Literature. Causerie of the Week: Dr. Barry's Live of Newman
The Speaker, September 24, 1904
It is very difficult, even for a man of Dr. Barry's acknowledged capacity, to write the life of a great man who devoted himself to a cause; of a great man, that is, who by his own greatness perceived that his own greatness was dust and nothing compared with the greatness of something else. The biographer of a man like Newman is, in the modern world, in a dilemma; so is the biographer of a man like Cobden; so is the biographer of a man like Tolstoy; but so especially is it in the case of Newman. If the writer introduces the subject of theology, he will certainly be called a bigot. If he leaves out the subject of theology, he will certainly be a bigot. He will be a person of such narrow and choking prejudices that he cannot see in an idea, not merely the things that are to be said for it, but even the men who say them. He is not only blind to the spiritual fact that there are Catholic ideals, but even to the material fact that there are Catholic people. To leave Catholicism out of Newman is to cut out his inside. To put it in is to discuss heaven and earth. Dr. Barry has been in a bewildering difficulty, and has come out of it very well. He has stated clearly the religious views of Newman. He has then dealt with him as an English man of letters.
Dr. Barry offers some singularly able and sound observations on Newman's style; this one, for instance, is particularly true, and its truth extends perhaps further than it fell into Dr. Barry's task to trace it: "However fresh or recondite his (Newman's) thoughts, he, like Walter Scott, attired them in the natural, yet not commonplace terms of the current language. He never could be quaint, odd, or affected; he went up to the heights as by steps that were visible to all. If on certain subjects he remained obscure, even to himself, as he confesses in a charming letter of his old age, the reason cannot be found in his choice of words, but lies below them. Thus he is the opposite of Carlyle, whose vocabulary we learn as though a foreign tongue."
This is indeed a truth, and a truth not confined to the question of 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, Tory and recluse as he is, 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 understood of the people. They were bold and boisterous and personal, as the better kind of aristocrats are always bold and boisterous and personal.
There is another element in Newman's style which is worth noticing as a guide for all controversialists. He had the same knack in discussion which Gladstone had, the air of not being in any way in a hurry. Young men who read Gladstone's speeches in printed books just after his career had closed in unpopularity often could not see wherein lay the overwhelming witchcraft which made vast audiences rise like one man and vast combinations follow the orator to defeat. The oratorical style seemed to them wordy and winding, full of endless parentheses and needless distinctions. The truth is, I imagine, that it was precisely the air of leisure and large-mindedness, this scrupulosity about exceptions, this allowance for misunderstandings, that gave to the final assertion its sudden fire. Both Newman and Gladstone often seemed, in their mildness and restraint, a long time coming to the point, but the point was deadly sharp. This is very much mirrored in their style. Both men had one particularly rhetorical effect perfectly: the art of passing smoothly and yet suddenly from philosophical to popular language. A hundred examples or parallels might be given if I had all their works before me: one parallel, which I happen to remember, may suffice. Gladstone, in answering one of the early Unionist orators who had appealed to the idea that all the intellectual people were Unionist, very gently deprecated this mode of argument. He asked his hearers (I have forgotten the words, but there were a great many of them and they were very long ones) to confess, if necessary, that they were the inferiors of their opponents in erudition, in opportunities, in culture. "So that nothing remains for us," he said, "but to show that we have better manners"— and the sudden stress on the word must have been like a blow. Almost exactly the same kind of abrupt colloquialism marks the wonderful termination of the introduction to the Apologia. With careful and melancholy phrases Newman describes how delicate and painful a matter it must necessarily be to give an account to the world of all the secret transitions of the soul. "But I do not like to be called a knave and liar to my face, and-." The dramatic effect is almost exactly the same. It is, indeed, a rather singular fact that although Newman's style is so harmonious and limpid, yet the peculiar force of that style generally consists in its use for sharply different purposes. Nobody, I imagine, who has read the Apologia will ever forget that transition, which strikes the reader not only as thrilling but almost as queer, in the passage dealing with his first relations with Edgbaston. He describes, in quiet detail, how he went to this place and that place; how he was, in consequence, asked this and that question; how his opponents could not explain legitimately his reason for leaving on such and such a day or going to such and such a destination; how they plied him with questions and haunted him with suggestions. Then he turns and calls them, with a cry like thunder, "Cowards." "It is not you," he says, "that I fear; it is not you from whom I am hiding, Di me terrent et Jupiter hostis."
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. Perhaps the chief defect of Dr. Barry's book (if a mere omission of one interesting fact out of a million can be called a defect) is that he has not dwelt 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.