Dr Faustus:

Evil Angel: Too late
Good Angel: Never too late, if Faustus can repent.
Evil Angel: If thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces.
Good Angel: Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin. (Marlowe 69)

30Another character of the play, the Old Man (whose name is the equivalent of Newman’s Gerontius) tries to comfort Faustus, hoping his repentance could save his soul from despair and perdition. Here, the figure of the Old Man is central as it highlights the contrast between the unlimited appetite of Faustus for knowledge with the risk of losing his soul, and the wisdom that has been tested and proven through faith. This is a kind of contrasting heroic image: on the one hand the young, strong Faustus using all his human faculty of knowledge, and even resorting to magical powers to extend his knowledge beyond any limitations, and on the other hand the weak old sage who only can count on wisdom and divine power. The Old man brings hope and serenity, and at the same time he is a messenger of repentance in Dr Faustus, comparable to Gerontius whose death seems to bear witness to God’s mercy in Newman’s Victorian poem. The Assistants in the poem express divine mercy through their supplications around Gerontius’ death bed:

Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord
Be merciful, be gracious; Lord, deliver him
            From the sins that are past (50–52)
            From the nethermost fire
From all that is evil (59–60)

The Poetic Journey Revisited: From Ancient Roots to Tractarian Aesthetics

31Newman’s conception of time is a non-static one. He conceives time as a long process that allows a gradual unfolding till a full deployment. Rooted in that approach, his poem The Dream of Gerontius is also shaped like a journey that breaks with sedentary lifestyle. It is a crossing in seven stages meant to lead to fulfilment. In biblical tradition, the number ‘seven’ is a recurrent symbol. Among several interpretations, it represents fullness: the creation lasted six days and the seventh day was the entry into completeness and rest. In The Wanderer the narrator uses dramatic monologue to express his sorrows. He has lost everything that he valued in this world—his lord and his comrades—, and that affects him even in his identity. He is an Anglo-Saxon warrior in his heroic age. After the loss of his Lord and kin, he finds himself in a sorrowful loneliness, going through different mental states and trying to reconstruct himself. Interestingly in the poem, wandering is both physical and metaphorical. Loneliness prompts the wanderer into exile in order to find a lord, symbol and guaranty of safety and happiness. But that exile can be used as a pilgrim’s journey. Exile becomes a living metaphor, that of a progressive discovery of oneself and of life. It is a journey, out of one’s own comfort, to face hardship, or losses, as exemplified by the wintry sea in the poem. Like the wanderer looking for his lord, the soul of Gerontius also sets off on its quest for the divine presence through the guidance of the angel. Nevertheless, unlike the wanderer who lost his lord and kin, Gerontius is surrounded by his friends as he lies on his death bed. And after crossing into the spiritual world, the soul of Gerontius enjoys the reassuring company of the angel. In accordance with the Catholic tradition, the role of Gerontius’ guardian angel is to take care of the character’s soul. The angel explains the different stages and events awaiting, the meaning of the stages, and guides the soul on its way to the divine contemplation. He finally leaves the soul with a final recommendation:

Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear
            Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
            And I will come and wake thee on the morrow (909–12)

32These are the last lines of the poem, bearing a message of promise and hope, calling for patience in sorrow. The combination of the verbs ‘come’ and ‘wake’ could be a theological reference to the final Parousia of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead.

33The theme of the subject character guided through poetic journey notably appears in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), published in 1320, a year before its author’s death. During his journey through Hell and Purgatory, Dante is guided by Virgil. As Dante felt a deep admiration for Virgil, one of the greatest Roman poets, this guidance is first related to poetic inspiration. Dante considered Virgil as his model and referred to him as ‘my master and my author, you alone are he from whom I have taken the pleasing style that has won me honor’. (Inf. I. 85–87). But Virgil is also considered as a ‘famous sage’ (Inf. I. 89), ‘that noble sage who knew all things’ (Inf. 7.3), ‘the sea of all knowledge’ (Inf. 8.7). The famous and inspirational poet therefore becomes the allegory of human reason (Purg 8, 46–48).

34But the striking point about Virgil’s guidance is the fact that he is a human being, and therefore cannot lead Dante to Paradise. Virgil belongs to Antiquity and lives in limbo. Though Dante justifies his choice of Virgil on the basis of his poetical grandeur and his great knowledge, he has to resort to a God-like figure to reach Paradise. That ultimate task is eventually achieved by Beatrice—Dante’s prematurely departed muse—because she is Holy, which means that she enjoys a far superior spiritual life in company of other celestial beings. By contrast, in Newman’s The Dream, the character of the guardian angel leads the soul of Gerontius throughout the whole spiritual journey. Once again, the shift in characterization from Gerontius to the soul of Gerontius allows the soul to be in the company of a spiritual being in an ontological correspondence and harmony of thought. The angel welcomes the soul of Gerontius in the celestial world and starts its mission of guidance, teaching, and explanation. The angel carries on the journey with the soul of Gerontius. Reflecting upon his duty, the angel seems to have received his mission from above:

‘My father gave
  In charge to me
    This child of earth
        E’en from its birth,
To serve and save (244–48)

This child of clay
  To me was given,
              To rear and train
      By sorrow and pain
  In the narrow way
From earth to heaven’. (251–57).

