Michael D. Hurley
Michael D. Hurley, a professor of English at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge University, specializes in Victorian poetry and poetics. He is interested in the question of how form and meaning inform one another in literature and how literary style can communicate what often exists beyond proposition, paraphrase, and even words themselves. He explores this question in many of his publications, including his forthcoming book, Faith in Poetry: Verse Style as a Mode of Religious Belief, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.
Hurley’s paper, “John Henry Newman’s Faith in Poetry,” will examine the poetic qualities of Newman’s philosophical style in Grammar of Assent (1870), which took Newman more than twenty years to complete as he reached for a style whose fine subtlety was adequate to his subject: how our most important beliefs are reached by a process too elusive to be captured by syllogism or sheer logic. Newman worked to construct a language that was poetic as well as deductive, expressive as well as propositional. Ideas accumulate circuitously rather than unfolding logically. Hurley’s talk interrogates Newman’s method, asking whether Newman’s decision to confront the problem of faith by suffusing his philosophical method with poetry is successful.
John Henry Newman. Verses on Various Occasions. London: Burns, Oates, & Co., 1868.
The poems in this collection are diverse—some are dedicated to his family, some focus on faith, some relate dreams or describe flowers, and some take the form of hymns. Although the collection was not published until 1868, individual pieces in it are from as early as 1818. Throughout the volume we find Newman’s attentiveness to language and appreciation for poetry.
This volume belonged to Mrs. Thomas (Elizabeth Purefoy) FitzGerald, received by her as a birthday remembrance in 1868.
Annotations by Mrs. FitzGerald throughout the volume contain biographical references to the author.
At the end of the book, a handwritten note by Mrs. FitzGerald about the Trinity grapples with the mystery. Underneath this is an intriguing phrase—“Trinity Tree at Bromley.” An article in The Expository Times, Vol. 4, October 1892-September 1893, 561, written by Robert Vaughan, Curate-in-charge of St. Mary’s South Shields, describes “The Trinity Tree” in Kent.
Some years ago I was shown a remarkable tree near to Bromley, in Kent, called “The Trinity Tree.” At a little distance it presents the appearance of being only one tree with one root and one trunk and one set of branches; and yet when examined closely it is found to be three trees, so perfectly coalescing, however, that it is difficult to distinguish them.
The Armstrong Browning Library has thirty-eight letters written by John Henry Newman. Most of the letters are his correspondence with William George Ward, a Tractarian and disciple of Newman, and Wilfred Ward, Newman’s biographer.
Letter from John Henry Newman to Frances Ward [née Wingfield]. 17 March 1853.
In this letter, Newman writes to Frances Ward (1816/17–1898), the wife of William George Ward, to clarify an earlier statement about the writings of a Mr. Lucas. He claims his criticism deals with Mr. Lucas’s use of language.
I never said or dreamed of saying that I hated Mr. Lucas’s writings like sin. . . . What I did say was that I detested a certain peculiarity which he was apt to let his language run into, and that is abuse – on this certainly I ever have had a strong opinion.
By “abuse” I mean strong and virulent expressions of opinion on persons and things as distinct from the expression of facts.
I see nothing of this in his speeches in Parliament . . .
Letter from John Henry Newman to W. G. Ward. 20 October 1859.
Newman writes to thank William George Ward (1812–1882) for a book—most likely Ward’s recent On Nature and Grace—and for the quotations of Newman included in the book. He also sympathizes with Ward’s physical ailments, which Newman suggests were brought about by writing the book.
I thank you very much for your book. I see you have most kindly preserved some or rather many bits of my writings in it. This is a great pleasure to me as showing your affectionate feeling towards me – also, it flatters me that some fragments of what I have written will be preserved for posterity (unless this is too human a satisfaction) . . .
I am sorry that you are so knocked up yourself. Is it not your book has done it? Judging by myself, I should say that sensible pleasures in hard reading or writing, is not a proof that it may not be injurious to one’s health – as turtle & venison may be good but unadvisable; - tho’ I have not always pleasure.
Letter from John Henry Newman to W. G. Ward. 15 March 1862.
In this letter, Newman does not shy away from critiquing a statement in an essay by Ward, that intellectual processes create “keen and constant pleasure.” Newman compares writing to childbirth and sees composition as extremely painful.
I suspect your psychological facts . . . If you mean that “keen and constant pleasure” attends ordinarily on “intellectual processes,” well, let them say so, who feel it. My own personal experience is the other way. It is one of my sayings . . . that the composition of a volume is like gestation and childbirth. I do not think that I ever thought out a question or wrote my thoughts, without great pain, pain reaching to the body as well as the mind. . . . And in consequence I have hardly written anything, unless I was called to do so. . . . I recollect a friend asked me, soon after writing my volume on justification, whether it was not interesting to write; and my answer was that it was “the painful relieving of an irritation,” as a man might go to a dentist . . . with the mingled satisfaction and distress of being rid of pain by pain.
Letter from John Henry Newman to [Wilfrid] Ward. 04 December 1884.
Newman writes Wilfrid Ward, the son of his old correspondent William George Ward, to thank him for his book (most likely The Wish to Believe: A Discussion Concerning the Temper of Mind in Which a Reasonable Man Should Undertake Religious Inquiry). He comments on how his own “Essay on Assent” has merely started the conversation on the subject.
Thank you for your book. It gratifies me exceedingly that you are aiding one main proposition of my Essay on Assent, which so much needed aid. Indeed I cannot aspire, or ever have aspired, to do more than open a large subject, having a full conviction that at best I could only claim the merit of an experimental sketch.
Letter from John Henry Newman to Wilfrid Ward. 20 December 1884.
Here Newman continues the discussion of Ward’s book and arguments, going into more detail than the short 4 December letter. He comments favorably on the “Essay” on the whole, discusses the the style and approach, and quibbles with Ward’s lack of distinction between the evidence of religious person and that of a non-religious person.
First you are dramatic, which is a quality of great excellence in a dialogue. It would never do for your arguments to profess to be irrefragable, and your opponent simply to be convinced by them. . . .
Next, you are outspoken and bold. . . .
You seem to me to insist with an earnestness for which I doubt not you have some good reason on the difference between believing and realizing (which is pretty much, I suppose, what in the Grammar of Assent I have called “Notional” and “Real” assent) and to be unwilling freely to grant from the first that there must be more grounds, in reason to a religious mind – whereas in fact a religious mind must always master much which is unseen to the non-religious. . . . It is only the mode of your stating and arguing on this point which I do not comfortably follow.
- Exhibition Text by Holly Spofford and Elizabeth Travers