It is often forgotten that the Catholic presence in England is older than England itself. From the martyrdom of St. Alban in the early fourth century, under the Roman occupation, the land has been blessed with a host of Catholic saints. After the Romans left the land that they called Albion, a faithful remnant of Christians kept the Faith alive in the midst of the migration of Germanic pagan tribes in the fifth and sixth centuries. Then, at the end of the sixth century, St. Augustine of Canterbury, arrived in England, as the land was now called, to convert the pagans. He was sent by St. Gregory the Great and his mission met with instant and spectacular success. In 597, he became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Thereafter, for almost a thousand years, until Henry VIII’s apostasy against the will of the vast majority of his people, England was a devoutly Catholic country. As such, the great works of English literature, from Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were avowedly and sublimely orthodox.
It would, however, be a gross and grotesque error to suggest that great Catholic literature ceased to be written in England following the “reformation.” During the penal years in which Catholics were systematically put to death for the practice of their faith, many of the greatest writers retained their loyalty to the “Old Faith.” St. Thomas More, martyred for his holy service to both God and England, bequeathed to the canon of English literature his brilliant satire, Utopia, which can be seen as the progenitor of the utopian and dystopian genre of fiction. The great and incomparable William Shakespeare wrote plays of unequalled power in defence of the Faith of his fathers, circumventing the widespread censorship of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama with astonishing ingenuity. St. Robert Southwell, the Jesuit martyr, who almost certainly knew Shakespeare well, produced fine verse in his own right as well as inspiring some of Shakespeare’s finest lines. Richard Crashaw, one of the major Metaphysical Poets, chose exile in Italy following his conversion to Catholicism, and wrote some magnificent counter-reformation verse. John Dryden’s masterful allegory, The Hind and the Panther, satirized the contradictions at the heart of the Anglican Church and defended the truth of Catholicism, to which Dryden converted and for which he suffered under the anti-Catholic government of the usurper, William of Orange. In the eighteenth century, as Catholicism in England seemed to be floundering, finally defeated, so it seemed, by two centuries of unremitting persecution, only the great Alexander Pope flew the flag for Catholic faith and reason, most memorably in his Essay on Man, in which he vilified Enlightenment anthropocentricity and reaffirmed man’s place in the “Great Chain of Being” in a cosmos ordered by God.
This legacy of great Catholic literature that England had bestowed upon the edifying edifice of civilization might have seemed to have died out by the end of the eighteenth century, or at least to have died down to a few apparently fading embers. The apparent death or dying of Catholicism was, however, merely the prelude for a spectacular resurrection. The dawning of English Romanticism and its neo-mediaeval aftermath, spawned, with the conversion of John Henry Newman in 1845, the birth of the Catholic Revival.
In the century or so following Newman’s conversion, it can be said, with no fear of exaggeration, that the Catholic Revival produced as much great literature as had been inspired by the Faith in any of the previous periods of England’s long and convoluted history. It would indeed by no exaggeration to call this Revival a true Golden Age of creativity.
Let’s take a quick tour of this Golden Age of Catholic literature.
Newman, whose conversion was the inspirational spark that ignited the revival, is rightly celebrated as one of the finest prose stylists of the Victorian era. His two novels, Loss and Gain and Callista, are masterpieces of conversion literature, and his Apologia for his own life and conversion is without equal as a literary defence of Christianity and as an autobiographical and rhetorical tour de force, with the obvious exception of St. Augustine’s incomparable Confessions. Newman’s poetry is also amongst the finest of the nineteenth century, though he is surpassed by the Jesuit poet-supreme, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was received by Newman into the Church in 1866. Hopkins’ “Wreck of the Deutschland” is one of the greatest poems ever written and one of the most penetrating into the mystery of suffering.
Other major Catholic poets of the nineteenth century, most of whom were converts, include Coventry Patmore, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and, last but not least, Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, remains one of the most potent cautionary tales about the dangers and destructiveness of a life of debauchery. It is one of the darkest and, at the same time, paradoxically, one of the most moral of novels.
Moving into the twentieth century, great literary apologists for the Faith have included G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, R. H. Benson, Ronald Knox, and Alfred Noyes. Between the two world wars, some of the most influential novelists were converts to Catholicism, including Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. T.S. Eliot, the most influential poet of the past century, declared himself to be a Catholic, though rather incongruously chose to become an Anglican. In spite of such an anomalous decision, his poetry is indubitably orthodox. Another important convert poet, sadly all too often neglected, is Roy Campbell, whose corpus contains some truly excellent work, much of which is resplendently politically incorrect!
Perhaps the pinnacle of the Catholic Revival was reached with the publication of The Lord of the Rings, which was rightly acclaimed as the greatest work of the twentieth century. Yet Tolkien’s genius and the magnificence of his timeless masterpiece should not be permitted to eclipse the magnificent achievement of these other writers. Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is perhaps the greatest novel of the past century (The Lord of the Rings not being a novel but an epic in the great mythopoeic tradition) and Eliot’s Waste Land and Four Quartets are indubitably the greatest poems. In short, the great works of the Catholic Revival rival the great works of any period of England’s illustrious literary history.
Republished with gracious permission of the St. Austin Review.