35The task assigned to the angel starts on earth and expands to heaven; it is an unending lifelong mission. Clay represents the first material used to create human beings, as narrated in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis in the Bible. The reference to clay is also a metaphor of pliability in the hands of the creator or the modeller whose task is compared to that of a potter. But more than the ideas of creation and modelling, clay also symbolises fragility associated with a new being (a newborn child) that needs to be protected and handled with particular care.

36During the Victorian era, other poets used that convention of a guide along a poetic journey. Among them, the most prominent one was Christina Rossetti (1830–1894) whose writings were influenced by Dante:

The profound influence of Dante upon Christina Rossetti is, of course, neither a surprising nor a singular phenomenon. For all the Pre-Raphaelite poets, but especially for the Rossettis, Dante was a literary precursor whose importance to their art can be compared only with that of Milton to the art of the Romantics. (Harrison 143)

37Apart from that Dantean influence, Christina Rossetti was also close to the Tractarians. In an article devoted to ‘Rossetti and the Tractarians’, Diane d’Amico and David A. Kent assert that ‘Christina Rossetti’s life and art are closely connected to all aspects of the Oxford Movement’ (D’Amico and Kent 93). More specifically, Christina Rossetti was inspired by two key aspects of Tractarian aesthetics: the doctrines of Analogy and Reserve.

As interest in the Tractarian influence upon Rossetti has developed, repeated attention has been given to the doctrines of Reserve and Analogy, especially Analogy. For example, scholars have considered Rossetti’s response to Nature as well as her understanding of symbolism and her poetic use as following directly from this Tractarian doctrine. Reserve seems to play a role when Rossetti scholars seek to understand or explain something of the restraint in her poetic style, as well as the impression that her speakers sometimes give of either having a secret or of keeping silent. (D’Amico and Kent 98)

38According to the definition given by G. B. Tennyson, the doctrine of Analogy means that ‘the visible world is a world full of correspondences with the invisible world; physical things are signs and symbols of spiritual things’ (Tennyson 11). In that respect, the poetic use of symbolism is an application of the doctrine of analogy. As for the doctrine of Reserve,

[it] holds that in communicating religious knowledge [. . .], the communicator, including the artist, should exercise what Tractarians called ‘due religious reserve’. This is a kind of restraint and even indirection in expression appropriate to the sacredness of the subject being discussed. (Tennyson 12)

39In Rossetti’s poem ‘Up-Hill’, a character guides the traveller and answers his questions, giving deep insight into the destination of the journey. The guide seems to be an omniscient eye that can provide the traveller with accurate details about the inn which is the destination, and tries to ease the traveller’s worries. As another sign of proximity, the guide calls the traveller ‘my friend’:

Does the road wind up hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend. (Rossetti 2008, 85)

40Given Rossetti’s Anglo-Catholic background, the theme of the journey does not seem to be a neutral one, and the unnamed guide could stand for a spiritual one. From the layout of the lines, one could notice that the lines dealing with the pilgrim’s questions are longer than the answers, short and very precise. The length of the questions could stand as the metaphor of a long span of life and all its questionings and worries. It is a long travel made of different stages, and ceaselessly challenging. The rhyme scheme also reveals harmony: the questions of the pilgrim rhyme together as do the answers of the guide. That parallelism between the two sets of rhymes expresses a harmonious relationship between the traveller and the guide providing answers to each of the traveller’s queries. It is also worth mentioning that in 1853, more than ten years before writing The Dream of Gerontius, Newman wrote a poem entitled ‘Guardian Angel’. Several elements of the portrayal of the angel are shared between the two poems, highlighting a very close relationship of long and unfailing friendship: ‘My oldest friend’” (line 1), ‘My faithful friend’ (line 3), ‘Unfailing till my death’ (line 4). In The Dream, that close relationship is expressed throughout the dialogue between the soul of Gerontius and the angel. At the end of the poem, the angel bids farewell to the soul of Gerontius, ‘Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear’, therefore echoing the ‘Guardian Angel’ in which the angel is referred to as ‘Brother of my soul’. Not only does it reinforce that strong relationship, but it also reveals some likeness in the identity of the angel and that of the soul of Gerontius. It also aims at teaching and revealing the truth, so that fear and apprehension can be prevented:

Thou wast my sponsor at the font
  And thou, each budding year
Didst whisper elements of truth
  Into my childish ear.

Mine, when I stand before the Judge;
  And mine, if spared to stay
Within the golden furnace, till
  My sin is burn’d away.

And mine, O Brother of my soul,
  When my release shall come;
Thy gentle arms shall lift me then,
  Thy wings shall waft me home. (Newman 1992, 123)

41The magisterial role of the angel as a guide is highlighted in the first two lines above. It seems to be a partial revelation, mere ‘elements of truth’ ‘whispered’ in intimacy and close relationship. As for ‘childish ear’, it is in contrast with the truth, supposing a lack of maturity and preparation for the content of that truth. Considered as the climax of the guidance of the character, protection and elevation are expressed through the living metaphor of ‘gentle arms’ and ‘wings’.


42This paper has investigated how John Henry Newman’s poetry, mainly The Dream of Gerontius, takes part in a Victorian Renaissance project. The Oxford Movement’s project was to offer a creative form of loyalty, by going back to ancient roots in order to propose a novel conception. Though Tractarians first addressed the daunting task of restoring the organic life of the Church of England and its independence from the State, the Movement’s aesthetics quickly influenced most artistic and cultural sectors of the society. Our research has highlighted three major areas where Newman has implemented the ideas and ideals of Tractarianism.

43First of all, the poetic dream borrowed mainly from The Dream of the Rood, a medieval literary monument. The genre of the poetic dream allows the poet to deploy his inspiration through dramatic monologue, a blend of narrative and lyrics with musicality. The medieval and Elizabethan trope of angelic and demonic choirs is in concurrence with Litanies to add to the highly musical tone through the poem. Porosity and hybridity in the poem are apparent in the use of Latin either combined with English or translated into English in a quest for appropriation and popularization.

44The second point is a new approach to death and afterlife. In the Victorian context of a growing sense of loss of faith, The Dream of Gerontius was a major contribution to Victorian death consolation poetry. Newman’s poem brings about a renewed and refreshed tone which sharply contrasts with ‘Dies Irae’ inherited from the Middle Ages. The Dream of Gerontius is not a morbid thanatology that would arouse the fear of death, but rather a poetic celebration of the final crossing in a particular relationship with time; time that is not endured in an inevitable fatality, but considered as a framework for individual fulfilment through the changing rhythm of life.

45The third question concerns the poetic journey through Tractarian aesthetics on which the poetic voice embarks with a guide. In Dante’s The Divine Comedy Virgil is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory for poetic and broader human knowledge. But Holy Beatrice is the only one entitled to lead Dante to Paradise. As for the soul of Gerontius, it is welcome and guided by his guardian angel throughout his whole journey in the spiritual world. The poetic technique to deal with such a subtle topic resorts to the two Tractarian doctrines of Analogy and Reserve. If the symbolism of the journey sets an analogy between the visible world and the invisible one, there is restraint due to the highly spiritual matters of the afterlife.

46It seems that friendship and brotherhood between the guide and the main character are key aspects of that pilgrimage. In the context of Victorian consolation literature, proximity appears to be an important addition. The guide is there to help the traveller on his way to understanding, but also to bring him reassurance and lift any doubts or apprehension in the pilgrim’s mind. The angel receives his mission of being present by the pilgrim’s side from above. It is to be carried out until the two figures reach their final destination—an oblique way for Newman to express the Victorian poet’s unfailing mission as a guide.

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1 All the passages quoted from The Dream of Gerontius are from Cardinal Newman, The Dream of Gerontius, Ed. Maurice Francis Egan. Only the numbers of the lines will be indicated in brackets.

2 ‘Vernacular’ is used here to designate the English language as opposed to Latin. Until the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965), Latin was imposed as the official language for liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. No other national languages or local dialects were permitted for the celebration of liturgy. Ordinary people who did not attend Latin classes could not learn and understand the prayers and responses during the service of liturgy. One of the major claims of the Reformers in the 16th century was to celebrate liturgy in the languages spoken by people so they could understand the prayers and fully take part in the worship service. Thus the liturgy could be celebrated in English language instead of Latin.

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Dampi Somoko, « Newman’s Poetry: The Heart of a Victorian Renaissance Project  »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 95 Printemps | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2022, consulté le 20 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Dampi Somoko

Dampi Somoko is currently preparing his dissertation on the study of Cardinal Newman’s poetry: ‘Passages et mutations dans la poésie de John Henry Newman (1801-1890): The Dream of Gerontius, Verses on Various Occasions’ under the supervision of Professor Pierre Carboni, Nantes University. He has already published two articles on Newman’s poetry in French periodicals.
Dampi Somoko prépare actuellement une thèse sur la poésie du Cardinal Newman : « Passages et mutations dans la poésie de John Henry Newman (1801-1890) : The Dream of Gerontius, Verses on Various Occasions » sous la direction du Professeur Pierre Carboni, université de Nantes. Il a publié deux articles sur cet auteur dans des revues françaises.

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